Focus. Remember your training. Fly the plane.
These were the thoughts Flight Lieutenant Justin Hayter had to force-feed into his faculties.
He and his crew in the Lockheed P3 Orion aircraft had been assigned to patrol Australia’s lines of communication over Malaysia as part of Operation Gateway. It was December of 2008, the thick of monsoon season, and sure enough, high over the mountains of rural Malaysia, they became the china shop the bull is in and were hit by a lashing, heaving mass of hail and lightning.
“All of a sudden, there was one very, very bright flash and a great big bang,” he recalls.
The cockpit fell silent, but only long enough for the error codes to start piling in through the trip computer. The electronic systems were fried.
“Everyone was running around down the back, opening up cabinets trying to look for any fire because of all the dropping systems.”
The storm had a few cards to play yet, though.
“We turned around and started heading back to where we’d taken off from when we encountered some really rough turbulence,” Justin says.
“It got so bad, the captain had to get everybody to strap down in the back so they didn’t get thrown around the cabin. And I’m starting to find it really difficult to read in the instruments.”
Then the hail arrived. Aircraft are designed to fly through a certain amount of ice, but nothing like this. Of the few systems working by this point, radar was fortunately still one of them. Until it wasn’t.
“The radar operator said, ‘It’s down – I can’t give you any more vectors, so I’m going to point you into the least worst part I last saw.”
So there was Justin, controller for a battered aeroplane in hand, and a crew behind him, pinning their lives on his every move.
“I just kept thinking back to what I’d learnt in my training: ‘No matter what else is happening, fly the plane.’ And that’s what I did. And you know, we popped out the other side and managed to land. But it really hit home the significance of being prepared … It would have been terrifying if we weren’t.”
If you’re wondering about the Canberra connection here, it might make you feel better to know Justin Hayter was among the ‘Roulettes’ diving and rolling above the city on Sunday, 8 October, for the Parliament House Open Day.
Normally based at the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base of East Sale in Victoria, the Pilatus PC-21 aircraft have a mixed role as part training shoes and part show ponies, designed to test pilot capabilities while doubling as a giant job advertisement to those on the ground.
The pilots are also qualified flying instructors, and well-versed at carrying speeds of up to 685 km/h (or 360 knots) as low as 80 metres above the ground and three metres apart from each other. And all while reaching 6 on the g-force scale.
“Your helmet, flying gear and your own body usually weigh around 100 kg, so when you pull 6G, it feels every bit like you actually weigh 600 kg. It’s a lot of force on the body, so you do need a reasonable level of fitness.”
Justin grew up building aircraft models, flying radio-controlled gliders, and watching classics like The Battle of Britain and Memphis Belle, and by six years old, he knew what he wanted to do with his life.
He joined the Air Force cadets and worked his way from his home in Lismore on the northern coast of NSW to Perth for advanced training.
“That’s when I got my wings and I went on to fly the Lockheed AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, and the bulk of my operational career was in that aircraft,” he says.
“But every step of my career, I’ve always looked at what’s next.”
He trained to become a flying instructor, and before long, found himself in the cockpit of the Pilatus PC-21.
“I’ve always loved the idea of being in the Roulettes but never thought I’d have the opportunity to be able to do it, and then suddenly, here I am.”
Initially, he says the “bucket of fear was very full” and the bucket of fun a lot less so, but this has changed with time. And practice.
“With lots of exposure, practice, and mental rehearsal on the ground, the bucket of fear is at an appropriate level and the fun is very much full now,” he says.
“I love the job.”