A victim of the 1990 England to Australia World Vintage Air Rally was a 1948 Beech Bonanza which was abandoned by its owner in Chittagong, Bangladesh after an electrical problem. I was offered the aircraft at a very decent price on an “as is where is” basis and decided to take a risk on getting it back to Australia on the assumption that if it flew in it should be able to fly out again.
Alan Miles, a private pilot from the Gold Coast, Queensland, whose Gull Wing Stinson had only made it as far as France during the Air Rally asked to come along to see some of the country he had missed so, the two of us set out on a circuitous route via Singapore, Calcutta and Dhaka. While roasting on the tarmac at Dhaka I saw my canvas bag containing clothes and a brand-new battery, being carried in anticipation of the aircraft electrical problems, thrown 4 metres from the door of the Fokker F-28, on which we had just arrived, to the ground with all the other luggage. Fortunately when the trolley came to the terminal I saw someone else’s $500 Louis Vuitton suitcase had sacrificed itself to soften the blow of my 20 kilogram battery.
The owner of the Bonanza had very little mechanical aptitude and the electrical problem was the last straw in a series of minor incidents all the way from England after his ferry pilot left him in Greece. He had just parked the aircraft at Chittagong and told some minor radio technician to look after it as he boarded an airliner, without making any official arrangements at all! Would we find the aircraft impounded, stripped or stolen? Not so, it was where he had left it 3 weeks before, in the middle of the tarmac in front of the control tower. The owner was able to give us absolutely no clue to assist in trouble-shooting so we set to work in 35 degree C heat and 100% humidity to find out what the problems were.
The aircraft battery was almost dead so, with a borrowed Bangladesh Air Force tow-motor, 40mm away from the propeller due to short leads, the Bonanza was started – no generator charge! The generator was removed (a job designed to be done by a skinny, double-jointed midget) and a segment of armature was found to be loose. Alan went to town on a tricycle taxi to buy a handful of truck generator brushes of approximate size which we filed down on the concrete until they fitted. This temporary fix gave a good charge for 5 minutes.
We couldn’t stand around Bangladesh for the rest of our lives, so decided to head for Singapore and some decent workshops using battery power alone. The old battery was charged and, after stealing some acid from the battery of an Air Force Russian-built helicopter, the airport groundsman got the new one charged also. The hand-held VHF radio I had purchased before leaving Australia looked more like a plastic kid’s toy than a fine piece of technology but it eventually took us all the way home as the aircraft radios had died with the generator for some obscure reason.
My next problem was, how much fuel does this aircraft carry and at what rate does it use it? The owner couldn’t tell me! The ferry pilot had fitted the long-range tank (capacity unknown to the owner) and they had made it as far as Chittagong hadn’t they? We were in no mood to be draining all the fuel from the tanks to measure them in the oppressive heat and my experience on the Vintage Air Rally gave me some confidence about the reaction of the Burmese authorities so I decided to risk getting a clearance to land in Rangoon despite our “Overflight Only No Landing” approval. The distance direct to Bangkok or south to Phuket in Thailand was too far to risk with an unknown fuel quantity and burn rate (both were possible we later found out).
Launching from Chittagong early (only getting our passports back after making solemn detailed arrangements to take the Senior Airport Official’s sons as foster children to study in Australia for five years) the little Bonanza climbed quite briskly although about 200kg over normal weight. The battery gave us a start and retracted the undercarriage without trouble. The range of the hand-held radio was only about 25 miles until we found an adaptor lead in Singapore to connect it to the outside aerial. It did not matter much as the search and rescue facilities available to us were almost non-existent and good communications would have helped little if we had fallen into the jungle.
Over Rangoon I called for a precautionary landing (a mini-emergency in aviation language) as one fuel tank was not feeding (I didn’t enlarge that the reason was there was no fuel in it). Almost straight away we were given clearance to land and the uncharged battery made a brisk gear extension. While Alan refuelled from drums with a hand pump I went to write a “Letter of Apology” for landing without a permit. As we were running out of light to get to Phuket we decided not to change over batteries and our original gave us yet another start and gear retraction.
The visibility along the coast of Burma was atrocious with thick haze and embedded thunderstorms. A lot of ducking and weaving was required and the end of daylight was cutting into our Phuket arrival time. I was not looking forward to night flying among all those thunderstorms with only a well used battery for power, not to mention the hand extension of the undercarriage when the battery finally retired. Alan was already practising the best position the best position to hold the torch so I could see the instruments!
As we went past Mergui, and old Japanese wartime airstrip, right in the middle of rebel territory, failing light and a wall of thunderstorms made the decision for us. Calling many times on the tower frequency indicated on our Jeppesen charts we got no reply so started to do an approach anyway (the battery put the wheels down yet again).
“Aircraft on final Mergui! This is a restricted area, do you have permission to land here?”
“Roger. Clear land!”
By the time we had rolled to a stop the greatest ragtag bunch of soldiers I had ever seen were thrusting their rifles into the aircraft windows. The controller came down from the ancient wooden tower and acted as interpreter (he was the only one in Mergui who could speak English). A 100% search of the aircraft, our bags and ourselves ensued while the Army Captain who was absolute King of the district, discussed us with his minions. The air traffic controller grabbed our faithful battery and promised to have it charged by morning, adding ominously, “If you need it.”
Eventually we were bundled into the back of a tiny truck with a couple of guards while a platoon of troops in a World War 2 Blitz truck followed closely behind. We were taken to the old British government guest house which had been maintained amazingly through Japanese occupation and 40 years of independence exactly as it must have been in the 1920’s! Polished wood floors, 4 poster beds with mosquito nets and an open-motor fan flashed and sparked as it turned slowly above our heads. A young lieutenant and a squad of soldiers were assigned to guard us. Alan had a worrying time when his ample body became stuck in a water trough which he mistook for a bath instead of a reservoir and he returned to tell me the toilet had been stolen. “All they left was a hole in the floor.”
The young lieutenant took us under guard to the only restaurant in town and we sat at stained bare tables with unmatched, badly chipped crockery. The two soldiers at our table put their very rusty rifles across in front of their plates. Alan’s unadventurous stomach took a turn when the Maitre’ de arrived with a huge cardboard box of red chopsticks. He moved around the diners, selecting a pair of the plastic chopsticks from the box, pulled them through under his sweaty armpit to clean them then set them on the table with the air of the head waiter of Maxim’s in Paris. The food was excellent, including the pig’s ears in black bean sauce, and they even produced a huge wooden box filled with ice and bottles of beer. The bill came to exactly 100 US dollars for the two of us plus our guards though I did notice the lieutenant gave the restaurant owner $9 and put the rest in his pocket. We spent the rest of the night with guards pacing up and down outside our room.
Next morning the air traffic controller arrived with the news all would be well if I wrote another “Letter of Apology”. After much milling around at the airport with the Army taking our passports and returning them several times and a false start and taxi –
“Return to the foot of the tower!”
“Oh, oh this is it” said Alan.
“The Captain didn’t get any Air Rally stickers.”
We finally got away to Hat Yai in Thailand as the south coast weather was still terrible. After breathing a sigh of relief as we crossed into friendly Thailand, there was a quick refuel at Hat Yai before pressing on, only to be forced into Alor Setar in Malaysia by driving rain, where we sat for two hours before proceeding at tree-top height into beautiful Penang. The next day the Bonanza took us at low level to Singapore where the workshops were instructed to do something about the electrics.
Setting course for Surabaya in Java after a couple of days in Singapore, during which time I got the prop working by changing the flap motor onto the prop gearbox where it fitted perfectly (we were not using the flaps because of the generator in any case), the Bonanza gave us a good increase in speed. The previous owner had flown it all the way from USA with a fixed fine pitch – no wonder he couldn’t keep up with the other Bonanzas!
Halfway across the ocean between Singapore and Surabaya (about 400 miles) and after having huge detours between 18,000 feet (we had oxygen) and sea-level to get around storms, I adjusted the electric prop whereupon it went into full coarse pitch and stayed there! At the same time smoke poured from behind the instrument panel. Full throttle, 1400 RPM and hanging in the sky just above the stall speed with smoke filling the cockpit, 200 miles from land is a little depressing. The generator, repaired in Singapore, had shorted out pushing 40 volts through our 12 volt system causing terminal injury to a wide variety of equipment.
The faithful plastic hand-held radio got us to Surabaya eventually where we spent most of the next day trying to unravel the mysteries of the electric world. Result – back to our old battery only system. The prop motor was disconnected and each time we landed I turned it manually until arriving at a good “general purpose” fixed pitch for the rest of the trip. Late in the afternoon we made a dash for Bali where the approach controller brought us to within a mile of the runway between two Boeing 747’s and said “Call tower, now.”
A quick flick of the frequency switch and our little radio window read “Battery”. Oh well, the pioneers didn’t have radios so we landed and taxied past the airliners in silence and heard nothing more of it!
Early next day we set off for Kupang on Timor where we refueled, had to pay a good sized amount of graft to get our passports back, and departed for Darwin. Only a few miles off the track after a 350 mile dead reckoning flight over water with no instruments we were brought in by Darwin Radar to the usual quarantine fly-spray reception. Each night along the way we had staggered into the hotel with out two batteries and charger, subjecting the bathroom to sulphuric fumes and bubbling acid through the night. The Darwin Travelodge people raised their eyebrows but said nothing.
Another very long day saw the Bonanza finally arrive in Brisbane ready to undergo a proper service to bring it back to the glory of its youth 42 years before.