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SFT Stories: Captain Mark Kelly and the F111C Fighter Jet


Mark Kelly’s reunion with A8-134 at the Australian War Memorial

Mark Kelly, ex-RAAF, ex Qantas Captain and most importantly to us, current SFT mentor and instructor, has kindly dipped into his treasure trove of aviation stories to share some of them with us. With more flying experience, wisdom and hours in his logbook than most of us can dream of, when he speaks, we do well to listen.

 

In the first of three instalments, we begin with a recount of his relationship with the F111C as a Flight Lieutenant in the RAAF. This story demonstrates why thorough training and not just a little skill can alter an outcome in your favour.


From Caribou to F111C

I graduated from #94 RAAF Pilots Course in 1976 having trained on Winjeel and Macchi aircraft. On graduation, I was posted to fly DHC-4 Caribou aircraft at #38 Squadron and operated the aircraft throughout Australia, New Guinea, Indonesia and as part of the RAAF Detachment in support of United Nations Peace Keeping in Kashmir (1977-78).

 

The F111C entered service in 1973 and expanded the strike aircraft capability of the RAAF. Having flown a tactical aircraft such as the Caribou, my experience was sought after as the number of available fighter pilots became limited. Along with another 38 Squadron pilot, Flying Officer Paul Sawatzky, we were the first RAAF non-fighter pilots to be posted to the F111C. The take-off speed of the F111C exceeded the maximum flight speed of the Caribou, so it was a bit of an awakening for me as a young 22-year-old ex-transport aircraft pilot.


Mark Kelly in photos from 1979 after flying the F111C jet
Mark after his first flight in A8-134 and being presented with his F111C Flight Pin

There is a RAAF video at the Australian War Memorial that tells the story of my first F111C flight and the aircraft I flew, A8-134,which is now in the AWM’s collection. I must say that the enthusiasm I showed in this video interview had my children rolling their eyes. However, if you view this or any video of the F111 you may get an appreciation of my reaction!

 

The F111 was a powerful and potent force and played its part in the defence of Australia, deterring any possible aggressor without ever being called upon in combat. The F111C at the Australian War Memorial commemorates the part that this aircraft played in our RAAF military history.


Eject, Eject, Eject!

My most notable story with the F111C was while on a military exercise on Ohakea, New Zealand on 24th August 1979. Not long after having completed my training on the aircraft, my navigator Al Curr and I were forced to eject out of F111C A8-137.

 

We were taking off as part of a 4-ship formation following four days of heavy rain. During the take-off roll on Ohakea runway 27 at around 130 knots (240 kph), the nose wheel hit a large pool of water causing an engine compressor stall, or "flame-out" in both engines. With no engine thrust to continue the take-off, I applied maximum braking, however the aircraft hydro-planed, only decelerating 40 knots before the F111C continued off the end of the runway. At 90 knots the aircraft departed towards ‘Fog Hollow’ paddock, a drop of over 30m.

 

The F111 has an arrestor hook, but although I deployed the aircraft hook, the runway arrestor cable which would have assisted stopping wasn’t available. As my aircraft went over the cliff at the end of Runway 27, we were left with no survival option but to eject and the command was given, “Eject, Eject, Eject”!


Image of F-111C capsule and parachute after ejection
The F-111C A8-137 capsule following crew ejection on the 24th August 1979

 

The F111 has an ejection capsule, the size of a small car, in which crew remain in their seat as a ‘shaped charge’ cuts the capsule free of the aircraft and rocket motors propel the capsule at high ‘g loading’ upwards around 500FT. Parachutes then deploy and the capsule, with crew still strapped in their seats, comes down to earth with an airbag under the capsule to cushion the impact. The impact is likened to sitting on a wooden deck chair, on the roof of a house, and then jumping off while seated. Ouch!!! But even so, such a better outcome than the alternative. Our capsule landed next to the burning wreckage of A8-137.

 

Lessons Learnt

This was the 55th RAAF ejection from an aircraft and notably, the first successful ground ejection. While I suffered extensive back injuries from the ejection, both the navigator Al Curr - who was unhurt - and I returned to flying the F111.

 

The inquiry found contributing factors to the accident was the pooling of water on the runway and the fact that the F111C did not have chined tyres, therefore the water from the nosewheel sprayed sheets of water into the low hung engines which caused their failure. Lots of lessons learnt.


Mark Kelly & Navigator Al Curr at the F-111 farewell in 2010 & Mark reunited with the ejection capsule.

This ejection capsule is now on display in Ipswich, Queensland next door to the Amberly RAAF Base from which the F111 squadrons were based. As a country we can be proud of the dedicated deterrence that the F111 provided Australia through its history from 1973 to 2010.

 

Following on from my ejection from A8-137, I became a RAAF Flying Instructor, F111C pilot (again), before moving on to a 35-year civil aviation career as a B747 Airline Captain with Qantas. I retired as a B747-400 Senior Training Captain in 2020 with around 25,000 flight hours - and just one more take-off than landing, thanks to my Ohakea story.


 

 

In our next instalment Mark talks us through his work flying the DHC-4 Caribou once more, as pilot and instructor for the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS) based in Shellharbour NSW. And following that, Mark will describe flying the Sydney farewell of the ‘Queen of the Skies’ Boeing 747 jumbo jet before its - and his – retirement in 2020.

Not to be missed.

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