Young aerial topdressing pilot learns lessons

During the period from November 1960, I began working with Rural Aviation as an aerial topdressing pilot flying the Cessna 180. It was my first flying job and I had just passed the New Zealand CPL.

My parents were very concerned about me entering the NZ aerial topdressing industry due to the number of accidents that were receiving much publicity in the newspapers and radio news.

After telling my parents about my new job and that I would be leaving home to be an ag-pilot in Taranaki and Wanganui, I went to James Aviation at the Rukuhia aerodrome and bought a new crash-helmet, or “bone-dome” as we called them.
This new silver helmet eased my mother’s mind somewhat. I felt sort of sensible and “grown-up” to own it and use it. Many pilots found them heavy and restrictive; but I liked it when working at low-level. Looking at this 1961 photo, I look very young and had only recently started shaving. The other snapshot is on the same day; testing the dump function on ZK-BUX which had just been repainted and fitted with spray gear.

Many pilots that are not from my aviation decades will find it hard to believe what was happening when I flew my first year as an ag. pilot. Ten were killed in 1961. Many others were involved in non-fatal accidents and I was one of them. I came close to being Number 11 during that terrible year.

Thirty-three New Zealand ag-pilots had been killed since 1950 until 1961 that raised that number by year’s end to 43. Of the 10 killed in 1961, seven had started in either 1960 or 1961 and the other three were only two with three years experience and one with six years experience.

Location: Jim Hurley’s airstrip; north of Waverly, Taranaki, New Zealand.
Time: About 12.00. February 9th, 1961.
Met. conditions: Temp: 18 deg. C, wind NW at 5-10 knots.
Airstrip: 3% downslope for take-off. Firm grass. 400 metres long (level equivalent 430 m). Some undulations toward take-off end. Low boxthorn hedge at end with gate (closed).
Product: Superphosphate dumped on grass. No bin or pad. Bottom few inches wet.
Loading vehicle: Nuffield tractor with front-end bucket.

Loader driver: My Waikato Aero Club chum Peter Baker from near Morrinsville. Pete was training for his Commercial Pilot Licence. Killed in 1963 whilst topdressing in a C-185 a few miles from where I was working in a Beaver near Dannevirke. His replacement was also killed in a C-185 a few weeks later; also near where I was working.

Payload: 1,008 lbs.(9 cwt.) Fuel remaining, about 1.3 hours.
Take-off weight: Approx. 3,000 lbs. (Normal category max. 2,650 lbs)
Aircraft: ZK-BUI. 1957 Cessna 180. 230 bhp Continental 0-470.
Windsock location: Halfway down strip on right side.
Pilot: Six foot male. Age 20.2 years. Experience: Dual: 43 hrs. In-command: 512 hrs. In Cessna 180: 320 hrs.

Sequence of events: Had been safely ‘lofting’ off an undulation and clearing gate and hedge using 20 degrees of flap. Had experienced some fertiliser flow disruption due to clods of grass and soil mixed with wet product, but was clearing these despite the small hopper outlet size on the Cessna 180. I expected matters to improve as Pete worked the heap. I had noticed him using bucket to clear grass away and mix wet fertiliser with dry during the three minutes I was away on each sortie.

During previous take-off, I noted the windsock “flicking” as I went past and thought of reducing load for next trip to eight cwt. When landing, I noted the windsock hanging limply, but still signalled Pete to reduce by one cwt. for next load; but accepted the nine cwt load he had in bucket. As I opened throttle, I noted the windsock “twitching” a little. Just as tail was rising, I felt a gust hit from right side which tried to weathercock aircraft to right. Tail also sank back nearly to ground and airspeed stagnated. With 300 metres gone, I yanked the hopper lever back to jettison load. It moved about an inch, then jammed solid. Aircraft became just airborne, but squashing/mushing at very high angle-of-attack. It was far too late to abort take-off as just past the hedge there was a very steep and deep gulley.

Whilst nearly tearing the hopper lever from its mounting brackets, I steered directly toward the gateway in an attempt to at least get the main-wheels through it. At about three feet off ground, I nearly managed it, but the left tyre struck the top of the heavy strainer-post on which the wooden gate was hanging. I felt and heard a “deep” resounding “thud” as the undercarriage leg separated from the fuselage. Still unable to jettison any of the load, the 180 pitched nose down, recovered from the impact yaw and fell into the gulley. I held the nose down, retracted the flap to 10 deg., rolled to the right to avoid hitting the rapidly approaching hill face and flinched as power and telephone wires flashed overhead. I then reduced power somewhat and climbed clear of the winding gully.

When I looked out of the open left side window I noted the gear leg was gone. I could not look out the right side due my shoulder harness and the reduced cockpit size due to the hopper configuration intrusion into the right side.

However, as I flew back to the strip I sighted a Cessna undercarriage leg lying near the bottom of the gully and cleverly deducted that it could well be from my aircraft. Then, as I approached the strip, I saw Pete running down and performing some form of very energetic dance. He was jumping up and down, pointing vigorously at his left arm then turning and pointing in the direction of New Plymouth, our main maintenance and repair base. It was then, as I turned over top of Pete, that I saw the shadow of my aircraft…the remaining right leg was still attached but whether it was damaged and the wheel and tyre serviceable, I could not determine.

The aircraft seemed to be handling OK, given that it was in an overloaded state. The stabiliser trim screw-jack tested OK, but I could not run it too far back due to the extreme aft centre-of-gravity position. Jim Hurley’s strip was far too short to land back on when grossly over Normal Category max. weight. As I circled overhead, I considered the Waverly golf course, Wanganui aerodrome and, if fuel and weather permitted, Rural Aviation’s main base at New Plymouth; the optimum choice as it would greatly assist the engineers to have the damaged aircraft delivered right to their ‘doorstep’, so to speak.

I quickly calculated that I had enough fuel to fly to New Plymouth; even into a headwind and could always divert into Hawera or Stratford should the weather pack in.

So, I radioed Charlie on the H.F. radio, informed him of the mishap and said I would be coming to New Plymouth and asked where they would prefer me to land. As I set off, I flew past my mate Pete and dipped a wing to say goodbye. I noticed that it was becoming gusty and turbulent and the windsock was standing out.

As I flew carefully along at reduced airspeed, my mind was wandering over such things as how Pete would get home to Wanganui and whether the right tyre was still inflated, which I doubted as it had struck the top rail of the gate and shattered it into matchwood.

With a near-full hopper load behind my back, I pondered what would happen if the right wheel dug in and flipped me inverted on touch-down. Such was my preoccupation with such dismal thoughts, that it was not until about five minutes later that I noticed that I still had 10 degrees of flap extended.

About halfway back, the boss himself, Miles King, came up on the radio and said they had told the tower about my ETA and situation (we had no VHF in those days). Miles told me to orbit south of the field so he could come up in a Cessna 150 to take a look at the undercarriage and rear end of my machine.

I was somewhat nervous when the aerodrome came in sight; but mainly because I anticipated getting a right bollicking and probably the sack. On our company frequency, which was shared by some other operators, Miles asked me to try the hopper lever again. Nothing came out. He then went lower and said the right wheel appeared to be OK and the tailplane looked undamaged which was a relief as I was somewhat concerned that it might do something strange at lower airspeed. I had never landed a C-180 at such a high weight. He suggested I do a long approach onto the lengthy grass strip which ran past the hangar.

I noted quite a crowd out in front of the hangar which made me cringe a little. Anyway, Miles just said something like “Don’t get too slow on final…I’ll see you on the ground young fellow!” and he peeled away leaving me to face the growing audience of engineers and office staff. What I did not know was that a NAC DC-3 was due in and the onlookers included quite a number of passengers and their friends. I was also not aware that some person, who listened in on our HF frequency, had phoned the local newspaper who dispatched a reporter out to the Bell Block aerodrome to capture the “drama”. Hence, the photo you see below (very tattered and faded after all this time). It became even more ‘overblown’ because the NZ broadcasting people picked up on it which meant that my mother heard about it on the evening news.

Anyway, to make a short story longer, I flew miles downwind before turning onto a long final approach with some gusty cross-wind from the left. The nor-westerly was really kicking in by now. I set the flap to 30 degrees and trimmed well forward as the 180 was tending to pitch up a little. The approach was flat with substantial power on. Prop to full increase, cowl flaps full open, carb heat to cold as the threshold fence approached, flap to 40 and I began to feel more confident. I gently flared with power still on, then gingerly touched the right wheel onto the soft grass to see what would happen. It felt good. The tyre was still inflated and the undercarriage leg felt normal. Rolled the right wing down which brought the hopper load and centre-of-gravity more over the right gear and the machine felt quite happy like that. As the hangar was getting nearer on my left side, I pulled the mixture control back to idle-cutoff and the left wing ever so gently lowered to the grass. Then, even with the yoke full back, the nose pitched down, dug in, and I was looking at the grass as the 180 stopped in a very short distance. And that is all there was to it. The left wing was virtually undamaged with just some grass stains on the tip. The engineers jacked up the left side and trundled BUI away straight into the repair shop.

Senior Ops. Manager, Frank Ferrier (and possibly one of the Rural Aviation founders, Phil Lightband) took me into the office and listened to my explanation. Frank said almost nothing until he opened a cupboard and asked me if I felt like a whiskey? I accepted happily, even though I had rarely tasted Scotch. He then told me to book into our usual hotel and I could fly back to Wanganui the following day in my own aircraft, ZK-BUX, which was in for a check. BUI was a spare machine which I had never flown before the incident.

Later, over a beer in the pub, Don Erceg, a senior pilot, informed me that BUI, for reasons which nobody could quite determine, was a bit of a “dog” performance-wise. I had noticed that its cruise speed was some eight MPH slower than my favourite BUX.

When we tried to empty the hopper, we found the outlets hopelessly blocked with a mix of thick grass clods, wet soil and wet superphosphate. It had packed down so firmly that a jemmy bar and spade had to be used. I am fairly sure that when I completed Jim Hurley’s topdressing a few days later, I made a deduction for his load of fertiliser which ended up in New Plymouth. I certainly recall asking him if he wanted me to pay for his demolished gate. He just smiled and said that he had intended replacing it anyway.

Next month, Mike Feeney reviews his first season accident for what went wrong and why.

Last month, Mike Feeney described in detail how he survived his first season accident as an aerial topdressing pilot. The following is his view as to what went wrong and why.

Lessons learned

It would be difficult to conceive of a more potentially hazardous situation than that described above.
Consider the following:

A) An inexperienced pilot and loader driver. Both just 20 years of age.
B) Highly hygroscopic fertiliser dumped onto soft wet grass some days prior to spreading.
C) An undulating airstrip with, not only a fence at the take-off end, but a hedge as well.
D) A hopper outlet design which was well streamlined, but considerably smaller than later higher drag configurations.
E) An upper wind pattern from the nor-west which are known, to the locals and more experienced pilots, to suddenly affect the surface winds with pronounced gustiness.

On later reflection, I was most fortunate that the wheel struck the post and pitched the aircraft nose-down. Had it not, I believe that the tailplane would have struck the gate and suffered damage; probably rendering the heavy aircraft uncontrollable. The Cessna 180 and 185 did not have a good survival rate in aerial topdressing accidents.

If you feel pressured enough to accept product just dumped on the ground, you must load the higher material first. Clear some ground of grass, preferably adjacent to a bank and move the fertilizer onto it before loading. Trying to mix the wet stuff at an early stage is bound to lead to trouble with poor flow and distribution. If you must carry it, reduce your weights and be absolutely certain that you do not have hung-up material in your hopper; even if it means your loader driver taking a look into the hopper. One day, we are going to have electronic weighing equipment fitted to NZ ag aircraft. (I have been saying that for nearly 30 years!).

Of course, my serious error was in not asking Pete to reduce the load. The half minute needed to do that simple action would have saved my company much expense and trouble. I did not follow my own unease about the wind conditions and consequently experienced a tailwind gust at just the wrong stage of take-off. I urge you new chaps to, if uncertain, to sit and watch the windsock for a while to note trends.

Permanent fences at the end of aerial topdressing airstrips are absolutely insane. If they are not droppable or temporary, they must be located so as to be below strip level. Otherwise, as per the CAA “Guideline” document, they should be about 180 metres further out from the defined airstrip end. The CAA declined to make this mandatory; however, in the event of a fatal or serious injury occurring as a result of a fence impact, I feel quite certain that officials such as coroners, OSH and ACC officers and, perhaps, District Court judges and various lawyers are going to have the CAA “Guideline” booklet very close to hand! Airstrip owners and aerial agricultural operators would be well advised to heed my words.
If you remember nothing else from this memoir piece; note well this:

“With overloaded ag. aircraft, a standard height fence at the end of an airstrip reduces the effective operational length by at least 100 metres!”

Part of the reason I decided to leave NZ in 1963, along with the very high income tax paid by topdressing pilots and the natural desire to “see the world”, was the continuing battle with some area managers over airstrip standards. Some of us tried to get dangerous fences removed or altered and other nasty airstrips improved or banned. I was rather outspoken and so became an annoyance to my much older area manager. New Zealand lost five more topdressing pilots in 1963; three of them known to myself.

By my reckoning, there have now been 140 ag-pilots killed in New Zealand since 1950; a terrible toll indeed for a peace-time operation, the purpose of which is simply to distribute some manure onto some paddocks…has it all been worth it?

I guess it all depends on one’s point of view. Federated Farmers would say yes. I think the economic historians would say a definite yes, as the advent of aerial agriculture vastly improved the nation’s productivity and went a long way to solving the most concerning erosion situation. The pilot’s widows and children and parents and friends might well see it rather differently…..But one thing is for sure; of the various types of flight operations I have been engaged in, the ag-aviation role is still the one dearest to my heart. I loved it from when I was a boy watching Ossie James’s and Guy Robertson’s Tiger Moths working and I love it still. I quite regularly dream that I am out there in a Beaver with the hills and valleys rolling beneath me and, as I turn at the end of a sowing run, I look back to see that lovely long white trail that I laid upon our countryside…


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