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Field Editor Howard Bull recalls the day an airliner came dangerously close to crashing into the sea
IT WAS A NORMAL WORKING DAY in April 1964 at my office in Melbourne, Australia, where I was working as a public relations manager for the airline Ansett-ANA, until I received an urgent phone call from the airline’s Movement Control unit.
“The Douglas DC-6B airliner that departed this morning from Essendon Airport may ditch in Port Phillip Bay,” said the caller. “It’s trying to lose an engine!”
My immediate response was “So what?” I knew an airliner could fly safely on three of its four engines. When an engine has a problem, pilots can shut it down and feather the propeller to deal with wind resistance.
“Actually, the pilots are trying to have the engine drop into Port Phillip Bay!” the caller added. This was going to be a big news story so I rushed to the nearby airport.
When I arrived, I was told that another aircraft,
Howard Bull lives in Mornington, Victoria, with his wife. He is an author and freelance journalist and specialises in crisis management. He also collects former army vehicles.
piloted by Captain Peter Gibbes, the operations manager, was flying alongside the troubled airliner. On board were observers to check the damage and liaise by radio with the DC-6B’s pilot, Captain Keith Hants.
It was not a pleasant sight. One of the three blades on a propeller had broken free just after take-off. The resultant torque had caused the 2500-horse power engine, weighing more than a tonne, to vibrate and
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then droop. It obscured one of the airliner’s undercarriage legs, which could create a disaster if the airliner attempted a normal landing.
Just four weakened bolts held the engine in place. Fuel was dumped to reduce the weight and an RAAF crash boat departed from Point Cook.
Captain Hants and First Officer Bob Gordon placed their feet on the instrument panel, made the airliner dive, and then pulled back on their control columns to make it rise. This technique, called ‘surfing,’ was used three times to dislodge the engine. But there was a penalty. Each time the
airliner lost valuable height that could not be regained. The airliner could only make one last attempt. It worked and the engine dropped into Port Phillip Bay. After a tense 94 minutes in the air, the airliner made a perfect landing back at Essendon Airport.
There was also drama in the airliner’s cabin. The passengers had been through turmoil. Those sitting near the wings were alarmed when oil from ruptured lines sprayed along the fuselage and windows. Two air hostesses had been thrown around as they tried to demonstrate the ditching procedure to passengers. One passenger began writing his will, while a second requested that his meal be served and that the bar be opened.
Public relations activity hit top gear. Passengers were welcomed into the airport and complimentary drinks arranged in the passenger terminal.
I met with the two pilots and the flight engineer, established the facts and helped them prepare for the range of questions they would be asked by the media. Previously I had obtained from the airline the backgrounds of the crew, as well as the maintenance and overhaul history of the airliner.
The trio gave excellent interviews.
There was also drama in the airliner’s cabin. The passengers had been through turmoil
A few hours later the passengers departed in a replacement airliner, with one exception, a senior Melbourne media executive who chose to remain in the bar.
The explanation was circulated to the media and resultant coverage was accurate and favourable.
Later, a local resident phoned the airline to complain that engine oil had soiled the washing in his backyard and he demanded compensation. An Ansett-ANA engineer inspected the scene and found that the well-worn linen showed traces of engine oil from the man’s own old Holden car. The owner was told that if he complained further, the next visitors could be police officers.
After the tension and excitement had died down, I returned to my office to resume the work I had abandoned. What had I been doing when I was interrupted? Ah, yes. Preparing material on the introduction of jet airliners – which fortunately do not have propellers!
Captain Keith Hants was awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air in recognition of his flying abilities under extreme conditions. If not for his skill, more than 60 people could have lost their lives that day.