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Best Seat in the House

Best Seat in the House

Back in the 1960’s and early 70’s Captain Frank Brown flew 138 and 338 series Boeing 707s for Qantas. Flying might’ve paid the bills for the Brown household, but it was a far more arcane hobby that really blew Frank’s hair back. John McHarg explains.

These days we have an expression for something that’s pretty straightforward. We simply say, “it’s not rocket science”. Well, Frank’s hobby was rocket science or, more specifically, orbital mechanics, that abstruse, opaque and often counter-intuitive world that describes the various ways in which artificial satellites behave in Space.

These days, with a bit of help from the family PC, I suppose the average 12 year old could compute a trajectory for the Moon, but back then computers were fiendishly expensive. Bulky things too, slow and primitive and as rare as chooks’ molars.

Qantas partially introduced Qantam, its automated Reservations System, in late 1968, replacing the old handwritten yellow cards and flimsies. The full installation, in Sydney and later around the world, followed in 1972. It was a clone of BOAC’s system.

It was Qantam that hosted BOAC’s Phase 3 Departure Control System, bought by Qantas to look after passenger check-in and aircraft weight and balance around the same time.

There were huge safety ramifications involved in the use of computers to not only look after passenger seating, but also the control of all the different weight components that made up a fully laden aeroplane. Not the least of these was the digital determination of the final position of the aeroplane’s Centre of Gravity and, from that, the inferring of a stabiliser trim setting that would compensate for movement of the C of G within an approved range so, for the Qantas’ airports at least, the testing phase, prior its introduction worldwide, was over 12 months.

They – computers – were capricious things, and staff used to joke that they required coal deliveries twice weekly to keep them operating.

Back in the late 60s Frank’s best friend was most likely his slide rule, and it was this and perhaps a hand cranked calculator, that opened a door into the world of missile trajectories, orbital changes, lunar injection and re-entry windows.

Qantas often used to schedule Frank around NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes and Frank could usually arrange to get his Boeing into the dress circle, so his passengers could watch a launch or recovery.

There were occasions where Frank found errors in NASA’s forecasts and NASA was happy to correct their mistakes.


In the early months of 1972, NASA and the Cape started final preparations for the penultimate Apollo mission – Apollo 16.

It would be the first attempt to land the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) in the Descartes lunar highlands, well away from the previous sites that had been in the lunar mare or seas.

The terrain would introduce a whole new set of problems, but once landed it was hoped the region would yield answers to whether the moon’s surface owed more to vulcanism or whether it had been shaped primarily by aeons of meteorite impacts.

To facilitate their examination of the area around Descartes, all three astronauts trained extensively in Canada under the supervision of NASA’s geologists although it seems to me we’re really looking for a selenologist here.

They also packed some extra hardware to extend their range, a Lunar Roving Vehicle, soon re-christened Moon Buggy, and it would be in this electric billy cart that Young and Mattingly would clock about 28kms of off-road lunar driving.

On Earth the buggy weighed 210kgs. On the Moon, just 35.

Cue the Leyland brothers theme.

In Command of the Mission would be one of NASA’s most respected, experienced and longest serving Astronauts: John Young. All up, 42 years with NASA. Astronaut. Navy pilot. Navy Test Pilot. Aerodynamicist. Six spaceflights. Gemini Programme (2- one as Commander). Apollo (2 – one as Commander). Space Shuttle (2 – both in Command).

By the time he retired, his Logbook would record 15,275 hours in rotary or fixed wing, propeller, jet powered aeroplanes and rocket propelled vehicles. There’d also be 9,200 hours in the USAF’s Trainer, the T-38 Talon and 835 hours in spacecraft and zero G.

Also in the logbook would be a world record for time taken, from a standing start, to reach 82,000ft (25000m) – a paltry 3 mins 27.6 seconds. Young did this in an F-4 Phantom.

I’m still trying to get sponsors to attempt a challenge in my Cessna 172!

Young was described by a fellow astronaut, as one of the two most complete pilots he’d ever encountered. If other pilots “embarked”, then Young “wore his aeroplane”.

There was also a willingness to poke fun at the inbred propriety of NASA too, which Young would demonstrate during the first Gemini flight in 1965 – with Gus Grissom – when he smuggled a corned beef sandwich on board. The prank earned him a reprimand.

Ken Mattingly, who was slated for Apollo 13, but scrubbed after he unwittingly came into contact with measles, would fly the Command Module, in orbit around the Moon. Those that saw Ron Howard’s movie, Apollo 13, will remember Mattingly as the CAPCOM in Mission Control, having been replaced on the mission by Jack Swigert.

Sharing the ride down to the lunar surface with John Young, would be Charlie Duke. It was his first and only space flight.






John Kennedy made his “Man on the Moon” speech to a Joint Sitting of Congress on 25th May 1961.

They were brave and inspiring words made at a time when, for most people, NASA (or NACA as it was til 1958) was synonymous with images of successive Vanguard and Atlas Agena rockets self-destructing on the pad or shortly after liftoff.

One journo watching yet another Vanguard blow up at an elevation of just 4 feet in 1957, was moved to describe the small satellite, blasted off the nose of the rocket into an adjoining paddock, and transmitting a plaintive “here I am, come and get me”, as a “Kaputnik” while another scribe said something like, “Will somebody please go out and shoot it?”

They were grim times for NASA and the Mercury 7, but in one of the all-time classic bootstrap manoeuvres, hundreds of thousands of aerospace workers all over America, rolled up their sleeves and launched the Mercury 7 astronauts, the 16 Geminis and all the Apollo crews without a single loss in the air. All this conducted in the full glare of unrelenting publicity.

I imagine a couple of NASA Execs looking at each other as Kennedy concluded his speech, one saying to his colleague, “Well Reg, you’d better organise a Farewell Party” to which his friend replies, “Farewell to what bud?”

“Farewell to our marriages,” was the reply.


Context and Scale

In the early 50s Qantas commissioned a new Headquarters Building, fronting Chifley Square, at the northern end of Elizabeth St in Sydney. Until the new building was ready, Qantas would continue to occupy Shell House, up on Carrington St, and already chronically crowded. Bert Meadows, whose logbook provided the skeleton for this story, was employed there as an Office Boy while he worked on his Pilot’s Licence.

In October 1957, the then Prime Minister Bob Menzies, opened the new building later to become an architectural icon and already considered quite radical because of its use of glass, and the double curved frontage.

Until about 1960, the height restrictions on Sydney’s buildings would remain in place – 150 feet or 45 metres.

In November 1957, the author would be one of about 30 students from Chatswood Primary School, who’d visit the new building after spending most of the day at the Mascot Jet Base, being shown around.

I’d like to say that day kindled a lifelong interest in aeroplanes and aviation, but that would be an unreasonable exercise of  literary licence, although on the 23rd January 1963 young John did report to the 7th Floor of Qantas House at 0900, one of half a dozen or so new Trainees, making up that year’s intake.

I mention all this not from some narcissistic compulsion to share my life’s adventures with you but merely to provide some sense of scale for events that were unfolding half a world away, on Launch Complex 39A at Cape Kennedy on the 16th April.

The Cape, discovered by the unfortunately named Ponce de Leon in 1513, had been Cape Canaveral, but would be renamed in honour of the slain President for 10 years, reverting to Canaveral in 1973.

As the 16th April approached, crowds would build on the roads and parks in the area, as space nuts assembled from all over the country, as they would continue to do throughout Apollo and the later Shuttle Launch programme.

The object of their attention, in the days before the 16th, was the most powerful artefact ever made by the hairless ape. Even now, 50 years later, some of the numbers associated with the 17 Saturn 5 launches that made up the Apollo program, can still send one’s eyebrows northwards and jaw southwards.

If Qantas House was 45 metres high, the three stage Saturn 5 topped it by 65 metres.

In the seconds before launch, when all its fluids were topped up, it would weigh 2,970 tonnes. Of this mass, 91% would comprise fuel – volatile hydrocarbons, liquid oxygen and hydrogen. They joked in later years, that there is/was more computing power in a Casio digital watch than there was on Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 and that probably remained generally true for John Young’s Apollo 16.



For Every Reaction, There’s an Equal and Opposite Reaction

Those of us lucky enough to grow up in Australia in the 40s, 50s and early 60s, will have fond memories of the rituals practiced annually on the 24th May – Queen Victoria’s Birthday.

Officially known as Empire Day, in celebration of the greatest land grab since Rome last ruled, it saluted the unbroken band of pink that then circled the world on most globes and maps – Britain’s Empire Upon Which The Sun Never Set.

Unofficially, it was Cracker Night, and all over Australia dogs hid under beds, airports closed due poor visibility in the aftermath and hospitals did good business, via their Emergency Wards, in scalds, burns and occasional accidental trauma to vulnerable digits.

One of the non-explosive items in the old wooden vegetable box on most Cracker Nights was the Roman candle, an article that incorporated a spike on one end to permit insertion into the lawn or soil. The wrapping included warnings that it should not be hand held.

Once lit, it would hiss and produce a vertical plume of coloured sparks and smoke, but in the absence of any percussive output, it was generally eschewed by the young boys and remained a ladies’ favourite.

Young men generally refused to associate with such limp-wristed incendiary devices, including Catherine Wheels and sparklers, considering them to signal a latent effeminacy.

Well, the Saturn 5 was a vast earth-shaking, atavistic, night into day, upside down Roman Candle. The sonic shock associated with each launch is reported to have caused birds to fall stunned from the air.

Later shuttle launches would try to damp this acoustic shock by dumping 300,000 gallons of water, in the 40 seconds just preceding, during and immediately after ignition of the shuttle’s SRBs and main engine.

When first delivered, Qantas’s Boeing 747-400 aeroplanes, at Maximum Takeoff Weight, massed 394.6 tonnes. The Saturn 5, in the seconds before launch massed over 7 times as much.

The B744’s maximum fuel load, including 10 tonnes in the Horizontal Stabiliser Tank at the rear, was around 170 tonnes of kerosene – Jet-A1.

The Saturn’s 5 first stage engines, in the 2½ minutes following liftoff, would boost the whole improbable machine 42 miles (68kms) pretty much vertically initially, and accelerate the rocket and its precious contents, to 6,164mph or about 10,000kph.

In that time they’d burn 2,100 tonnes of RP-1 (the kerosene fraction used by the 5 F-1 engines) at13 tonnes a second.

They would consume, in just 13 seconds, the equivalent of a full fuel load on a Boeing 747-400. And that’s not including the LOX – the oxidant – pouring into the F-1’s bell housings to promote combustion.

All who flew in a Saturn 5 spoke of the appalling vibration and violent left to right shaking as the rocket accelerated away from the pad. Some reported their instruments as unreadable, and others said they had to consciously keep their hands clear of any toggles (save the Captain’s Abort handle) lest they accidentally trip a switch.

Others remember vividly, being thrown violently forward against their restraint harnesses as the 1st stage’s five Rocketdyne engines cut out – fuel exhausted – and the whole rocket coasted until the first stage separated and the second stage fired.

This had to be endured, along with the G forces increasing to three, as the rocket approached Maximum Q, or the point of maximum dynamic pressure, or that point where stress on the rocket’s framework was at its maximum value.

On an Apollo launch, this occurred around 13,000m (or 42,000 feet) or about 1 minute 26 seconds into the mission – it was through Mach 1 after about 1 minute 7 seconds.

You get some idea of the frequency and scale of the vibration and flexing of the rocket’s skin in the hundreds of kilos of condensate ice, which it sheds before it has even cleared the gantry.

In the minutes before ignition, the Saturn 5 would be tethered to the launch gantry by half a dozen explosive bolts, as it perched above the concrete blast deflector that would redirect the white hot flames and thrust down and away.

Eight seconds before planned lift off, the ignition sequence for the five Rocketdyne F-1 engines would start – centre engine first, then opposing pairs of the other four, each ignition separated from the previous one by 300 milliseconds to minimise structural loads.

Once all five engines were confirmed stable and on board systems “go” a “sequenced” release would start. The moment gantry sensors detected the first movement (1.08G acceleration registered on the rocket) it released all the fixed tethers and umbilical connection

The hold-down arms would relax their grip on the rocket first, and immediately afterwards, as the rocket started to inch away from the pad, it was slowed and steadied by a series of tapered metal pins being pulled through dies for half a second.

In the first eight seconds of movement off the pad there was even a yawing manouevre incorporated into the controls, to ensure the whole rocket cleared the launch gantry without snagging.

At this point there was no retreat or high ground for the crew. The vehicle’s engines couldn’t be shut down to allow it to settle back onto the pad. It was a “rip, shit, or bust” moment, and one that further elevated the already stellar stress levels of the crew.

If something went catastrophically wrong, the best they could expect was an extraction by the escape tower and small solid rocket engines, attached to their module, and even that was a long shot.

On command, via the Commander’s Abort handle, the crew capsule would separate from the now sacrificial rocket, and the small solid state rockets would lift it clear of the launch pad and deposit it far enough away – using the parachutes fitted to allow a soft water or land recovery at mission’s end – that the crew might hope to survive the blast.

You need to be a long way away from the equivalent of two kilotons of TNT when it goes off.

Watch the slow motion replays of Main Engines Start, the split second gimballing of the four annular F-1’s before the rocket creeps away from the pad and think of trying to balance a sharpened pencil, by the point, on your index finger. Only this pencil weighs nearly 3,000 tonnes.

Nothing obvious comes to hand to give you a sense of scale as the four annular F-1s lock into position and the white hot gases erupt. You also need to remember that a grown man could comfortably stand upright in each “bell” and still have six feet of headroom. He’d also struggle to touch the walls with his outstretched arms.




In Boulia Western Queensland, in mid-April, a farmer leaning on his front gate will see the Sun’s edge to the east and a bit north, at about 0654LT. His horizon will be about 6 kms distant.

Ditto Frank Brown who had travelled to Boulia to watch and film the TLI, weather permitting.

For Bert Meadows and his crew, heading south east at 37,000’ feet, the horizon gets pushed about 360kms further east, and it was this issue that was troubling him as the QF276 headed for the gap between Boulia and Longreach.

He needed a dark sky for two pretty obvious reasons.

First of all, he had to find that spot in the Heavens where Frank reckoned Apollo 16’s TLI (Trans Lunar Insertion) “burn” would take place so he could orient his aeroplane properly, and secondly, the sky needed to be reasonably black or indigo at least, to enable the passengers to see the fireworks.

He had already spoken to the First and Economy Class cabins, just after departure Manila and before the Cabin Crew tucked everybody in for the night. There had been an overwhelming YES to his question as to whether everyone wanted to be woken for the spectacle.

The lyrics from the old 60s song from the musical Hair went something like, “When the moon is in the seventh house/And Jupiter aligns with Mars.” Frank had told his mate Bert to first find the blue/white star Achernar in the Constellation Eridanus and, as John Young lit the Third Stage engine, the “burn” would show as a transient, very bright star, a degree or so away from Achernar.

Frank told Bert that Achernar should be towards the south, and about 500 above the horizon.


Bert Meadows was awarded his Boeing 707 Command, after a few years on Qantas’s DC4s, in January 1970 and though still a relatively junior 707 skipper, was slowly working his way up Qantas’s Seniority List. He’d make Pole Position – Top Gun – Pilot, Seniority Number 1 – in July 1989, about a year before he retired.

It always seems strange to me that even in the so called Jet Age, we should still be using a system to manage our Captains, as was used in George III’s Royal Navy, 150 years earlier.

The “numbers” were the scaffolding that supported the whole rostering system, so it would be that Bert, senior to Frank, would be able to bid successfully for the three day Hong Kong trip, that would put him, his F/O John McCullagh and the rest of his crew, over western Queensland, that April morning.

They’d departed HKG, after an overnight “slip”, during the evening of the 16th April, pushed away from the old Kai Tak Terminal by a large tractor, before taxiing down to the end of Runway 31, for a departure to the north west.

The flight to Manila had taken about an hour and 25 minutes, and in Manila they took fuel, exchanged passengers and received a new Flight Plan for the final leg, into Sydney.

Toilets would’ve been serviced, but the flight would have been catered ex-Hong Kong right through to SYD so, apart from a few bits and pieces, there would not have been much activity in the Galleys.

The new Flight Plan predicted a pretty quick Elapsed Time to SYD, via a direct INS (Inertial Navigation System) Track as distinct from flying a sequence of designated airways.

Nine hours was the FP estimate – a lot quicker than usual – so Bert had to do some quick arithmetic to “protect” his estimated time through western Queensland, while preserving a scheduled arrival time at SYD, and forestalling unwanted curiosity about a decision to deliberately delay the flight in MNL.

Sydney’s curfew provided just such justification – there was no point arriving SYD only to go into the “hold” awaiting the airfield’s opening at 0600 Local time.

So they happily accepted a small delay, to “avoid a curfew violation or unwanted holding at SYD.”

So around 0610 Eastern Standard Time, Captain Meadows handed over control of the flight to his First Officer – John McCullagh, with the Second Officer moving forward into the seat that Bert had vacated.

Before vacating his left hand seat, Bert had to “clear his yardarm” with ATC, and request a diversion off track so they could see Apollo, so he re-tuned his Comm-1 VHF radio to Brisbane Centre’s frequency, cleared his throat, and pressed the little red button under his left thumb…

“Brisbane Centre, Qantas 276.”

“Qantas 276, Brisbane Centre, go ahead.”

“Brisbane Centre, Qantas 276, we’re about eight zero nautical miles north west Longreach, Flight level three seven zero, and have a radar indication of thunderstorms ahead. Request OK to divert west off track up to six zero miles to avoid. Possible software gremlin. Qantas 276.”

This was stretching things somewhat and there was a pause while the Air Trafficker had a look at his “plot”.

Strange that no-one else had reported the TS?

Let’s have a look at the Forecast for Area 41 and 43 which covers that portion of Outback Queensland.

Hmmm. Nothing forecast by way of TS or CB cells (cumulo nimbus cells that breed thunderstorms).

Climb? Descend?

Well, he’s clear left and right, so in the Spirit of the Brotherhood of the Air of which we are all surely Fraternal Brothers, why not?

“Qantas 276, Brisbane Centre.”

“Brisbane Centre, Qantas 276, Go ahead. »

“Qantas 276 you’re cleared to depart planned track to the right – up to 60 miles to clear thunderstorms. Call when able to resume original track.”

“Brisbane Centre, Qantas 276. Many thanks.”

So Bert rolled his aeroplane gently to the right and tracked for Boulia, and Frank Brown with camera and VHF scanner.

Bert looked right towards his F/O and nodded and began the time-honoured litany, associated for so long with the transfer of responsibility on aeroplane Flight Decks: “Handing over” to which the F/O made the correct response – “taking over.”

Bert headed towards the rear of the Flight Deck, to the Navigation Officer’s little office – a seat, a desk and some arcane instruments including a LORAN screen used in those far off days for getting across the Atlantic.

There was no Navigation Officer on this sector, so Bert was untroubled reaching under the desk and retrieving the small footstool about 15” high, that rotated like a Lazy Susan.

This he positioned in the entry area to the Flight Deck, just forward of the FD door – never locked in those untroubled times although Bert probably did lock it on this occasion, to prevent someone charging through the door and knocking him off his perch.

Next stop – one of the hat stowage recesses on the other side of the aeroplane, aft of the Flight Engineer’s console where the Hughes Periscopic sextant was stowed.

Bert mated the sextant to the socket built into the aeroplane’s fuselage, and cranked it round to look south, for Eridanus, and then the tell-tale bluish white star, Achernar.

Bert had acquired a Navigator’s ticket along the way, so wasn’t too troubled finding his star, which is in fact the tenth brightest object in Earth’s night sky, even though 140 light years distant. It’s also called Alpha Eridani and is noticeably “oblate” – like a squashed orange – due the speed of its rotation. Feel at liberty to share this info with your friends.

That was the second of the two problems out of the way. Bert had managed to postpone the sunrise somewhat by the turn to the right to guarantee a still-dark sky and good “seeing” conditions.

Bert got Achernar in the cross-hairs and shouted “gottit!” to his F/O as the second hands on the chronometers on the pilots’ panel clicked on 20:33Z or 0633K  (Eastern Standard Time). The F/O rolled the aeroplane to the left, as if to resume his originally planned track. Voila, 28 seconds later at 0633:28K, the passengers crowding the right hand windows got a ringside view of an impossibly bright new star, shading Achernar’s luminosity  for a couple of minutes. The single Rocketdyne J-2 engine accelerated John Young and his crew to 22,000mph, out of Low Earth Orbit into a trajectory aimed at where everyone thought the Moon would be in about three days’ time.

Well, it was probably a bit more precise than that but you get the idea.

The exhaust plume was brighter than the full moon and cast a faint shadow through the Flight Deck windows.


Bert returned to his seat, displacing the S/O who returned to his chair behind and slightly to the right of the Captain’s seat on the left hand side of the cockpit. The transfer of control litany was repeated as he told his F/O “Taking over” while he placed his hands on the yoke, and the F/O responded “handing over” as he removed his.

As Bert levelled the wings and headed east again to intersect his original track, he transmitted “blind” to Frank, seven miles below, that it had all gone to plan, and his numbers were right on the money.

As he ended the transmission, he realised that Brisbane Centre were probably still monitoring the frequency, although they didn’t query the manoeuvre.

Bert radio’d ahead, via SSB, to see whether Qantas’s Press people wanted to organise some press coverage and interviews on the 276’s arrival, but there was no follow up.

I’d like to think, nearly 50 years later, that whatever ATC feathers were ruffled that morning over western Queensland, were long forgotten 2O years’ later, when Bert, operating his two final sectors in Command of a Qantas aeroplane – SYD/AKL/SYD – would ask Sydney Clearance Delivery for a nonexistent SID (Standard Instrument Departure).

This fictitious SID would take him, VH-EBW and his passengers up the Harbour at 2,000 feet, then north over the beaches to Avalon and the Meadows’ backyard before joining the normal airways for Auckland.

It made extra work for the Air Traffickers involved, but they approved it.


Acknowledgements: Bert was patient and generous with his help and advice whilst preparing this feature – if this story has entertained and informed, then much of the credit is his…I’m hoping his logbook will yield further yarns.

I also had help from Danny Hale who was the face of Qantas as it automated its Reservations functions in the 60s and 70s, and Geoff Gluth, who did the same for Qantas, managing all the functions associated with getting passengers through airports and into the correct seats. Not to mention the processes that gave the pilots a safe aeroplane to fly.


One Comment

  1. Bit late in catching up with this one Juan but enjoyed your informative story told, as usual, with a touch of humour.
    As always, “Good onyer mate.” cheers, Brown Owl.

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