But by the grace of God - This is a true account of an aircraft accident:
Published March 2019
This account of an aircraft accident I had the misfortune of witnessing. It is only after years that I can gratefully look back at this incident, now with some levity.
A friend of mine Iain, rang me on a Friday morning to ask if I was interested the next day in going for a fly in his newly acquired Tiger Moth stored at Goulburn. He explained that his partner in the ownership of the aircraft would take me up. I knew Iain was not qualified to fly.
Early the next day he collected me on what was a clear still morning. He had recently bought a new Porsche, one of those Porsches with a huge V8 motor. However, it was not a fast trip. The car seemed to go well, but I'm sure I would have driven it faster. Perhaps he would let me have a drive on the way back.
We met Stuart, the other owner at the hanger. After a short discussion about what a great day it was to fly, we dragged the Tiger Moth out into a lovely flying morning, void of wind and cloud. There was another aircraft in the hanger, a fairly old Cessna 182. As we dragged the Tiger Moth out it was proudly pointed out that it was in original condition and not corrupted by any fancy modern additions like brakes and a radio.
Chocks were placed around the two wheels and a pre-flight inspection carried out by Stuart. Looking at the engine while the cowls were up, I noticed some wire strands tying parts of the carburettor linkages stopping any movement. According to Stuart, this was to ‘Stop cheating in races.’ Apparently, it stops any adjustment to the mixture thus an accurate fuel consumption can be verified by race officials. Importantly, he told me it had been set to full rich.
Stuart sat in the back seat while Iain bravely stood in front of the polished wooden prop. Perhaps he contemplated losing a couple of fingers or worse as he placed his hands on the prop to swing it around and start the motor. A ceremony commenced between Stuart and Iain. Shouting at each other to ensure the switches and throttle were in the correct position for a start. Viewed by a galactic traveller, I suspect an impression was formed of some kind of special greeting between two people. Can you visualise it? Iain shouts ‘switches off.’ ‘switches off’ replies Stuart. ‘Throttle closed’, ‘throttle closed’. Iain pulled the prop through a couple of turns. Then came the real shaking of hands as it were - ‘throttle set’, ‘throttle set’, ‘switches on’, ‘switches on’, A swift firm pull down on the prop was performed with one hand at the end of his outstretched arm while his body moved away.
After a number of repeated exchange greetings, the engine fired up. Chocks removed, Iain climbed into the front seat. They taxied out to the runway. Ever so slowly the aircraft climbed into the air. On their return Iain pulled himself out of his seat. With the engine still running I climbed in. Stuart and I went for a fly. I remember laughing as we took off, certain that I could run faster.
Landing in an aircraft knowing it has no brakes was a new experience. Taxiing without brakes - now that’s an art form. Admittedly, the tail drags along on a bit of metal providing some resistance to movement. However, to stop one seemed to be merely dependent upon running out of forward motion and turning 90 degrees at the point intended to be the parking spot.
Coming to a stop at the hanger door facing the open field, Stuart shut down the motor. We went into the hanger to join some friends for a cup of tea. While we relaxed, the 182 was being moved out of the hanger by a friend of its owner for an engine run up. Once started, he taxied the 182 about 50 yards out from the hanger, turned it around to face us and sat there by himself at the controls running the motor while casually looking around. Perhaps he appreciated our company to look at.
Tea finished, Iain and Stuart decided to go up again, but this time they changed positions so Iain would be sitting in the pilot’s seat at the back (the front seat also has controls). The chocks had been put in place before we had a cup of tea. These chocks were about 10 inches high. The same pre-start performance occurred but this time with Stuart swinging the prop. It was a much longer starting ceremony. In retrospect, perhaps the engine was telling them that it had done enough flying for the day. Stuart persisted, ignoring indications from the motor. Calling to Iain, Stuart changed the throttle position any number of times. He turned the prop with switches off in an attempt to clear the engine. Stuart was trying all starting scenarios.
I began to lose interest at this carry on. I looked across at the 182 sitting there with its prop turning at about 1000 revs. The man at the controls also looked somewhat bored as he watched this start-up ceremony.
Suddenly there was an almighty engine roar! The engine had relented, starting with a ‘get this’ as it went to full power! I turned to see Stuart waving his arms, gesturing like a man possessed for Iain to cut the throttle, switch off the ignition, kill the motor, do something! But no, the engine continued to roar at full power.
The tail of the plane lifted from the ground to assume the flying position. The chocks held the wheels. The rate of Stuart’s arm waving reached a crescendo as the tail somehow slightly dipped towards the ground. Stuart could see the inevitable. Lowering the tail allowed the wheels to jump the chocks! He moved clear of the wings with a jump to the right. The Tiger Moth was out of the barrier, racing and furious.
At full power and the world ahead of it, dust trail following, the plane welcomed the clear ground straight ahead as it gained speed to fly. The unwilling passenger in the back with head just visible and motionless, pleaded ‘don't get airborne.’
The Tiger Moth changed direction a bit to the left, then made up its mind. It went straight for the 182 and its now very attentive occupant. The 182 man accepted his number was up.
The two aircraft impacted horribly. A crunching, wood breaking, metal screaming terrible noise. The wooden prop of the Tiger Moth at full power, ripped into the metal skin of the right wing of the 182, scattering debris all over the place. At the same time, the prop of the 182 cuts into the right wings of the Tiger Moth like balsa wood, throwing a spray of material high into the air. The 182 motor stopped shortly after the impact, but the Tiger Moth's motor now without the resistance of the prop, screamed even louder. Whether Iain now remembered where the switches were or the engine just upped and died is not clear. The Tiger Moth engine stopped.
We spectators gasped a breath. Someone grabbed a fire extinguisher. I expected the whole damn lot to go up. We ran towards the now motionless but fused wreck. Fortunately, the Tiger Moth's prop had missed the fuel tank of the 182. There was no fire. As we arrived at the scene, Iain was taking his exit. He looked like a seasick passenger on a rough English Channel crossing. The only colour was his clothing.
The man in the 182 on the other hand was highly animated and full of colour. Now out of his plane he was jumping around the place trying to wipe the smile off his face. He didn’t have scratch.
We dragged both aircraft wrecks back to the hanger, all of us suffering various degrees of post traumatic shock. After a short discussion associated with buying lottery tickets and good luck, we agreed the crash should be called one of those ‘but for the Grace of God’ events.
As Iain and I walked towards his vehicle, my degree of shock was not sufficient to stop me saying to him, ‘You don't mind if I drive’ With myself at the wheel, it was an even slower return trip.
20 March 2019