Ron Flock­hart

One of the first rac­ing driv­ers to fly him­self to meet­ings in his own air­craft, Ron Flock­hart raced at the top level in sports cars and For­mula One be­fore a grow­ing in­ter­est in long dis­tance record flights led to high ad­ven­ture and stark tragedy

Pilot - - CONTENTS - By Neil Fol­lett & Nick Stroud

Wil­liam Ron­ald Flock­hart was born in Ed­in­burgh on 16 June 1923. He be­gan his mo­tor rac­ing ca­reer in 1951, go­ing on to win the 24 Heures du Mans race in 1956 and 1957 while driv­ing a D-type Jaguar with the Scot­tish Ecurie Ecosse team. Flock­hart also par­tic­i­pated in For­mula One races, en­ter­ing his first− the Bri­tish Grand Prix− in 1954 and con­tin­u­ing through­out 1956–60. The Scots­man com­peted in four­teen F1 races with five dif­fer­ent teams, his best re­sult be­ing a third in the 1956 Ital­ian Grand Prix at Monza.

Flock­hart also dis­played an early in­ter­est in fly­ing, own­ing Auster 5 G-ANHO dur­ing 1954–57, and be­com­ing one of the first For­mula One driv­ers to fly their own air­craft to race meet­ings. In the early 1960s he be­came in­ter­ested in record flights be­tween Eng­land and Aus­tralia, not­ing that the record was held by Arthur Clous­ton and Vic­tor Rick­etts in the DH88 Comet G-ACSS Grosvenor House. The Comet won the 1934 Mac­robert­son Air Race and was the air­craft in which Rick­etts and Clous­ton flew from Lon­don to Syd­ney (and then on to New Zealand) in 80hr 56min in March 1938. Flock­hart con­sid­ered that this record could be bet­tered. He was also in­ter­ested in bet­ter­ing the stand­ing solo Aus­tralia−uk record, held by H F ‘Jim’ Broad­bent, who had left Dar­win in Per­ci­val Vega Gull G-AFEH on 18 April 1938, and landed in Eng­land on the 22nd hav­ing cov­ered 9,612 miles in five days 4hr 21min, the last pre-war record flight be­tween the two coun­tries.

In Oc­to­ber 1960 Bri­tish hold­ing com­pany United Do­min­ions Trust (UDT), through its sub­sidiary Laystall En­gi­neer­ing, formed an agree­ment with the Bri­tish Rac­ing Part­ner­ship to form a mo­tor-rac­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion known as UDT Laystall Rac­ing. As an ex­ten­sion of its rac­ing ac­tiv­i­ties, UDT be­came in­volved with the pur­chase of Com­mon­wealth CA-17 Mus­tang Mk 20 VH-BVM for Flock­hart’s record at­tempt.

This air­craft had orig­i­nally been pur­chased from the RAAF by for­mer RAF and RAAF pi­lot James L ‘Wac’ White­man, who in­tended to en­ter the air­craft in the 1953 Lon­don to Christchurch (New Zealand) Air Race. Wac with­drew from the race

when he re­alised it would not be com­pet­i­tive with the jets en­tered and in 1954 its own­er­ship passed to Arnold J Glass, a fel­low rac­ing driver against whom Flock­hart would com­pete in the 1961 and 1962 New Zealand Grand Prix races. Used lat­terly for tar­get-tow­ing ex­per­i­ments, it was sold to UDT for around £2,000 with around 100 fly­ing hours on the clock. Flock­hart was also able to ob­tain 63 gal­lon com­bat drop­tanks for about £7 each.

Prepa­ra­tions be­gin

With the end of the An­tipodean mo­tor rac­ing sea­son in early 1961, prepa­ra­tions be­gan for the flight to the UK. Rolls-royce ran checks on the Packard Mer­lin 38 en­gine, which had only run 110 hours since new, and which had never been ‘through the gate’. The mag­ne­tos were over­hauled in Scot­land and Smiths Aus­tralia set to work on over­haul­ing the cock­pit in­stru­ments.

Prepara­tory work on the air­frame was un­der­taken at the Illawarra Fly­ing School, which mod­i­fied the fuel sys­tem by in­tro­duc­ing a man­ual de­vice by which the sys­tem could be de­pres­surised. Two static vents were in­cor­po­rated into the air­frame un­der the cock­pit sill, each con­tain­ing a valve. This would en­able Flock­hart to run the drop­tanks dry with­out the risk of suck­ing air into the sys­tem. The sys­tem

The Packard Mer­lin 38 en­gine had only run 110 hours since new

would then be re­pres­surised from the ex­haust side of the vac­uum pump to as­sist ini­tial trans­fer. This worked well, al­though a stiff boot­ful of rud­der was re­quired to counter the rolling mo­ment causd by the change in lat­eral bal­ance as a tank emp­tied.

In the limited space avail­able in the Mus­tang’s cock­pit two Ger­man Becker VHF ra­dio sets were in­stalled, which pro­vided 36 com­mu­ni­ca­tions chan­nels, and Lear T12 au­to­matic di­rec­tion find­ing (ADF) equip­ment was fit­ted in the po­si­tion usu­ally oc­cu­pied by the gun­sight. No VOR, ILS, HF ra­dio or marker-beacon re­ceiver equip­ment was fit­ted−flock­hart held no in­stru­ment rating. Nor­malair sup­plied the oxy­gen equip­ment, Dun­lop pro­vided new tyres, and Lodge de­liv­ered new plugs. Rolls-royce sug­gested that the Mer­lin be opened up to max­i­mum con­tin­u­ous power ev­ery half-hour dur­ing the flight and again briefly dur­ing de­scent and ap­proach.

Fi­nal prepa­ra­tions and mod­i­fi­ca­tions were un­der­taken by Fawcett Avi­a­tion at Bankstown Aero­drome in Syd­ney, and the Mus­tang was of­fi­cially added to the Bri­tish register on 24 Fe­bru­ary 1961 as G-ARKD, in the name of Ron­ald Flock­hart. In the days lead­ing up to his de­par­ture for the UK Flock­hart had logged a mere twelve fly­ing hours in the Mus­tang.

In March 1961, Flock­hart told Bri­tish mag­a­zine Flight that pi­lot­ing a Mus­tang for the first time was like ‘driv­ing an ERA [su­per­charged 1.5 litre Grand Prix

car−ed] af­ter a sports car; things hap­pen very quickly’. He also ad­mit­ted that it had taken some time to get used to the Mus­tang’s long nose and the tech­nique of a curv­ing ap­proach, and had ac­cord­ingly suf­fered ‘one or two bumpy land­ings’, but had quickly come to like the aero­plane very much. Flock­hart noted that al­though the Mus­tang was big and pow­er­ful, ‘it was am­ply sta­ble for the long hours of steady, level cruise’.

The planned route for the flight was Syd­ney—alice Springs—dar­win— Sourabaya—sin­ga­pore —Ran­goon— Cal­cutta—karachi—bahrain—beirut— Brin­disi—nice and on to Lon­don, with overnight stops at Sin­ga­pore, Karachi and Brin­disi. Flock­hart’s plan was to fly only dur­ing day­light hours and in seg­ments of a max­i­mum of five hours. All fuelling ar­rang­ments along the route were to be made by Esso, which Flock­hart found to be ‘un­fail­ingly help­ful and ef­fi­cient’.

Set­ting off

On Tues­day, Fe­bru­ary 28, 1961, Flock­hart and G-ARKD, painted in an over­all bright red colour scheme with white de­tail­ing, de­parted Syd­ney for the first stop at Alice Springs. En route from the lat­ter to Dar­win, Flock­hart ex­pe­ri­enced a mag­net­i­cally charged dust storm, which af­fected his ADF equip­ment. He set­tled in at 12,000ft and fol­lowed the faint line of a soli­tary rail­way across the end­less red ter­rain to Dar­win.

The next day Flock­hart de­parted Dar­win for Sourabaya on Java. Well out over the Ti­mor Sea he saw an omi­nous line in the dis­tance, mark­ing an in­ter-trop­i­cal front pil­ing clouds up to 50,000ft and higher. From 12,000ft he dived to low al­ti­tude to find a hole in the milky mist. Af­ter ten min­utes the Mus­tang popped through the other side of the front with most of the paint on its lead­ing edges stripped off. The di­ver­sion had cost a sub­stan­tial amount of fuel and Flock­hart elected to di­vert to Bau­cau on East Ti­mor for re­plen­ish­ment.

Af­ter a quick re­fill from fuel kept in 45 gal­lon churns in a thatched hut, Flock­hart took off for what he later re­called as ‘the loveli­est part of the trip’−east-north-east over the Ba­li­nese is­lands and coral atolls to Sin­ga­pore. The max­i­mum en­durance of the Mus­tang was seven hours, for six of which Flock­hart could be on oxy­gen. Typ­i­cal cruis­ing speed was 225 knots at 12,000ft, al­though the speed would in­crease to 280 with the pe­ri­odic open­ing of the throt­tle, as per Rolls-royce’s sug­ges­tion.

The di­ver­sion to Bau­cau meant a late ar­rival at Sin­ga­pore, where Flock­hart was fur­ther de­layed by an ac­ci­dent which had closed the run­way at his next stop, Ran­goon. Hav­ing re­ceived the all-clear to de­part, Flock­hart headed into the dark­ness, his first ex­pe­ri­ence of fly­ing the Mus­tang at night. Find­ing that the ADF equip­ment func­tioned bet­ter at night, he fol­lowed air­ways all the way to Ran­goon, where the scar­let Mus­tang re­ceived a great deal of at­ten­tion, not least from the Cze­choslo­vakian crew of a SA Tupolev Tu-104.

Across In­dia

The fol­low­ing morn­ing there was still plenty of in­ter­est in the air­craft, and on de­par­ture for Cal­cutta Flock­hart held the Mus­tang down on take­off un­til he could pull up 4,000ft al­most ver­ti­cally into cloud.

Nav­i­gat­ing largely by means of con­tact fly­ing−us­ing es­tab­lished land­marks− Flock­hart ex­pe­ri­enced dif­fi­cul­ties on the leg to Cal­cutta, be­com­ing em­broiled in a cloud layer at 2,000ft which caused him to miss the let-down beacon into Cal­cutta and over­shoot, forc­ing him to put down at Bar­rack­pore, some fifteen miles north of Cal­cutta. Af­ter a swift refuelling, Flock­hart was off again for the long­est leg of the jour­ney, across In­dia and Pak­istan to Karachi, which he com­pleted in 5hr 50min us­ing 43gal/hr of fuel. Flock­hart later re­lated that he ate only a few Hor­licks tablets on this leg, and re­freshed him­self on land­ing at Karachi with gin­ger beer kept cold in the am­mu­ni­tion bays.

At Karachi the Mus­tang was turned around in less than an hour, Flock­hart tak­ing off in the moon­light to fol­low the Ira­nian coast to Bahrain. As he later told Flight: ‘Nav­i­ga­tion at night was won­der­ful. There is a great tran­quil­lity about it. The iso­la­tion and the beauty con­trasts sharply with the ac­tions of those on the ground, who try to tie you down

with stream­ers of pa­per. Fly­ing at night in the moon­light, the only shad­ows are on the sur­face’.

It was still night when Flock­hart landed at Bahrain, where he dis­cov­ered that air had been leak­ing from the port main wheel oleo. This caused lit­tle con­cern, how­ever, and af­ter a safe land­ing the un­der­car­riage was quickly re­paired by the RAF. Flock­hart was soon off again, to fol­low an oil pipe­line to the moun­tains of Le­banon and Beirut. He was cleared−and then re­called−by Da­m­as­cus air traf­fic con­trol shortly af­ter pass­ing over the city, but, short of fuel, he elected to con­tinue to Beirut and face the con­se­quences there. It was in­deed at Beirut where the trou­ble started.

Tem­per­a­tures rose — in the Tower, in the cock­pit and in the cylin­der heads

De­spite the di­ver­sions and de­lays ow­ing to mi­nor re­pairs, Flock­hart was still well ahead of his own sched­ule when he tax­ied out at Beirut for the next leg to Brin­disi on 3 March. Con­fu­sion on the ground, how­ever, led to the Mus­tang’s coolant boil­ing while Flock­hart was held while other air­craft landed. The Mus­tang fi­nally de­parted for Brin­disi but poor weather forced Flock­hart to di­vert to his nom­i­nated al­ter­nate, Athens.

Anx­ious not to lose any more time, Flock­hart re­fu­elled quickly and re­quested clear­ance from the Tower, which was re­fused as no flight plan had been filed. Re­quest­ing to file an air­borne flight plan, Flock­hart was re­fused again, the Tower de­mand­ing that he pay land­ing fees, de­spite the fact that these had al­ready been seen to by Esso. As Flight el­e­gantly put it: ‘tem­per­a­tures rose−in the Tower, in the cock­pit and in the cylin­der heads’.

Re­al­is­ing that re­sis­tance was fu­tile, Flock­hart re­tired for a rest, be­fore try­ing again in a few hours. With the pa­per­work sorted, he re­turned to the Mus­tang in the early morn­ing, but found on start­ing that steam was is­su­ing from the cowl­ing. Re­fill­ing the coolant sys­tem, he found that the coolant was run­ning out be­tween Nos 3 and 4 cylin­ders on the star­board bank. By this time he was twelve hours be­hind his sched­ule, but two days ahead of the solo record.

Ex­hausted and frus­trated, Flock­hart left G-ARKD at Athens and con­tin­ued to Lon­don by com­mer­cial air­liner to be mar­ried as planned a few days later on 11 March 1961. The Scots­man sub­se­quently told Flight that it was ‘not the fly­ing, nor nav­i­ga­tion, nor prepa­ra­tion which was re­spon­si­ble for the fail­ure. It was an air traf­fic sys­tem out of touch with the in­di­vid­ual needs of a type of fly­ing that has not yet, by any means, dis­ap­peared from the global scene’.

In Septem­ber 1961 the Mus­tang was se­verely dam­aged by a cock­pit fire while be­ing tax­ied at Athens air­port, putting paid to its use in any fur­ther record at­tempt.

Take two

Not to be de­terred, within months Flock­hart be­gan look­ing for an­other Aus­tralian Mus­tang for a sec­ond at­tempt on the record that had eluded him. The air­craft cho­sen was for­mer RAAF Mus­tang VH-UWB, ac­quired on Ron’s be­half by AREF Ltd of As­cot, Berk­shire and reg­is­tered G-ARUK.

Flock­hart had an­nounced his in­ten­tion to try and beat the record again, with plans to fol­low the route Mel­bourne— Syd­ney—dar­win—sin­ga­pore—madras— Bahrain—brin­disi—lon­don, start­ing on 16 April 1962. Jock Gar­den, chief fly­ing in­struc­tor and man­ager of the Civil Fly­ing School, the fly­ing train­ing arm of the Mus­tang’s op­er­a­tor in Aus­tralia, Brookes Avi­a­tion, re­called in his me­moirs: ‘Ron ar­ranged to buy VH-UWB from John Brookes, and Brookes Avi­a­tion un­der­took a com­plete over­haul on the air­craft. Rolls-royce, as a co-spon­sor [of his next record at­tempt], sent out two engi­neers from Eng­land to ser­vice the en­gine; the air­craft was re­painted in red and rereg­is­tered in the UK as G-ARUK.

‘I flew Ron over to Essendon Air­port in the [Beech] De­bonair early in 1962 and dur­ing the flight I asked if he had any re­cent in­stru­ment fly­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. When he told me he had none in the last eigh­teen months, I sug­gested it would be wise for him to gain re­cent in­stru­ment fly­ing prac­tice in view of the in­tended long flight, but he did not fol­low up on that ad­vice.

‘I had the plea­sure of do­ing the flighttest­ing of the Mus­tang on 19 March 1962, af­ter its ex­ten­sive ser­vic­ing and it was in per­fect con­di­tion with the Mer­lin the smoothest run­ning en­gine I had ever en­coun­tered.

‘A cou­ple of days be­fore he in­tended set­ting out on his record at­tempt Ron was to fly to Syd­ney to have main­te­nance done on his ADF unit. The weather con­di­tions on 12 April were bad, with low cloud and rain, but Ron was de­ter­mined to go. This proved to be a fa­tal de­ci­sion as, within only a few min­utes af­ter de­par­ture, he lost con­trol in cloud over the Dan­de­nong Range and en­tered a spi­ral dive from which he could not pos­si­bly re­cover. He was killed in­stantly.’

The of­fi­cial re­port of the ac­ci­dent by the Aus­tralian Depart­ment of Civil Avi­a­tion gives the fol­low­ing con­clu­sion: ‘While there is in­suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence to es­tab­lish con­clu­sively the cause of the ac­ci­dent, the pos­si­bil­ity that the pi­lot tem­po­rar­ily lost con­trol of the air­craft while cir­cling in cloud, and that it sub­se­quently stalled dur­ing the re­cov­ery and turn to avoid high ter­rain, can­not be ex­cluded’.

Flock­hart was fly­ing the Mus­tang from Moorab­bin to Bankstown to con­duct fuel con­sump­tion tests and have the ADF equip­ment ser­viced. Af­ter en­coun­ter­ing low cloud, he re­ported that he was re­turn­ing to Moorab­bin. The Mus­tang then changed course some 140° be­fore en­ter­ing a nar­row gap be­tween cloud-ob­scured hill­tops in the Dan­de­nongs. The re­port stated that ‘the pi­lot cir­cled in the vicin­ity of Kal­lista sev­eral times at low al­ti­tude and for the most part in cloud. The air­craft then emerged be­low cloud at a height of ap­prox­i­mately 1,300ft, car­ried out a left turn prob­a­bly to avoid higher ter­rain and, in the course of this turn, the nose dropped sharply and the air­craft struck trees and the ground at a steep an­gle, while rolling and turn­ing to the right’.

At the time of the ac­ci­dent Flock­hart held a Bri­tish PPL en­dorsed for sin­gleengined land­planes un­der 12,500lb (5,670kg) max­i­mum per­mis­si­ble all-up weight. His to­tal fly­ing time was 961hr of which 69 were on Mus­tangs. Dur­ing the six months im­me­di­ately be­fore the ac­ci­dent he had flown only five hours. He was not rated for in­stru­ment or night fly­ing. In late 1960 he had un­der­gone about 21 hours of ground-based Link trainer in­struc­tion on ADF, ILS and VDF pro­ce­dures, but his log­book showed no record of any in­stru­ment fly­ing or Link trainer in­struc­tion since that time.

Flock­hart’s fly­ing achieve­ments were sub­stan­tial and de­serve a great deal of credit; his Mus­tang flight from Aus­tralia to Athens had been made with limited pro­fes­sional back­ing by a club-trained pri­vate pi­lot. Sadly, he never got the chance to fin­ish the job — with his death on 12 April 1962, his fi­nal race had been run.


Ron’s first tilt at the record ended when the Mus­tang’s over­heated Mer­lin sprang a coolant leak


Top­ping off G-ARKD’S 63 gal­lon drop­tanks in prepa­ra­tion for a flight


Ron likened the tran­si­tion to fly­ing the Mus­tang to mov­ing from an ev­ery­day sports car to a Grand Prix racer


Cost­ing £2,000, plus £7 each for the drop­tanks, Ron’s first Aus­tralia-uk mount, Mus­tang G-ARKD


A mod­est start to his avi­a­tion am­bi­tions: Ron with his Auster and (cen­tre) fu­ture F1 World Cham­pion Jack Brab­ham

Ron was a mem­ber of the BRM team and raced both the in­fa­mous V16 and the more suc­cess­ful Type 25 F1 car, seen here at Ain­tree

Shar­ing the drives with Ninian San­der­son and Ivor Bueb, Ron won Le Mans twice on Jaguar D types


Ron poses with the air­craft, now reg­is­tered G - ARUK and be­ing read­ied for his sec­ond at­tempt on the Aus­tralia-uk record


Ron’s sec­ond Mus­tang was an­other EX-RAAF ma­chine, sold to Bri­tish na­tional John W Brookes and reg­is­tered VH-UWB

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