Denis Baker fondly remembers his time working at the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) at Fisherman’s Bend in Victoria.
“Miss Piggy” is a C-46 Commando transport aircraft which crashed shortly after departing Churchill, Canada, in 1979. Operated by Lamb Air, it was named “Miss Piggy” because of all the freight the plane could carry and it even flew pigs.
As part of a once in a lifetime trip, my friend Peter Barnes visited Churchill and Miss Piggy in July 2013 and he was kind enough to share his thoughts and some pictures with us. In Peter’s words.
“The town is an historic trading post on the coast of Hudson Bay in Manitoba and it’s about as far north as it’s possible to go without a pack of sled dogs. It has no roads going into it and I travelled up from Winnipeg on a 36 hour sleeper train that is furnished with lovely 1950’s rolling stock, friendly staff and a limitless supply of hot pancakes.
The journey was hypnotising: I saw a landscape that gradually changed from arable land through boreal forests and finally into arctic tundra. They say that you need two trees to make a Christmas tree in Churchill: the wind from the north bears down so hard that the stunted trees only grow branches on one side! Even the train has to bow to the environment: the lines are built on constantly shifting permafrost and it has to travel slowly to avoid de-railing.
Once we were settled into our accommodations we began to explore the sights and stories and the wildlife of this most unusual town. We approached the wreck of Miss Piggy from a dirt track and our driver pulled a few wide circles round the trees and sounded the horn continuously for about 20 seconds. “Can’t be too careful” he said, “she’s quite popular with polar bears!” These magnificent animals come inland during the summer looking for shade after the sea ice has melted and I can see why a large aluminium tube might be an attractive option.
I might have dismissed the warning as theatrics had it not been for a close shave the previous morning. We had taken a short walk down to Churchill’s beach – only just outside the built-up area of the town – and we spent a few minutes watching the beautiful beluga whales out in the bay. But then we suddenly became aware that we were being stalked: a polar bear maneuvered itself into a position downwind and was stealthily exiting the sea towards us no more than 200m away. They say that the one thing you should not do when faced with a polar bear is to run, but I can tell you we made for a pretty darn fast walk! There really are polar bears, and you really do have to take them seriously.
Once we were sure that we weren’t going to end up as an in-flight snack on board Miss Piggy, we began exploring. It is a sight like nothing else, a moment frozen in time. It was too remote for the airframe ever to be salvaged and it continues to sit there, forever a testament to a successful emergency landing. The cargo has gone, as has one of the engines and the contents of the instrument panel. But other than that, it’s pristine and you could imagine it happened yesterday. Broken trees poke out from underneath the wings where they were snapped off. Dents and rips in the plane’s skin match up with lumps and bumps on the huge boulders that sit underneath. Considering what rough terrain this is, it’s amazing that the plane landed in one piece and that the crew survived. Everywhere there are signs of movement halted abruptly. An engine sits where it came to rest a few metres in front of the wing. A prop with bent tips lies half submerged in a pool of water. And the positions of the control surfaces, half shredded but still intact, record the last flight inputs made by the pilots.
What a dramatic night that must have been.”
My thanks to Peter for his words and photographs. All photographs are copyright Peter Barnes and are used with permission.
After the excitement of The Australian International Airshow and as part of my birthday present, Rhi and I headed over the Tasman Sea to New Zealand for the Classic Fighters Airshow at Omaka.
The only problem (if you could call it that) was we had a few weeks to wait.
Fortunately Chris, the cousin who met up with us at Avalon, invited us to stay at his house in Auckland for a week or so and while there we headed off to the Museum of Transport and Technology, or MOTAT as it’s known.
MOTAT has two sites linked by an old Melbourne tram which is currently on loan.
Site One has the world’s only working steam water pumps, along with a number of vintage trains, cars, historic houses and an Antarctic display featuring Sir Edmund Hillary. Rhi enjoyed looking at all the old fire engines from around the world as well as learning where the 40 hour week came from (yes NZ!)
It would be an understatement to say I was really looking forward to Site Two.
Site Two is where you’ll find the Sir Keith Park Memorial Aviation Collection. If you don’t know who Sir Keith Park was, he commanded the RAF’s 11 Group of Fighter Command, which was responsible for the defence of London and Southeast England during the Battle of Britain.
After a quick 10 minute ride on the tram Rhi and I arrived at the site. It’s huge!A massive hangar with who knows what behind its doors.
After a quick look at the replica Hurricane fighter out front, we went in. Greeting you is a small shop, the front desk and a Tiger Moth hanging from the ceiling.
I could already tell I was going to like it here.
Going into the main aircraft hall you can’t help but see a Lancaster bomber and an A-4 Skyhawk fighter. These are just the first things you see as the cavernous hangar seems to stretch on forever. And all you can see is aircraft!
The RNZAF is well represented from World War 2 until the last of its fighters, the A-4. As well as the main hall there are a number of other areas to explore, like the Fleet Air Arm, Bomber Command and an exhibition on the de Havilland factory which was based in Wellington. Interestingly, Sir Keith’s WW1 sleeping bag is on display at the museum along with his top hat which was used for formal dinners. There’s also a great display dedicated to the first lady of the New Zealand sky, Aviatrix Jean Batten.
One aircraft I was really looking forward to seeing was the Short Sunderland. But what I wasn’t expecting, was seeing a Short Solent flying boat.
This Solent (above) is one of only two left in the world and is currently being restored to the condition it was in when it flew in the 1950’s.
Rhi and I were lucky enough to be invited for a look inside. Rhi particularly liked the sweeping staircase as you got into the plane, the bespoke kitchen cabinets in the galley and the staircase to the upper deck.
The Solent is very complete but has suffered from its time left outside. I wish these remarkable machines were still flying. They have so much more character than modern airliners (in my opinion) and makes me think back to the days when flying was glamourous and people got dressed up to do it!
I was still a little disappointed that I had not yet seen a Sunderland, but that soon went when I mentioned I’d come to see it and was told “Oh, yeah, there’s one just out the back there”.
We went outside and there it was. Covered in scaffolding but substantially complete, the flying boat is one of only five complete Sunderland’s left. It will eventually be brought inside.
Also outside was a Dakota, Hudson and Ventura.
The Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) in Auckland is definitely worth the time to go and visit. It’s very easy to get to by public transport (we caught the bus and the driver let us know where to jump of) and its an easy walk once you’re on site. The tram operates every 30 minutes between both sites or you can walk if you feel up to it.
You can find more pictures of MOTAT at the CanvasWings Flickr page.
Every two years when Rhi and I come down to Victoria for the Australian International Airshow, we always say “we really should go and see the B-24M Liberator at Werribee” but we never seem to get there. But 2013 was different.
We ( Rhi, cousin Chris from New Zealand and myself) somehow managed to drive past the hangar on our way to the Airshow one day and noticed a sign advertising extended opening hours because the Airshow was in town.
Our first impression was how huge the hangar was. We’d seen a fully assembled bomber at the RAF Museum in Hendon, London, but this area seemed somewhat more cavernous.
Although it’s too large to fit in the hanger as a whole aeroplane, it still looks very complete.
The engines still need to be fitted, there’s no tail section and only about half of the wings are done. Our guide tells us that to put the wings on would mean it won’t get out of the hangar so that part is being left until it’s ready to move.
A mostly complete forward fuselage lends a lot to this impression of it being mostly finished.
The standard of the work on the Liberator is first class. We got to have a look inside the bomb bay, the area leading up to the cockpit and the rear fuselage leading to where the tail gunner would sit. It hardly looks like it’s being restored some 70 years after it was built and looks like it could be on an assembly line awaiting its bits.
The restoration group also has several gun turrets they’re working on including the belly turret, which is interesting as it retracts into the fuselage on takeoff and landing. These turrets are very small and it makes you wonder how men flew and fought in these cramped, uncomfortable areas.
As well as the Liberator, there are other aircraft parts including an Avro Anson.
There are a lot of opportunities to get “up close and personal” with the Liberator including inside access at various points of your tour. What we loved about the tour was that you were given a very knowledgable volunteer who was only too happy to answer any questions you might’ve had.
The restoration group has heaps of memorabilia that would take days to look at, model aeroplanes and myriad other items of interest (Rhi picked up an original spark plug still in the original packaging).
The hangar has a small shop with a dedicated group of lady volunteers who are very welcoming and helpful. They too, are happy to talk about the history of the bomber.
A huge thanks to everyone at the Werribee hangar for showing us around and being very generous with their time. It’s worth the small entry fee and great to see the passion these volunteers have for Australia’s aviation history.
Here are some more photos of this fabulous restoration: