Phil West knows he is lucky to have survived his early adult years. West was a pilot with the Royal Australian Navy who saw plenty of mishaps during service that included take-offs and landings from the jinxed aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne.
He’s keen to play down his time with the Nowra, NSW-based Fleet Air Arm in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but we did quiz him on the challenge involved in landing de Havilland Sea Venom jet fighters on a carrier.
“Taking off from a carrier was a lot like motor racing, only worse,” he reflects. “I suppose the acceleration was more violent, but I don’t remember it being so. The main thing was the nervousness. Unlike racing, you were really just a passenger for about 2.5 seconds, which seemed a lot longer. You only got control when the thing left the deck and was suddenly all yours – and the water was very close.
“That is the bit I remember most: feeling like a passenger and not in control. Others did not feel this, I believe.
“The landing was harder physically, but it wasn’t so nerve-racking as you were in control. I used to thank God I didn’t have to do it like the WWII pilots, who depended on a man with a couple of tennis racquet-like things waving at them. We simply flew down a light beam from the mirror and semi-crashed into the deck.”
After leaving the navy, West saw a number of his racing rivals killed during time on the track. Plus a huge number of mechanical failures that could just as easily have been fatal.
When he recalls racing in the 1960s at Mount Panorama, West talks about the corner “where Spencer Martin went off” and another where “John Harvey had his big one” and the humps on Conrod “that killed poor Tom Sulman.”
Looking back now from the high ground at 74, with a feisty Honda S2000 drop-top sports car that’s parked, primped and waiting in the shed to keep him sharp, West smiles a lot.
“I wasn’t smart enough to know that it was dangerous. There is nothing like being a young fool,” he says. “We didn’t know. We just didn’t know.”
West’s own scariest memory comes from the time he was racing a Brabham open-wheeler at Bathurst. That was long before The Chase was installed, a time when the infamous humps on Conrod Straight demanded respectful application of the throttle.
“I got airborne once on the second hump on Conrod at 176 miles-an-hour (283km/h). Well, you lift off when you’re in the air because the revs go over 11,000rpm, and then you land,” he recalls matter-of-factly.
“Nobody had told me that you couldn’t go over the hump quicker than 155. I went this way and that way before I could gather it up.”
West can afford to laugh now because he got in and out of car racing without a scratch. He wasn’t around for long, but he was more than good enough to race at the top in Australia.
You don’t win a round of the Gold Star in a Repco V8-powered Brabham BT23A, as he did at Mount Panorama in 1968, without a liberal serving of courage and skill.
John Harvey and Leo Geoghegan crashed out in practice. Then, come the race, Kevin Bartlett was in complete control, until his suspension collapsed. West overcame a broken engine mount to take the lead and, ultimately, the chequered flag from Max Stewart.
As this was the opening round of the Australian Drivers Championship, West sat atop the points table. However, Bartlett and the Alec Mildren-entered Alfa-powered Brabham had too much pace for West to seriously challenge for the title and he finished as Gold Star runner-up.
And that was that, he told us… save for the odd paddle in 1969.
“When I gave up motor racing I jumped on a boat and spent eight years cruising around the Pacific. There were lots of dusky maidens waiting for me,” he smiles.
Above: HMAS Cerberus is the RAN’s training base in Victoria for new recruits. Phil says he copped grief for the head tilt. Below: Winning races at Bathurst is impressive enough, but taking off from and landing on an aircraft carrier is really living on the edge. Phil flew Sea Venom jets.