Former TAA Electras in S.E. Asia

(Including the last flight of the former VH-TLA)

by Phil Dreith


XW-PKA in the Lockheed hangar at Seletar. Parting out has already commenced.
Photo: Phil Dreith

(All images are linked to larger versions)

The last flight of XW-PKA (formerly VH-TLA) started on 20 September 1974. The crew was Captain Al Ogle, First Officer Al Adolph, Flight Engineer Bill Dettori and myself, Phil Dreith as Flight Mechanic. I am the only one on that flight that I know of that is still alive. Al Adolph was an ex-Continental Air Service Porter pilot. Al had been in Laos a fair while and he was really good on STOL aircraft as witnessed by the fact that he lived through it. He died in the 1976 crash of a B-17 fire bomber in Utah. Al Ogle was a former Boeing test pilot. I am not sure of what has happened to him. Bill Dettori the Flight Engineer passed away in February 2006. The last flight is really a story that I have wanted to write for the last few years as it will be hard for the newer generation of aviators to believe. I will give you some of the details as I recall.

I worked in Laos for Continental Air Service Inc. as a Maintenance Supervisor from 1969 until 1973. (Continental Air Service was a similar operation to Air America). On 29 March 1973, Royal Air Lao Electra XW-PKB (formerly VH-TLB) flew from Vientiane to Hanoi and back with a press contingent, including a CBS crew, to cover the release of US prisoners of war. The crew on this flight comprised Captain Jack Worra, FO Bob Orticari and FE Dick Kekoa. I believe that PKB did several of these flights to Hanoi. Subsequently, I joined Royal Air Lao as a Maintenance Supervisor.


XW-PKB at Hanoi on 29 March 1973.
Photo: via Phil Dreith Collection
The Press at Hanoi on 29 March 1973.
Photo: via Phil Dreith Collection

In 1974, the Lao government had just signed a peace agreement with the communists. Royal Air Lao was running with not much money coming in. The parts situation was extremely bad. Before I started with RAL in December of 1973, XW-PKA had been used for parts to keep the other aircraft, XW-PKB, flying. We kept PKB flying the schedule as best we could. RAL's other aircraft were DC-3s, DC-4s and even a pair of Boeing 307 Stratoliners. It was easier to get parts for these older aircraft as we could always get some from the Royal Lao Air Force. Remember there was no FAA in Laos, just a French guy who liked to drink free beer!

We were told as time went on that the new government would take the aircraft if we didn't get them out of Laos. Our Directors told us that if we could get the Electras to Singapore there was charter work for them and we would all be paid regularly again. We flew XW-PKB to Hong Kong for a heavy check. We then robbed parts from PKB and shipped them back to Vientiane to put on PKA to get it airworthy. Parts for Electras were much easier to come by in Hong Kong as Cathay Pacific used to operate them. That was in late 1974, I think August. We started putting PKA back together with the parts we had. It took us about a month to get the aircraft on jacks for the first gear swing in I don't know how long.

We left Vientiane on 20 September 1974 at 1100 with only three generators working, which was legal. We thought it would be just be few hours’ flight to Seletar, Singapore. Boy, it turned into a trip of a life time that almost cost us all our lives. Once we had taken off, it took about 43 long seconds to get the gear up, very slowly. For the rest of the trip it always took 43 seconds for the gear to retract. My fear was that they wouldn't come back down. Number 3 propeller pitch locked soon after take-off. Engine number 1 was using a lot of oil so we decided it was better to divert to Bangkok rather than risk trashing an engine. We shut down number 3 prior to landing. I changed the prop governor on number 3 and oiled up the engines. Our battery went dead so I bought a battery from a friend of mine who took it out of a MD3 power unit that was nearby. Luckily it used the same battery that's in an Electra. I paid $40 for it. I think the next guy that tried to start that MD3 had a few kind words for us. I called my wife who was staying in Bangkok to say hello as my new daughter was only two weeks old and I had not seen her because of working to get XW-PKA out of Laos.

We took off from Bangkok at 1540. On take-off, number 3 propeller pitch locked again due to an overspeed, obviously the prop governor didn't help even though it was a new propeller. We started considering an alternate to Seletar as we were flying pretty slow and we didn't want to fly in the dark in our current circumstances. During the second hour of the flight, number 1 engine was again losing oil badly. We decided to divert to Kuala Lumpur. The oil quantity on number 1 engine was getting to the critical point so we decided to shut down the engine. The plan was to restart the engine before landing at Kuala Lumpur. We had to shut down Number 3 because of the pitch lock as well. We were down to one generator by then. We were unable to restart number 1 engine prior to landing at Kuala Lumpur as planned. Murphy's law was setting in. We were then reduced to one generator with only the priority electrical bus at touch down. We didn't have many lights, etc., on the priority bus. We landed with only two engines turning and one generator. They didn't name the aircraft Electra for nothing; it has lots and lots of electrical power needs. We restarted number 3 engine as fast as we could once we were on the ground to get back our needed electrical power. We had landed at 1855. The tower at Kuala Lumpur asked us if we wanted to contact our Embassy. We said hell no! It was late and dark so I planned to return to the airport in the morning to work on the aircraft. We all stayed at the Hilton in Kuala Lumpur. We went to the bar where I saw ole Al Adolph eat the orchid out of his fancy drink. He said it was kind of bitter. It's funny how you remember things like that.

The next day I went out early and worked on the oil leak on number 1 engine and was able to repair it. The number 3 propeller was a different story. I had no parts and only a wooden ladder to reach the prop. I couldn't do much, so I checked the oil and checked what I could and that's about all I could do at the time. We discussed our options and decided on a plan. We were going to take-off out of Kuala Lumpur with all four engines running, then shut down number 3 and continue on to Singapore. We took off at 1040 on 21 September 1974. On take-off, number 3 propeller pitch locked again due to overspeed. We continued on as Bill attempted to shut down number 3. The propeller went into an overspeed condition with a speed of approximately 18,500 rpm (normal is 13,820rpm). I had not been frightened until this point in time, but when I heard that engine and remembered all the horror stories of over-speeding propellers, now I was really scared! The engine made a screaming sound I had never heard before. I will never forget Bill shouting to the Captain to "slow this f***** down". Bill was sitting on the edge of the flight engineer's seat pulling on the overhead feather button . Al Ogle pulled the nose up to slow us down. On the first attempt the propeller didn't feather. I remember the FO looking out the side window twisting his mustache as fast as he could. I'm sure he was as scared as I was. I ran back to the galley and opened a small bottle of Haig pinch and drank it down as fast as I could, then ran back to the cockpit. I was so scared I didn't feel a thing. The engine de-coupled and allowed the engine to shut down and feather. We landed at Seletar Air Base at 1135 after the longest flight of my life and the last for XW-PKA.

The intended purpose of what turned out to be the last flight by XW-PKA was to have a heavy check done by Lockheed at Seletar. In the event, the owners could not afford the overhaul and the aircraft was parted out and subsequently broken up at Seletar in December 1975. Prior to their sale to American Jet Industries, both Electras were owned by a company called Trans Air Corp (I still have my company ID). I left the company in September 1975.

These are the facts as best I can recall. We were all hoping for a new start and more money if we made it to Singapore. I guess you can say we were desperate. That didn't happen but that's another story. Note: I found out later that the aircraft had never been de-registered from the US "N" registration.


After Laos

The former XW-PKB in Mandala livery.
Photo: Phil Dreith
The air-transportable air start unit.
Photo: Phil Dreith


The other Electra, XW-PKB, arrived in Singapore on 27 October 1974 after its overhaul in Hong Kong, and soon after it did find the promised charter work - with Mandala of Indonesia and I went with the aircraft. We flew domestic from Jakarta to Surabaya to Makasar to Manado and return. Next day we flew Jakarta to Medan and back. It made for really long days as we flew with it to provide engineering coverage and to start the aircraft. After returning to Jakarta, we would work on the aircraft during the night.

We also took an old USAF camel back air start unit and modified it so we could carry it in the rear baggage compartment on the aircraft. This was a real old fashioned air starter with a throttle on it. We were a bit afraid the first time we started it up. Boy it made a noise. We built a rail system and put a pulley in the rear baggage bin ceiling so we could lower the air starter out at every stop. Fuel was taken from the wing fuel drains, a battery was hooked up and one engine was started, after which we let the unit cool down before stowing it in the hold. We learnt fast that putting it in the baggage bin while hot was difficult and hard on the ropes. We had to charge the battery every night to keep going. Garuda would not let us use their equipment. This is sounding more bizarre as I recall this stuff. Often I slept on the ramp at the aircraft working because "no flyee no payee". The last flight with Mandala was on 15 February 1975.

Before American Jet Industries acquired PKB, Stan Bernstein showed up with one of the Boyd brothers, famous at that time for repossessing aircraft all over the world, to take PKB back to the US. They had Lockheed paint on the N numbers during the night. We in maintenance got word of this and took all the radios out of the aircraft before they could sneak it out. We wanted them to give us our back pay as we were all broke. They left without the aircraft needless to say. Subsequently, American Jet hired me to get XW-PKB ready to fly to the US. The pilot who came over to get the aircraft was Fish Salmon the famous Lockheed test pilot. What an interesting guy. He told me he flew an Electra after the wing mod into a Santa Anna wind storm in California to test the aircraft.

Phil Dreith

30 March 2006


Phil Dreith has been able to confirm that the Indonesian registration of the former XW-PKB was PK-RLX. Phil has also added a few more dates in respect of this aircraft's movements.
Phil Dreith has clarified the purpose of the flight to Hanoi by XW-PKB on 29MAR73. On this trip, the aircraft carried only a press contingent. The released POWs were taken to the Philippines by the USAF. The above text has been edited accordingly.
Original issue


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