Sometime in 1991, Captain Meadows (not his real name) and Tech Crew scheduling, brought down the curtain on a career in Qantas that had started in 1951.
Bert had joined the company as an Office Boy in Shell House, Carrington St, Sydney, in the years before Qantas occupied their new HQ, up on the corner of Hunter and Elizabeth Streets.
The first entry in his first Logbook was an hour’s tuition in the front cockpit of an Illawarra Airways Tiger Moth, with a bloke called Sammy Dodd instructing. Over the intervening 40 years or so, Bert had written up details of Commands on DC3s, DC4s, -138 and -338 series B707s and -238 and -338 series Boeing 747s, the latter two generically referred to now as “classics”.
By the time he’d added his two final sectors, SYD – AKL and AKL – SYD, there’d be a total of over 20,000 hours spent in a variety of canvas, vinyl, fabric and sheepskin-covered chairs, in aircrafts that now hang in or are displayed in the Smithsonian.
The pattern for his last flight, which he’d bid for, was SYD – AKL and AKL – SYD, about eight hours’ worth, that should put him back in the company car park to collect his vehicle about mid-afternoon, barring the unforeseen.
An old friend, Eric Lawrence, Ops Control Manager, would position to AKL with him so he could fly back to SYD with Bert on his last flight. Sadly Eric left us a few months ago. For every good airline that wants to be a great airline, there needs to be an Eric Lawrence somewhere in their history and structure. Alan M. Manager Flight Ops Personnel was on board too.
Now, Air Traffic Control authorities, charged with the responsibility of keeping aircrafts as far away from each other as geography and other circumstances permit, have pre-arranged and pre-agreed ways of bringing flights into, and taking them out of, congested air space. They’re called SIDS (Standard Instrument Departures) and STARS (Standard Instrument Arrivals), so ideally, once a Controller tells a crew to expect a such and such departure, it’s just a matter of the crew pulling out their Jeppesen charts, and having a look at that particular musical score. It will give them info about their outbound track, turning points, reporting points, radio frequencies etc.
ATC will still continue to monitor their progress throughout the departure, modifying it as necessary to accommodate ad hoc problems, but it cuts down dramatically the radio exchanges between ATC and aircraft, if both parties are singing from the same hymn sheet.
It would be a SID, fictitious in this case, that Bert would request from ATC as the ground engineers prepared to push VH-EBW back, that Friday morning.
An old friend, who retired as a Senior Air Traffic Controller from Air Services Australia, reckons the exchange between QF43 and ATC would have gone something like this:
QF43 “Ground, Good morning, this is the Qantas 43 Request Start, Push Back and Airways Clearance.”
ACD (Airways Clearance Delivery) “Qantas 43 Ground, Good morning, Clear Start at time 55, standby for Airways Clearance.”
QF43 “Qantas 43 to start at 55 and if possible, request a Pittwater 1 departure, final flight.”
ACD “Qantas 43 – standby”
(Aside via Intercom)
ACD – “Qantas 43 asking for a Pittwater1, final flight, I can’t find any Pittwater Departure on this sheet”
Departures … “Ask him what he wants, I’ve never seen a Pittwater 1 either…”
ACD “Qantas 43 Ground, Say the Pittwater detail, nothing held here… (RWY) 16 in use …”
QF43 “Qantas 43 – Captain’s final flight…we’d like a climbing turn back over the bridge then via Manly, not below 2000, then via the Northern Beaches to Barrenjoey Light at 2000, thence via Airways to Auckland …”
ACD “ Qantas 43 Standby – that’s going to take you very close to the edge of controlled airspace, we’ll see what we can do…”
QF43 “Qantas 43 Thank you, Starting in 5…”
And so EBW taxied to the Runway 16 Holding Point, talking to Surface Movement Control (Aircraft) until he left the Qantas Ramp for Taxiway Alpha, where he’d dial up Sydney Ground’s frequency and let them know he was on his way to the Holding Point..
As Bert, with EBW firmly strapped to his backside, approached the Holding Point, his F/O would retune his radio to Sydney Tower and make his “Ready” call. So VH-EBW (aka QF43) rolled out onto the piano keys. Bert eased forward the four thrust levers to the stops as he put the aircraft’s NLG on the centre line and the gracious machine accelerated down towards Botany Bay and the F/O’s “Rotate” call.
Once V2 was safely out of the way, and preferably when EBW was over the “upwind” threshold, the F/O would re-tune one of the radios to SYD Departures and advise, “Qantas 43 airborne, maintaining runway heading.”
SYD Departures would have replied, “Qantas 43 contact SYD Approach on 125.3MHz” and from there they would have been given instructions for the requested Pittwater 1 Departure.
The punters would get great shots of Sydney’s CBD and the Bridge, and Mrs Meadows got a great photo of EBW, while waving from the family backyard as it passed abeam Mona Vale at about 2000’ AGL tracking for its turn at Barrenjoey Lighthouse.
The Flight Service Director had told the passengers it was Bert’s last flight, and there was polite applause throughout the Cabin when Bert managed to get all 18 wheels on the concrete, on the first attempt (not as straightforward as you might think ) as they reached New Zealand. Someone had also tipped off the Traffic and Engineering staff in Auckland, and the Tech and Cabin crew joined the Ground staff in the office for the cake someone had baked.
More of the same on the return leg.
The same Scottish Approach Controller who’d managed Bert’s Pittwater 1 Departure that morning, picked him up at the Australian FIR Boundary, and again Bert had visions of a sandy haired bloke, complete with tam o’ shanter, waistcoat, kilt, sporran and dirk, humming Scotland the Brave, between radio transmissions.
It was the usual Friday afternoon scramble at Sydney as ATC tried to synch and separate arrivals from departures, and the Controller cleared Bert to slide into the approach pattern at the Pymble NDB.
(Pymble’s a suburb on Sydney’s upper North Shore, about 25kms from the RWY 16 threshold. An NDB is a Non Directional Beacon, which radiates a “dumb” undifferentiated signal, in all directions)
Bert made the entry OK, at about 3000’ AGL but still going very, very fast, and for a while it looked like it all might end in tears, with a “go around” but he was able to slow the beast with speed brakes so he could legally extend his flaps to EBW’s landing configuration.
A bottle of Moet mysteriously found its way onto the Flight Deck after the Tech Crew had finished the Shut Down Checklist, and Bert and his mates shared a fraternal glass or two of shampoo, before heading off to Customs and Operations.
Next day, Bert, now retired, drove out to the Control Tower with a couple of cases of beer for the blokes up the stairs and elsewhere in Approach who’d made both flights so memorable. Bert was of a mind to Invoice Alan Joyce for the PR work he’d done on Qantas’s behalf, but I talked him out of it.
I caught up with him again a few weeks ago, after a lapse of about 20 years, at The Newport Arms, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, and close to his north-bound track all those years ago.
He hadn’t changed much. Still the straightforward, uncomplicated and competent bloke I’d remembered. Still a nonsense-free zone.
Footnote: For a while in the early years of the new century, Qantas operated two 747’s in Dreaming livery. Nalanji, predominantly blue and hard to see when airborne, and Wanula, unabashedly red.
The penalties associated with both presentations were substantial. The paint job itself added over a tonne to each plane’s basic weight: one tonne of unproductive avoirdupois or the equivalent of having to cart round an extra 10 non paying pax, and their bags, on every sector flown.
The time involved in preparing and applying the colour scheme was significant too. 800 litres of paint, mostly applied by hand, 7 colours, 67 patterns, over 1300 irregular “dots”, all needing over 2 km of tracing paper to ensure everyone was happy with the outcome.
On the upside, we got two instantly recognisable aircrafts, wherever we chose to send them. They turned heads and plane-spotters loved them.