Double Engine Failure
Recollections by Frederick Lacy of a Mosquito collection in September 1947 that didn't go quite according to plan...
At the time I was instructing on Mossies at RAF Benson and my boss - the CFI - invited me to collect a brand new Mk 34 from a civilian Maintenance Unit in Staffordshire, about 15 minutes flying time away at a cruising speed of about 240 knots.
It was a Friday afternoon and I knew that I could pack up for the weekend on returning to Benson and drive home for the weekend to my wife, who was expecting a second child, and young son in Norfolk - some 120 miles away.
Johnny Bland elected to accompany me as navigator and we were duly delivered to the MU in the Station Oxford aircraft, arriving about 2pm. We went straight out to the aircraft having collected the necessary logbook and other paperwork from Air Traffic Control, where we were cleared to return to Benson.
The groundcrewman greeted us with the information that the aircraft had been air tested that morning, all was in order and there was no need to delay further by ground running. Accordingly I started up, taxied out immediately and took off for Benson.
Climbing away I remarked to Johnny on how pleasant it was to be flying a new aircraft - only five hours "on the clock" - which smelled just like a new car. The controls and levers shone, as did the instrument dials.
I had just levelled off at about 1800ft on course for home when an engine failed. I asked Johnny to change fuel tanks; as in standard practice we had taken off on the outer wing tanks and he duly switched to the inners. This engine failed to pick up and simultaneously the second engine failed. I yelled "Back to outers" but neither engine picked up.
I then pressed one of the airscrew feathering buttons - nothing happened and there was no click in my headset to indicate that there was an electrical connection.
At the same time, both propellers "ran away", that is to say they windmilled, creating tremendous drag and rendering the aircraft unmanageable below a speed of about 220 knots. This meant one thing only - an immediate forced landing.
As luck would have it I saw hangars ahead and realised we were heading for Upper Heyford airfield. Pushing the aircraft nose downwards I saw that we were heading straight for the hangars, across wind and the shortest width of the airfield. We were by now close to the ground and I did a 90 degree "daisy-cutting" turn so close that Johnny screamed in fear, on the assumption that the aircraft was about to "cartwheel" - resulting in our immediate death.
I was able to straighten the aircraft out a few feet above ground and made a good bellylanding. There was no question of or time to lower the undercarriage or any flap. To do so would have stalled us into the ground anyway.
The aircraft tore across the field toward a newly-laid tarmac runway. Unbeknown to me the surface of the runway was about 18" above ground level and we struck it at an angle. This tore the cockpit away from the fuselage and broke up the remainder of the aircraft except for the wings, engines and cockpit which slithered along for some distance.
The nose of the aircraft had dug into the earth, a good deal of which entered the cockpit through a large hole at the front, but not sufficiently to injure us both. We clambered out through the roof hatch, obviously much shaken.
Within moments a staff car arrived on the scene and a very angry Station Commander wanted to know what the hell we meant by "beating up" his airfield!
Mollified by our explanation we were driven to an office in one of the hangars where an ill-tempered Wing Commander struggled with the requisite initial accident report which had to be sent by signal to the Air Ministry right away. As the Accident Prevention Officer for my home base, I was able to assist him complete the signal!
Johnny and I stood before the Wing Commander's desk and I noticed Johnny was beginning to sway. At this I suggested to the officer that Johnny was probably suffering from shock and could we perhaps have something to drink. I fancied a nice, strong cup of tea. Summoning a sour-looking airmen the officer sent him for water which arrived in two chipped, enamel mugs.
We understood that Upper Heyford was about to close for the weekend and our presence, the crashed aircraft to be looked after and the further fact that the Benson Oxford aircraft would be coming to pick up Johnny and I later, did not endear us to anyone there.
Many months after the prang and after I had moved on from Benson, I saw a copy of the Accident Investigation Report. This concluded that the aircraft had been improperly stored with 100 octane aviation fuel in the tanks and that this had "attacked" the bullet-proof inner lining of the tanks. A resultant thick, brown "goo" (I would have given it a somewhat rude appellation) passed to the carburetors, eventually blocking the jets and causing the engines to stop.
I have often thought that the aircraft was neither "run-up" nor air tested on that fateful morning before Johnny and I arrived to pick it up, the civilian groundcrew having been as anxious as ourselves to get away for the ensuing weekend.
It was absolutely criminal that this dereliction of duty occurred, including the fact that there was no electrical connection between the airscrew feathering buttons in the cockpit and the feathering system. Had I been able to feather the propellors I might have had the aircraft under better control and could have perhaps made a wheels down landing or, at least, a smoother bellylanding.
I never heard if there was any inquiry or possible disciplinary action at the Maintenance Unit concerned.
At least we survived and I am still here today to tell the tale!
Frederick Lacy, August 2000
Addendum: I recently received the following from Mike Packham, Mosquito Aircraft Museum, Salisbury Hall, London Colney, Herts:
"After reading this potentially harrowing account I have checked my records of all Mosquito aircraft. The PR.34 mentioned was PF657, a Percival-built aircraft and the accident date was July 29th 1947. The departure aerodrome was 51MU, Lichfield."
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