Friday 6 August 2021

1944 Big Bird

The following article was written by Ken Telfer (1924-2018) and provides us with a wonderful glimpse of a day in 1944 when an aircraft landed on Toorbul Point and amazingly took off again the next day.

Thank you Ken.

The Day the Big Bird Came to Toorbul Point

by Ken Telfer, ex-Sapper, 2 AWT Group

 Big Bird by Ken Telfer, ex-Sapper, 2 AWT Group. 
Log Book no. 58, April 1991 pages 10-12.**

"Well, not a real big bird like today's Jumbo jets, but still a sizeable airliner for the late thirties and forties.

In early 1944, the Training Centre moved from Chowder Bay to Toorbul Point and that's where the story starts. When we arrived the United States Navy was still in residence at the main base down on Pumicestone Passage. Accordingly, personnel of the AWT Training Centre were encamped up on the cliffs overlooking Deception Bay, where Pebble Beach Housing development (of the late 1980s) is now situated.

Our campsite at that time consisted of our tent lines, mess huts, recreation room, etc., on the western slope of the cliff top, whilst our latrines and ablution block were situated on the cliff top east of a dirt road which ran virtually north-south along the cliff.

We had some interesting experiences whilst we were in residence up on the cliffs. Plenty of fishing and mud-crabbing in our off-duty hours. Then there was the time shortly after our arrival when we were invited to the movies down at the US Base. Came the end of the movies and we climbed to our feet and started to move out. "Stand Fast" was the whispered order from Harry Watts, our RSM and then we noticed all the US Navy enlisted personnel standing rigidly to attention whilst their Officers moved out first. Just a little different to our more casual AIF approach!

After some weeks on our cliff top 'eyrie' the US Navy moved out and we started to move down to the main base. The first job for us 'doggies' was to clean up the mess halls, kitchens and other buildings. Who remembers, I wonder, the boxes of cherries so obligingly left behind by the US Navy and the pigs we made of ourselves gorging on those cherries - something that certainly wasn't on the ration list of AWT.

And some of the letters left behind by some of the US sailors. Eye openers to say the least for some of us young soldiers. I never knew 'ladies' wrote such letters to men, wow!!! It must have made quite an impression on me at any rate, I can still remember some of those letters 47 years on.

However, enough of the reminiscing of my misspent youth and down to the real story. Late one stormy afternoon soon after we had settled in at the main base, a Lockheed 'Electra' airliner appeared low over the camp site from the direction of Brisbane. As we looked south over Moreton Bay, it was obvious Brisbane was copping a 'beautie'. Low, green-black nimbo-cu clouds, lots of lightning and torrential rain. The Lockheed 'Electra ' (not to be confused with a later vintage 'Electra' flown by QANTAS, TAA and Ansett-ANA), was a pre-war all metal airliner flown by Ansett Airways of that time. Ansett was contracted to the US forces and flew senior Officers from General MacArthur's HQ, to and from Northern Australia and New Guinea.

Lockheed Model 10 Electra

On this day, approaching Brisbane after a flight from 'up north', it was confronted by the severe electrical storm raging over Brisbane. Unable to land at Eagle Farm or Archerfield and low on fuel, the Captain decided to head north and look for a suitable place to make an emergency landing.

He circled our camp site at Toorbul Point several times, obviously sizing up the dirt road on the cliff top. Working that day in the signals office, I heard a call, "Break out a red lamp and get up there and let him know he can't land here!"

But, before anyone could grab an Aldis or Lucas lamp, the 'Electra' appeared low from the north over Bribie Island, flaps down, wheels down, obviously on 'finals' to attempt a landing on the cliff top dirt road. With a brilliant bit of flying the flight deck crew got the 'Electra' down in one piece and pulled up before they ran out of road.

That night the American Officers from the aircraft were taken into Brisbane by staff car, whilst the two Ansett pilots dined at our Officers' Mess and stayed overnight in the Officers' quarters. In the bright sunny morning that followed the previous day's storm, they vetoed any idea of dismantling the aircraft and taking it out by road. And anyone knowing the 'old road' from The Point to Caboolture, rough and narrow and highly corrugated, would appreciate why the aircraft Captain elected to try and fly it out.

But how? The dirt road they had landed on certainly wasn't an ideal strip. It was extremely narrow and it was short. Could they get the aircraft up, up and away before running out of road? That morning, not being on duty, I went up to the cliff top with quite a few other 'bods' to watch the takeoff.

First, the aircraft was towed back to the northern end of the road where it was still level and the tail jacked up. The 'Electra' was a tail dragger, like the Dakota. Then, with the tail resting on a sturdy block of wood from our Engineering Shop, the tail wheel was tied by a length of manilla rope, courtesy of AWT, to a nearby tree. One of our Sergeants with an axe, its blade specially honed, stood by to cut the rope.

After a final walk along the road and I'm sure with some misgivings, the pilots climbed aboard and locked the door. The two engines were started and warmed up. When the manifold and oil pressures were right, the pilots gradually increased the revs until the 'Electra' with both engines at full bore and with the whole aircraft shuddering and vibrating so that it seemed every rivet must pop, she seemed like a greyhound waiting to burst from the starting gates.

At a hand signal from the cockpit window, the Sergeant chopped at the rope (who was that Sergeant?) and with three or four quick blows the rope was cut through and the 'Electra' shot forward like a projectile .

With its tail already up, a lot of flap and engines at full bore it attained flying speed very quickly and lifted off safely before running out of road. The 'Electra' that day exhibited STOL characteristics that I'm sure the designers never dreamed of when they first put pen to paper.

After climbing to about 500 feet, the aircraft banked to the left and came about to circle the camp. With a waggle of its wings to say "Thanks", it climbed away and headed for a safer strip in Brisbane.

I've always felt that "the day the big bird came to Toorbul Point" and the assistance AWT Training Centre was able to extend to Ansett to get the 'Electra' back into the war effort quickly, is one that should be recorded in our history and not allowed to sink without trace. I'm sure some of our grandkids who get to know of the story and who might visit Pebble Beach Estate some time, will stand and wonder .. how did they do it?

Perhaps Ansett have the emergency landing details somewhere in their archives and could share the details with our Association for posterity. If not, perhaps they should."

Big Bird. The Day the Big Bird Came to Toorbul Point. 
by Ken Telfer, ex-Sapper, 2 AWT Group. Log Book no. 58, April 1991 pages 10-12.

The Australian Water Transport Association is acknowledged with thanks for permission to post this article on the BIHS Blog.

Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Model 10 Electra, at Oakland, CA on March 20, 1937. Scanned from Lockheed Aircraft since 1913, by René Francillon. Photo credit USAF.

Lockheed Model 10 Electra - Wikipedia entry

WW2 Memorial Sandstone Point - Pebble Beach War Memorial (Toorbul Point / Sandstone Point)

A Memorial Service was held at Sandstone Point on 21 Oct 2012 by 13 members and their wives of the Queensland Branch of the Australian Water Transport Association (AWTA). ... The Patron of the Queensland Branch of AWTA in 2012 was John Pearn.