Saturday, November 30, 2019

Flight Memory pays tribute, through music, to a critically Important Australian Invention

Flight Memory
A jazz song cycle
By Sandra France and Alana Valentine
Directed by Caroline Stacey
The Street Theatre
Nov 14 - 17, 2019

by Tony Magee

8.36am, December 31, 1968 - New Years Eve.

MACROBERTSON MILLER Airlines Flight 175, (the WA subsidiary of Ansett Airlines), a Vickers Viscount registered as VH-RMQ, takes to the skies from Perth, en-route to Port Hedland.

It never arrives.

35 km from the destination, part of the right wing separates, along with one engine and the plane crashes, killing all 26 on board.

The aircraft was equipped with a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder.

It is the first aviation disaster anywhere in the world, where both these devises helped discover the cause of the accident, in this case, structural failure due to metal fatigue.

The exact plane, MMA Viscount VH-RMQ taxiing at Perth two years earlier in 1966. Photo: Merv Prime

AS A CHILD in the 1960’s, I can remember seeing my parents off on various occasions from Canberra airport on that model of plane.

The Viscount was in service for both Ansett and TAA, who were the domestic carriers of the time.

Qantas was overseas only, using the Boeing 707 jet aircraft and the older propeller driven Lockheed Super Constellation.

On warm-up and taxiing to the runway, the four propeller engines of the Viscount screamed - it was deafening. During take-off, the doppler effect kicked in and the sound became a low, humming, drone as she became airborne.

N COMPOSING music within the jazz idiom, to capture the essence and vital necessity of the Australian invention of the Cockpit Voice Recorder, Sandra France and Alana Valentine have delivered a musical whirlwind tour, encompassing a huge range of stylistic variation.

Arranged for three singers and a six piece instrumental accompaniment, the piece is effectively a modern jazz song-cycle.

L-R: singers Liam Budge, Michelle Nicolle and Leisa Keen in rehearsal. Photo: Shelly Higgs

Leisa Keen, Michelle Nicolle and Liam Budge form the excellent vocal ensemble performing in solo, duet and trio formats, each song telling the story of the idea, struggle, rejections, prototypes, final working model and eventually, acceptance accolades, that became the cockpit voice recorder, or CVR - all the work of Australian inventor and aviation enthusiast David Warren.

The band comprises some of Canberra's finest musical talent - Brendan Clarke on bass, Gary France on drums, Jess Green on guitar, Ben Marston on trumpet, Tom Fell on alto sax with Sandra France directing and leading from the piano.

UR family lived in Mount Eliza on the Mornington Peninsula during the 1970’s. Sir Reginald Ansett had a huge mansion there on Canadian Bay Road at the time.

Sir Reginald Ansett KBE. Photo courtesy W Bro D Hudson, Freemasons Victoria.

Reg was a frequent visitor at the local shopping centre, affectionally known as “The Village”, along with fellow luminaries Noel Ferrier, Mike Walsh, Graham Kennedy and the Reyne brothers, James and David, founding members of the Aussie rock band Australian Crawl, all residents of that suburb.

They were always up for a wave or a "Hi Reg" or "Hi Graham" as we passed them by in and out of Safeways Supermarket or other shops.

HE ANSETT operated MacRobertson Miller Viscount air disaster on New Years Eve 1968 caused the immediate grounding of all Viscounts flying in Australia. Three weeks later this became permanent and spelt the end for older style prop driven aircraft on Australia's domestic routes. By 1970, that model along with the twin engined Focker F-27 Friendship and the larger four engined Lockheed Electra were fazed out and replaced by the new, sleek, jet driven Douglas DC-9 and Focker F-100 and later the first generation of Boeing 737 and 727.

For the international routes, affectionately dubbed "The Kangaroo Routes" Qantas replaced the aging Boeing 707s and antiquated Super Constellations with the new and massive Boeing 747 type 100 - a plane that remained in service, with various upgrades, for the next 50 years. The last one will be retired in July 2020.

PERHAPS the best example of the use of a CVR in solving the cause of an air disaster is the Tenerife accident of March 27, 1977 at Canary Islands involving Pan Am Boeing 747 flight 1736 and KLM Boeing 747 flight 4805.

Just past 5pm, KLM flight 4805 is instructed to taxi down the entire length of the runway. Dense fog has now covered the airport, making it difficult to see beyond a few hundred meters. The tower orders Pan Am flight 1736 to follow the KLM before exiting the runway using Taxiway C3.

Here is the exact transcript of the CVR recordings from both planes and the Control Tower, which reveal the conversations and confusion that led to the world's worst aviation disaster:

Flight Officer Bragg: "Tenerife, this is Pan Am Clipper 1736"

TFN Tower: "Clipper 1736, Tenerife"

FO Bragg: "We were instructed to contact you and also to taxi down the runway. Is that correct?"

Tower: "Affirmative, taxi onto the runway and leave the runway third, third turn on your left."

Bragg: "Third to the left, okay."

Flight engineer: "He said third."

Captain Grubbs: "I thought he said first."

Bragg: "I'll ask him again."

The thick fog means that both aircraft are invisible to the tower and to each other.

Tower: "KLM 4805, how many taxiways did you pass?"

Flight Officer Meurs: "I think we just passed Charlie Four now."

Tower: "Okay. At the end of the runway make a 180 [degree] and report ready for ATC clearance."

Meanwhile, on the Pan Am...

FO Bragg: "The first one is a 90 degree turn."

Capt Grubbs: "Yeah, okay."

Bragg: "It must be the third. I'll ask him again."

Bragg: "Tower, would you confirm that you want us to turn left at the third intersection?"

Capt Grubbs: "One, two..."

Tower: "The third one sir. One, two three - third - the third one."

Capt Grubbs: "Good. That's what we need right? The third one?"

Flight engineer: "Uno, dos, tres."

Capt Grubbs: "Uno, dos, tres."

Flight engineer: "Tres, si."

Grubbs: "Right."

Flight engineer: "We'll make it yet."

Grubbs: "That's two."

Flight engineer: "That's a 45 [degree] right there."

Grubbs: "Yeah."

Pan Am 1736 is now approaching the third exit.

Bragg: "That's the one right there."

Grubbs: "Yeah, I know."

Flight engineer: "Okay, next one is almost a 45 [degree], huh, yeah."

Grubbs: "But it goes...yeah but it goes straight ahead. I think it's gonna put us on the taxiway."

Flight engineer: "Yeah, just a little bit, yeah."

Flight 1736 has now passed their intended exit, Charlie Three.

KLM 4805 has now reached the beginning of the runway, done it's 180 degree turn and after lining up, Captain van Zanten immediately throttles up for takeoff.

Flight Officer Meurs: "Wait a minute - we don't have an ATC clearance."

Capt van Zanten: "No, I know that. Go ahead and ask."

FO Meurs: "Tower, KLM 4805 is now ready for takeoff and we are waiting for our ATC clearance."

Tower: "KLM 4805, you are cleared to the Papa Beacon, climb to and maintain flight level 90, right turn after takeoff, proceed with heading 40 until intercepting the three two five radial from Las Palmas VOR."

Meurs: "Ah roger sir. We are cleared to the Papa Beacon, flight level 90 until intercepting the three two five. We are now at take-off."

Capt van Zanten: "We're going. Clear for thrust."

Tower: "Okay"

KLM 4805 is now at full thrust and speeding down the runway for take-off.

Tower: [addressing the KLM plane] "Stand by for take-off. I will call you."

FO Bragg (on the Pan Am): "And we're still taxiing down the runway, the Clipper 1736."

Tower: "Papa Alfa 1736, report the runway clear."

FO Bragg: "Okay, we'll report when we're clear."

Tower: "Thank you."

Capt Grubbs: "Let's get the fuck out of here."

FO Bragg: "Yeah, he's anxious isn't he?"

Flight engineer: "Yeah, after he held us up for half an hour now he's in a rush."

Pan Am 1736 is now still on the runway and approaching exit Charlie Four [they had missed the third one]

Flight engineer Schreuder [KLM]: "Is he not clear then?"

Capt van Zanten: "What do you say?"

Schreuder: "That Pan American - is he not clear?"

Capt van Zanten: "Oh, yes."

Capt Grubbs [Pan Am]: "There he is ...look at him. Goddamm that son-of-a-bitch is coming!"

FO Meurs: "V1"

Capt van Zanten: "Oh, shit!"

FO Bragg: "Get off, get off, get off."

KLM 4805 could not gain enough height to clear Pan Am 1736, which had not finished taxiing off the runway.
Photo courtesy Smithsonian YouTube channel.

All voice communication ends at that point, as the KLM plane, having just made lift off, shears off the top of the Pam Am and crashes back down onto the runway in a fireball. All 248 aboard perish.

Of the 396 passengers and crew on the Pan Am flight, 61 survive, including Captain Grubbs, First Officer Bragg and Flight Engineer Warn.

Total fatalities 583.


As a result of this accident, t
he aviation industry made numerous recommendations on language usage, terminology and the need for junior officers to be more assertive towards their captains if they thought something wasn't right, with hierarchical relations amongst crew members being played down, with a greater emphasis on team decision making by mutual agreement.

This resulted in the development of Crew Resource Management, as a fundamental part of airline pilot's training.

Colloquial phrases such as "okay" or "roger" were banned, in favour of a readback of the key parts of the instruction to show mutual understanding.

The word "takeoff" in terms of the phrase "ready for takeoff" has been replaced by "departure", ie: "ready for departure". The word "takeoff" can only be used when the aircraft is cleared to do just that by Air Traffic Control. Additionally, once an aircraft is lined up and ready for departure, the tower must prefix this with "hold position".

These practices are now world-wide amongst all airlines and all airports.

AUSTRALIA became the first country to mandate the carriage of cockpit voice recorders on civil transport aircraft, a trend which was later followed by other countries. Today, all large civil transport aircraft are required to carry a CVR.

THANK YOU David Warren for your invention and thank you to the cast, crew, production team and composers of Flight Memory for enlightening our audiences through music on the critical value and necessity of the CVR.

[Author's note: The above is an article and NOT a review. I was scheduled to review Flight Memory for Canberra City News, attending as a music critic in the audience, however, I ended up in Calvary Hospital instead, for a fortnight, and my colleagues Rob Kennedy, Bill Stephens and Len Power attended and reviewed the show. You can read Rob's review here, Bill's review here and Len's review here. I however, have always had a passionate interest in commercial aviation history, so from my hospital bed I wrote and filed the above story for the CCC Blog and also my own blog, Art Music Theatre. Tony Magee]