Retired wing commander remembers near miss

TRICK FLIGHT: A Vulcan bomber performs a "roller" at Wellington Airport in 1959 ahead of the near miss that could have been fatal.
TRICK FLIGHT: A Vulcan bomber performs a "roller" at Wellington Airport in 1959 ahead of the near miss that could have been fatal.

Retired Wing Commander Bryn Lewis thought he and many Wellingtonians were going to die when the Vulcan bomber he was navigating clipped the southern end of Wellington Airport in October 1959.

The 88-year-old visited the Wellington Airport tower in Rongotai yesterday to reminisce with air traffic controllers about the day catastrophe very nearly struck the airfield's official opening day celebrations 54 years ago.

Mr Lewis told Airways New Zealand control tower staff how the five crew members were mightily relieved Captain Tony Smailes managed to get the bomber back in the air after the undercarriage impact.

"I thought we were going to die ... and people on the ground were going to die."

These thoughts were not helped when the RAF squadron commander controlling operations on the ground ordered the three men in the back of the aircraft to bail out during the short flight back to Ohakea.

"When we hit the end of the runway the whole aircraft shuddered violently. There was a huge bang. We knew we had done some serious damage," Mr Lewis said.

While his pilot had undershot the runway and the left wing tip touched the ground, Captain Smailes regained control by putting on full power to go away.

Mr Lewis believed his skipper saved the lives of many Wellingtonians by getting the plane back in the air.

"The pilot put on full power to pull away. We did not need to jettison fuel for the landing at Ohakea because the impact had punctured the fuel tank.

"When I heard the impact I thought it was London Airport all over again," Mr Lewis said.

"That's why I thought we were all going to die, because the pilot in a Vulcan 1956 London crash landed in the cabbage patch short of the airfield, killing four crew members."

Mr Lewis said he was amazed when Captain Smailes managed to regain control of the aircraft on the climb out from Wellington.

"I tried to clamber under my seat to get my parachute on. As soon as the squadron commander on the ground in Ohakea ordered the three of us in the back to bail out I thought about it and said no, I'm, not going to bail.

"The other two with me in the back said they would not bail as well. I thought we should take our chances as the damaged undercarriage was still locked down.

"There would not have been much fun in bailing out and immediately being greeted by a huge undercarriage strut.

"Who is going to open your parachute when you are unconscious?" Mr Lewis asked.

In the finish, Captain Smailes made the decision for the whole crew to remain on board for the crash landing.

"I had a dial in front of me which told me we were losing fuel fast. I told the captain to get us down quick. There was no time for an airfield flyover to get a report on the state of the undercarriage.

"So we landed without our left rear wheels. It was a beautiful landing. The aircraft stayed horizontal until it lost aerodynamic speed. At that point the left wingtip contacted the ground and we slid off the runway.

"We were alive," Mr Lewis said.

The same crew was back in the air the following day in another RAF Vulcan bomber for an exhibition flight over Ohakea.

"We had an Air Vice-Marshal with us. He told us to get back up and do the flying at the Ohakea display. It is very important to get up again rather than sit around and say - I'm not too sure about this flying lark.

"We got back in another Vulcan and went up again. There is a lovely picture of us flying over Ohakea with the broken bomber underneath us," Mr Lewis said.

Mr Lewis, who lives in retirement in Suffolk, is on holiday in New Zealand on his first trip back to the country since the Rongotai incident 54 years ago.

TELLING THE TALE: Retired Wing Commander Bryn Lewis, who was navigator in the Vulcan bomber that nearly crashed at Wellington Airport in 1959.
TELLING THE TALE: Retired Wing Commander Bryn Lewis, who was navigator in the Vulcan bomber that nearly crashed at Wellington Airport in 1959.

Check out a video of the incident below:

 

Contact Tim Donoghue
General reporter
Email: tim.donoghue@dompost.co.nz
Twitter: @timdonoghuenz

The Dominion Post