Published on April 24th, 2021 | by FII Reader


London-Sydney Air Race 1969

I will always remember that night as one of the loneliest I had ever experienced. There was a full silver moon shinning on the Indian Ocean and off to the left, I could just make out the rugged coastline of Iran. We had taken off from Bahrain at 1630Z and flying direct to Karachi. There were three of us in that tiny cockpit of our Cherokee Arrow, registered G-AWBC, callsign Air Race One Zero Zero, Squadron Leader Terry Nash, John Murray and myself. We were participants in the London to Sydney Air Race. We had lost the trailing aerial to our HF radio in a storm over France, and were now totally relying on VHF communications with a maximum range of 150 NM, depending on aircraft altitude. It was my leg, the other two were sleeping and we were heading towards Jumani beacon on the Pakistani coast. I was desperately trying to contact Karachi. I felt horribly alone. Suddenly the silence was broken and a clipped English voice came over the RT. Aircraft calling Karachi, this is Speedbird 146, do you require a relay?’  Thank God! I replied, ’Speed bird 146, this is air race 100 Piper Cherokee, VFR Bahrain to Karachi, Fl 90, estimating Jumani at 2022 and Karachi at 2350, please relay our position. ’Roger, air-race 100 will do and we have the latest Karachi weather if you are ready to copy, Speedbird 146’. What a relief. Karachi now had our details and the weather was CAVOK. ‘Air race100 from Speedbird, Karachi copy your position. Call when in range and good luck’.

It had all begun many months before and now on 8/11/1969 John Murray, Sqd. Leader Terry Nash and myself flew Cherokee Arrow G-AWBC from Fairoaks in Surry via the Isle of Man to Aldergrove Airport, Belfast. This was the start of a great adventure for all of us. The idea originally was John’s to enter an aircraft from N. Ireland in the London to Sydney Air Race. This was being organised by the Australian Government and BP in association with the Royal Aero Club and the Federation of Aero Clubs of Australia to commemorate two events- the bicentenary of the discovery of Australia in 1770 and the first flight from England to Australia 50 years ago.  I knew John as we were both members of the Newtownards Flying Club and he had suggested the idea to me. We felt we needed an experienced 3rd crew member with lots of flying time and our prayers were answered when we saw in a flight magazine an ad from Terry Nash, A Squadron Leader in the RAF expressing a desire to enter the race. We contacted him and he enthusiastically was glad to join us. John, who had also been in the RAF as an ATCO, now working as an advertising executive with the Belfast Telegraph, had persuaded the paper to finance our project. We next hired an aircraft, a Piper Cherokee Arrow from Rimmer Aviation in Fairoaks. We had a lot of preparations to make, firstly we decided that the normal range of the Arrow was too short and arranged with Shorts Bros. to put in an extra fuel tank to increase our range. This I believe was a hydraulic tank from a Belfast transporter aircraft and we arranged a contraption with a hand pump in the back seat to transfer fuel out to the two existing wing tanks.                                                                                                                           

We received great support from the people of Belfast in particular Mike Woodgate and Bill Carson who gave us invaluable instruction in instrument and night flying. The Belfast Telegraph ran a competition to name the aircraft and this was won by Derek Cardy, of Carrickfergus, for his suggestion of ‘Ulster Pride‘. After all the preparations we were due to depart, after a naming ceremony by the PM’s wife Mrs Chister-Clarke. Terry on the previous evening was on a flight from London to Belfast but due bad weather his flight diverted to Shannon. John and I made some frantic phone calls to British Airways but they refused to release the passenger list, so we were not sure where Terry was. He eventually made it to Belfast and the three of us took ’Ulster Pride’ aka Air Race 100 on our first flight to Biggin Hill. John and I stayed in a hotel in London and met some of the other competitors. We got particularly friendly with two Aussies John Colwell and John Daly who were also flying a Cherokee Arrow, Air Race no 46, Terry decided to try to increase our range even further. To this end, we bought some plastic containers and having filled them with extra petrol stowed them in the hotel room. Reception rang down a few times saying other guests were complaining of a smell of petrol in the corridor. Of course, we denied all knowledge of this. Afterwards, we realised we could have burnt the hotel to the ground, but such is the follies of youth.   

The Race was due to start on 17th  December, but due to appalling weather conditions over the UK and France, the organizers postponed it for 24 hours in the interests of safety as some of the older aircraft were not equipped to fly in IMC (Instrument Met Conditions) and some pilots were not instrument rated. A complicated handicap system was imposed on the competitors – the slowest of the aircraft to depart first, which I think was an ancient Auster (complete with a camp bed and potty) flown by a Major M Somerton-Rayner of the Army Air Corps. Finally, it was our turn, we lined up on the runway and were flagged off by the one-armed chief race marshal. Terry opened the throttle fully, released the brakes and we accelerated slowly, due to our overweight, and finally raised the nose and turned eastwards towards Australia. We were off to down under!

The en-route weather was terrible, a line of fronts still lay across France, however we landed at Nice without incident. We later heard later that another competitor, an Aero Commander had crashed in the Alps and all the crew had perished. When we landed in Nice, having come through some very nasty weather, we realized we had lost our HF radio trailing antenna, so now or communications would be limited to VHF with a range of only about 150nm depending on altitude. We were all wearing red flameproof flying suits and while Terry and John were refuelling, I made my way to the terminal for the usual formalities, customs, landing fees, onward flight plan etc. I was accosted by airport police. ‘Vous etes militaire?’ I tried to explain in broken French that we were in an air race to Australia, but was dismissed with a Gallic shrug and the words, ’Vous etes imbecile’   Terry’s wife had insisted we carry parachutes, which he had borrowed from the RAF. How we were meant to get out of the small cramped cabin and through the narrow door was a mystery. We dumped the parachutes in Nice intending to pick them up on the return trip.

Our next stop was Athens which was uneventful. Quick turn-around and then airborne for Luxor in Egypt. Most of the other aircraft intended to route through Syrian airspace, but we learned later that the Syrians had refused permission for American or Australian aircraft to transit their airspace at the last minute, so many had to re-route. The weather on departure was still a problem and we encountered some icing problems. We had to keep ’gunning’ the engine and apply carb heat to stop it icing up. The Arrow had a safety feature installed to prevent a pilot landing with the gear up. This was worked off the pitot head which registered airspeed and as it sensed this decreasing for landing it automatically lowered the undercarriage. But as light aircraft were not designed to fly in icing conditions so if the pitot head got iced up the gear would hang out, precisely when you didn’t need the extra drag! Piper had brought out a modification to prevent this but we didn‘t have time to fit it. We improvised with a coat hanger and some string to hold the gear up, much to the amusement of our Aussie competitors.                                                                                     

As we approached the coast the weather improved and we landed at Luxor, an Egyptian Air Force base. We had anticipated security problems but we transited with no fuss.  On the return trip we also refuelled there but what a difference in the intervening weeks the Israeli’s had hit the airfield and now it was littered with burnt-out fighters and military helicopters. There were buildings still smoking and bomb craters everywhere. The next leg was across Saudi Arabia to Bahrain. I had never before seen such a desolate landscape, the Arabs call it,’ Rub’al Khali or the empty quarter’ and it certainly justifies the name. Quick turnaround at Bahrain, little did I know at that time that in the future I would live and work there with Gulf Air. Onward to Karachi in record time and Nagpur, in India. Here we got a great welcome, but delayed by Indian bureaucracy to go to numerous offices to get ‘chitties’ stamped by every official in the airport, but all smiled nodding their heads and quoting that famous Indian phrase’ No broplem’ before we were allowed to proceed. To Calcutta and Bangkok, all without incident, but we were soon to be woken from our fat, dumb and happy composure on the next leg to Bali. To reach Bali we would have to fly through the ITCZ ( Inter-Topical Convergency Zone ), this was the boundary, lying East to West where two different air masses converge, or more correctly collide. This gave rise to towering CB’s, unlike any seen in Europe, with violent up and downdrafts capable of tearing the wings off a light aircraft. Of course, we did not have the luxury of weather radar to pick our way through the most violent cells, so we decided our best option was to go below the cloud base, but this entailed encountering some very heavy rain. We all felt apprehensive as a solid wall of thunderstorms arose before us on the horizon. At least we were VMC (visual met conditions) and could see them, it would have been suicidal to try it at night. We strapped ourselves in tightly and prepared for the worst. Entering under the cloud base was like flying into a waterfall. The noise was ear-shattering and we had to shout to communicate. Suddenly we found ourselves climbing at over 2,000 ft. min. in a violent updraft. We closed the throttle and stuffed the nose down, but to no avail, we continued climbing. Just as suddenly we started to descend towards the sea at a ferocious rate. Again we tried to correct, full power on and nose up, but it made little difference, we were at the mercy of the winds. We just hung on and tried to maintain aircraft attitude and heading. For the next hour or so, it seemed much longer, the ASI (air speed indicator), VSI (vertical speed indicator) and altimeter went crazy.                                                                                                                                                   

G-AWBC pictured a few years after the race in the UK. Photo via BikePilot

We were chewed up and spat out at the far side of the ITCZ into brilliant sunshine and smooth air. The sea was azure blue and dotted with tropical islands. The only problem was we were now unsure of our position. We were out of range of any navigation aids that we had, NDB (non directional beacon) and VOR (vhf omni-directional radio) and just navigating by DR (dead reckoning ), basically applying forecast winds to our intended track, allowing for drift and trying to update by visual contact. However, the violent winds of the past hour could have driven us anywhere off track. The islands below us all looked the same and there were dozens of them. Hopefully, we tuned in the Bali VOR but to no avail, we were obviously out of range. We now realized we had another problem to contend with. We had used a lot more fuel than planned for and were now running short. We did some quick calculations and realized unless we got a fix of our position we would have to land somewhere before the engine quit. We were flying over a beautiful tropical island, we knew not where, but it had a nice long sandy beach which we reckoned we could make an emergency landing on. A quick calculation told us we could fly on for a further 20 mins. And if no fix turn back and land. To our enormous relief, the VOR needle started to flicker and then settled down pointing to Bali 20 degrees to starboard. We called them on their frequency and much relieved to hear the ATCO’s voice informing us the weather at Bali was clear. We landed at 0945Z just 15 mins behind the Aussie Arrow and subsequently learned that the VOR was only switched on when an aircraft was expected! This leg had presented difficulties for some of the other competitors. Miss Sheila Scott (Air Race 99) was forced to land at Macassar due to electrical problems and was in need of some help.

The Red Arrows team, flying a SIAI.-Marchetti SF 260 decided to go to her rescue but they too fell foul to the horrible weather and were compelled to do an emergency landing on a remote beach in Flores. They were soon surrounded by a crowd of curious islanders, who may never have seen an aircraft before. To enable them to take off again they got the help of the locals to lay palm leaves on the sand to create a makeshift runway and gladly were able to fly off safely.

Meanwhile, we were discussing our situation in Bali. Our next planned leg was direct to Darwin, almost 1,000 nm. over the shark-infested Timor Sea, which was really stretching the fuel endurance of our aircraft. Bali ATC were very helpful and allowed us to talk to the Australian controller in Darwin on HF radio. We were informed that there were a lot of very active thunderstorms in his area and to attempt a night crossing could be fatal. Good sense prevailed, so we opted for plan B. This was to fly to Kupang in Indonesia but as they were a day time only grass airstrip with limited navigation aids we would never find it at night. So we decided to delay our departure so as to arrive there as dawn was breaking. The two Aussies in Air Race 46 had already headed off but as they could not get a fix on their PNR (point of no return) they prudently returned to Bali. We eventually took off at 1850Z for Kupang. The en-route weather was beautiful, what a relief. We landed there after just 4.30 hrs. flying. It was just a grass strip and we refuelled with a hand pump from 80 gal. drums.  Now had we known in Bali at that time that we were then well ahead of most of the other competitors it might have tempted us to try the direct night sea crossing to Darwin and possibly made some hungry sharks very happy.

Got a quick 30 min. turn around and headed straight for Darwin. OZ at last! But our troubles were not over. As we got in range ATC informed us that there were heavy thunderstorms in his area and the airfield had had a lighting strike and they were now operating on standby power. We landed in torrential rain, so heavy that we had to delay running in to clear customs. We were greeted in Irish, ’Failte roimhe isteach’, the customs guy was from Dublin! Again, after paper formalities complete in record time airborne for Alice Springs just ahead of Air Race 46. It took six hours to get to Alice, the distances in Australia amazed me. On the return trip, we spent a few days there and got to meet some of the local pilots. They had developed a unique form of navigation, the topographical maps of the Australian outback were almost featureless so these guys converted them to what they called ’mud maps’. This was explained to me; as they flew over the desolate landscape the colours on the earth’s surface changed and the pilots coloured in the various shapes they observed on the ground in coloured crayons on their maps.             

Onward to Leigh Creek and the quickest turn around ever, keep just ahead of the Aussies, and finally airborne for the last leg into Para field (Adelaide). We managed to get clearance through a RAAF restricted area and landed at 1650Z, giving us a total elapsed time of 107.04 hrs. (or 4 days 11hrs 04 mins) and airline pilots complain about excessive duty hours! As I emerged from the cramped cockpit I was greeted by a Belfast women brandishing a beautiful bottle of Guinness. ‘Sure ye must be parched dear’ she observed, as I lowered the best pint I had ever tasted. Great reception from the Aero Club, few beers and finally exhausted to bed in Travelodge for 12/14 hours of sleep.                                                      

We spent a very merry Christmas and New year in Adelaide. The final sector of the race was to Bankstown, (Sydney), with a compulsory stopover of one hour at Griffiths. Using the handicap system the organizers staggered the take-off times so that all the aircraft would arrive simultaneously. It was a disaster at Griffiths, ATC was just a temporary set up and the controller declared the airfield closed in a panic situation. All aircraft managed to land safely after much confusion. There ensued an argument between the race organizers and the Australian DCA, and the planned grand finale was postponed for 24 hrs. Flagged off for the final race to Sydney at 0040z. The arrival procedure was to call ATC at a designated point for onward clearance and landing instructions. The Blitz of Sydney was about to commence. As we approached, we tuned in to the allocated frequency and were greeted by an eerie silence. Where was everybody? Suddenly the airwaves burst into life as one aircraft called in. Immediately the frequency was jammed as all scrambled to get a call in. We had all been maintaining radio silence to disguise our position from our competitors, but everyone else had the same idea  The poor ATC controller did a great job in getting us all safely down on three parallel runways 29 Left, Right, and Centre despite a few go -around. The London to Sydney Air Race was over, and what a spectacular finish, over 60 aircraft landing in about ten minutes.

We spent a few days relaxing in Sydney and then it was time to fly home. Our route back was much the same but with more refuelling stops and at a more relaxed pace. We experienced an alternator failure going into Alice Springs, but got it fixed ok and time to explore the town. We met a local cop who explained to us that one of their duties was to patrol the roads on the outskirts of town and check all vehicles that they had extra tanks petrol and water and warn them not to venture off the main roads. Apparently, some out-of-towners had driven off into the bush to picnic and were never heard of again. We stopped at the RAF Base, Akrotiri, Cyprus and got a great welcome thanks to Terry. We were quizzed in detail by an officer, presumable intelligence, about what we had observed in Luxor. Terry left us in Heathrow and John and I flew on to Belfast. The Heathrow controller gave us a SID (Standard Instrument Departure) and was nonplussed when we admitted we did not have the appropriate charts and steered us on radar clear of his zone remarking, ‘If you guys found Australia, I guess you can find Belfast without further assistance’.

Initially, there were 77 entries in the Race, but only 60 managed to complete the course. There were 3 classes: A, single piston-engined; B. unsupercharged twin piston-engined up to12,500 lbs and C  supercharged or twin turboprop up to 12,500lbs AUW. The overall winner was an Islander, G-AXUD, flown by Capts. W J Bright and F L Buxton in 80.17 mins.  Most of the entrants were Australian, British and American, but for a small country there were two other entries of Irish interest; Tim Phillips in a Twin Commanche, EI-AUN, and Capt Arthur Wignall of Aer Lingus in another Twin Commanche. Unfortunately, Arthur was killed some years later giving an aerobatic display at Sligo Airport. I was encouraged to write this account of The Air Race having seen a similar article by our old Aussie rival John Colwell. I contacted him after all these years by email and was sorry to learn that his own co-pilot John Daley had been killed in an air accident shortly after the race.                                                     

Mike Mahon 2010

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