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Today in history… trainee pilot’s bizarre brush with death

12:00am | & Lifestyle

One of the most bizarre and lucky air accidents of all time happened 80 years ago today, when an inexperienced pilot simultaneously crash-landed not one, but two aircraft!

It followed a mid-air collision in which the two aircraft became locked together, one on top of the other. Although both engines of the top aircraft were knocked out, its pilot managed to land the piggy-backed pair using his controls and the still-running engines of the lower aircraft.

It all happened over Brocklesby, New South Wales, Australia, on September 29th, 1940, and involved two Avro Ansons from a nearby Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) flight training school. It was busy training pilots and other aircrew for the Allied war effort and the two aircraft were on a cross-country training exercise.

One was piloted by 22-year-old Leading Aircraftman Leonard Fuller and the other by 19-year-old Leading Aircraftman Jack Hewson, both natives of New South Wales. Each aircraft also carried a trainee navigator. As they flew over the small township of Brockelsby at about 1,000 feet, they made a banking turn. Fuller lost sight of Hewson’s aircraft beneath him but then felt a “grinding crash and a bang as roaring propellers struck each other and bit into the engine cowlings.”

Hewson’s aircraft had gained altitude during the turn and collided with the underside of Fuller’s. Now it was wedged there, its cockpit and upper gun turret jammed into the left wing port of Fuller’s aircraft and its tailfin and rudder under his left tailplane. The accident had knocked out both of Fuller’s engines, but those on Hewson’s Avro (the bottom aircraft) were still running at full power.

After the initial shock, and much to his amazement, Fuller (pictured right) found he could still operate all the ailerons and flaps on his aircraft, sitting on top, and fly it using the power from the engines on Hewson’s, wedged below – although he later described it as “lumping along like a brick”.

Conventional wisdom would have told all four men to bail out and allow the interlocked aircraft to crash into uninhabited agricultural land below, but Fuller – perhaps because of his inexperience – decided he could attempt a crash-landing.

Hewson had been injured during the collision, but managed to free himself from the mangled wreckage and bail out, together with the navigators from both aircraft. All three parachuted to safety. Fuller then flew a further five miles, looking for a good spot to land. His training told him it should be close to habitation, in case he was injured and needed help, and that he should land into the wind. He soon found a flat grassed farm paddock and began his descent.

It was a textbook crash-landing, the two interlocked aircraft sliding 200 yards across the grass before coming to rest. Fuller felt it was possibly his best landing yet and his commanding officer said it was a “wonderful effort”, adding that his choice of landing site was “perfect”. On hearing of the freak incident, the RAAF’s Inspector of Air Accidents, Group Captain Arthur Murphy, flew straight to the crash site, where he could hardly believe what he saw.

Interviewed by Murphy, the uninjured Fuller told him: “Well, sir, I did everything we’ve been told to do in a forced landing – land as close as possible to habitation or a farmhouse and, if possible, land into the wind. I did all that. There’s the farmhouse, and I did a couple of circuits and landed into the wind. She was pretty heavy on the controls, though!”

Incredibly, both aircraft could be repaired, saving the RAAF around £40,000. Fuller’s was returned to flight service while Hewson’s, which bore the brunt of the landing, was used as an instructional airframe.

Fuller was promoted to sergeant, but also confined to barracks for a fortnight and docked a week’s wages for speaking about the incident to newspaper reporters without authorisation. He later received a commendation for his “presence of mind, courage and determination” during the accident and, after qualifying, saw active wartime service in the Middle East and Europe and was commissioned as a Flying Officer.

Sadly, Fuller would not live to tell the remarkable tale in old age. Having been posted back to the relative safety of Australia as a flying instructor, he was killed in March 1944 when he was hit by a bus while riding his bicycle.

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