Runaway – told by Tom Ware

Trainee pilot, Tony Tearaway, was feeling proud of himself. This morning he’d been flying solo; circuits and bumps at Bankstown Aerodrome, in Sydney’s South-west. Sure he’d stalled his little blue British-built Auster aircraft on touchdown. But no worries. This had happened before. Tony would simply get out and swing the prop and the aero-engine would burst into life again. He seen it done many times before.

So Tony Tearaway swung the wooden prop and the engine roared to life. Unfortunately, Tony had forgotten to apply the hand-brake and chock the wheels, so the little high-winged monoplane started to move. Some how, the force of the “start-up” caused the throttle to slide and the aircraft’s engine revs built up. It rolled forward at startling speed. Tony tried to grab a wing-struck as it sped past. He was unsuccessful. He missed. The next instant the aircraft, after rolling a very short distance, was airborne- and climbing steadily into the North-west.

Tony Tearaway stood there aghast. The little two-seater aircraft continued to climb. It crossed the George’s River and was now hundreds of feet in the air. And the way it was flying, climbing steadily in a straight line, the tiny blue Auster looked like it would go forever. Suddenly, there was a slight shift in wind and the aeroplane swung completely around, diving straight at the hapless pilot. For a moment Tony Tearaway stood frozen in fear. Then he threw himself on the ground as the airplane sped overhead its wheels almost touching the grass landing strip.

But it was up and away again. It seemed this pilotless aircraft had a mind of its own. And it was a mind filled with the joy of total freedom. It sped past the old control tower, convincing those working in it that they’d be safer elsewhere. Then it buzzed the corrugated-fibro roof of the De Havilland Aircraft Factory. People scurried out to take a look. This wasn’t something you saw every day.

By now, Tony had managed to leg it to the operations room where he almost incoherently blurted out the news of what had happened. It was a quarter to nine in the morning. A lot was to happen in the time ahead.

Air-traffic controller, Reggie Ramjet, was a good man in a crisis. Reggie, his eyes searching the skies, and clutching his microphone, informed all aircraft in the vicinity, ( i.e. those who could hear him on radio frequency 118.1) that a little blue Auster was flying out of control “somewhere out there.” Then he swung the handle of the old fashioned telephone which would put him in direct contact with the Senior Operations Officer at Sydney Airport.

Sydney Airport, or Kingsford Smith Airport, as many call it, is located about ten miles to the east and right on the coast at Botany Bay. Even in those days it was a busy place, with airliners landing every few minutes.

As fate would have it, flying back to nearby Schofield Airfield was one of our intrepid naval aviators. We’ll call him: Commander Fearless Fred. Fearless, and three other Royal Australian Navy aircraft had been on manoeuvres. Fearless Fred immediately replied that he would seek out and “keep his eye out,” as to the goings on of the errant blue Auster. It was merely co-incidental that his plane was an almost identical Auster. With one exception. His was painted red. The runaway was blue.

“Confirm your following a runaway red Auster J1 type, and that you’re in a similar type, but Blue in colour?” called air-traffic controller Reggie Ramjet to our intrepid navy pilot.

“Negative- Not the red Auster. Not the red Auster- I’m in the red Auster.

Well, it just so happened that at that moment one of Australia’s brand new British-built Vickers Viscount turbo-props was making its way up from the city of Melbourne. At the controls, Captain Percy P. Pommie. Percy’s message to the ground control approach at Sydney went something like this:

“Sydney Control, this is Tango Victor Juliet, our position: abeam Marulan this time, flight level 190, estimating Sydney at 2320 zulu. Airep. Wind 310/40 knots, outside temperature minus 24 degrees Charlie — trace cirrus to North-west. Any traffic for our descent?”

Pilot Percy was not amused when he was told that there was an unmanned Auster at that time heading towards Kingsford Smith Airport from the west, accompanied by at least one other aircraft.

By now, of course, the little runaway Auster had risen to around three thousand, then four thousand feet. It had traversed Bankstown, Punchbowl, Bexley and Hurstville. It seemed to meander aimlessly, its nose moving this way and that. But all the time it headed eastwards towards the more densely populated parts of the city. Now it was heading for Rockdale, right on the southern approach paths to Sydney’s major airport.

At 9.30am. air-investigator, Hardnose Harry, at the Department of Civil Aviation’s New South Wales Headquarters at Waverton, North Sydney, had telephoned the Army, Navy, Airforce and the New South Wales Police Force. He alerted the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and the Central Ambulance Service. He’d also contacted his Regional Director, and was thinking about calling the Aviation Minister, in Canberra, the nation’s capital.

Hardnose, didn’t need to telephone the media. They already knew. Half-a-dozen radio stations were already broadcasting the whereabouts of the runaway. After all, there were thousands of witnesses willing to report back information. In addition to this, Station VKG, Police radio was keeping up a running commentary as to what was going on. Hence, the drama unfolded.

Meanwhile, Commander Fearless Fred was it hot pursuit of the unmanned aeroplane. He shadowed its every movement. The runaway went left: Fearless went left. The runaway dipped and rose. Fred dipped and rose. It got so the people on the ground were not sure which plane was which.

By now, all manner of reports were coming in from a multitude of sources- some hopelessly out of date. But by 9.53am the blue Auster and her red-coloured consort, had traversed Mascot, Alexandria, Redfern and the Central Business District of the city. It was now flying at 5,000 over the posh suburb of Vaucluse. The silver tails were not amused.

Of course there was all sorts of talk about it. One disc jockey suggested they get a trapeze artist from a circus and swing him into the runaway. Sounded good. But nobody knew any trapeze artist who could fly an aeroplane. Various methods of boarding were discussed. Then the talk turned to shooting it down. But who would do it, where and when. No point in bringing it down onto the crowded streets of Australia’s largest city.

At 10.10 that morning the first blow to rid the skies of this nuisance aeroplane was unofficially struck. (It was unofficial until the newspaper reporters found out about it) An ageing Royal Australian Airforce prop-driven fighter, a Wirraway, departed Richmond Airforce Base. Aboard it, Wing Commander Douglas Dopey, DSO, DFC, and Squadron Leader I.M Hopeful. The rear canopy and fairing had been taken off the Wirraway, thus allowing an unrestricted view from an open cockpit. In Squadron Leader I.M. Hopeful’s hands was a fully loaded Bren gun. On his lap, half-a-dozen spare magazines filled with 303 calibre bullets. On their faces were smiles of confidence. They were going to shoot down an airplane.

In the meantime, the runaway with its escort double had passed over Vaucluse, crossed the Harbour, reaching a point just inland of Palm Beach, Sydney’s most northerly suburb at that time, before turning seawards. By this time, quick-thinking business entrepreneurs had set up hot-dog stands and were doing a roaring trade to the many “watchers of the sky.” People were taking bets. “Where will it come down?” “Which way will it go next?” “Which of the two planes is the runaway?” “Yeah, pal — they do look both the same, don’t they?”

Some minutes later, over the radio waves at Sydney Tower.

“This is Wirraway Pursuit One.”

“This is Sydney Tower. Go ahead, Pursuit One.”

“We have the target in sight. Just off Palm Beach. About a mile out. Red Auster.”

There was no mention of a gun. But our intrepid aviator, in the red Auster aircraft, Fearless Fred, saw the barrel of this weapon being pointed in his direction. And Fearless Freddie said.

“No! No! Not the red Auster. Not the red Auster! I’m in the red Auster.”

“Roger that. We’ve now closed on the… er… blue craft. I’m… er… taking a look now. No, nobody’s aboard.”

There came the rattle of gunfire; two short bursts, then silence.

“What is going on, Pursuit One?”

Silence. Followed by a lot of very bad language which wasn’t censored on the audio tape I heard of this incident.

It has been said that a real gentleman would have worn white gloves. After all, this was going to be the funeral of an aeroplane. Squadron leader Hopeful was wearing any gloves- not even mittens. Not even a pair of old socks. The machine-gun got hot: our good aviator’s hands, at five below zero were very cold indeed.

“Christ! Me bloody hand’s are frozen to the Bren!”

This was followed by the Wirraway’s pilot reporting that his gunner, Squadron Leader, I.M. Hopeful, was unable to reload the Bren gun with a new magazine, as his hands were stuck fast to the freezing metal on the weapon’s breech.

The little blue Auster sailed fearlessly on. It was now 10.20am. It had been in the air for over an hour-and-a-half. Moreover, it had now climbed to 7,000 feet and was nearly three miles out to sea.

That’s when Squadron Leader Ace Topgun, and Flight Lieutenant, Barry Backup, got into the act. At 10.30 word came in that two of the Airforce’s finest were being despatched: two Meteor jet interceptors from Williamtown Airforce Base. Unfortunately, a Sabre jet landed on the same strip the Meteors were to leave on, burst a tyre, and lay stricken, unable to move for another thirteen minutes. The air force’s finest were delayed.

This problem overcome, Topgun and Backup headed south, trying not to break the sound barrier in their eagerness to get to the target area. After all, it wasn’t every day a peace-time fighter pilot got the opportunity to shoot a real live aeroplane out of the sky.

It wasn’t very long before Ace Top-gun’s nasal tones came over the airwaves.

“Sydney Control, this is Hotel Hotel Green Section One, over.”

It was now 11.00 O’clock. The earth-bound entrepreneurs selling hot dogs, were now taking bets as to just who would shoot down this “damn nuisance” aeroplane. Radios blared in every home as Sydney’s disc jockeys kept up a running commentary on events, venturing all sorts of solutions and remedies, but very little real help. In the meantime, half-a-million Sydney-ites were gazing skywards.

“Hotel Hotel Green. Do you have target in sight?”

“Affirmative. Target is right ahead. Confirm Target is the red Auster?”

And Fearless Freddie said: “No! no! Not the Red Auster. Not the red Auster. I’m in the red Auster!”

“Hotel Hotel Green this is Sydney Tower. Do not shoot towards the city, repeat do not shoot into the west.

“Roger. Will shoot away from the land. We’re going in now. Tally ho!”

Well, that was sorted out. A few moments later, Ace Top-gun’s Meteor jet came tearing in, its four half-inch calibre cannons blazing. Bang Bang Bang!

Then silence.

Then curses.

“I’m overshooting. Damn things going too bloody slow.” Uh… I’ll try again now.” Then a sheepish voice. “Uh, Sydney Control. Am unable to proceed with the… er… action. My guns have seized.”

“From Sydney Tower: “Roger, Hotel Hotel Green One. Understand your guns have jammed. What about your backup?”

Another voice. “This is Hotel Hotel Green Two. Can’t help you, Sydney Control. I’m for surveillance only. All I have aboard are cameras and film.”

And so it went on. As did the little blue Auster.

But all was not lost. At that very moment, speeding up from their naval base one hundred miles to the south came a pair of Sea Furies. They were propeller driven aircraft, and looked not a lot unlike the famous World War Two, Spitfire. They were out of HMAS Albatross, the naval air station at Nowra. At their controls were none other than lieutenants Bob (The Blue Max) Bluett (ex Korean War Veteran who’d seen action from the flight deck of HMS Glory) and Pistol Pete McNay. The names say it all.

These intrepids were being vectored to their target by radar operators at HMAS Watson, at Sydney’s South Head. “Thank God, for the navy,” people were later to say. The runaway, was now at an incredible ten thousand feet and seven miles out to sea off Broken Bay, i.e. Barren Joey Light.

“Sydney Control, this is Navy Eight Zero Five Alfa and Bravo. We’re locked on to target and now have him visual. Red Auster, just to the north of the piloted blue craft. Confirm?”

And Fearless Fred said for the umpteenth time. “No! No! Not the red Auster. Not the red Auster. I’m in the red Auster!”

“Righto, Matey,” came the laconic reply, “Better get out of our way.”

The bullets flew. Pistol Pete got in a short burst from astern Then Bob Bluett put in the Coupe-de-Grace: a long burst from his four 20mm cannons. The little seemed to stagger under the impact, as the shells tore into it. A moment later it burst into flames.

Yes. They did hit the right one.

Over and over the little blue Auster tumbled out of a clear blue sky. Splash, into the waters of the South-west Pacific it went. It was almost an anti-climax. For it was far too far out to sea for those who had followed the drama to see much.

Yes, it was all over. Police radio put over the message. It was 11-45. The little blue runaway Auster had been in the air for nearly three hours. That’s longer than it took the Titanic to sink.

But you know, whenever I recall that incident, the one thing that sticks out in my mind? Yes. It’s the voice of Commander Fred Fearless, when he kept saying.

“No! No! Not the red Auster. Not the red Auster. I’m in the red Auster.

© Tom Ware 1999