from Hero to Zero
This is the story of Capt Rod Lovell and the successful ditching of DC-3, VH-EDC into Botany Bay (Sydney, Australia) on 24th April 1994.

   Home      The ditching and aftermath

CHAPTER ONE - "Wing Commanders Weather"

"Sydney Ground, good morning, Echo Delta Charlie for Lord Howe. Taxy clearance, received Golf."

"Echo Delta Charlie clear to taxy for Bravo 3 intersection, the time is on the hour."

Surface Movement Control had granted our taxy clearance and we were on our way.

First stop would be Lord Howe Island for refuelling and thence onto our destination, Norfolk Island. The time was 0900 local time on 24 April 1994.

First Officer Nick Leach was the pilot flying from the right hand seat and taxied the aircraft for a runway 16, B3 intersection departure. In normal two-pilot operations, we operate what is known as leg-for-leg. That is the captain and first officer (co-pilot) alternate flying the aircraft and operating as support pilot. Even (as in this case) when the first officer is flying the aircraft, and the captain is the support pilot, the captain retains his role as captain of the aircraft, with ultimate control. On this trip, however, because of Nick's inexperience at operating into Lord Howe Island, I would conduct the approach and landing there. The pre-takeoff checklist and crew briefing which included procedures to be used in the event of a malfunction were conducted whilst taxying out to the runway. Nick's brief was, "Takeoff weight is 11,757 kgs, call V1/V2 at 81 kts. Any malfunction before V1 call 'STOP' and I will abandon the takeoff. A malfunction at or after V1, I will nominate - you will feather after my confirmation. I will continue to fly the aircraft until such time as you call 'Taking Over'." As we were about to take off on runway 16, we discussed that in the event of an engine failure after take-off, we would anticipate returning to the airport for a landing on runway 25, "or as dictated by circumstances".

At 0907:49 Local time, the control tower advised; "Echo Delta Charlie, contact departures when airborne, clear for take-off." I acknowledged this take-off clearance. Line-up checklist was completed and Nick slowly pushed the throttles forward. The Pratt & Whitney R-1830's increased their beautiful noise as their power output increased up to a supposedly promised 1200 bhp per engine. As support pilot, I followed up the throttles with my right hand, fine tuning the final power setting of 48 inches (MAP - Manifold Absolute Pressure) and 2700 rpm.

The take-off roll appeared normal. At 81 kts, I reached across in front of Nick's face to signal V1. This was done by the good old victory sign, as it was almost impossible to hear in the cockpit of a DC-3, even with headsets and intercom. I can remember the time of lift-off, because Cathay Pacific Airways flight 101 was cleared to land just as our mainwheels lifted from the runway. The landing gear was selected up as soon as we were safely airborne. At approximately 200 ft AGL (AMSL!) and in excess of 100 kts, the left engine gave a couple of loud bangs. The aircraft yawed slightly to port. The left engine had failed and was called by Nick, the pilot flying. Engine instruments confirmed this and the drills for flying the aircraft and engine failure were carried out as per the company operations manual (which incidentally, conforms to modern airline cockpit resource management [CRM] procedures, and nothing like the olden day procedures where the captain was God and did everything). The propeller was feathered in accordance with the Operations Manual, Emergency Procedures Checklist. I visually checked that the propeller had stopped and it appeared to be in the feather position. All the operations manuals and flight data indicate that a DC-3 will continue to climb after an engine failure on take-off. All the training we do on aircraft endorsement and recurrency training confirm that the aircraft will fly on one engine. I expected the aircraft to continue the climb and we would continue around to land on runway 25 as briefed. At this stage we were approximately 200 ft AGL and ever so slightly to the left of the runway centreline. No sweat. After all, I had trained for just this occasion many, many times. Most of my flying career was in multi-engined aircraft, where the emphasis is on engine-out training. Suddenly, the dramatic realization that the aircraft was not climbing, and airspeed was beginning to decrease. I could not understand why it would not climb with the indications of takeoff power (1200 bhp) on the right engine. It should have climbed with METO (Maximum Except Take Off) power (1050 bhp) as per Douglas performance charts. The Control Tower was advised at 0909:04; "Echo Delta Charlie's got a slight problem. We'll just ah ... standby one." Right at this stage I still intended to climb and return to the airport for a landing. I still cannot understand why the aircraft is not climbing. The power setting on the right engine was 48 inches manifold pressure and 2700 RPM. I still could not understand why the aircraft would not accelerate. It did not take long to realise the situation we were in. The aircraft was not going to stay in the air.

At 0909:18 the tower asked "Echo Delta Charlie, confirm operations normal?"

To which I replied; "Ah negative, we've got ... just shut down the left engine we'll be returning ah"

My options.

1) Land back on the runway. The landing gear had been selected up after takeoff. As the wheels are not directly linked to each other on a DC-3, one wheel will almost always retract or extend before the other. It takes a long time for the cycle to operate and that's with two engine driven hydraulic pumps working. Right at this time we were down to one hydraulic pump, could I get both main wheels down and locked and land on the remaining runway without nosediving over the edge into the sea. The edge I perceived to be constructed of concrete blocks arranged so as to break the sea swell and preserve the seawall. If the aircraft had gone over the edge, it would have been ripped open and fuel tanks could have ruptured and exploded. Devastation. Not an option.

2) Try and make it to the new third runway. We were not aligned with it. The aircraft did not have the performance to reach it, and as it was still being constructed, it was nowhere near a suitable landing ground. There was equipment, vehicles and mounds of dirt/sand everywhere. Not an option. As a professional pilot, one of my duties is to the safety and well being of the passengers and crew. Consciously I reminded myself of the unfortunate accident that happened on 21st February 1980 when an Advance Airlines of Australia Beechcraft Super King Air 200 VH-AAV crashed into the sea wall at Sydney airport with the loss of all 13 souls on board. This aircraft suffered an engine failure after taking off on runway 25 and the pilot attempted to return to the airport. I was determined that this was not going to happen to my passengers and crew. This thought was prominent in my mind.

3) The last option was to carry out a controlled ditching. The aircraft's altitude and airspeed were still decreasing. As the airspeed approached 80 kts I took control of the aircraft. Whilst all this is going on I'm extremely conscious of the fact that I must maintain control of the aircraft. To lose control means killing all on board. As I decide for option 3, I pick a suitable ditching site, and in fact turn slightly to starboard to ensure missing a small pleasure boat, and ditching where I had chosen. Ground effect (or in this case sea effect) crosses my mind. Why isn't it helping us? If I do get help from ground (sea effect), manoeuvring of the aircraft would be almost prohibited and with Kernell oil refinery about 2 miles dead ahead, no thanks! Also, say I get ground effect to help us at say 20 ft. What happens if the speed still decreases. The good book says Vmca is 73 kts, I do not want to get near Vmca at 20 ft. To lose control under these circumstances, the port wing would drop, hit the water and the aircraft would cartwheel in. Again devastation, certainly serious injuries and quite possibly loss of life (including mine).

I think; why isn't the right engine producing full power?

There is a fleeting flash of self preservation, but this is immediately suppressed by the fact that professionalism dictates that a controlled ditching must be accomplished. It is a very strange feeling carrying out a controlled ditching/crash. The urge to succeed and have minimum injuries to the passengers and crew was very strong. Sacrifice the aircraft to save the passengers and crew.

At 0909:38, I transmit to Sydney Tower: "Echo Delta Charlie negative we're going to have to ditch here"

CHAPTER FIVE- The Ditching

Performance was decreasing and so my only safe option was to carry out a controlled ditching. When I decided that this was the only safe option, I took over flying the aircraft from Nick. I manoeuvred the aircraft to miss some small pleasure boats and so that it would be close to the end of the new runway when settled in the water. Douglas performance tables show that the aircraft should have been capable of climbing, single-engine, with an extra 3 tons on board.

Full flap was called for, (in fact, on listening to the control tower tape recording I said "give me flaps", which is very unusual for me as I'm normally very precise with my instructions), power retarded on the right engine, and I flared the aircraft prior to impact. There was no time to tell the passengers to brace for impact. My whole efforts were in controlling the aircraft to a safe water landing. I remember thinking to myself that the aircraft perspective was very low. The last airspeed reading I noted prior to impact was about 60 kts and I remember being happy with it. I believe the point of splashdown was abeam the southern end of the third runway on the western side approx 70 metres from the edge. On touchdown my head went forward and struck the windscreen area. This was because our shoulder harnesses were not secured as it was impossible to reach the landing gear selector handles with the shoulder harnesses secured. There was a wave of water that came up over the nose and windscreen of the aircraft and the aircraft slewed around to the right, and in fact came to settle on a westerly heading. This slewing was caused by the right propeller acting like a huge disc and creating a huge barrier to the water. Whereas, the port propeller was feathered (or so I thought) and creating less drag. Because of the huge force caused by the water on the right hand propeller, this engine was torn from the wing and after the blades cut the starboard skin of the fuselage, the whole engine was forced under the wing. There are no passenger seats where the skin was cut. After the aircraft had settled, the crew commenced emergency evacuation procedures. The fire warning bell was ringing as was the landing gear warning horn. I silenced the fire warning bell with the appropriate switch, but felt frustrated that even by turning the battery master switch off I could not silence the gear horn. Nick said it was because the aircraft's electrical system had shorted out. From the time I notified the tower that we had a slight problem until we were in the water was less than 40 seconds! "Slight problem" I had said to the tower. In hindsight this was a bit of an understatement.

Boats soon arrived from everywhere. I remember looking out to the port side and seeing all the engine cowls ripped back or missing and seeing the top of the wing well out of the water. I told Andrew to get everybody out so Andrew went down the back to help the passengers. At one stage I suggested to Nick that we place a rope through the side sliding windows and tow the aircraft to shallow water, but the rate at which the water was entering the cockpit from below the floor prevented this. Contrary to most media reports, it was Nick who went out the overhead hatch, along the top of the fuselage, onto the tailplane and was taken off by a pleasure boat without getting wet, all the time clutching the red aircraft flight folder. Why he took this red flight folder with him has never ceased to amaze me. It was always positioned on the floor near the copilots seat. At this stage I was concerned at the rate at which the floor was becoming covered with water. When I was sure there was nobody left on board the aircraft Andrew and myself jumped into the water (the scene from the movie Lethal Weapon when the two guys (Mel Gibson and ?) jump from the roof came to mind).

Although we made sure that the passengers had donned their life jackets prior to exiting the aircraft, the flight crew did not . Andrew and I got into a liferaft, I got in first. The funny thing I remember is that when you carry out a wet drill for recency, it's fairly hard to get into a liferaft, this time, however, I believe I would have out-performed a seal in the task. The other thing was that Andrew and I were in the same raft and I commented to him that this would be just my luck, to be stuck in a raft with just him. We were only in the raft a short time before a pleasure boat took us on board. This boat then proceeded at a very fast speed in a westerly direction across the bay as the driver wanted to get us to hospital quickly. All the time I, in my 4 bar captains epaulettes, protested loudly saying that as we were survivors of an air crash we had to all stay at the accident site as a group until all were accounted for. The driver appeared not understand the English language too well. Somebody eventually convinced the driver to turn around and take us back to the scene of the ditching. My trusty First Officer, Andrew, had in the mean time procured a mobile phone (amazing what fishermen carried in those days) and proceeded to calmly call his wife to let her know the situation. It was only at this time that Andrew advised me that his wife, Stacey, had had a premonition about the flight, and begged Andrew not to go. I have since told Stacey that her begging was wasted on Andrew, she should have told me!

I believe the old girl floated for around 15-20 minutes before giving one final salute with her starboard wing prior to slipping below the surface. It was a sad sight. A 44 year old aircraft with in excess of 40,000 airframe hours exiting ??????

One of the reasons I ditched where I did was I thought the survivors could make their way up the sea wall of the new runway to safety. It was only when our boat took us over there that I found out that the sea wall is about a 3 metre vertical concrete wall with another section protruding out over the sea, presumably to stop undesirables gaining access to the runway. Pity the poor survivors of an accident. In fact the firemen had to anchor their ladders and then put them over the edge for us to climb up.

All occupants evacuated the aircraft in an orderly manner and were picked up by various vessels in the bay. All emergency services were fantastic. My only objection was that the ambulance would not put the lights and siren on when it was taking us to hospital. The hospital staff were fantastic. Soon after we were admitted, two plain clothes policemen (Detective Sergeant Craig McDonald, assisted by Andrew Jones) came up and said that as we were involved in a public transport accident, we were required by law to submit to a blood test. I objected saying that there was nothing under the Civil Aviation Act or Regulations stating that we had to comply. I stated strongly that I had no objection to undertaking the test voluntarily, but objected to the intimidation and stand-over tactics these gentlemen were using. They at one stage stated that they would go and get a judge/magistrate to order us to comply. I eventually had the test and told these gentlemen that I protested most strongly about the way in which they coerced it.

Whilst in the hospital, Nick hardly uttered a word at all. His girlfriend, Anja, was by his side, but he was silent. I was astonished that his father Geoff had literally watched us ditch, but did not visit his son in hospital after the air crash.

Chief Inspector Kevin Rafferty of Mascot Police Station, handled himself and the situation with extreme professionalism. His media interviews were accurate, and watching a person of this calibre supporting my efforts was very rewarding and comforting, especially when everybody else is trying to blame someone (namely me). Armchair critics are presuming "pilot error".

When my wife was driving me home that afternoon after trying to see Annabel, my thoughts were, although I am in no way religious, that I had just carried out my "purpose in life". It sounds really funny to say it, but it was the only way I could sum up my feelings in words.

That night, I was very pleased when my two oldest children Gary and Kylie spent some time at my home. As this was the first time I had seen them for a long time. I was extremely hopeful that, as their father had come close to death, they may reassess our relationship and wish to be close to me again. I still hold hope. Also very late that evening Geoff Leach, John Lymbery and Bruce Ibbotson, made a visit to us to inform us that as there had been an accident, they had been to the hangar at Camden airport to get the paperwork ready for the investigation. My youngest sons Mark and Kris rang me the next day.

Aircraft documentation including (but not limited to) flight plan, load sheet, trim sheet and passenger manifest ended up in the possession of the BASI investigators. At the BASI interview that week, when asked about "time compression", I commented that in the period of the emergency, time did not appear to slow down, in fact just the opposite, it appeared to accelerate. It all just happened so fast.

29 Apr 94 'EDC's crew was invited by the members of Scots College to attend a barbecue given in our honour. We were presented with plaques and I felt very proud of what I had accomplished. I took time to explain to the gathering what actually happens in the cockpit at a time like this. I felt that this was a requirement. If not told or explained then a questionable void exists.

Sometime A little time after the accident, I was facing a "T" intersection, controlled by lights near our home. As I said, I was facing the T, and when the lights turned green, I proceeded to turn right at my normal unhurried pace. Just as I had started to move and had probably gone 2-3 metres, a car from the right went straight though the intersection, against a red light, at a speed I would estimate to be far in excess of 60 kph. This scared hell out of me. I was shocked when I realised how close I had come to being killed. This incident had an enormous effect on me. If I had accelerated just a little faster it would have been the end. I guess what made the difference between this incident and the ditching, was the fact that this time I had no control over my destiny, and some thoughtless, irresponsible person had almost terminated my life.