White Cross On Runway:


13 May 1981


On 13 May 1981 I was asked to fly from Canberra to Sale. The Bishop of Sale was officiating at the funeral of my mother’s sister’s youngest son Mark. He had tragically been killed in a level crossing at Young on the airport road near the silos. The driver of a two-carriage motor rail had seen Mark approaching from his left. Mark, we assume had seen the train coming on his right and was slowing down to pass behind it. It only had two carriages. The train driver thought Mark was not going to stop, so he applied the brakes! Mark’s skid marks on the road told the story. His car impacted the side of the train. He was just 17.


I flew to Sale alone in a Cessna 177 VH-WSE. It is a four-seater with a constant speed prop and retractable undercarriage. Once air-borne these aircraft are great fun. Perhaps that’s obvious. However, they are generally in my experience, not keen to leave the ground. Hence the comment. They have a wing similar to a 210, short chord, thick and with no struts.


I checked the weather and NOTAMS. Nothing was going effect my flight. The air force base at East Sale was not active.


The two-and a-bit hour flight down was uneventful. The Sale or more precisely, West Sale airport, has a sealed runway of over 1500 yards and some grass strips. The airport came up as expected, bearing in mind I had no GPS. In those days I navigated with the compass and any ADFs.


I descended to a suitable height to inspect the condition of the strip and confirm the wind direction. I noticed a couple of vehicles at the end of runway 27. They were not parked on the strip, just off it. I had not been warned by a NOTAM that there was any issue with the runways or that maintenance was being done, so I proceeded to join a downwind for the same runway.


As I got closer to the threshold, I was aware of men rushing around on the left side of the runway. The landing was uneventful. I taxied to the small terminal. Neville Chenoweth was waiting for me. He had an overnight bag.


We greeted. After using the toilet, I stowed his bag and put him in the front with me. The flight back was again uneventful. Because these men were where they were, I took off on the remaining length of runway on 27 instead of going to the very end where they were. The 177 was light. There was plenty of runway even with the 177’s sometime reticence to leave the ground.


About a week later I received a letter from the Department of Civil Aviation. They wanted me to ring them and explain why I had landed on a runway when it was closed due to repair works! The activity of the men at the end of the strip was now understood. Apparently, they had seen me do a fly over. They became excited when I appeared to join downwind for their runway. I rang the number. The Department man said there was a white cross on the runway and why did I ignore this?


When a runway is closed a white cross made of two lines set at 90 degrees to each other is placed on the runway. If I had seen it, it must have been placed near the intersection of the grass strip with the sealed strip. Not being warned of this activity via a NOTAM my mind was not anticipating a closed runway and therefore rationalised the cross as a marking at the mentioned intersection. Canberra often had vehicles parked near the side of a runway. I was not fussed about these vehicles at Sale. It turned out I was not given the NOTAM when I filed my flight plan in Canberra.


© C. P. McKeown  2021.