Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Death of an Agpilot

F.U. 24 Fletcher

Bobs Death.

I Should have wrote this blog, before the "Gippsland duty" blog I wrote in March. Where I mentioned Bob as the principal subject. But it was not so easy for me.

I first met Bob when he was a loader driver in Gippsland Victoria Australia and I was the regular (season only) contract pilot. The company had 5 regular full time pilots, Bob just lived on a small farm of his own, just 20 miles down the road with his wife and family.
He loved to Fly and over the years went on to get his Private Pilots Licence and carried on to get his Commercial Pilots Licence, followed closely by his Class two Agricultural Rating, after that he spent 3 months with an experience pilot apply gypsum to the edges of a dam just north of Melbourne, it settled the mud as the dam filled, it was a good safe area no obstacles to strike, long wide runways, and a good aircraft? a good place for a sprog to get some valuable cockpit time! On completion of the contract he returned to the company, where he was to fly with all the other company Pilots, to gain experience, before being tested for his Class one Ag-rating.

That evening after his return, the Chief Pilot asked me to take Bob up country with me and let him work with me and if I feel he is ready? let him go on to the next job on his own, as an Class One Ag-pilot, but to be sure to bring him back on Friday night for the celebration at the pub for Bob! every-body will be there.

The next morning as we were preparing to leave for a strip 80 miles over the mountain range to the north,
I briefed Bob as to where we were going and gave him the strip details and told him to get going, I will be behind him. I watched as Bob prepared for flight, saw him visually  check "prop clear" before starting his engine, he ran his engine into the green range, pulled on his crash helmet and  closing the cockpit he departed
As I climbed into my cockpit, my friend Jan came over to me and looked at me through his piecing blue eyes and said "see you Friday we will drink together" I gave him the thumbs up and departed.

When I arrived over the strip Bob had just made a fly-by clearing run, down the strip and was coming round to land, I landed in behind him, we had a quick cuppa and I asked him "if he had any problems"? He said "no" so I gave him the maps of the job and asked him, to brief me on how he wanted to commence, which was fine, so we started topdressing, after about an hour I jumped out  of my aircraft and jumped in with Bob after completing his take off checks?  he started to roll into his take-off and I was please to see his hands go to the jettison lever! as soon as we got airborne, (another good practise).
After Bob finished this run, I took command and told him " to close his eyes, until I gave him back control" and we will be in an incipient spin? so please recover quickly"! I swung the aircraft violently to Port, entering a steep climb at the same time I changed the direct to a starboard wing raising it into a stall, and as it stalled! I handed control back to Bob, he recovered straight away? losing less than 150 feet.
He said " his only apprehension was, he knew it would be low! but not below 500 feet?.
I said "Bob if and when this happens in a crop-sprayer? you will be low, there's no time to think?
No matter what's happening! you keep flying the aircraft! its your only chance,? now you have just demonstrated to me, that you can do it? so well done"!
We landed back on the strip and I told Bob to go into the next valley and do a small job on his own as a Class One Ag-pilot, A big smile came over his face, he was free! I remember that feeling well?
I asked him to pick me up after he finished the job and we would return to base in his aircraft together.
I watched as he briefed his loader driver and sent him off to his strip and prepared for departure, pulling on his crash helmet, giving me a wave and rolling down the strip on his way to his first job, a little while later the weather started to deteriorate, wind and rain, just a local storm, it cleared quickly.

Later that evening in the hotel I received a phone call from Bobs loader driver, asking me if  "Bob was here"? I said no!  have you been up the strip to see if Bob was sitting there waiting for you"? he said" he had drove the full length of the strip in a violent rain storm and Bob wasn't on it"!  "OK" I said "not to worry don't panic! he has more than likely  landed in a field to avoid the storm, I'm sure he is OK? let me know when he contacts you.
A short while later I received a call from the chief pilot, and I filled him in on the situation, I told him "I thought Bob would be in a field awaiting daylight! I told him shortly after Bob departed, a local storm started  moving in and from what Bob loader driver said, it was over the top of Bobs strip, so I'm confident he's sitting it out in a local field, so there's no need to worry? we have all done It?.
Next I received a call from the Civil Aviation Authorities search and rescue centre in Melbourne ( at the time I thought a lot of hassle for nothing) they wanted a full update on the situation and what were my intentions? I gave them my opinion, saying I  was confident in  Bob and that he was in a field, waiting for dawn and we'll see him in the morning , and my intentions were to fly Bobs route up to his strip, if he hasn't contacted us first. I made a request as a precaution, for a paramedic to accompany me, later the police bush patrol arrived with an ambulance crew and my Paramedic, we all agreed it would be unproductive to search in the dark with the mist.so we just sat and looked at each other all night.
Around 0430 in the morning the CAAs search and rescue coordinator  was on the phone asking for an update and intentions, and any help required? They had detoured a passenger plane over the area during the night and no fires or anything unusual was seen, or any public reports on loud noises.
I told him "we have not heard from Bob and the plan was to fly Bobs route at first light".The police said "they had received an unconfirmed report of a power failure in our area," this is not so unusual for the power to fail after a storm in the hills, lets not jump to any early conclusions? so for now, we have to wait.
The police decided they were going up to get Bobs loader driver and get him to take them up to his strip, to begin the search , I mentioned that Bobs plane had a red strip and mine was black? just in case they see him?
The mist started to clear quickly so I took my paramedic and went down to the strip and prepared for flight, I asked my loader driver to call the search coordinator after I got airborne and  to expect a call on the VHF radio 118.1.
Climbing out of the valley I picked up the coordinator on the radio, he immediately changed me to the search frequency, and started cackling on about useless information! distracting me so I requested "Silence"! until I call them! every 5 minutes. the sun was up and the forward visibility was good, I scanned either  side of my track I called "nothing seen at this time,I should be over the strip in 7 minutes, standby"?
I was beginning to get a bad feeling, Bob should have been airborne now? maybe he's already on the strip?
I flew down the strip it was empty! I  started a slow orbit of the whole strip and we saw the Fletcher at the far end of the strip, it was upside down balancing on its nose and one wing, it was a sorry sight.
I radioed, search and rescue and told them what we saw and said "I would call them on the ground,"?" if one of there spotters is in radio range that is "? I turned and set myself up for landing, after we taxied up to the top of the strip and climbed out and I immediately saw Bobs crash helmet about 50 yards in front of the Fletcher,so I thought he must have got out and we wandered about looking for him ( I was happy)
I said to the Paramedic " lazy bastards sleeping under the plane" so we hurried up the the aircraft crash site,
I moved around the aircraft calling Bobs name, Then I went to look under the cockpit area and I felt his presence I looked up into the cockpit, it was closed, Bob was inside! still in his harness!  his hands still on the controls!  I pushed back the canopy and saw a small pool of blood on it that had been dripping from his nose, he was just hanging there, I reached up and said "don't worry mate! we'll get you out"? But it was to late he was cold (Gone)
The paramedic made me get out of his way so he could check over Bob? I was gutted and I just sank down and sat in the mud, the paramedic said " we will have to get Bob out now! just in case of fire, the place was stinking in av-gas. 
There was only room for one of us under the cockpit area so as I knew the system and plus it was my duty, the medic stood back and let me through, I placed my head on Bobs chest and took his weight, reaching up to release his harness and as I slipped his straps off his shoulders, he started to fall forward on to me, there was no-where to go, so we both went down into the mud, the paramedic pulled Bob off of me and we carried him to a safe spot just past Bobs helmet.
The medic gave Bob a full check (taking a good 25 minutes), and then police and a gang of searchers started arriving, the Paramedic took me to one side and said " If its of any help to you Bob died instantly of a broken neck"! 
So for me it was over, I went and climbed into my aircraft, closing my cockpit I got on the radio! firstly to call off the search and rescue operation and giving a full report to the coordinator,  saying" I will handing over to the police, after making a statement to them! the ambulance it loading Bob as we speak" ." It's my intention to fly back to Base, where I will be available", climbing out of the aircraft I went to see the police and made a statement, I said my goodbyes to the medic and told Bobs loader driver to return to base,  as soon as he feels he can, Its time for me to leave this place, so I wandered over to my aircraft and called out a warning that I was going to start my engine, I flew back to my other strip and phoned base with the news the chief pilot was in shock, I told him I will be back later in the day. I sent my loader driver back. I prepared to return to base running my engine I looked up the valley for the last time, I imagine Bobs smiling freckly face his red curly hair looking back at me, and I knew I would then never come back to this valley, its time for me to move on, for some reason or other I feel responsible for Bob death.

I got back to base around 18.00 hours, the chief pilot was very quite and said to leave all the paperwork until tomorrow they were holding a wake for Bob at the pub, and he drove away.

I went home and was sitting listening to  Nina Simone and sipping a glass of brandy ! when my door opened and in walked Jan, he turned on my lights and asked me "what was I doing"?  I blurted our "I felt it was my fault"?
He said "shut the fuck up! You know? when you leave the end of the runway! it's your own decision and you're on your own! now come on !you know this? this is not your first time, pull yourself  together? get a shower? and come, we have an Agman's memory to honour" and he walked out.

Of course Jan my long term friend was right! it was a long bad day for me and I got emotionally involved, which isn't normal for me I'll have to face this as I have done before, so I showered and went off to the pub..

Things slowly got back to "normal" over the next few days, Jan and I went back to work and slowly the others as well, we had loads of reports to fill in for the C.A.A and other interested parties. the companies training manual and operations manuals were taken for inspection, (they are looking for answers).
I myself have been requested to attend the coroners court to answer questions and make a statement.

I was off to Melbourne for the weekend to see a few friends,  when the Chief pilot asked me! "as I am passing Bobs would I call in? as his wife had asked to see me  and it would be a good opportunity to return his gear? I thought to myself ? that's a good start to the weekend.
About hour later I was driving into Bobs place, I walked up to the house banged on the door and walked in. I placed Bobs helmet and gear in his corner! with-out thinking! this may be hurtful, (I'm such a dork at times)

Bobs wife came straight up to me and looking me in the eyes said " Terence what happened to my Bob"?
I could see how brave she was and she deserved the truth?

Oh how I felt the need to be some-where else, other than here!

I said " I am so sorry! it was a terrible unforeseen accident and it was not Bobs fault.
Ag-flying is by it's very nature, a hostile and unforgiving environment and he was a victim. I believe he got caught in a local and violent, unpredictable weather system, which caused our Bobs death, It could have happened to any of us?" The paramedic at the scene said  Bobs death was instant!

"If I may say so? Bob always wanted to be an Ag-pilot, I saw the satisfied smile on his face when he got his Class One rating. He was a competent pilot and a well liked man, I am proud to have known him! and I'm so sorry! this happened." ( I've run out of words now? to be honest I just wanted to run away!)

His lady squeezed my hands and asked me "If I would scatter Bobs ashes over the farm? from the Fletcher? its what the family wants" I of course said "yes!".

(If you read my blog "Gippsland Duty" you'll see what a cock up that was?)

The Coroner's Court
I attended and started by and saying "I thought Bob was a Competent Class one Ag-pilot and since my meeting him, some 3 years ago, he had never displayed any careless or reckless behaviour, he acted in a manner fitting of a true professional."

"I believe the unfortunate accident was caused by a violent burst of wind sheer from a local cyclonic storm front, hiding it's self behind light rain? but including heavy rain and hail, plus lightening!  coming on him without warning? ( rare? but not uncommon in hilly country")
"I also believe he tried to turn back onto the strip to avoid the storm, with the cockpit open to remain in visual contact with the ground." (a good practise.)
"Unfortunately his down going wing struck the power cable! and it was all over, Bob was killed on impact.
His helmet was in front of the aircraft? It must have came off, before the cockpit closed again?" It is clear to me that Bob still had both hands of the controls and was  trying to fly out of it."
"This incident was caused by the  phenomenon of hilly country weather, and no blame can be laid at Bobs door. In my opinion all the training in the world could not have saved him, he will be sadly missed  Thank you!"

I'm sure in my own mind that Bob was closer to life in those final seconds? as you can get?

A week later I left for the night spraying, upstate in Wee Waa.  N.S.W, for the cotton and never returned to Gippsland.


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