The story of Ron Flockhart’s last race
One of the first racing drivers to fly himself to meetings in his own aircraft, Ron Flockhart raced at the top level in sports cars and Formula One before a growing interest in long distance record flights led to high adventure and stark tragedy. By Neil Follett & Nick Stroud.
William Ronald Flockhart was born in Edinburgh on 16 June 1923. He began his motor racing career in 1951, going on to win the 24 Heures du Mans race in 1956 and 1957 while driving a D-Type Jaguar with the Scottish Ecurie Ecosse team. Flockhart also participated in Formula One races, entering his first−the British Grand Prix−in 1954 and continuing throughout 1956–60. The Scotsman competed in fourteen F1 races with five different teams, his best result being a third in the 1956 Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
Flockhart also displayed an early interest in flying, owning Auster 5 G-ANHO during 1954–57, and becoming one of the first Formula One drivers to fly their own aircraft to race meetings. In the early 1960s he became interested in record flights between England and Australia, noting that the record was held by Arthur Clouston and Victor Ricketts in the DH88 Comet G-ACSS Grosvenor House.
The Comet won the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race and was the aircraft in which Ricketts and Clouston flew from London to Sydney (and then on to New Zealand) in 80hr 56min in March 1938. Flockhart considered that this record could be bettered. He was also interested in bettering the standing solo Australia−UK record, held by H F ‘Jim’ Broadbent, who had left Darwin in Percival Vega Gull G-AFEH on 18 April 1938, and landed in England on the 22nd having covered 9,612 miles in five days 4hr 21min, the last pre-war record flight between the two countries.
In October 1960 British holding company United Dominions Trust (UDT), through its subsidiary Laystall Engineering, formed an agreement with the British Racing Partnership to form a motor-racing organisation known as UDT Laystall Racing. As an extension of its racing activities, UDT became involved with the purchase of Commonwealth CA-17 Mustang Mk 20 VH-BVM for Flockhart’s record attempt.
This aircraft had originally been purchased from the RAAF by former RAF and RAAF pilot James L ‘Wac’ Whiteman, who intended to enter the aircraft in the 1953 London to Christchurch (New Zealand) Air Race. Wac withdrew from the race when he realised it would not be competitive with the jets entered and in 1954 its ownership passed to Arnold J Glass, a fellow racing driver against whom Flockhart would compete in the 1961 and 1962 New Zealand Grand Prix races. Used latterly for target-towing experiments, it was sold to UDT for around £2,000 with around 100 flying hours on the clock. Flockhart was also able to obtain 63 gallon combat droptanks for about £7 each.
With the end of the Antipodean motor racing season in early 1961, preparations began for the flight to the UK. Rolls-Royce ran checks on the Packard Merlin 38 engine, which had only run 110 hours since new, and which had never been ‘through the gate’. The magnetos were overhauled in Scotland and Smiths Australia set to work on overhauling the cockpit instruments.
Preparatory work on the airframe was undertaken at the Illawarra Flying School, which modified the fuel system by introducing a manual device by which the system could be depressurised. Two static vents were incorporated into the airframe under the cockpit sill, each containing a valve. This would enable Flockhart to run the droptanks dry without the risk of sucking air into the system. The system would then be repressurised from the exhaust side of the vacuum pump to assist initial transfer. This worked well, although a stiff bootful of rudder was required to counter the rolling moment causd by the change in lateral balance as a tank emptied.
In the limited space available in the Mustang’s cockpit two German Becker VHF radio sets were installed, which provided 36 communications channels, and Lear T12 automatic direction finding (ADF) equipment was fitted in the position usually occupied by the gunsight. No VOR, ILS, HF radio or marker-beacon receiver equipment was fitted−Flockhart held no instrument rating. Normalair supplied the oxygen equipment, Dunlop provided new tyres, and Lodge delivered new plugs. Rolls-Royce suggested that the Merlin be opened up to maximum continuous power every half-hour during the flight and again briefly during descent and approach.
Final preparations and modifications were undertaken by Fawcett Aviation at Bankstown Aerodrome in Sydney, and the Mustang was officially added to the British register on 24 February 1961 as G-ARKD, in the name of Ronald Flockhart. In the days leading up to his departure for the UK Flockhart had logged a mere twelve flying hours in the Mustang.
In March 1961, Flockhart told British magazine Flight that piloting a Mustang for the first time was like ‘driving an ERA [supercharged 1.5 litre Grand Prix car−Ed] after a sports car; things happen very quickly’. He also admitted that it had taken some time to get used to the Mustang’s long nose and the technique of a curving approach, and had accordingly suffered ‘one or two bumpy landings’, but had quickly come to like the aeroplane very much. Flockhart noted that although the Mustang was big and powerful, ‘it was amply stable for the long hours of steady, level cruise’.
The planned route for the flight was Sydney—Alice Springs—Darwin—Sourabaya—Singapore —Rangoon—Calcutta—Karachi—Bahrain—Beirut—Brindisi—Nice and on to London, with overnight stops at Singapore, Karachi and Brindisi. Flockhart’s plan was to fly only during daylight hours and in segments of a maximum of five hours. All fuelling arrangments along the route were to be made by Esso, which Flockhart found to be ‘unfailingly helpful and efficient’.
On Tuesday, February 28, 1961, Flockhart and G-ARKD, painted in an overall bright red colour scheme with white detailing, departed Sydney for the first stop at Alice Springs. En route from the latter to Darwin, Flockhart experienced a magnetically charged dust storm, which affected his ADF equipment. He settled in at 12,000ft and followed the faint line of a solitary railway across the endless red terrain to Darwin.
The next day Flockhart departed Darwin for Sourabaya on Java. Well out over the Timor Sea he saw an ominous line in the distance, marking an inter-tropical front piling clouds up to 50,000ft and higher. From 12,000ft he dived to low altitude to find a hole in the milky mist. After ten minutes the Mustang popped through the other side of the front with most of the paint on its leading edges stripped off. The diversion had cost a substantial amount of fuel and Flockhart elected to divert to Baucau on East Timor for replenishment.
After a quick refill from fuel kept in 45 gallon churns in a thatched hut, Flockhart took off for what he later recalled as ‘the loveliest part of the trip’−east-north-east over the Balinese islands and coral atolls to Singapore. The maximum endurance of the Mustang was seven hours, for six of which Flockhart could be on oxygen. Typical cruising speed was 225 knots at 12,000ft, although the speed would increase to 280 with the periodic opening of the throttle, as per Rolls-Royce’s suggestion.
The diversion to Baucau meant a late arrival at Singapore, where Flockhart was further delayed by an accident which had closed the runway at his next stop, Rangoon. Having received the all-clear to depart, Flockhart headed into the darkness, his first experience of flying the Mustang at night. Finding that the ADF equipment functioned better at night, he followed airways all the way to Rangoon, where the scarlet Mustang received a great deal of attention, not least from the Czechoslovakian crew of a SA Tupolev Tu-104.
The following morning there was still plenty of interest in the aircraft, and on departure for Calcutta Flockhart held the Mustang down on takeoff until he could pull up 4,000ft almost vertically into cloud.
Navigating largely by means of contact flying−using established landmarks− Flockhart experienced difficulties on the leg to Calcutta, becoming embroiled in a cloud layer at 2,000ft which caused him to miss the let-down beacon into Calcutta and overshoot, forcing him to put down at Barrackpore, some fifteen miles north of Calcutta.
After a swift refuelling, Flockhart was off again for the longest leg of the journey, across India and Pakistan to Karachi, which he completed in 5hr 50min using 43gal/hr of fuel. Flockhart later related that he ate only a few Horlicks tablets on this leg, and refreshed himself on landing at Karachi with ginger beer kept cold in the ammunition bays.
At Karachi the Mustang was turned around in less than an hour, Flockhart taking off in the moonlight to follow the Iranian coast to Bahrain. As he later told Flight: ‘Navigation at night was wonderful. There is a great tranquillity about it. The isolation and the beauty contrasts sharply with the actions of those on the ground, who try to tie you down with streamers of paper. Flying at night in the moonlight, the only shadows are on the surface’.
It was still night when Flockhart landed at Bahrain, where he discovered that air had been leaking from the port main wheel oleo. This caused little concern, however, and after a safe landing the undercarriage was quickly repaired by the RAF. Flockhart was soon off again, to follow an oil pipeline to the mountains of Lebanon and Beirut. He was cleared−and then recalled−by Damascus air traffic control shortly after passing over the city, but, short of fuel, he elected to continue to Beirut and face the consequences there.
It was indeed at Beirut where the trouble started.
Despite the diversions and delays owing to minor repairs, Flockhart was still well ahead of his own schedule when he taxied out at Beirut for the next leg to Brindisi on 3 March.
Confusion on the ground, however, led to the Mustang’s coolant boiling while Flockhart was held while other aircraft landed. The Mustang finally departed for Brindisi but poor weather forced Flockhart to divert to his nominated alternate, Athens.
Anxious not to lose any more time, Flockhart refuelled quickly and requested clearance from the Tower, which was refused as no flight plan had been filed. Requesting to file an airborne flight plan, Flockhart was refused again, the Tower demanding that he pay landing fees, despite the fact that these had already been seen to by Esso. As Flight elegantly put it: ‘temperatures rose−in the Tower, in the cockpit and in the cylinder heads’.
Realising that resistance was futile, Flockhart retired for a rest, before trying again in a few hours. With the paperwork sorted, he returned to the Mustang in the early morning, but found on starting that steam was issuing from the cowling. Refilling the coolant system, he found that the coolant was running out between Nos 3 and 4 cylinders on the starboard bank. By this time he was twelve hours behind his schedule, but two days ahead of the solo record.
Exhausted and frustrated, Flockhart left G-ARKD at Athens and continued to London by commercial airliner to be married as planned a few days later on 11 March 1961. The Scotsman subsequently told Flight that it was ‘not the flying, nor navigation, nor preparation which was responsible for the failure. It was an air traffic system out of touch with the individual needs of a type of flying that has not yet, by any means, disappeared from the global scene’.
In September 1961 the Mustang was severely damaged by a cockpit fire while being taxied at Athens airport, putting paid to its use in any further record attempt.
Not to be deterred, within months Flockhart began looking for another Australian Mustang for a second attempt on the record that had eluded him. The aircraft chosen was former RAAF Mustang VH-UWB, acquired on Ron’s behalf by AREF Ltd of Ascot, Berkshire and registered G-ARUK. Flockhart had announced his intention to try and beat the record again, with plans to follow the route Melbourne—Sydney—Darwin—Singapore—Madras—Bahrain—Brindisi—London, starting on 16 April 1962.
Jock Garden, chief flying instructor and manager of the Civil Flying School, the flying training arm of the Mustang’s operator in Australia, Brookes Aviation, recalled in his memoirs: ‘Ron arranged to buy VH-UWB from John Brookes, and Brookes Aviation undertook a complete overhaul on the aircraft. Rolls-Royce, as a co-sponsor [of his next record attempt], sent out two engineers from England to service the engine; the aircraft was repainted in red and re-registered in the UK as G-ARUK.
‘I flew Ron over to Essendon Airport in the [Beech] Debonair early in 1962 and during the flight I asked if he had any recent instrument flying experience. When he told me he had none in the last eighteen months, I suggested it would be wise for him to gain recent instrument flying practice in view of the intended long flight, but he did not follow up on that advice.
‘I had the pleasure of doing the flight-testing of the Mustang on 19 March 1962, after its extensive servicing and it was in perfect condition with the Merlin the smoothest running engine I had ever encountered.
‘A couple of days before he intended setting out on his record attempt Ron was to fly to Sydney to have maintenance done on his ADF unit. The weather conditions on 12 April were bad, with low cloud and rain, but Ron was determined to go. This proved to be a fatal decision as, within only a few minutes after departure, he lost control in cloud over the Dandenong Range and entered a spiral dive from which he could not possibly recover. He was killed instantly.’
The official report of the accident by the Australian Department of Civil Aviation gives the following conclusion: ‘While there is insufficient evidence to establish conclusively the cause of the accident, the possibility that the pilot temporarily lost control of the aircraft while circling in cloud, and that it subsequently stalled during the recovery and turn to avoid high terrain, cannot be excluded’.
Flockhart was flying the Mustang from Moorabbin to Bankstown to conduct fuel consumption tests and have the ADF equipment serviced. After encountering low cloud, he reported that he was returning to Moorabbin. The Mustang then changed course some 140° before entering a narrow gap between cloud-obscured hilltops in the Dandenongs.
The report stated that ‘the pilot circled in the vicinity of Kallista several times at low altitude and for the most part in cloud. The aircraft then emerged below cloud at a height of approximately 1,300ft, carried out a left turn probably to avoid higher terrain and, in the course of this turn, the nose dropped sharply and the aircraft struck trees and the ground at a steep angle, while rolling and turning to the right’.
At the time of the accident Flockhart held a British PPL endorsed for single-engined landplanes under 12,500lb (5,670kg) maximum permissible all-up weight. His total flying time was 961hr of which 69 were on Mustangs. During the six months immediately before the accident he had flown only five hours. He was not rated for instrument or night flying. In late 1960 he had undergone about 21 hours of ground-based Link trainer instruction on ADF, ILS and VDF procedures, but his logbook showed no record of any instrument flying or Link trainer instruction since that time.
Flockhart’s flying achievements were substantial and deserve a great deal of credit; his Mustang flight from Australia to Athens had been made with limited professional backing by a club-trained private pilot. Sadly, he never got the chance to finish the job — with his death on 12 April 1962, his final race had been run.
With thanks to Pilot magazine.