Thanks for the landing

In my career I have flown with many flying instructors, and like most pilots, I remember my first flight quite vividly. It was in a Lockheed Hudson flown by Captain Harry Purvis AFC, and which took place at Camden near Sydney in 1949. Harry was a highly experienced and well known pilot who had flown with Charles Kingsford Smith in the Southern Cross. I sat on the metal floor of the Hudson and suffered the pain of blocked ears because no one told me how to relieve the internal pressure. It was two years later before I had saved enough money to take my first dual trip in a Tiger Moth. The instructor had a thick European accent which was exacerbated by his shouting unintelligible orders down the Gosport tube. The flight was a disaster and I didn’t learn a thing.

Determined to learn to fly, I saved more money and had another go. This time the instructor was a kindly man called Bill Burns. Bill was a wartime pilot who had flown in New Guinea and now worked for Qantas as their flight safety manager. He sent me solo after eight hours of excellent instruction. Shortly after, I joined the RAAF to be a pilot, and it was during my early training that I first met Flight Lieutenant Sidney Gooding DFC. He had been a Lancaster pilot in World War 2, and after the surrender of Japan in 1945, had stayed in the RAAF, and was posted to Japan as part of the Allied Occupation forces. There he flew Mustangs and an occasional Spitfire. Later he flew Lincoln bombers against the communist terrorists in Malaya, after which he returned to Australia to become a QFI (qualified flying instructor).

DFC
Anyone wearing a Distinguished Flying Cross must have a good story, but it was “improper to ask.”

Besides flying, Sid Gooding gave lectures on airmanship. Our first impression was of a genial smiling man with a battered pipe and wry sense of humour. On his uniform was the purple and white striped ribbon of the Distinguished Flying Cross. We all wondered how he had won this decoration for bravery, but in those days it was considered improper to ask. His officer’s cap was set at a rakish angle and he looked entirely at ease. Conforming to RAAF discipline and good manners, the class stood up as he entered the room. He would thank us for the gesture and tell us to be seated. After introducing himself, Sid unfolded a large blueprint and pinned it to the blackboard. With a grave expression he then explained that he enjoyed inventing things, and that the blueprint was of a pair of steam driven roller skates, with a tiny firebox built into the heels and the wheels driven by pistons rather like a locomotive. To a stunned classroom of trainee pilots he went into the details of its design.   This was far better than the dry formula of aerodynamics or the study of saturated adiabatic lapse rates, and Sid soon got our attention. Five minutes later, he put away his blueprint and talked about the real subject of his lecture, which was carburetor icing on Tiger Moths and Wirraways.

Each lecture would be preceded by the blueprint of yet another invention, before getting on to more serious matters such as cockpit drills, propeller swinging, thunderstorm penetration, engine handling and aircraft captaincy. One strange invention that Sid produced was a Phillips electric shaver head, manually operated via a flexible wire cable. The blueprint showed one end of the cable connected to the shaver, while the other end was attached to a large rubber sucker. Sid explained that while flying a Lincoln bomber, an inboard engine would be closed down, and the propeller feathered. As the aircraft slowed down, the cable would be cast out of a window and an attempt made to lasso the sucker to the spinner of the stopped engine. If this was successful, the engine was restarted and the rotation of the spinner would allow the cable to turn the blades of the shaver, and on long flights the crew could all have a shave. To this day, I never knew if Sid was serious or having us on! But I do know that no one ever went to sleep in Sid’s lectures, for fear of missing the good gem on airmanship or his inventions.

On one occasion I flew a Wirraway with Sid on a low level navigation exercise. We flight planned from Uranquinty to Tocumwal, which was a RAAF airfield on the NSW and Victoria border. In those days, the airfield was a vast storage depot for war surplus Mustangs, Liberators, and other types. Sid had done this trip with his other students, and having noticed the absence of guards around the base, he decided to liberate the navigator’s astrodome on a Liberator (which I thought was a neat choice of words), and use it as punch bowl at home.   We flew at 200 ft across the countryside and after landing, Sid disappeared armed with a crash axe and screwdriver. While I kept an eye open for roving guards, Sid found a suitable Liberator, and wary of red back spiders, carefully removed the astrodome. The immediate problem was where to stow it in the Wirraway. It was too bulky to fit through the fuselage access door, so one of us would have to hold it on our lap in flight. This was solved by Sid removing the instructor’s detachable stick from the rear cockpit (which was normal procedure for solo flying from the front seat) and flying as a passenger, rather than as an instructor.

Wirraway trainer
How do you fit a B-24 astrodome in a Wirraway? Take out the stick.

After clipping on his parachute, and settling awkwardly into the rear seat, he managed to wrap both arms around the precious astrodome and hold it on his knees. I strapped into the front seat and started the engine. With the rear control column stowed, Sid warned me that I was in command and for heaven’s sake don’t prang the aircraft, as there was no way he could take over control if something went wrong. This was a potential court martial offence, and so, probably, was the removal of an astrodome from Her Majesty’s Liberator bomber! Sid, however, was determined to have his punch bowl.

The flight home at 200 feet was uneventful, and I had almost forgotten that Sid was aboard until a quiet voice from the rear seat exhorted me to land real carefully and try not to ground loop after touch-down. To our mutual relief, the landing was a smooth three-pointer on home turf, and afterwards Sid wrote in my hate sheet (student pilot progress report) that I was now qualified to carry out solo, low level navigation flights.

After graduation from Point Cook, I did a short spell on Mustangs and Vampires before being posted to fly Lincolns with No.10 Squadron at Townsville. The Lincoln was a more powerful version of the well-known Lancaster four engine heavy bomber. Among the aircrew were veterans of bombing raids over Europe, including navigators, gunners and radio operators wearing the gold eagle badge of the Pathfinders. While collecting my tropical kit and parachute at the clothing store, I was surprised and delighted to run into Sid Gooding again. He had been with the squadron for a few months as the QFI and was responsible for the conversion of new crews to the Lincoln. He congratulated me on receiving my pilot’s wings, and said I was on the roster to fly with him on the Anzac Day ceremonial flypast over several North Queensland towns.

When we met, he was exchanging a scorched and battered flying helmet and goggles for a new set. On seeing my raised eyebrows, he pointed across the airfield to the burnt out wreckage of a Lincoln bomber. Sid had been converting an experienced Dakota pilot and while demonstrating a landing with one propeller feathered, he got into difficulty when the aircraft drifted off the runway just before touch down. Sid decided to go around, and applied full power on the remaining three Rolls Royce engines. Even with full rudder applied he was unable to stop the Lincoln from yawing into the dead engine. He managed to keep it in the air for the next 20 seconds before the left wing tip hit a power pole and spun the huge aircraft into the ground. The three crew members aboard managed to escape from the wreckage before it went up in flames. Just before it blew up, Sid was about to return to the wreckage to find his wallet, which had dropped from his pocket as he ran. Fortunately, he had second thoughts on the matter, because 2000 gallons of fuel from the ruptured tanks ignited and the aircraft became an inferno. The only casualty was the radio operator who broke his nose during the final impact.

Sid at airplane accident site
Sid returned to the accident site and posed like “a lion hunter.”

Sid returned to the scene of the accident the next day, and posed for the unit photographer. The photo was a classic. It reminded me of the scene of a lion hunter posing, rifle in hand, and with one foot placed triumphantly on the dead beast. In this case Sid had one foot on the wreckage of the Lincoln, his pipe in hand, and service cap jauntily tilted on his head. The caption was “All my own work!”

Anzac Day 1953, and Sid and his crew (with myself as co-pilot) got airborne in Lincoln A73-10, for a fly-past over North Queensland country towns. It would culminate in a low run down the main street of Cairns over the ranks of marching war veterans. Seconds after liftoff, the starboard outer engine lost cooling glycol, and Sid asked me to feather the propeller. It was inconceivable that we should turn back and abandon the fly-pasts, and in any case RAAF reputation depended on our presence in the skies over North Queensland, on this day of national importance.

We flew over several country towns with No 4 engine feathered, finally passing low over the Cenotaph at Cairns, dead on time. Engine failures on the Lincolns were not unusual and I became quite used to flying with one engine stopped. One day Sid gave me the controls for takeoff. The Lincoln was a tail wheel aircraft, and therefore prone to swinging both on takeoff and landing. The technique was to lead with both port throttles until the rudders came effective, then increase to full power on all four engines. As the tail came up, gyroscopic forces acting through the propellers were countered with judicious use of rudder. I had been used to this in the Mustang, so it was no big deal to keep the Lincoln straight down the runway. However, as this was my first takeoff in a Lincoln, Sid talked me around the circuit and with quiet encouragement also talked me through my first landing in this big bomber. It bounced a few times, but ran straight and I felt on top of the world.

Lincoln bomber
The Lincoln, a majestic airplane, but a handful on landing.

In that era it was considered good manners to thank the captain for giving away the landing, although that old world courtesy seems to have disappeared in modern times. Certainly I never saw it happen in the airlines. As we taxied back to the tarmac, I thanked Sid for giving me the takeoff and landing. “That’s quite alright, Sergeant,” he replied, “It was a pleasure”.

The years passed, and I heard that Sid had left the RAAF to become a school teacher. Faced with the inevitable desk job, I, too, regretfully left the RAAF after 18 happy years. The pages of my log books became filled with civilian flying hours, and on reaching age 60 I was faced with compulsory retirement from flying Boeings. To earn a crust, I renewed my instructor rating and did occasional work as a flight simulator instructor. Then from a colleague came the news that Sid had retired from teaching and lived in Numurkah in country Victoria. I found his address and was soon on the phone. His voice brought back happy memories of our flights together nearly 40 years ago.

Sid was nearing 80, and his sight was fast fading. He welcomed my suggestion that I should fly up to see him, saying that he would arranged a picnic for my arrival at a nearby airstrip. The next day was sunny, and I track crawled at 2000 ft to Numurkah. Circling the airstrip, I could see two people with a car waiting in the shade of some trees. The wind was calm and the touch down slightly bouncy. After many hours on Boeings, I still had trouble nailing the round out in light aircraft. As I climbed from the Cherokee, I recognized Sid immediately. He looked younger than his real age, although by now his hair was white. Having said that, I felt conscious of my own balding head and middle aged spread. We talked of old times, and I mentioned that I had a photograph of him standing on the wreckage of his crashed Lincoln. He asked me to examine the photo closely to see if his wallet was there. I thought that with time, I must have imagined the story of Sid’s wallet, but happily it was still true.

Sid and John
Sid and John, together again and talking airplanes.

While his wife Doreen arranged the sandwiches and tea, I asked Sid how he had won the DFC. He said that he had been on a 1000 bomber night raid over Germany, when another Lancaster collided with his aircraft. With part of the right wing torn away, and the outboard engine demolished, Sid needed full rudder and aileron to hold height. He considered jettisoning his bombs and returning home, but realized that this meant flying back into the outbound bomber stream. A mid-air collision was a certainty in the dark, so he decided it would be safer to continue to the target with his crippled Lancaster than risk a turn back. His big worry was that if a German night fighter locked on to him, he would be unable to take evasive action. In the event, he dropped his bombs on the target, and returned safely after flying seven hours with full control deflection. For this he was awarded the DFC.

As we talked, it was clear that his eyesight was bad, because he was unable to see the photographs that I brought with me. He told me that his wife read books to him, and sometimes he obtained talking books from a Melbourne library. The time came to say farewell, and on impulse, I asked Sid would he like to come on a short joy flight with me before I left for Melbourne. He was delighted with the idea, and after helping him on to the wing of the Cherokee, I soon had him strapped into the left seat.   His wife politely declined my invitation, and told me quietly that Sid had hoped that I would offer to take him up.

There was no way that Sid could see the instruments clearly, although he could discern the horizon as a general blur between sky and ground. I started the engine, and after releasing the brakes, asked Sid to taxi the aircraft. By giving him general directions of left rudder for five seconds, right rudder for two seconds, now rudder central, we taxied to the end of the field and lined up for takeoff. I could see Doreen watching from the trees.

The Cherokee is a simple training aircraft, and with Sid at the controls I asked him if he was happy to do the takeoff. “Just keep an eye on me, and give me directions,” he said, and off we went. I gave him a few minor corrections to keep straight and as we reached rotate speed, I called for him to place the nose just above the horizon. He flew by instinct and experience, holding the attitude just right.

He could not see either the altimeter or airspeed indicator, so I told him to level out while I set the throttle. He held attitude accurately despite seeing only a blur. His turn to downwind was smooth and beautiful to watch, and I found myself going back in time when I had watched Sid execute a perfect asymmetric circuit after we had lost the engine on Anzac day in 1953. I asked him could he see the airstrip now on his left. He had no hope, he said. Would he like to do the approach and landing, I said. He said he would happy to give it a go, but would need steering directions on final. By this time we had gone a fair way downwind, and I lost sight of the grass strip behind us. Talk about the blind leading the blind!

In the RAAF, we used to practice GCAs. These were ground radar controlled approaches, sometimes known as a talk down. The controller sat in a radio truck and guided the aircraft down his screen. As the aircraft came over the threshold, the radar controller would say, “Touch down, touch down – NOW,” and seconds later the wheels would hit the runway. Very effective in thick fog, but unreliable in heavy rain due attenuation of the radar screen. Today there was no fog or rain, just a fine sunny afternoon and perfect for a GCA. But first I had to locate the strip again.

I told Sid I would talk him down like a GCA controller using RAAF terminology with which we were both familiar. He had flown radar controlled approaches in Mustangs and Spitfires, so he was no stranger to the technique. Sure, he lacked currency after 40 years but he could still pick an attitude despite being partially blind.

His circuit height was remarkably accurate as I asked him to add more or less power to maintain cruise airspeed. Finally I spotted the strip and turned Sid onto long final. He held the nose attitude admirably as I gave him heading instructions to keep the airstrip dead ahead. I warned him of the trim change with lowered flaps, which he fixed with the trim wheel after a little groping. I told him that when round out was imminent, I would call him to flare and close the throttle. From experience, he knew the rate at which to keep coming back on the wheel during hold off. Any problems, and I would take over control. Thirty seconds to round out, and I could see Doreen walk from the shade of the trees to watch the landing. I think she knew that Sid would be on the controls.

“Five, four, three, two, one and flare NOW, Sid,” I called, and held my breath, hands close to the controls. “Six inches above the grass, Sid. Hold it there.” Sid held off beautifully then greased it, maintaining the aircraft right down the centre of the strip. I asked him to apply the brakes gently and as we slowed down I took control for the 180 turn. We taxied back to the trees and shut down the engine. After the propeller had stopped and I switched off the ignition, my mind went back in time to when Sid had given me my first landing in a Lincoln. I was glad that I could return the favour, albeit 40 years later. For me it was a touching moment, and while Sid happily told his wife about his landing, I busied myself with a walk around before departure. Then we shook hands and said our farewells. As I settled into the cockpit of the Cherokee, Sid touched me on the shoulder and said, “Thanks for the landing, John.”

“That’s alright, Sid,” I replied. “It was a pleasure.”

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20 Comments

  • Really sweet story about how the circle goes around.

    Thanks very much for sharing, I always enjoy your articles. A lot.

  • Damn, John, you got me all teary with that one. Even had to blow my nose.
    I have had a few opportunities to give thanks to teachers many years after the fact, but didn’t know how much it meant to them… until my time came to be thanked by former students. I bet Sid went back home with a lift in his step, thanks to you.

  • Must be dust in the air…my eyes are watering. What a wonderful story, and what a wonderful bit of writing. You put me in the cockpit as well as capturing the emotion of Sid’s GCA approach and landing. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • Thank you for a superb story.
    We as pilots never forget special people (other aviators) who have come into our lives.
    Sid is one of these special people and a hero!

  • Wonderful and touching story. My Father served in the RAAF with John Laming at the Townsville base and was an engine fitter. Dad has fond memories of when John pulled up in the Lincoln the first thing he would do is toss out a cushion from the cockpit window. I gather from this that John was somewhat vertically challenged! Dad also new one of the firefighters that attended the accident described above. When he arrived at the seen he found Sid and the other two aircrew leaning against a fence having a cigarette! I believe that type of low level asymmetric training was stopped in the RAAF not long after.

    • Thanks Mark,
      Your father was quite correct in his recollections. I remember his name if not his face. I needed the cushion for both the Mustang and Lincoln. The Mustang cockpit was build for six-footers and I was 5 foot 4″. The Lincoln copilot/instructor seat was a small fold-down stool called a dickey seat and that is why the copilot was usually called the “Second dickey.” I think the word dickey seat came from some old English motor cars that had a small extra seat. I needed a cushion for comfort. The entrance/exit to the Lincoln was either a rear doornear the tail or the parachute escape hatch in the nose. On the ground a ladder was placed by ground crew for the aircrew to climb into the nose of the aircraft or exit.
      As each crew member also was lumbered with a parachute plus a life jacket called a “Mae West” (named after a buxom movie actress of the same name) I had a cushion as well. It was easier for me to throw the cushion overboard out of the copilot window than fall arse over head trying to climb down the ladder carrying a parachute, Mae West and a cushion.

      By amazing coincidence I recently met up with the airman who not only packed our parachutes but designed and built my cushion. His name is George Morgan and he still lives in Townsville and is age 88 now.

      • Thank you for the reply John.

        My fathers name is Ian Phillips, I think he was posted to Townsville in 1959 and finished up in Amberley after he did his 20 years. He always spoke very highly of you and later your writting. He is retired up on the Atherton tablelands these days. I got my love of aviation from him and went on to become a commercial pilot and instructor myself.

        I will pass on your comments to him, he gets great joy out of reminiscing about those days in the RAAF. Oh the storeys I have heard!

        • Maytbe you could convince your father to share one of those stories… maybe he could dictate it to you and your type it up. That way, the story is preserved for all time. Please think about it. Photos, too!

          • Thank you Patricia. That is a very good idea. I’ll see what I can do, he has lots of great photos to support.

  • Thank you John for the wonderful and amazing story. It touch me deep and my eyes almost drop a tear when I read your encounter with Sid!

  • I absolutely adore these golden stories… please do share more of them, thank you John.
    It brought back memories of my experience with a US-Army (Vietnam-era) UH-1H / Bird Dog pilot, teacher and friend of mine. After coming back from SE Asia he suffered with re-adapting, and could only become a Ground Instructor, he was nonetheless passionate, patient and fully dedicated at what he did. As part of the cross country training required for acquiring my license, I would ask him to come along with me and wold let him take the controls, let him land… he looked like child filled with utter joy, like Sid he told me “thanks for the landing, Michael” , it meant so much to me.

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