MY LIFE MY JOB – By Gordon W. Savage
Having spent almost the whole of my working life ﬂying aeroplanes, I have been immensely privileged to be given a birds-eye view of most of Australia and several other parts of the world. The late Jack Buckham initially taught me to ﬂy with the South Australian Aero Club, at Parafield. I went on holiday from Adelaide by steam train through Melbourne to Sydney in 1935 and hired a Gipsy Moth from the Sydney Aero Club to look at the City.
I circled the bridge a ” couple of -times and then ﬂew around for a while, becoming dreadfully disoriented to the extent that I had no idea in which direction I should ﬂy to return to Mascot. Fortunately, shortly after take-off I had noticed a couple of gasometers nearby, so I circled around ‘until I saw a tiny pair of gasometers way out on the horizon and headed for them. Due to my very limited ﬂying ‘experience and total lack of knowledge of Sydney, I would have ﬁnished up in a most embarrassing situation had it not been for those two gasometers.
My RAAF cadetship commenced at Point; Cook – in January I937, and so began the most wonderful career I could ever have imagined. For me, ﬂying was never ‘work’. To hire a Gipsy Moth from the Aero Club had cost me one pound ten shillings per hour for solo or two pounds for dual instruction, and in those days my wage as a junior employee was only thirty shillings per week. Full adult basic wage in Adelaide was then three pounds ten shillings.
Consequently it seemed incredible to me that the Air Force would not only let me ﬂy, but they would actually pay me for doing so. I trained on Avro Cadets and Westland Wapitis, and after graduation I was sent to No 2 GR Squadron, Laverton, with ‘Johnny Summers as C.O. The Squadron was equipped with three Bristol Bulldogs, three Hawker Demons, three Avro Ansons and the NA16, which was the ﬁxed undercarriage US built predecessor to the Wirriway.
What a glorious year that was. I could ﬂy any of those four types when ever l wished. There was nothing more delightful on a beautiful spring or autumn morning than to strap myself into a Bulldog or Demon and then climb high up to some billowy cumulous cloud and play about with it. I used to loop up and over large chunks, fly into one side and out the other, dive down underneath and then up and over again. And when I had had enough of that I would circle around inside the cloud.
The air temperature would usually be well below freezing and water droplets within the cloud would be supercooled. They would solidify and form Rhime ice on the leading edges of every part of the aircraft, nose, wings tail, struts bracing wires, windscreen etc -until it looked like a Christmas tree. Then I would make a dash back to Laverton and try to stop on the tarmac before it had all melted off.
Most of the aeroplanes of those days, particularly the biplanes had so many struts, wires and other bits and pieces sticking out all over them, that they had “built in headwinds” before moving off the chocks. Consequently their speed range between stall and terminal velocity was not enormous. With open cockpits, no heating, and ﬂying in air at temperatures often well below freezing, we always wore thick flying suits – mostly leftover ones from WW1.
Air temperature decreases by two degrees Celsius for each thousand feet of altitude, so when it got too cold it was common practise to simply roll over and dive downwards to a lower level. It was difficult to make a Gipsy Moth climb much higher than four thousand feet, but I remember its terminal velocity was 190 miles per hour vertically downwards with or without engine power. I think the Wapiti terminal velocity was about 260 mph and a Hawker Demon between 350 and 400.
At such high speeds, the ﬁxed pitch airscrews and engines would wind up to enormously high rpm. Whether the throttles were opened or closed made very little difference to the speed or rpm, so I usually left it wide open to provide a cushioning effect for the racing pistons. During a vertical-dive, people on the ground for miles around would hear an enormously loud whine or bark, but that was not engine noise.
The ﬁxed pitch wooden airscrews were comparatively thick even at the tips, and when they whirled around at such high rpm they trailed a vacuum or partial vacuum behind them and that was what caused the noise.
The Hawker Demon had an unusual characteristic in that when backward pressure was applied to the control column during a steep turn or when pulling out of a dive, the centre of lift on the wings would move well forward. This had the same effect as applying additional backward pressure to the control column causing an increase in the rate of turn or pull out from a dive. Therefore one had to consciously reduce the backward pressure on the control column or even push it gently forward to prevent excessive G forces building up and being applied to the wings. Having to reverse pressure on the control column like that was not an instinctive or natural reaction. One pilot, not in our Squadron, actually allowed the aircraft to tighten itself up during the pullout from a dive, and the G forces became so high that the wings folded up. He plummeted into the ground. To correct that abnormality, a horizontal bar with a lead weight at the end was attached to the controls pointing forwards.
Centrifugal force acting upon the lead weight would apply forward pressure to the control column, so the pilot had to to maintain pressure or pull back even harder to stay in the dive or steep turn. Thereafter no more wings were torn off.
In those pre-war days we never used oxygen and I once decided to see how high I could climb in a Hawker Demon. I wore a kneepad and at each 1000 feet I noted the altitude and air temperature. The aeroplane had quite a phenomenal performance and it was still climbing well when I became so excruciatingly cold that I decided to give up. The temperature would probably have been about minus forty degrees C or F or even lower, so I rolled over and dived vertically to a low altitude and returned to Laverton. I told the ground staff what I had been doing and the instrument makers said that if I gave them the temperatures at each level they could work out exactly what height I had reached.
In the office I removed my ﬂying-suit and parachute, and then studied the notes on “my kneepad. Quite frankly I was too ashamed to hand them over as they were, because the last entries were scrawled all over the place, and I could barely read what I had written. I couldn’t understand why, so I wrote them all down afresh and gave it to the instrument boys. They told me later that they had removed the altimeter and checked it in a decompression chamber and by using the temperatures I had recorded, they said I had actually climbed to twenty-four thousand feet without oxygen.
Many years later when I was being trained to ﬂy DC6b pressurised commercial aircraft, we were sent to Point Cook to do special high altitude training in their decompression chamber. During those exercises I again reached 24,000 feet without oxygen, and as we ascended we were told to write certain things down. It was a repetition of my Hawker Demon ﬂight in 1938 and it perfectly demonstrated how one’s mental ‘faculties’ are seriously impaired at high altitude due to lack of oxygen, even though one retains a feeling of well being until unconsciousness sets in.
My last entries were again scrawled all over the place, just as they had been on that previous ﬂight many years before. Had I not rolled over and descended when I did, I undoubtedly would have collapsed unconscious within the next minute or two. That should not have been serious, because the aeroplane would simply have ﬂounded around for a while until it stalled. Then it would have gone into a dive and would right itself as speed built up. It would then ﬂounder again, repeating the same sequence again and again until it eventually descended to a height at which the pilot regained consciousness.
I was one of a group of mostly long term RAAF ﬂying instructors, who were posted in August of 1942 to form a new Beauﬁghter Squadron, No. 31, at Wagga in NSW, under the command of Wing Commander Charles Read, later Air Marshal Sir Charles. When the Squadron was fully equipped, and after conversions and operational training had been completed, we were to ﬂy to Coomalie Creek, a new airstrip located about ﬁfty miles south of Darwin. All was complete by the end of October, and we departed in pairs from Wagga on 3rd and 4th November. Coomalie Creek was not quite ready, so we ﬂew to Bachelor, a nearby strip via Charleville and Cloncurry.
Here I am holding the Sqn Mascots
Just ﬁnding our way from Wagga to the Darwin area was quite an achievement, because there were no radio aids, weather forecasts were almost worthless, maps ‘showed large areas with very little detail and few of the pilots had ever ﬂown such along distance before. I think only two aircraft failed to make it on schedule. One of them as I recall, couldn’t ﬁnd Bachelor. It was late afternoon or evening, he was very low in fuel, and when he saw a clear area he made an emergency landing. In the hushed silence early then next morning he heard distant aeroplane engines being run up and tested. That gave him the right direction to ﬂy, and having ten or ﬁfteen gallons of petrol left in the tanks, he took off and landed Bachelor several minutes later.
The other casualty, if it can be called that, I think was Charles Read. Beaufighters were ﬁtted with two sleeve-valve Hercules engines which were highly supercharged, partially because the sleeve valve system did not scavenge very well. Charles noticed a little roughness in one of his engines and decided to test the switches. One plug was deﬁnitely faulty and when he switched off the other one, the cylinder completely scavenged all the residual burnt gases and ﬁlled itself with a nice fresh petrol air mixture. When he switched on again there was a “plonk” and he saw the whole cylinder punched out right through the engine cowl and disappear overboard toward the wilderness below. I think he ﬂew back to Longreach on one engine where repairs were carried out. From that experience we all learnt not to test the switches with a high manifold pressure.
The late Squadron Leader Doug Riding – father of the present Air Marshal Doug Riding was our ﬁrst operational casualty. Not shot down, but touched the sea with his wingtip while ﬂying at about 300 mph near Timor. Our operations from Darwin took us mostly to the Islands of Indonesia, and I have some truly wonderful memories of that period of my life. Armed with four 22 mm cannon and six 303 machine-guns all pointing forwards, Beaufighters were used primarily to attack ground targets, so we ﬂew at comparatively low altitude. This provided us with a grandstand view of the magniﬁcent scenery from
Millingimbi in one direction to Drysdale in the other, and also excellent opportunities to see much of the Territory within a hundred to a hundred and ﬁfty miles radius around Darwin. I had the most glorious view of what is now Kakadu National Park, the great ﬂood plains with myriads of birds, thousands of buffalo and the rugged terrain of Arnhem Land to the east etc. There is simply no way of describing the grandeur and magniﬁcence of that vast area, much of which was then almost untouched by civilisation. “
From War’s end in 1945 until I retired from TAA in June of 1977, l visited Darwin many times. For two years after the war I ﬂew with KNILM – who called themselves the 19″‘
Squadron while ﬂying in Australia. We were based in Brisbane and ﬂew regularly through Darwin and then via various routes throughout Indonesia to Batavia – now Jakarta. After staging there for a few days we would return to Australia usually via a different route to Darwin, and then back to Brisbane, or via West New Guinea then to Townsville and Brisbane. My contract was only for two years, after which I joined TAA. During my early years with TAA I frequently ﬂew a DC3 from Adelaide to Darwin. That was a ﬁfteen-hour ﬂight and we often staged there for a day or two before returning. That enabled me to see much of what was taking place in the Territory, including the salvage of the sunken ships bit by bit from Darwin harbour by the Japanese.
In our Beauﬁghter days, Darwin consisted of three streets of bombed out decrepit buildings and a harbour full of sunken ships. Since the War, I have been privileged to watch it grow, ﬁrst to a respectable provincial city, and then to a modest Capital City. Having made my last ﬂight there in 1975 or 1976, I am sure there will be plenty of surprises for me during my next visit.
With sincere regards,