ACT News


Gang Gang: First Australian to double the sound barrier remembered

Jim Flemming, the first Australian to double the speed of sound, lived a life that could have been torn from the pages of a boy's own adventure book.

An officer and a gentleman, he broke every rule known to the bureaucracy (and a few that may have come into existence after he passed through) to join the RAAF and start training as a fighter pilot in 1943. This was a pretty good effort when you consider he didn't celebrate his 18th birthday until December 1944.

Jim, perhaps best known in later life for a controversial stint as the director of the Australian War Memorial from 1982 to 1987 which saw him repeatedly investigated, with limited results, by the Labor overnment that came to power shortly after he was appointed by Malcolm Fraser, was an excellent raconteur.

My recollection of his description of the events that led up to his being part of the first mission flown by the RAAF during the Korean war is as vivid now as it was in 2011.  

His unit, still equipped with World War II-era Mustangs in June 1950, was based in Japan. It had been on the cusp of returning to Australia when the North Koreans crossed the 38th Parallel in force, kick starting a state of war that technically continues to this day.

Jim, or to give him his full title, Air Vice Marshall (ret) Jim Flemming, told me there had been a pretty good party in full swing to mark the imminent return home.


At the height of the festivities the phone in the mess rang. A rather official sounding voice on the other end of the line informed the officer who answered that due to the likely outbreak of war the squadron would be staying in Japan.

The officer congratulated the caller, obviously a high-ranking air force wallah from Australia, on his wit, hung up and returned to the party.

A subsequent phone call, intercepted this time by somebody with a better understanding of world affairs, put things to rights and within a very short time aircraft were being readied for war.

It was an unusual conflict that initially pitted the Australian fliers in piston engined aircraft against Russia's brilliant new MIG jet fighters.

The Mustangs may have been outclassed in the air but they remained one of the best ground attack aircraft of their time, a point Jim reinforced when he became the first Australian to destroy a Russian-built T-34 tank on the Korean battlefield.

Jim became the fastest Australian alive when he doubled the sound barrier in an F-104 Starfighter while on an exchange program with the United States Air Force in the late 1950s.

What is less well known is that one of these super fast, but temperamental, aircraft came close to claiming his life.

He described the incident in an article entitled "Nozzle Failure at 70,000 feet" in 2004.

For those who were born late, 70,000 feet is 21.538 kilometres above the earth and I have it on good authority the humming sound you hear at Mach 2 at that attitude is the angels singing Nearer My God To Thee.

That was certainly the case in 1958 when Jim was tasked with taking an F-104C up for a high altitude test to help determine why there had been a spate of nozzle failures resulting in engines failing to provide thrust.

"At 40,000 feet I tried a relight​ without success," he wrote. "At 35,000 I tried another with the same result. At 33,000 I managed to get a relight and was delighted to see the RPM and EGT start to rise. (But) I knew something was wrong as an increased throttle movement produced the desired RPM but no apparent increase in thrust."

Jim, a brilliant pilot who had what Tom Wolfe would later describe as "the right stuff" in abundance, was able to land safely with a "dead stick" (meaning a controlled glide) on the world's longest runway at Muroc Lake.

The reason I share these anecdotes about a great Australian is that Jim is no longer with us to tell the stories himself.

He died on February 15 this year.

Jim should have an easier time in heaven than most as he would have brought his own wings. I daresay he would have clocked up a few speeding fines by now however.