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Forty years ago today ...

Old 1st Aug 2011, 10:25
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Forty years ago today ...

... the people of the tiny Fitzroy Crossing town in the Kimberley region of Western Australia were awoken to the frantic news that an MMA F28 jet was fast approaching and needed to make an emergency landing. It was 3 in the morning and the jet was 20 minutes away.

Fitzroy Crossing in those days was only a gravel strip and had no runway lighting.

The rest of the story I quote here from Reg Adkins' book "I Flew for MMA". This is a great story in Australian aviation history and deserves to be retold.

By now we were acutely aware of the possibilities of getting caught out, on arrival, with not enough fuel to go to another aerodrome. All the north-west ports had one runway only so that in the event that an aeroplane crash-landed it would be some time before it could be shifted off to make way for the jet. Also, in bad weather or fog a landing may not be possible so it was vital to be able to go somewhere else.

The AFAP had recognised the problem and a directive was in place, that at all times sufficient extra fuel (called “optional fuel”) must be carried to be able to proceed to the nearest suitable airport. This was different to alternate fuel which was a legal requirement when the weather forecast gave conditions below the minimum. So that in the case of Port Hedland as the destination ex Perth, Dampier or Newman fuel would be carried, adding another 1200lb (550kg). The company didn’t like this as it meant less payload, but there is no point in carrying the extra load if the flight can’t “get in”, runs out of fuel and flops in the bush.

There is nothing worse than sitting on the edge of your seat, worrying about the extra fuel you should have taken, when things are going wrong and you need a clear head just to keep the flight running efficiently. I always remembered my “blooding” at Meekatharra on the Three and although some of the checkies would criticise the extra fuel I carried, I always managed to get it on somehow.


This philosophy was no more forcibly thumped into our psyche than at the end of July 1971 when Harold Rowell, with Alex Henry as F/O. left Perth on the “midnight horror” in VH-FKC for the run to Port Hedland, Broome and Derby – a run we’d all done a thousand times by then. It was one of those nights in winter when all ports are affected in some way by weather, it is a continual headache to work out your options, and your mind goes like a trip hammer for hours on end. Even Perth and Meekatharra were in and out of alternate conditions on this night and on arrival at Hedland, Harold re-checked the weathers at Broome and Derby, the met. man advising that Broome was socked in with fog but that Derby was CAVOK, with the wet and dry bulb temperatures 4º apart.

So leaving Port Hedland, Harold was carrying fuel for Derby – a trip time of only 54 minutes – and although we would all be suspicious of temperatures that close, he had no legal justification for carrying more fuel for say the next port of Kununurra. But unable to uplift all the passengers and cargo offloaded from the previous flight (due to the same sort of weather problems), yet mindful of the AFAP directive, and having an unusual “feeling” about the conditions, he took on an extra 800lb above that required. So they departed Hedland (where fog was already beginning to form), for Derby with nearly a full load of passengers, including the WA Rugby Team.

At top of descent they called Derby Flight Service who reported that visibility was some seven miles but that mist was beginning to form. Alex was flying the leg and they could see the lights of Derby – and the rotating beacon – all the way down. Arriving in the circuit they could see the runway lights but after joining the downwind leg, flying a standard circuit, the lights disappeared, so Harold took over, exercising the captain’s prerogative. It was the classic case of mist turning fast into fog (which could happen with a change in temperature of one degree or less), and direct downwards visibility being good but slant visibility a few minutes later being just a white sheet covering the ‘drome. The fog had rolled in just as they had arrived over Derby.

They declared a “MAYDAY” – a call which every pilot dreads having to one day make – as it means a dire emergency. They were trapped, on minimum, but legal fuel, with nowhere to go. Broome was still closed, Hedland was 342nm to the south-west and Kununurra 283nm to the north-east and now they had used their flight fuel and only had their reserves left.

I think a lesser man than Harold may have lost the aircraft, but he knew the Kimberleys like the back of his hand. He and his brother Bob had interests in Kimberley and Napier Downs cattle stations to the east and he spent a lot of time out there on his days off. He knew there was only one other strip he could use and that was at Fitzroy Crossing, 163nm away. At the junction of the mighty Fitzroy River and the main road from Perth to Wyndham, it was a tiny outpost consisting of Police Station, Hospital, Post Office, Hotel and general store. Here the propectors crossed on their way to the Halls Creek Goldfields in the 1880s and the telegraph went through in 1889.

The Flight Service officer by now knew he had an emergency on his hands and had called out George Moyle, the DCA officer in charge. George had discovered a while back that there was a phone link from the Derby Doctor to the Fitzroy Hospital and offered to try to contact them to get a flare path laid. Some old kerosene flares were kept there in case of a rare Flying Doctor emergency. Harold affirmed this, carried out a missed approach and turned the aircraft for Fitzroy, climbing to 20,000ft to get the fuel consumption down. Trip time was now 27 minutes – virtually nothing in a jet – and the hope was that Fitzroy could be contacted at what was now around 0330 (when everybody would be asleep), to get out to the strip and lay some flares for the aircraft to land by.

George Moyle kept ringing the hospital which being understaffed, meant that the duty nurses were allowed to sleep, and it was only by the grace of God that the night duty Sister heard the little buzzer on the old telephone terminal at the other end of the hospital. Answering it, she was stunned by the news of a jet airliner coming there in the middle of the night, when they’d never seen one in daytime. As always happens in these dire emergencies, the person contracted to do the job was unavailable, the flare pots were found empty and there was no kerosene at the airfield. A visiting Padre produced a spanner to open the flares for filling after someone had rushed back into town to find some kerosene.

Alex Henry was not idle while all this was going on, checking the track to Fitzroy and dialling up the Heading Selectors, working out an ETA and calculating the fuel remaining, as well as backing up his Captain at every request and monitoring the flight instruments for steady flight. At times like this aeroplanes can be lost when there are so many options to consider, calculations to be made and charts to find and peruse. If not positively monitored, they have been known to fly into the ground. Second pilot back up is therefore vital.

During the short flight across to Fitzroy they debated their course of action should no lights appear and whether to force-land out there, or go back and put it down on the marsh at Derby. But the few lights of Fitzroy appeared in the total blackness and, with the fuel tank low level barber poles now winking, Harold joined the circuit on what was, for MMA, essentially a non F28 strip of unsealed gravel, although Fokker did approve of gravel operations.

Lining up for landing, and on short final, they realised the few flares they could see were on the far end of the strip and that car headlights lined up to help them were pointing the wrong way. There was no alternative but to go round again and Harold did an overshoot, flying a full tight circuit in the blackness of the outback with Alex monitoring speed and height and backing him up.

The fuel low level amber caution lights came on as he made another approach and put the aeroplane on the ground, braking on the gravel with speed brake and lift-dumpers out and the anti-skid system doing its job, with only the minimum of lighting to guide him. As he turned off the runway both engines spooled down, not one drop of their life blood remaining.

It was as fine a piece of cool headed Captaincy and flying as you would ever hope to see, and I always felt humble in his presence after that. He was a pilot who had been tested to the “Nth” degree and had not been found wanting. He had saved the aeroplane and all its passengers (the whole flight taking place in the pitch dark), maintained the company’s enviable safety record and entered the history book of aviation valour, however unwillingly. That “feeling” that made him put on the extra 800lb of fuel had saved their lives.

From where did he pull the reserves of knowledge and experience? In the circuit at Fitzroy, when he was flying that last circuit, with all the fuel warning lights on, virtually no fuel left in the tanks and the engines still running, is this where the thought may have crossed his mind, “Am I going to die here, very shortly; is this the end of everything, out in the black of night at Fitzroy Crossing?”.

Sadly enough, he got nothing but criticism from the company for proceeding to Derby, even though the forecast was clear, and he was very hurt for many years afterwards by their attitude. The big wheels from Ansett in the East came swarming in to smarten up this “little hick airline”, but no matter what anyone could say, Harold had done a magnificent job in utterly impossible circumstances. Personally, I still think he should have been awarded a George Cross, or as it is now, The Star of Courage.

Newspaper report here (along with a photo of the pilots and a link to a dramatisation):
Fuel gauges flashed empty in fog terror - The West Australian

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Old 1st Aug 2011, 12:07
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Great reading APMR! I have heard this story through a variety of avenues - great to read this account. Truly a remarkable account of airmanship.

For anyone interested in reading more about the previous activities and heroics of Harold Rowell read the book 'Wings of Destiny' by Charles Page. It is primarily an account of Charles Learmonth but it also follows the stories of some of his buddies including Harold. Without a doubt they helped change the course of WWII while flying Boston bombers in PNG. Harold had seen a lifetime of life and death situations before this one.
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Old 1st Aug 2011, 13:13
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The FSO involved was given free flights by Ansett for the rest of his life - unfortunately it was only until the demise of Ansett.
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Old 1st Aug 2011, 13:33
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Yes, a great story and a remarkable effort. The only thing that has probably changed in 40 years, is the strip is now sealed. I notice that there's no mention of moonlight on the date, and a quick check shows they only had a 1st quarter moon for additional light. I guess a 1st quarter moon was better than no moon.

Fitzroy Crossing Airstrip S34922 | Flickr - Photo Sharing!
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Old 2nd Aug 2011, 00:41
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Does anyone know where I could get a copy of 'I flew for MMA'? I did have it at one stage, but stupidly lent it to someone
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Old 2nd Aug 2011, 01:00
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The FSO involved was given free flights by Ansett for the rest of his life
Apart from George Moyle, would you happen to know who were the FSOs actually involved with this incident at the time?

I seem to recall that some of the other FSOs who may have been based at AHDB FSU probably around that time were Doug Dick, Brian Lassen, Tony Sullivan, Les Anderson, Neville Diaz, Rick Scott, Ron Mead, Dave Pockock.

DB FSU was, at the time, a 24 hour station primarily for the purposes of providing VHF communication and SAR alerting services during the night for the numerous international flights that flew overhead on their way to/from Singapore.
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Old 2nd Aug 2011, 02:56
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AA - You'd better put some effort into chasing up your copy. Reg Adkins book was a low production publication, and it has been out of print for a considerable number of years. It's unlikely to be reprinted in the near future.

In addition, I can find no used copies currently available from any bookseller. This means it is falling into the "collectable" category, and any copies that surface will be sought after and bring good money. The book sold for AUD$35 originally.

Keep an eye on Fleabay, Biblio,, BiblioOz, Alibris, Biblioquest, and any other out-of-print retailer for any copy becoming available. I have a good local OOP book finder, they may be able to source one. W.A. is the likeliest location to find a good used copy.

I Flew For MMA (MacRobertson Miller Airlines)
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Old 2nd Aug 2011, 03:10
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Aerobatic Archer,

I occasionally see a copy come up for sale on ebay,and for a low price as I guess someone is just clearing out dad's old junk. Suggest you put a 'watch' on it,then you're advised if one is listed.

If you just want to borrow a copy. Try your local library. Mine did not stock it,but most libraries do 'Inter Library Loans'.
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Old 2nd Aug 2011, 03:29
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I had the privilage of being Harold's F/O on many a dark night, and again the victim of unforecast fog at Hedland, using our "optional" fuel, flight plus 20 mins reserve, proceeded to Newman.
In the cruise, near TOD the low contents came on, my unease must have been observed by Harold as a big hand touched my shoulder and he said, "It's OK, they fly on a lot less".
His approach briefing was also a classic, "We will bear in mind 3 legs of a circuit are required, and proceed in a more appropriate manner"

Always a Gentleman, always a Commander, sadly passed away earlier this year at I believe 92, had been a long time supporter of Legacy and was for a term the Australian President of Legacy.

Sui generus

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Old 2nd Aug 2011, 12:53
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This incident was covered in the recent Ch 7/Geoff Thomas "Air Emergency" shoe, aired in Perth a few months back. Sends shivers up your spine!

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Old 2nd Aug 2011, 13:07
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I think Geoffrey Thomas would have been better to read the transcript from the book and tone down the hysteria. If anything, his reconstruction belittles the crew and their actions that night.
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Old 2nd Aug 2011, 13:11
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I worked in Darwin and can't seem to remember the guy's name - probably too many red wines over the years.
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Old 3rd Aug 2011, 01:32
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I think Geoffrey Thomas would have been better to read the transcript from the book and tone down the hysteria. If anything, his reconstruction belittles the crew and their actions that night.
Spot on PLovett.

Fitzroy Crossing is a scary enough place during the day, let alone an almost moonless night!
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Old 3rd Aug 2011, 08:36
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Some days you just are lucky.
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Old 18th Aug 2011, 05:54
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Reference my post #6 and your post #12, after much research, I can now confirm that the FSO who was directly involved in working with the flight crew to ensure a successful outcome to this incident was Doug Dick.

At least all the individuals who were involved in this incredible incident have now been identified for posterity.
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Old 16th Jul 2016, 03:12
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The FSO on duty was Doug Dick - of training course 13/14/15 I think. He had been rated for less than 6 months. I never heard about the "free flights" mentioned and neither George or Doug ever mentioned it. I worked with both men.
As for copies of Reg's book. I had email chats with Reg some years back and the book is out of print. You might find a copy in a Public Library in Perth.
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Old 16th Jul 2016, 03:45
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Sadly enough, he got nothing but criticism from the company for proceeding to Derby
SOP, as Keith Hants found when he failed to follow company instructions when the #3 engine dropped out of its bearers on a DC-6. Company ordered him to land, but he went over Port Phillip bay and pulled "g" until the engine fell into the water. His concern was that the engine would drop out on landing and remove the undercarriage, with perhaps dire consequences. Memory of story as told by Keith personally.

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Old 16th Jul 2016, 23:25
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There's a copy in the Battye Library.
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Old 17th Jul 2016, 11:21
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Harold Rowell talking on the Fitzroy Crossing diversion
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Old 8th Oct 2017, 10:11
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At the AFAP 58th Annual Convention held in Adelaide this week, Regional Express Captain Markham Ross and First Officer Andrew Lamberti were the recipients of the inaugural Harold Rowell Award for Aviation Excellence.

Two worthy recipients of an Award, named for a truely remarkable Australian.
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