In 1940, two planes collided in mid-air over Australia. Remarkably, there were no fatalities. Even more remarkably, the pilot responsible for saving the planes was punished.
Our story begins at the No. 2 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) at the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Station Forest Hill close to Wagga Wagga, New South Wales (NSW). WWII was on, so Britain set up the Empire Air Training Scheme throughout its territories to produce as many fighter pilots as possible.
They were to master instrument flying, flying at night, navigating cross-country, flying in formation, aerobatic stunts, dive bombing, and of course, aerial gunnery. By July 1940, the school was still being built, but trainees had the use of Avro Ansons – British twin-engine craft designed for maritime reconnaissance missions.
Enter our hero – Flying Officer Leonard Graham Fuller, born on August 9, 1918 in Cootamundra, NSW. There’s also Flight Lieutenant Ian Menzies Sinclair (December 25, 1913 Genn Innes, NSW). Next is Leading Aircraftman Jack Inglis Hewson (August 11, 1921 Newcastle, NSW). And finally, Hugh Gavin Fraser (April 9, 1913 Camberwell, Victoria).
On September 29, 1940 the men went on a cross-country training exercise. Fuller piloted Tail number N4876 with Sinclair as his navigator, while Hewson flew the L9162 with Fraser as navigator. They were to fly over the towns of Corowa and Narrandera before returning to base.
It all went well till they reached the town of Brocklesby – a place so small that according to the 2006 census, it only had a population of 238 people. Small wonder, then, that they only bothered to set up a hotel in 2000.
Nothing much happens in Brocklesby, and about the only exciting thing they have is a pigeon club (seriously). As such, most Australians didn’t even know it existed… until Fuller came along, that is.
The men were at 1,000 feet when they made a banking turn, after which it all went downhill from there – literally. Hewson flew a little below Fuller’s plane when the latter lost sight of him… but not for long because the two collided.
According to Fuller, there was a “grinding crash and a bang as roaring propellers struck each other and bit into the engine cowlings.” Engine cowlings cover a plane’s engine, cool it by directing air flow into it, and reduce drag on the plane when in flight.
So now the planes were stuck to each other. Hewson’s turret had not only wedged itself into the upper plane’s port wing root (the area beneath the left wing), but his fin and rudder had also whacked the underside of Fuller’s port tailplane (the stabilizer at the rear of the plane).
It couldn’t possibly have gotten worse, but it did. The Cootamundra-born pilot’s engines stopped working. Fuller tried to restart his engines, but it was a no-go. And a good thing, too, or his propellers might have sliced through the lower plane.
But Fuller’s propellers had already pummeled Hewson’s fuselage before conking out, so the damage was done. The Newcastle man had hurt his back. The fused planes began circling over the tiny town while its pilots wondered what to do next.
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