After Two WWII Planes Collided In Mid-Air, The Pilots’ Aerial Exploits Were Astonishing

It’s September 1940, the second year of WWII, and two Australian pilots are on a training exercise, each accompanied by his navigator. They’re both flying twin-engined Avro Anson aircraft on what should be an entirely routine flight over the Australian bush. But then catastrophe strikes in an entirely unpredictable way. Can the four crewmen come out of it alive?

We’ll come back to the nature and outcome of that mid-air incident a little later, but for now let’s find out a bit more about what the young airmen were doing. All four were stationed at the Royal Australian Air Force’s Forest Hill Station. It’s still there today, but it’s now called the RAAF Wagga Base.

The air base’s new name is taken from the city of Wagga Wagga, about seven miles away. The town itself is in New South Wales on Australia’s east coast, about 235 miles south-west of the state capital, Sydney. While they were there, the four young men were attending flight training school.

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This RAAF training school had been set up in July of 1940, in response to the outbreak of war a year earlier, and just a couple of months before our airmen’s fateful flight. As a result, the Australian air force was undergoing a rapid expansion. This saw would-be airmen arrive at Forest Hill for intermediate and advanced tuition, having completed basic training.

Instructors at Forest Hill trained pilots in a variety of skills including night flying, flying by instrument and aerial gunnery. Training was also offered in advanced aerobatics. And that last skill would prove highly relevant to one of the four men who took off from the training base on September 29, 1940.

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This is probably a good time to meet the four airmen at the heart of our story. The pilot of one of the Ansons, N4876, was 22-year-old Leonard Graham Fuller, and his navigator was Ian Menzies Sinclair, 27. Fuller was from the New South Wales town of Cootamundra, while Sinclair came from Glen Innes, NSW.

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Jack Inglis Hewson, the youngest of the four at 19, was in the pilot’s seat of the other Anson, L9162. His navigator was 27-year-old Hugh Gavin Fraser. Hewson was from the NSW town of Newcastle and Fraser hailed from the city of Melbourne in Victoria State. All four men had the rank of leading aircraftman and all had enlisted with the RAAF on April 29, 1940.

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At a time before the U.S. had entered WWII, the RAAF had agreed to supply 28,000 pilots for the war effort. This was part of a total of 50,000 pilots from the British dominions of Canada and Australia who were to fight alongside the Royal Air Force. This U.K. government initiative was known as the Empire Air Training Scheme.

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In the early days of the training scheme at Forest Hill, aircrew flew in Avro Anson planes. Not long after training had started, however, disaster struck when one of the aircraft crashed, killing a trainee and an instructor. Generally, though, the Ansons were regarded as dependable. Avro, in fact, continued building them after the war, and by 1952, had produced more than 11,000 craft.

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The Anson was actually based on a pre-war commercial airliner, the Avro 652. British company Avro had simply modified their 652 in order to meet a tender specification from the U.K. Air Ministry in the 1930s. Once accepted and ordered by the Royal Air Force, the aircraft was named Anson after a famous British sailor.

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Admiral of the Fleet George Anson, 1st Baron Anson, to give him his full moniker, is probably best remembered for his circumnavigation of the world, a feat that took four years. He is also said to have been a skilled administrator who greatly contributed to the Royal Navy’s operational efficiency. He died in 1762, a heroic mariner rather than a daredevil pilot. The latter were, of course, few and far between in the 18th century.

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The Anson aircraft became the workhorse plane of the Australian, Canadian and British air forces during WWII. It was a versatile plane built with wooden wings and steel-frame fuselage covered in fabric. Two Armstrong Siddeley Cheetah engines powered the craft, which featured retractable landing gear, a novelty at the time. However, a crew member had to turn a crank through 144 rotations to operate the rudimentary undercarriage.

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During active service, the Anson usually flew with a crew of four. That would include the pilot, a bomb-aimer, a navigator and a wireless operator. The plane could also carry up to 360 pounds of bombs, while armaments normally consisted of two machine guns. The first gun would be mounted at the front of the plane, with the second in the turret atop the fuselage.

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Those Ansons specially adapted for training came with two sets of controls and often had the top turret removed. However, the craft that Fuller and Hewson flew on that September 1940 day both had turrets. As we’ve seen, only two men flew in each of the planes during that exercise. This was presumably because they were on routine training flights.

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Fuller and Hewson’s flights were planned as a cross country journey over the southern part of New South Wales. After take-off from the Forest Hill Station, they would head south-west for the town of Corowa, about 80 miles away. From there, they would turn north for the 85 miles or so to the town of Narrendera, followed by the final 60-mile leg of their trip back to Forest Hill.

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The two aircraft were about 60 miles into the first leg of their flight, cruising at around 1,000 feet in altitude, as they neared the small settlement of Brocklesby. Nothing of note had happened up until that point. But when the planes went into a banking maneuver, an abrupt bang shattered what should have been a routine flight.

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For a moment during the banking movement, Fuller couldn’t see Hewson’s plane. But it’s location very quickly became all too obvious. It was directly beneath him. And with an enormous crash, the two planes collided. Surely they would now plummet to the ground, perhaps straight into Brocklesby. Imminent loss of life seemed all but guaranteed.

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Yet, miraculously the planes, now locked one above the other, continued to fly through the air. The engines on Hewson’s Anson, the lower of the two, were still spinning and keeping both craft airborne, at least for now. But his controls were completely out of action. As a consequence, he simply couldn’t control the aircraft.

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But incredible as it seems, Fuller still had control of his Anson – and was able to steer it. However, the plane had completely lost power in the collision, which damaged both of the propellers beyond use. And, all the while, the two craft remained in an apparently unbreakable clinch. Indeed, the turret of the lower Anson had lodged firmly into the wing of the upper one.

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So Hewson, in the lower plane, had enough power from his engines to keep both aircraft airborne. And Fuller, in the upper plane, had enough control over the direction of his machine to guide both planes through the air. You can see now why we mentioned earlier that aerobatics training would come in handy.

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Speaking a few days later to the Australian newspaper The Daily News, Fuller recalled the moment of impact. “It happened so quickly that I hardly had time to register it,” he explained. “The planes seemed to come together, mine on top, and there was a grinding crash and a bang as roaring propellers struck each other and bit into the engine cowlings.”

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“It was a terrific bump and I would have been tossed right out of my seat and away from the controls if I hadn’t had my safety belt on,” the pilot continued. “When the first shock had passed, I found the planes still flying in a sort of way and thought I might have a chance to get them down in one piece.”

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And even more incredibly, only one of the airmen received any wounds in the collision. It was Hewson, who sustained an injury to his back when a propeller cut into his cockpit. Fuller now ordered his navigator, Sinclair, to bail out. Hewson’s navigator, Fraser, also made a parachute jump to escape, followed by his injured pilot. Fuller was now on his own, flying the bizarre two-plane combination.

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Thankfully, all three men made it safely back to land after bailing out. Still up in the air, though, Fuller was acutely aware of the risk of crash landing on the town of Brocklesby below him. Afterwards, the pilot told the press what he had been thinking as the two planes limped along with him at the controls.

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“I thought that if I gave up and bailed out [the planes would] crash on Brocklesby and kill people,” Fuller told the The Daily News. “So I decided to give it a go. I knew I had a slight chance.” The pilot then continued to fly the conjoined aircraft, guiding them away from the township and its populace.

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Although Fuller somehow managed to keep the two interlocked Ansons in the air for around five more miles, the lower plane’s engines then began to lose power. The planes therefore became increasingly difficult to control with any precision. Fuller realized that they probably couldn’t last much longer. It was time to try and land.

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Then Fuller spotted a likely field, or paddock as Australians call them. He headed the craft towards the area, the idea being to bring it down safely despite a lack of landing gear. There was, of course, no one aboard the lower Anson to crank down the undercarriage mechanism, providing it was still operational after the crash.

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Now well away from Brocklesby, Fuller guided the plane down towards the paddock he’d chosen. The Anson then skidded across the turf for almost 600 feet before coming to a halt. Unbelievably, the pilot had managed to land the two aircraft and remain unscathed. In fact, he later claimed that his crash landing had been smoother than any he’d made during training.

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And the pilot’s commanding officer, Squadron Leader Cooper, told him that his choice of landing spot had been impeccable. Whats more, the landing itself had been excellent as well. Top brass then flew in from the RAAF headquarters in Melbourne to sing Fuller’s praises. As a result of the airborne heroics, the world now knew the airman’s name.

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Fuller’s words to one senior RAAF man, Group Captain Arthur “Spud” Murphy are quoted in Robert Coleman’s 1988 book, Above Renown: The Biography of Sir Henry Winneke. “I did everything we’ve been told to do in a forced landing,” the pilot said. “Land as close as possible to habitation or a farmhouse and, if possible, land into the wind.”

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“I did all that,” Fuller continued. “There’s the farmhouse, and I did a couple of circuits and landed into the wind. She was pretty heavy on the controls, though!” The understatement in describing what must have been a terrifying ordeal, however bravely faced, is astonishing. Those Australian fliers clearly had some exceptional reserves of courage.

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Given the extraordinary nature of Fuller’s feat, it’s no surprise that world’s press took up his incredible story. Luckily, there were pictures to prove the authenticity of the tale, as it was so strange that people might have doubted it without incontrovertible evidence. And the name of Brocklesby, a previously unknown town, was on the lips of millions.

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And in yet another unbelievable twist to this outlandish story, both planes were then successfully salvaged. The top one, Fuller’s plane, was repaired and able to fly again. The lower plane, the one piloted by Hewson, though, never took to the air again. Instead, it subsequently found use as a static training aircraft.

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Indeed, if the two Ansons had been irretriveably damaged, new ones would have cost the RAAF £40,000. In today’s money, that’s around $2.8 million, a very tidy sum. So it seems that Fuller not only saved the lives of the good people of Brocklesby and his fellow fliers, not to mention his own, but a large amount of money as well.

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Fuller then received a promotion to sergeant, but it wasn’t all bouquets and garlands for the heroic airman. Indeed, he received orders to keep quiet about the incident when it came to the media. Unfortunately, he seems not to have taken those orders seriously and spoke to the press. The RAAF, unsurprisingly, took a dim view of this. The pilot then received punishment of two week’s barracks confinement and a week’s loss of pay.

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Following the Brocklesbury incident, Fuller saw wartime service in the Middle East. After a spell there, he transferred to Europe where he displayed his customary courage in action over Palermo, Italy, in March 1942. His bravery there won him a Distinguished Flying Medal. Earning officer’s rank later that year, the pilot then went back to Australia as a trainer.

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The other pilot involved in the Brocklesby episode, Hewson, fully recovered from the back injury he’d sustained during the collision. Returning to active service, he made it through the war and left the RAAF in 1946 with the rank of flight lieutenant. His navigator, Fraser, however, was not so lucky.

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Fraser was stationed in Northern Ireland with the RAF’s 206 Squadron. He was flying a Lockheed Hudson on a training flight with a crew of three when his plane crashed into a tree. All four men aboard died in the accident, which happened on New Year’s Day, 1941. That was just over three months after the navigator had escaped unhurt from his stricken Anson.

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But perhaps the cruelest fate of all was reserved for the hero of the Brocklesby incident. On March 18, 1944, Fuller was riding his bicycle near the base in Sale, Victoria, where he was now posted as a trainer. A bus crashed into him, and sadly, the pilot did not survive the accident.

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As far as we know, the 1940 Brocklesby incident is the only time in aviation history when two planes have collided in the air, locked together and then been successfully landed by a single pilot. And all that with just the one injury. It goes to show that events are only impossible until they happen.

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