the first ditching!
22 July 1996, practice runs for the Pacific!
The Sea Rey was an American amphibious aircraft built by a company called Progressive Aerodyne. Kerry Richter was the designer and inspiration behind the design of the Seay Rey aircraft.
Rob Loneragan was the Australian ‘agent for the importation from the USA of the Sea Rey amphibian aircraft. Because it was a first of type coming into Australia the Department of Transport required flight testing on and off the water. The Department of Transport did not have a pilot who could conduct these trials. I therefore was asked to conduct these trials as I was endorsed on amphibious aircraft.
The aircraft had been reassembled on Bankstown Airport. For the day of the water trials, we went to Bankstown Tower to tell them what we were trying to achieve in the way of touch and goes on the river and to gain their permission to operate.
Bankstown runway complex is in the 290/110 direction and a portion of the Georges rivers runs north south nearby. Given that the departing traffic in the runway 29 direction at Bankstown takes off over the river we would conduct our circuits at no higher than 500 feet so that departing aircraft from Bankstown were well above us.
Rob Loneragan taxied the aeroplane over to our office on the southern side of Bankstown Airport from where we would depart to conduct left hand circuits around the river. We taxied to the runup for the 29 direction then proceeded with the upwind take-off to fly past the river and fly a downwind circuit flying over the Milperra bridge of roughly 180. then a base leg and final into the northerly direction.
We found that on the water the airplane handled really well. After the fourth landing on the water, I said to Rob “I’ve seen enough you have been handling it well, let’s go back to Bankstown”.
As we accelerated after the fourth landing in order to depart the hull of the aircraft split open and water engulfed the cockpit and the aircraft turned
upside down. Rob managed to extricate himself from the aircraft. I had released my seat belt but the shoulder harness was still attached to the button preventing me from getting out. I had my mouth above the water – just so that I could breathe. Rob fortunately is a strong swimmer. He swam underneath the aircraft and tried to release my seat belt without success. Meanwhile a speed boat that was on the river and had been observing our operation came over and tied a rope around the wheels to secure the aircraft from sinking and asked what was happening. Rob replied that “my mate is trapped under the boat.” The boat driver offered a knife. (Rob told me later that the knife was not an option as it would take far too long to cut through the seat belt) However, Rob said “I know exactly what I have to do I will dive down again, follow the shoulder harness down and release it from the button. Rob said to me there is a lot of debris around your waist line preventing me from releasing you so when I
dive this next time breathe in as much as you can so that I can release the belt. Rob dived under the aircraft again and followed the harness down to the release point. I breathed in, he released the belt and I popped up like a cork out of a bottle.
Sarah Gill, Wayne Clamback and Finian Greene who was one of our instructors had been watching from the river bank. Finian after seeing what had happened jumped in boots and all and swam out to us in order to assist the speed boat driver had meanwhile pulled myself and Rob into his boat and took us to the banks of the river. I remember crawling up the side of the river bank and a friend who had observed this on TV said that I looked like King Neptune stumbling out of the water.
By that time an ambulance had arrived, the press and TV had arrived and there was much activity. Much against my will I was taken to Liverpool Hospital. I protested loudly that I did not wish to go there. To no avail I was taken anyway. Rob meanwhile was in another ambulance and he was also taken to Liverpool hospital. Meanwhile Sarah Gill and Wayne had rung Aminta saying “They are OK they are OK.” She had no idea what they were talking about – Sarah filled her in and said to take clothes to Liverpool hospital.
When Aminta arrived, she found out where Rob and I were, bringing me clothes. The hospital was overcrowded at the time and Rob and I were on beds in a corridor. Rob was not in good shape. She went over and talked with him He was not injured physically but he was suffering from shock. The shock he said was due to the fact that he was mortified that he had asked Ray to do something that could have killed him. To this day when Aminta was researching this flight, he said he still feels emotional about that whole episode in his life.
The hospital finally let Aminta take me back to the office. It is quite a drama to be signed out of a hospital!
The telephones had been ringing worldwide and the owner of the SeaRey company (Progressive Aerodyne SeaRey) arrived at Bankstown 2 days after they accident. Meanwhile the VH-REY had been fished out of the river and was in a hangar on Bankstown. The owner’s name was Kerry Richter rang, said he had arrived from the USA and would I come over and meet him at the hangar in about one hours’ time. I met him over there, he looked at the
aircraft and said “do you have a match”. I said “No I don’t smoke but I can get one for you.” So I did. He then picked up a piece of the aircraft, struck the match and burned the fibreglass from it and said “this is supposed to have three layers of cloth in it and there is only one.” He said “I need to get top a telephone.” I said “Jump in to my old blue Ute and I will drive you over to my office.” On the way across the airport, he said ”I have to apologise to you Ray, because you were getting the blame.” I said “don’t worry about that. I have been a pilot for a long time and the pilot is always the first person blamed.”
When we got to the office, he said I need to call the USA. There are a number of aeroplanes flying with that hull and I need to stop them flying immediately.” I provided him with a telephone and he called his factory where he explained the situation to them. The aircraft were grounded and then Kerry Richter returned to the USA.
Later on, Kerry arranged for a completely new aeroplane to be delivered to Sydney in the hull of a 747. The aircraft was reconstructed on Bankstown and Kerry returned to Australia to give the new aeroplane to Rob Loneragan to replace the one that crashed.
In order for Kerry Richter to fly the aircraft in Australia his licence had to be endorsed with the aircraft type. When he asked who could conduct this endorsement, he was told Ray Clamback is an instructor and he could do it.
We arranged to fly to Pittwater, to have lunch and to proceed with the endorsement. Rob Loneragan flew the seaplane and Richter to Palm beach and I was given a lift up there in a Cessna float plane by Phil Dulhunty.
Upon arrival at Palm Beach, we had lunch and then proceeded to endorse Kerry Richter on his own aeroplane!!! After his endorsement he demonstrated his aircraft to other people who were interested in purchasing it. I flew back with Phil to Hunter’s Hill and then drove back to Bankstown.