Sunderland PP124 was built by Shorts at Rochester as Mk.V. and served with the RAF from May 1945. After active service with the RAF it was returned to Belfast to be rebuilt for the RNZAF as NZ4113.
NZ4113 arrived at Hobsonville at the conclusion of its delivery flight on 7Aug1954. It served with 6Sdn as XX-D, and was later transferred to 5Sdn at Lauthala Bay initially as KN-D, later KN-M.NZ4113 with 6Sdn as XX-DIn service with 5Sdn
The aircraft then returned to Hobsonville in May 1956 to serve with the Maritime Operational Conversion Unit. With the amalgamation of the Sunderland fleet later that year, NZ4113 became M.
NZ4113 will always be remembered as the Sunderland that scraped its keel on the brand new runway at Rongotai, Wellington's new airport, during the opening day display on 25Oct1959.
The aircraft was meant to do a low fly-by, but things got a little too low.NZ4113 about to touch at Rongotai, 25Oct1959
Robin Klitscher, co-pilot of the aircraft at that incident, recollects:
"Go back in time to Sunday 25 October 1959. Go back in space to Wellington's new pride and joy, the virgin runway fortified at each end against the sea at Rongotai. Go back in events to the air show staged to mark the opening thereof.
The show was supposed to have been on the Saturday, but Wellington's weather was in one of its more sullen tempers on that day. The Sunday dawned better, but not much. No rain or significant cloud, but a very strong, very gusty nor'westerly gale swinging twenty degrees misaligned with the runway.
Sunderland flying-boat NZ4113 was charged with a flypast along the runway to open the show, thence to patrol Cook Strait as
search-and-rescue picket for the rest of the afternoon (inelegantly, the callsign assigned for the latter purpose was Duckbutt).
My log book reads copilot and, with tactful understatement, records the manoeuvre as "Touch and Go, Rongotai". The planing hull was breached in the process. Having become a casualty itself, the aircraft was obliged to abandon the duckbutt duty in favour of a duckscuttle back home to Hobsonville.
But before turning to the detail, let me mention the aircraft immediately following us in the programme, a Royal Air Force Vulcan, tail number XH498. On approach from the south in the tumultuous wind this aircraft hit the lip of the runway where it falls away into the sea. One undercarriage leg broke at its root. Though it remained attached to the aircraft it was free to flap in the breeze - and did.
Fuel lines were ruptured, releasing turbine kerosene to spray everywhere as the aircraft climbed away. The hapless machine landed at Ohakea. As expected the damaged leg collapsed during the runout. The aircraft slewed off the runway on one wheel and the other wingtip, ploughing up the turf before coming safely to rest. It was repaired at Ohakea over the next several months, and eventually was flown back to Britain.
Some show. Some opening. Double whammy.
As the Sunderland sullied the spotless new seal, the sensation from the cockpit was just a brief couple of mild bumps - rather like a car negotiating a double speed hump. From the lower deck, however, the sandpapering noises were louder, more prolonged, and much more alarming.
The hole was a couple of feet long or thereabouts and about half that in width. It was big enough to be a worry, shaped like an isosceles triangle with the pointy end forward. Trapped bilge water sprayed out.
The lowest point of the keel, right at the "step" in the planing surface, had been ground away. The void was at a junction of several compound curves in the frames and aircraft skin, and was both too large and too irregular to plug satisfactorily in the air. (It was also a bitch to repair later.)
As it happened, the aircraft was rigged for a return passenger run to the Chathams. At the time, these flights plied about once a month between Evans Bay and the Te Whanga Lagoon by direction of the Government; the Member for Lyttelton (which included the Chathams) was the burly, bluff and highly engaging Norman Kirk. For students of the history of the New Zealand coastal shipping trade, these flights were conducted under charter to the then famed Holm Shipping Company.
The substantial land airfield that's now near Waitangi came later. Meantime the Sunderlands provided an air bridge. (As an aside, a couple of weeks or so after the events related here we lost a Sunderland in the lagoon. Whilst taxying where it was thought to be safe on the line of the lead-in markers, there was an argument with a submerged and uncharted rock. The rock won. There were no casualties but the aircraft was kaput; sunk; gone to Davy Jones.)
The significance of the Chathams rig in the context of the runway touchdown was that the wardroom and another compartment further aft were converted for passengers. Ordinary airliner seats were installed. Needs must; their squabs were put to a use their designer could never have intended nor even envisaged. They were stuffed into the hole and shored into place from the inside. The array of rubber leak stoppers, coir mats and Plasticene (yes) that the Sunderland carried for such eventualities was unequal to the occasion.
The flight engineer who accomplished this work during the flight back to Hobsonville was later decorated for his troubles. To do it he had hung precariously for hours by his heels - literally - from the decking support cross-members, upside down in the bilges, packing whatever was to hand into the hole and surrounds. It wasn't sufficient only to try to reduce the inflow of water that was inevitable when the aircraft touched down on the seaway at Hobsonville. What could not be assessed with confidence was the possibility that the hydraulic force of the water on touchdown at 80 knots might rip the weakened structure wide open. Thus the engineer had to do whatever he could to shore it all up.
The duty crew at Hobsonville and anyone else who happened to be standing around on that Sunday were called out. Several seaplane tenders - flat-bottomed barges with lowish freeboard - were prepared. Aboard was the beaching gear and high-capacity powered Climax water pumps. The beaching gear was a pair of wheeled bogies mounted on substantial girders that fitted onto a hard point in the armpit of each wing and were then snibbed to the respective side of the fuselage. There were no modern labour-saving devices or other niceties to this. Heavy pushme-pullyou functionality was the watchword.
When fitted the wheels projected below the lowest point of the hull so the aircraft could be winched up the slipway. They were hauled up the ramp backwards by a wire hawser bolted through a ring under the tail. As they rose out of the water onto land in such an undignified manner the persona of these great things, whose elegance in either of the two elements for which they were designed was unsurpassed, seemed invariably to shrink into embarrassment.
The Sunderland carried two water pumps as part of its standard internal kit. One was powered by the auxiliary power unit (APU), a small petrol engine that lived in the starboard leading-edge wing root. The other was a hand pump stowed in the bow compartment. The latter looked like a vehicle tyre pump, except that the working stroke was the pull not the push. It was exceedingly hard work. For other than the most trivial of tasks, using it called for approximately the same optimism as baling out Lake Taupo with a bucket.
The APU pump was scarcely any better. The APU could not be started until the aircraft came to rest because its housing in the wing root had to be opened from the outside to allow the engine to breathe and the exhaust to escape overboard. To accomplish that task one had to climb out of a hatch in the fuselage roof, step from the curved top surface of the fuselage onto the wing, undo the Dzus fasteners that held everything closed, and open the hatch in the leading edge; all of this proximate to the inboard engine nacelle and propeller. It was not a manoeuvre to be recommended if the aircraft was in significant motion including lumpiness in the seaway - unless of course one wished to go swimming involutarily (having taken one's chances through the propeller arc).
The capacity of the APU pump was greater than the hand pump of course, but its reliability was awful. Bilge water generally is not pretty stuff. Not only does it smell bad, but to varying degrees it accumulates oil and other contaminants, both fluid and solid. To protect the pump mechanism (and the APU itself from overload, for it had other uses) the associated plumbing was filtered. The filters choked quickly on a diet of bilge soup. Memory dims a little, but recollection is that two or three minutes was a respectable run; five minutes or ten was exceptional.
Out of these considerations, prudence called for the supplementary barge-mounted Climax pumps to be available. This was high-capacity equipment, in the class of the average fire hose. The units had been started and tested ashore before the aircraft alighted. All was as ready as it was likely to be.
The aircraft touched down in the channel. The hull was not further breached. But the water did come in - and fast.
Then intervened Sod's Law. Not Murphy's; Sod's. The two are different, though often they are confused with each other. In aviation at least, Murphy states that if any important component is designed with the potential to be assembled wrongly, someone some day will manage to gratify the potential. Sod is simpler; if something can go wrong, it will.
The plan was that the supplementary pumps would at least hold the flow while the beaching gear was strapped on. It should have worked. What went wrong, however, was that the Climax pumps so recently tested would not start. The onboard APU pump quickly expired, as expected - it could not cope with the flow anyway. The hand pump was useless. The aircraft started to sink.
The space beneath the lower deck of a Sunderland - the bilge - was compartmentalised into watertight sections. The deck itself, however, was close to or below the static waterline. Above the deck in the doorways between compartments, therefore, and aligned with the lateral bulkheads beneath the decking, there were low doors that could be dogged shut. Called swash doors, they stood three feet or so high, and they carried the watertight compartmentalisation on up to the level of their tops.
On this occasion the waters rose inside and began to lap over the swash doors. Re-starting the main engines and simply running the aircraft onto the mud flats under power started to become a serious option.
Then one of the Climaxes cleared its throat and decided to behave; then another. With the whole interior now awash to well above the tops of the swash doors, these pumps were able to stabilise the water level.
Now came a final difficulty. The aircraft of course had settled well down. Both wing floats were in the water. Indeed their buoyancy was helping prevent matters getting worse. The hull was now so low, however, that the very high buoyancy of the big pneumatic tyres made it impossible to force the beaching gear far enough under the surface to engage the tops of the legs into the sockets under the wings.
So, further delay ensued while air was let out of the tyres. Eventually the aircraft was inched up the slipway on the rims of the wheels, which became easier and easier as the goodly part of the inner harbour then inside the aircraft spilled out of the hole through which it had entered. No fish, though.
Some air show indeed .......
Most tales have a moral, and this one is no exception. It is not a tale cautionary about Tail Number 13, however. Nor is it that landing a seaplane on a runway is a bad idea - which is not a moral but a self-evident truth.
The real moral is about plans. The train of events after the touchdown suggests there is another rule that ranks alongside Murphy and Sod. No matter how well-conceived a plan may be to take us from the known to the unknown, expecting its execution from start to finish to follow the pattern prescribed for it is the really bad idea. The best any plan can do is provide a point for considered departure when the unexpected happens, as happen it will. A larger Lesson for Life, perhaps?"
There is a YouTube video of the event athttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hu2qxgtFvW8
In any event, NZ4113 must have been rapidly repaired, as it flew to the Chatham Islands with men and materials after Sunderland NZ4111 hit the rocks in the Te Whanga Lagoon on 4Nov59.
As M, this Sunderland continued to serve during the early 1960sAt Mechanics Bay 15Mar1961At Lauthala BayIn the airNZ4113 with friendsMoored at Evans Bay, Wellington, 1Dec1966
The RNZAF Sunderland flights to the Chatham Islands ceased after nine years when the NZ4113 took off from the Te Whanga Lagoon at 12.45pm on 22Mar1967 on the final flight to Wellington. A few days later, on 30th March, NZ4113 made its final flight and was withdrawn at Hobsonville.
The aircraft included in the final batch of Sunderlands sold by tender to Australian Aircraft Sales, Sydney and was scrapped at Hobsonville after the removal of saleable components.NZ4113 moored at Hobsonville 30Apr1967About to be scrapped, Hobsonville July 1967Next: NZ4114 - the Northland relic