|Articles on this page with permission from GREG WANE, are taken from the Barwon Heads,Ocean Grove, and Wallington news .||Issn 13290371|
Published by Whistler Publishing
PO. Box 358, Ocean Grove
Editor Greg Wayne
Drama in the sky over Barwon Heads
On a sunny Monday afternoon in November 1959, people in Barwon Heads were going about their business unaware of the drama taking place in the sky 40,000 feet above them.
0N THE tarmac at Laverton RAAF base, Flight Lieutenant Edward Strutt lowered the cockpit seat in the Sabre Mk 32 fighter jet as he prepared for a routine flight to air test replacements of the elevator and cabin pressure seals of the jet number A94-946
At 2.40 PM he aimed the jet down the runway and in a few seconds he had the Sabre in a steep climb to 25,000 feet. He set the cabin pressure at 5 pounds per square inch (psi) and the climb was continued to 40,000 feet. He brought the jet to level flight.
Flight Lieutenant Strutt was a test pilot attached to the Royal Canadian Airforce and he had been seconded to the Aircraft Research and Development Unit of the Royal Australian Airforce (RAAF) for flight testing the new Sabre Mk32 jets. He was considered one of the best Sabre pilots in the world and was able to handle the aircraft in all type of circumstances.
A seasoned pilot by 1959 he still preferred to wear the leather flying helmet rather than the newer 'hard hats' as he referred to the flying helmets now worn by the younger pilots of the late 1950s. Flight Lieutenant Strutt had stated in his earlier reports that the hard hat exerted painful pressure on his right ear which made concentration difficult during flight.
His stubbornness in refusing to wear the hard helmet probably saved his life in the drama that was about to unfold as the jet neared the Victorian coastline above Barwon Heads. Also his preference to sit lower in the cockpit than other Sabre pilots was another contributing factor which also helped to save his life.
Strutt reduced the jet's speed to Mach .85 (about 100Okph) and he glanced at the altimeter: 40,500 feet. The time 1455 (2.55pm). Suddenly the perspex canopy slid back violently to the fully open position. Strutt felt the full effects of an explosive decompression. He was lifted from his scat, his body strained against the harness. He felt a rapid and prolonged egress of air from the lungs and his intestines.
White vapour, due to rapid expansion cooling formed a sufficient quantity as to abscure the instrument panel. Strutt knew the canopy had opened and believed the entire cockpit cover had broken away from the aircraft as he sent the jet into a dive to reach lower altitudes. He selected 100% oxygen on the regulator and extended the speed brakes.
The jet reached a speed of Mach 1 (about 1220kph) during the dive which would have created a sonic explosion similar in sound to a thunderclap which.would have been heard in Barwon Heads and Ocean Grove. The sonic boom would have been powerful enough to rattle windows and shake buildings. A sonic boom occurs when an aircraft passes through the sound barrier or begins to travel faster than the, speed of sound and the cone-shaped shock wave caused by the plane touches the ground.
As the jet reached a lower altitude the canopy slid rapidly to an almost closed position, again missing the pilot's head by about two inches.
Had Strutt been sitting higher in the cockpit and had he been wearing the customary larger 'hard hat', the force with which the canopy opened in flight would have decapitated him and sent the jet into a lethal dive towards Barwon Heads.
However within a few minutes Flight Lieutenant Strutt was lining up his approach to the Laverton Air Base runway.
To this day it is not known what caused the canopy to suddenly open at 40,000 feet, but from official RAAF reports on the incident it appears it was a common fault with Sabre Jets. In three other instances Sabre Jets of the Pakistani Airforce and the Royal Canadian Airforce all experienced similar malfunctions.
Eventually the RAAF decommissioned the Sabre Jets with the arrival of the supersonic F111 jets in the next decade.
A few people in Barwon Heads peered skywards after hearing what they thought was thunder, but seeing no cloud or signs of approaching storms, continued about their business - none realising how close the the town had come to being partly destroyed by a Sabre Jet.
The Whistler acknowledges the assistance of staff at the National Archives of Austral" Canberra for providing RAAF Records and documents in relation to this incident.