Thanks for the Landing

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All pilots vividly remember their primary flight instructor, but most of us lose touch with our original mentors as we pursue our aviation careers. AVweb reader John Laming is a striking exception. This former Royal Australian Air Force fighter and bomber pilot and retired 737 captain writes a poignant account of the day a few years ago when he had the chance to offer his old military flight instructor ó age 80 and nearly blind ó the left seat of a Piper Cherokee, and talked him through his final landing. Donít miss this touching story.

Lockheed Hudson
Lockheed Hudson
TrainingIn 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 had told me how to relieve the internal pressure.

Tiger Moth
Tiger Moth
It was two years later before I saved enough money to take my first dual trip in a Tiger Moth. The instructor had a thick European accent that was exacerbated by his bellowing 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.

How I Met Sid

AVRO Lancaster Bomber
AVRO Lancaster Bomber

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 II, 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).

The Korean war began to hot up in 1951. As pilot recruiting increased, Sid, along with other experienced former wartime pilots, were posted to the instructional staff at RAAF Base Uranquinty near Wagga, in New South Wales. Uranquinty had been turned into a migrant reception area in the early post war years, and when in 1952 the decision was made to return the aerodrome to full Air Force control, it became No 1 BFTS (Basic Flying Training School.)

dakota_sm.jpg (7954 bytes)
Douglas C-47 Dakota

At the time, I was one of 45 trainee pilots on No 8 Post War Pilot's Course and after initial training at Point Cook and Archerfield we were sent to Uranquinty in April 1952 to start basic training on Tiger Moths and Wirraways. There, my instructor was Flight Sergeant Vernon Jackson who had previously flown Dakotas. Vern was a real gentleman and a fine instructor who eventually retired as a Group Captain. Fifty years later, we still keep in touch. There was a wealth of experience among these pilots with most having flown operational tours on Beaufighters, Bostons, and Mosquitos. Others had flown Liberators, Hudsons and Spitfires. Apart from the inevitable bad-tempered instructor that is encountered sooner or later at all flying training establishments (including the airlines), we were fortunate to encounter keen and dedicated men who actually enjoyed instructing.

Sid's Groundschool

RAAF Emblem

Besides flying, Sid Gooding gave class lectures on airmanship. Our first impression was of a genial smiling man with a battered pipe and a 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 not the done thing 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 steam locomotive. To a stunned classroom of trainee pilots, he proceeded to go 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.

Lincoln Bomber
Lincoln Bomber

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 suction cup. Sid explained that while flying the 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 lassoo 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. We never quite 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 gen on airmanship or his inventions.

Flight Training

Each instructor was allotted four students, and those that had drawn Sid were indeed fortunate, as he proved to be kind and patient with even the most backward students. In the back of our minds was the constant worry of being scrubbed from flying because of perceived lack of ability. Those unfortunates who failed flying tests were posted away to undergo a navigator's course at East Sale, while others were discharged from the RAAF altogether and sent to back civilian life. I was nineteen years old, and with no home and no job to return to, the prospect of being scrubbed was terrifying and made me work all the harder.

But with a good instructor in the back seat and the willingness to burn the midnight oil, the chances of not making the grade were greatly reduced. Sid's students were usually successful, while Vern Jackson's expert tuition set the framework for my eventual graduation as a pilot. This was despite my next instructor at the Advanced Flying Training School at Point Cook who was a real screamer. However, fortune smiled upon me, and I received my wings in December 1952.

A Memorable Cross-Country

B-24 Liberator
B-24 Liberator

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 (I thought "liberate" was a neat choice of words), and use it as punch bowl at home. We flew at 200 feet 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.

Wirraway
Wirraway

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.

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 Christ's sake don't prang the aircraft, as there was no way he could take over control if something went wrong. Making the flight with the instructor's controls disabled 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.

An RAAF Pilot...At Last

raaf_pin_sm.jpg (10142 bytes)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 fly-past over several North Queensland towns.

Sid Gooding at scene of Lincoln crash
Sid Gooding at the scene of the crime.

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 wingtip hit a power pole and spun the huge aircraft into the ground. The three crew members managed to escape from the wreckage before it went up in flames. The only casualty was the radio operator who broke his nose during the final impact. Just before the plane blew up, Sid decided 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 2,000 gallons of fuel from the ruptured tanks ignited a few seconds later.

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!"

Building Time

Lancaster/Lincoln
Lancaster/Lincoln

When I first arrived on the squadron, I had 280 flying hours in my logbook. The commanding officer briefed me that I could expect to fly as a second pilot for nine months before being given a take off or a landing. At the end of that time, I would be then be checked out to fly in command on local flying. At a later stage, I would be given my own crew (consisting of seven men) and become qualified to take part in anti-submarine operations. Contrast this with the major airlines where seniority ruled supreme and 15 years to first command was the norm.

While building hours on the Lincoln, I flew with captains of varying abilities, but my favourite was always Sid Gooding. In later years as an instructor, I tried to model my own technique around his patient and laid back approach. His helpful attitude was in marked contrast to that of the many supercilious and pompous check captains that I encountered in my airline career.

Anzac Day

Lancaster/Lincoln Aloft
Lancaster/Lincoln Aloft

It was Anzac Day 1953, and Sid and his crew (with myself as second dickey) 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 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 the 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 take off. I was delighted to have a go, and managed to keep straight with much juggling of throttles and rudders. The Lincoln was a tailwheel aircraft, and therefore prone to swinging both on take off 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 take off in a Lincoln, Sid talked me around the circuit and with quiet encouragement and 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.

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, I thanked Sid for the take off and landing. "That's quite alright, Sergeant," he replied, "It was a pleasure."


Forty Years Later...

The years passed, and I heard that Sid had left the RAAF to become a schoolteacher. Faced with the inevitable desk job, I too regretfully left the RAAF after 18 happy years. The pages of my logbooks filled up with civilian flying hours with the airlines, 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 forty years ago.

Sid was nearing 80, and his eyesight was fast fading. He welcomed my suggestion that I could fly up to see him, saying that he would arrange a picnic for my arrival at a nearby airstrip. The next day was sunny, and I track crawled at 2,000 feet to Numurkah. None of this one-in-sixty rule for me!

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 in Boeings, I still had trouble nailing the round out in light aircraft.

Piper Cherokee
Piper Cherokee

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 Gooding and the author
Sid Gooding and the author

While Doreen his wife arranged the sandwiches and tea, I finally asked Sid how he won the DFC. He said that he had been on a 1,000-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 altitude. He considered jettisoning his bombs and returning home, but realized that this meant flying back into the outbound bomber stream. A midair collision was a near-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.

Taking Sid Up

Cherokee entry door

As we talked, it was clear to me 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 that 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.

Cherokee instrument panel

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 — 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 take-off. 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 wanted to do the take off. "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!

Talk-Down

cherokee_flight_sm.jpg (8193 bytes)In the RAAF, we used to fly practice GCAs (Ground-Controlled Approaches). These were radar approaches conducted by ground controllers, sometimes known as "talk-downs." The controller sat in a radio truck and guided the radar target down the course and glidepath marked on 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. GCAs were 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 forty 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 on to 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, I told him, 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, and flare NOW, Sid," I called, and held my breath, my hands poised 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-degree 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 forty 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."


NOTE: Sid Gooding just celebrated his 84th birthday. John Laming wrote this story as a birthday present for his old military instructor. Can you imagine a more thoughtful gift?