When flying was for birds and dare-devils, and when pilots flew while birds were grounded
The second in a series that will lead to publication of the book Wings Over Waharoa in this 60th year of the Piako Gliding Club.
The Piako Gliding Club’s first glider, Rhonlerche II ZK-GBO was damaged in an accident in July 1958. It collided with the tow plane, Tiger Moth ZK-AQA. A new wing needed to be imported from Germany. But there was a problem.
At the end of 1957 there had been a change of government, the new government faced a balance of payments crisis and Finance Minister Arnold Nordmeyer issued his famous Black Budget, which, among other measures, placed severe restrictions on imports. For a time, it was feared that the club might not survive without a flyable glider. Meanwhile, members kept the revenue flowing with private flights in the otherwise unemployed tow plane until an import licence was finally granted and gliding started again on February 21, 1959.
In those early times everyone was on a learning curve, and with little regulation, incidents and accidents were common.
The club’s two machines, ZK-GBO and tow plane ZK-AQA were involved in a comedy of errors at Tahuroa, near Morrinsville, on April 7, 1960, that could have seen both aircraft damaged beyond repair. AQA, flown by Peter Blakeborough, had towed GBO, flown by Tony Littlejohn, to Hamilton for maintenance. On the return flight, noticing that AQA had suddenly found extra airspeed, Peter looked over his shoulder in time to see GBO (the Little Stinker) heading for a steep topdressing strip. Tony had inexplicable released the tow. He made a good landing on the strip, stopping half-way up with room for AQA to pass to one side. Peter landed and taxied to the level loading area at the top and together they hauled GBO to the top of the strip ready for take-off. After a council of war, a phone call to Les Marshall, who lived in Morrinsville, brought him to the strip to fly AQA so that Peter could fly GBO with Tony as passenger. A strategy was devised whereby the Tiger Moth, famous for not having brakes, would idle slowly off the edge of the loading area, taking up the slack as it proceeded downhill. But this was a serious miscalculation. The strip was steep enough for the Tiger to get airborne without the propeller doing anything. It was thought that when the slack was taken up, the two aircraft would take-off normally. That was the plan. But it didn’t quite work out that way. Immediately the tug was clear of the level loading area, it quickly gathered momentum, the rope tightened equally quickly, and in less than its own length, GBO was catapulted into space, immediately catching up with the tug. Les continued his downhill take-off while Peter, already airborne, used spoilers to stay in position and thereby avoided towing the tug. The two aircraft then returned to Waharoa without further incident.
Two days later April 9, 1960, GBO was involved another adventure that was possibly a first for Piako, and possibly a first for any New Zealand gliding club. At an air pageant at Whakatane three gliders performed formation aerobatics, including loops and stall turns followed by a maximum speed downwind run before landing from a 180 degree turn. That was not easy for two Rhonlerches formating with a faster Slingsby Skylark II. The aircraft were Skylark ZK-GBM from the Auckland Gliding Club, ZK-GBO (Peter Blakeborough) and Rhonlerche ZK-GBQ (M. Kirk) from the Tauranga Gliding Club. The pageant was to mark the opening of Whakatane Airport. (Some of this information may be in need of correction)
The Rhonlerche was a trainer with limited soaring capabilities. It could handle thermals that were close to the home base at Waharoa and it could make a downwind return to the airfield from the easterly Kaimai Range wave, provided the pilot kept a close watch on height and distance. On Saturday September 3, 1960, the club began a new type of operation that would enable ridge flying in a westerly wind. The Montague family at Gordon offered the use of their farm airstrip, a flat paddock, within easy distance of the Kaimai Range. For most Piako members, ridge flying was a new and enjoyable experience and by Sunday night Ross Carmichael, Peter De Renzy, Stuart Rogerson and John Cresswell had flown solo on the ridge in GBO.
Tiger Moth ZK-AQA was involved in numerous incidents with the Piako Gliding Club during its three years of service. One incident highlights the adage, ‘There are lots of young bold pilots, but few old bold pilots.’ Les Marshall in AQA, and Peter Blakeborough in GBO, decided one foggy winter morning in 1960 to check out the ceiling. Several members were keen to fly, and the crew were keen to see them airborne. The fog seemed to lift a little and the tug and glider took off.
Unfortunately, at about 200 feet both aircraft entered cloud and Houston had a problem. Fortunately, Les had completed the instrument flying part of his commercial pilot training just days before and Peter was just able to keep him in murky view at the other end of the rope. The Rhonlerche had only an airspeed indicator, altimeter and variometer. Without the tow plane as his artificial horizon, Peter would have been doomed within seconds. He carefully followed the minor control surface movements of AQA, keeping his wings level with the tug, while Les executed a 180 degree turn. For an age they flew downwind on reduced power. Then the small control surface movements indicated another turn for Peter to follow. Then the power came all the way back and Peter opened the spoilers to stay in position. A short time later, the trees on Jagger Road (now removed) at the approach end of Runway 10 slipped by with ample clearance. The runway, clubhouse and hangar also appeared, both aircraft landed safely, and that would have been the end of the escapade, but for a third aircraft that appeared out of the fog.
AQA and GBO had barely rolled to a stop when a Piper Apache landed alongside them and taxied to the pump. On board was Civil Aviation inspector George Arkley. George took Les aside for a stern lecture on flight safety, after which he relaxed somewhat and thanked Les for saving his life. He explained that he had been flying from Wellington to Auckland but diverted to Hamilton because of fog in Auckland. But when he got overhead Hamilton, it had closed too. He decided to fly to Tauranga, but halfway there he realised he didn’t have enough fuel to make it. With no airports available he was looking for holes in the fog when he just happened to catch a glimpse of a Tiger Moth with a Rhonlerche on tow, so he followed in a wide circle to compensate for the Apache’s higher speed.
For some time after this incident, it was remembered as the day that Les Marshall saved three lives, including his own.
In those early days there was often times when the best of plans failed to go according to plan. One such day was when Arthur Bull, and aero club instructor from Tauranga, visited to sign tow ratings for some Piako pilots. The requirement at the time called for both tester and applicant to demonstrate that they could operate from both ends of the rope. So, Arthur flew the glider while the local pilot flew the tug. Then they swapped places, and everything went to plan until the glider pilot released the rope whereupon the tug pilot released his end too. Members spent the rest of the day looking for the rope, the only one the club had, but like Houdini, its escape was complete. The rope was never seen again.
ZK-AQA was a good performer due to its large diameter metal propeller, an unusual feature on a Tiger Moth, which increased the climb rate while aiding with engine cooling on long climbs. It also had wing slats which lowered the stalling speed and improved low speed handling. The metal propeller was heavier than standard wood propellers and was inclined to run on for a time after shutting down. It also had a larger diameter and these two qualities suddenly became a burden one Sunday when AQA was being put to bed for the night. Someone waved Les Marshall right into the hangar, but to be on the safe side he cut the switches immediately after a short burst of power to get the wheels over the hangar door tracks. AQA kept rolling forward and the prop continued to rotate, the propeller tips grazed the steel rafters, and a fireworks display lit up the hangar in the fading light.
On Christmas Eve, 1960, ZK-AQA had an unscheduled brush with Terra Firma that resulted in substantial damage. Meanwhile, aircraft loaned from the Waikato Aero Club kept members flying while a search was mounted for parts. That was in the days when it was commonly believed that sobriety came immediately after downing the last drink, and it was safe to drive and/or fly immediately. The incident happened early in the morning and was therefore quite unexpected, as accidents usually are. Les Marshall towed the Rhonlerche into the blue and immediately returned to Waharoa to await the next launch. It must be said that in those days flying and gliding were less regulated than in later years and there was always a degree of experimentation with the way things were done. It was common practice to drop the tow rope before landing. This was sometimes accomplished with a high-speed, low-level run downwind, a little like an elated Spitfire pilot returning from a successful mission, with the rope landing as close as possible to the duty pilot’s feet. It was felt that landing with the rope trailing behind was bad for the rope, especially if it dragged over a fence. So, following the downwind dash, the tug would pull up into a steep turn, power would be cut, and a steep slipping turn would place it on the ground and clear of the runway before the glider approached. This day, Les did everything perfectly until it was time to straighten up from the steep slipping turn, and AQA would have been history except for some brilliant team work and the sudden appearance of main planes and other bits and pieces, several weeks later. After two days of hectic work, on a balmy moonlight night, ZK-AQA survived a test flight at the hands of Wally Christofferson of Tauranga, who also supervised the rebuilding. The test flight included some low-level aerobatics and a dead-stick landing. It was all typical of the times.
That was 60 years ago. Flying and gliding are much safer now, and that is how it should be.
In this 60th year, the history of the Piako Gliding Club is soon to be published in a book and assistance would be appreciated with photos of people, places, events and aircraft, along with documents, records and stories. If you can help, please contact Peter Blakeborough at firstname.lastname@example.org or call on 021-115-0543.