As a 10 year old, standing with several hundred other airforce kids and servicemen among the hangar line, I watched one of the best emergency landings witnessed at Ohakea for many a year. For the young Vulcan crew it was to be the landing of their careers.
The first inkling anyone at Ohakea had of the unfolding emergency was the air-sea rescue alert sometime around midday. Two Devon aircraft hastily took to the air and headed out to sea, near the mouth of the Rangitikei River, just a few miles west from the base. It was then we learned that a Vulcan had sustained damage to the left undercarriage leg as it had attempted a landing at the newly opened Wellington International Airport – previously known as Rongotai.
Within minutes of the Devons leaving the ground, the wounded Vulcan appeared low on the southern horizon, trailing a heavy exhaust plume. We were amazed at how quickly the aircraft reached the airﬁ eld. It climbed very gently and slowed to pass across the control tower and the binocular gaze of the senior engineering staff, who were attempting to establish what had happened to the undercarriage. It soon became apparent the lock-down strut, the rod that holds the undercarriage leg in place during landings, had been snapped, leaving the main undercarriage leg swinging in the breeze. After several low, slow passes past the control tower, the Vulcan climbed slightly and followed the Devons out to sea. Everyone was rooted to the spot awaiting the next development, which wasn’t to occur for nearly another hour.
What I didn’t know at the time, until after meeting the two pilots at Sunday dinner the following week, was that there had been considerable drama before a landing was attempted. The crew left the airﬁ eld circuit and proceeded to a rendezvous with the Devons, which were preparing for the Vulcan to be ditched at sea.
The Vulcan normally carried a ﬁ veman crew, three of whom were weapons specialists seated behind the pilots in the cockpit. It was decided to lower the undercarriage and proceed to evacuate the weapons crew via the front landing strut.
This involved a crewman climbing down the strut, into the slipstream and dropping away from the aircraft, before opening his parachute. The ﬁ rst crewman to exit the lower hatch was immediately pinned to the nose wheel strut and could not get clear of the aircraft. Fortunately, he was hauled back into the aircraft after a great deal of exertion by the other crew members. It also became apparent at this point that ditching the aircraft, with the left undercarriage dangling and unsecured, could result in the aircraft cart-wheeling on contact with the sea.
Quite atypically, certainly by RAF standards, the pilot called for a brief discussion, followed by a vote as to which option they would choose to try and land the aircraft. They unanimously voted to attempt a wheelsdown landing at Ohakea. The crew set about preparing the aircraft as best they could. The lock pins were inserted into the pilot’s ejection seats to prevent their accidental ﬁ ring in case of a hard landing and the canopy covering the cockpit was blown, to give the crew the quickest escape route over the massive ‘v’ wing.
Total silence engulfed the watchers as the Vulcan made a long, slow approach from the east. Fire crews stood ready to race into action, ambulance crews hoping they would not be needed. Everyone’s attention was riveted on the approaching Vulcan. Then came the moment of touchdown – dead centre of the main east-west runway. It was textbook perfect! The aircraft gently slowed and as it did, the pilot eased it on to the grass verge; and with the slightest trail of dust, the broken undercarriage folded under and the wingtip touched the grass. The great white bird came quietly to rest.
It was all over in 30 seconds. Almost immediately the aircraft stopped. The crew scrambled out of the cockpit and over the wing to the waiting emergency crews, clearly relieved at their easy escape. What a day to remember…