THE FIRST FLIGHTS OF "SNEAKING DEATH"
By Alf Batchelder
In Australia's aviation history, few aircraft have been more significant than A94-101, the prototype Sabre held in the Museum's collection.
In the late 1940s, Australia intended producing the Hawker P.1081 to replace its existing Vampire jet fighters. However, in December 1950, with the P.1081 far from quantity production, the Government easily endorsed CAC manager Lawrence Wackett's recommendation to cancel the Hawker order. More difficult to overcome was British and local hostility to Wackett's notion of bypassing all other British aircraft for the North American F86 Sabre. Nevertheless, in 1951, the Department of Defence Production announced plans to produce a modified Sabre. This Australian version would be equipped with the more powerful Rolls-Royce Avon engine, with two 30mm cannon replacing the six machine guns on the US models. These changes necessitated a 60% redesign of the airframe, so although it contained many American-produced components, the Australian prototype was a very different aircraft to those flown by the USAF. In fact, with A94-101 and its descendants, Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation took aircraft design and production in Australia to heights that have not been exceeded - although the company tackled many subsequent projects, the Avon Sabre was to be the last military aircraft designed and built by CAC. Moreover, CA-26 Sabre marked the end of British dominance in Australia's choice of combat aircraft - since the appearance of A94-101, no British fighter has entered service with the RAAF.
Certainly, few aircraft before or since have excited the public imagination the way that the prototype Sabre did in late 1953. Australian skies had seen nothing like it before - with its gaping nose intake, swept wings and tail, the CA-26 was not only on the cutting edge of the technology of the day, it bordered on the fantastic. The popular film The Sound Barrier had recently shown Australians something of the difficulties of supersonic test flying, and here was a local aircraft venturing into that same realm of modern aviation drama.
As the jet underwent ground trials, interest remained low-key - the newspapers did not even have a picture of A94-101 in their files. The first flight, scheduled for Friday August 1, was postponed for four days after tyre trouble on the runway, but around 5 p.m. on the following Monday, as "light was fading fast," it was decided to fly the fighter. A minute after Flight Lieutenant Bill Scott lifted the Sabre from the Avalon runway, he was at 17000 feet where, The Sun reported, "He put the fighter through amazing paces for a first flight - stalls, upward rolls and barrel rolls." Later that night, a dry press release came from Canberra:
The first Australian-built Sabre jet fighter today earned top marks in its first test flight ... and Mr. Harrison, Defence Production Minister, said it would "easily smash through the sound barrier ..." Flight-Lieutenant W. H. Scott, RAAF, ... reported after the half-hour test flight today: "The aircraft is entirely satisfactory."
However, The Sun was far from happy that only a few CAC engineers and technicians had witnessed the first flight of the aircraft nicknamed "Sneaking Death":
It would be difficult to envisage a more unimaginative handling of an event of outstanding importance. For in this Australian-made fighter we have produced what is confidently expected to prove the fastest operational plane in the world. An aircraft of American design, with Australian improvements and equipped with an English engine built under licence in Australia is of international interest. Yet its first flight was officially treated as a matter of no concern even to Australian taxpayers ... an event which should have been blazoned to the four corners of the world crept out from behind officialdom's iron curtain almost by accident ...
Over the next eleven days, A94-101 spent about four hours on further test flights. After about a week, there were reports of sonic booms around Melbourne, but it was on the sixth flight, on Friday August 14, that Bill Scott really made the front-page:
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! - OUR JET BREAKS SOUND BARRIER.
In a dive, Scott had "burst the barrier at 28000 feet at 681 mph," setting off "a thunderous triple boom" that "rocked a temporary shed in which Mr. Graham Stiller, of the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, was working out technical problems." Scott, who had made 19 supersonic flights in America, initially claimed he "could not understand the fuss. I was just doing some handling trials" but finally admitted that he "knew he would pass the speed of sound before he went up." As he relaxed in his Yarraville home afterwards, the test pilot enthused "Our Sabre moves like a bird - even better than the American Sabres which I tested in the U.S. Her performance was simply terrific. She didn't flinch a bit. And when she hit the barrier it was just like another day's work."
A heady couple of days followed Scott's flight. Two RAAF Canberras set records as they dashed to and from New Zealand practising for the London-Christchurch air race. Britain and the US were reportedly keen "to make an on-the-spot inspection of the RAAF's Avon-Sabre ..." To top it all off, The Herald confidently predicted that the Avon Sabre "will emerge as the best and fastest fighter in production in the non-Communist world" and announced that, to boost sales to such countries as India and Pakistan, "There is no doubt that the new Sabre will tackle the world speed record and apparently a good possibility that it will break it." In refuting this eager suggestion, the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Donald Hardman, was already looking to the future, saying that soon the RAAF would need a new fighter "with a speed of at least 1000 mph."
Popular interest in A94-101 and its pilot was building to a peak. The papers revealed that Scott had "sneaked over from Avalon to Laverton and 'shot-up' the aerodrome", and then radio 3DB announced its plans to relay 3GL's broadcast of the first "official" flight from Avalon on August 21. This display, in front of Prime Minister Menzies and 5000 spectators, was reported in great detail.
Wearing a USAF flying suit, Bill Scott donned his red helmet and yellow Mae West - and anxiously waited for Mr. Menzies to finish his speech. Eventually, "The 15000 horsepower Avon jet engine started with a roar, sending a haze of heat and clouds of dust hundreds of yards behind":
Heading north into the wind ... the Sabre seemed to bounce from the runway. Fifty feet up, Flight-Lieutenant Scott had the crowd gasping with a double roll "off the deck." The plane rolled twice effortlessly. Well before the end of the runway, it was screaming into a sight-leaving climb. Twice it made tight circuits over the field, down it came to 50 feet, into a slow climbing roll, and up out of sight in 10 seconds ...
With his radio compass tuned to 3GL, Scott could hear Bill Acfield's commentary, and assisted him with "wisecracks and ... flight details":
Acfield: The Sabre is now climbing at about 40 degrees ... now he's right over the aerodrome.
Scott: I seem to be in cloud at the moment, it's built up around Melbourne.
Acfield: Housewives listening should be prepared to take their washing in ...
Scott: Just passing through 20000 feet ... Just passed 570 degrees on jet tube and about 84 on fuselage ... I think it will be all right for the dive. I can just make out the aerodrome through the clouds ...
At 42000 feet, Scott put the Sabre into a dive.
Acfield: It's coming straight down towards me. I'm almost breaking my neck to see him.
Scott: On way down. .9, .95, .98. There's Mach 1. Got it. Holding Mach 1. I'm pulling out now.
Acfield: It'll take about 20 seconds to hear the booms. That was it. (One "thunderclap" explosion and two smaller ones came over the radio) ...
Ground Controller: Didn't sound as loud as last time.
Scott: Sorry ... Down at 10000 now, 670 mph.
Despite the Ground Controller's complaint, Acfield said "You could feel the ground shake." The broadcast, heard all over the state and repeated that night, was described by Herald columnist E. W. Tipping as "probably one of the most graphic ever heard here."
Later, the pilot explained that, from 36000 feet, "I kept her going faster to hold her at the speed of sound to 26000 feet. The speed of sound is 660 at 36000 feet but it increases as you drop. I went up a bit over 700 miles an hour in the dive. We weren't pushing the Sabre." Scott followed the dive with "a level run 50 feet up ... seven tons of machine travelling only 80 below the speed of sound at sea level." Then he soared into three climbing rolls, before flashing past at 50 feet, so low that a girl screamed "I can see his red hat." Then, "with magnificent control, Flight-Lieutenant Scott put the plane through a fascinating series of interrupted slow rolls. The wing tilted over a quarter and held for seconds like a rock as the plane sliced past. Then to the half, a pause, three-quarters, pause, and on to level flight and the start of another roll ... Double slow rolls, corkscrew rolls, loops and near vertical dives followed."
When the 35-minute flight ended, "the crowd surged forward as the Sabre whistled to a stop. Mr. Menzies and Mr. Harrison, Defence Production Minister, who came forward to congratulate Scott, were jostled as police pushed the crowd back." Eventually, the beaming Prime Minister was able to greet the perspiring Scott: "A wonderful exhibition ... you're a man and a half."
The acclaimed test pilot spent the next day saw house-hunting at 30 mph in his 1937 car, with much of its paint chipped off. Fearful of setting a precedent, the Minister for Air, William McMahon, declined to assist him with government accommodation, but a Geelong firm did offer to spruce up the battered car at no cost.
A few days later, Scott was back on the front pages. A demonstration flight over the city and the CAC factory was cancelled when the Sabre's engine flamed out during a dive from 30000 feet over Fishermen's Bend. Scott pulled out of the descent, re-started the jet, and returned to Avalon. Asked if he was worried, the pilot laconically replied: "Hell, what for?" The incident was put down to "a speck of dirt in the fuel" though Lawrence Wackett blamed the pilot for "going into the dive too violently, throwing kerosene out of the Sabre's pipes."
Eleven days later, Scott gave a 40-minute "exhibition of intricate and flawless aerobatics" for CAC and GAF workers at Fishermen's Bend. Watching A94-101 perform was Duncan Sandys, the British Minister of Supply - and the arch-advocate of replacing manned aircraft with missiles. Even he admitted the Sabre's display was "magnificent."
The general public expected a similar performance at the RAAF's annual September display. Though the Sabre was not scheduled to appear, the Air Force could not disappoint 25000 spectators hungry for supersonic flight. As two Tiger Moths roared over at full speed, sonic booms were heard - along with much laughter from the pranksters. Surprisingly, A94-101 did not provide Melbourne's first public taste of supersonic flight - in May 1954, four Grumman Cougars from USS Tarawa broke the sound barrier over St.Kilda.
When its days of CAC test flying were over, the prototype Sabre passed to the Aircraft Research and Development Unit at Laverton. Later, it was Instructional Sabre No.1 at the Wagga School of Apprentice Training. Now A94-101 rests at Point Cook, a faded celebrity perhaps, but nevertheless she can claim to have been the most exciting star of her time, boosting both the Australian aircraft industry and RAAF morale with her exciting first flights..