Russell Watts ( - 2008)

Russell Henderson Watts had a most interesting career with DCA, including time with ICAO. Here is his story in his own words.

Left: Russ Watts

The following is not intended to be a detailed discourse, but rather of general interest regarding the era immediately post the Second World War.

Air Traffic Control

In June 1948, after nearly 5 years as a pilot, I was posted to the RAAF Southern Area Headquarters and attached to Essendon Airport as one of three officers responsible for liaison with the Department of Civil Aviation. I decided it was time to resign from the air force so I went looking for employment. I settled for an offer as an Air Traffic Controller in the Department of Civil Aviation and commenced duty on June 16 1948. During my time as Liaison Officer I spent any spare time learning the civil aviation procedures, so when the time came I merely walked across the room to commence my new job.

Air Traffic Control by today's standards was very primitive. It consisted of two controllers who compared flight information which was written up on a type of circular slide rule [the Rodoniscope]. Communication with aircraft was by HF (High Frequency radio) with the Area Controller giving a hard copy message to an Aeradio operator on the other side of a dividing wall. If one had an urgent message one literally shouted to the Aeradio operator through a hole in the wall. The only direct communication was between the Approach Controller and the aircraft by VHF (Very High Frequency radio), used for control of approaching and departing aircraft.

Operational Control was exercised by a Senior Controller. Aerodrome Control was exercised by two Controllers located in the Control Tower.

During 1949 I was posted to Adelaide where there were three personnel per shift - an Operations Supervisor, an Area Controller and an Approach Controller. The Unit was based in the Control Tower at Parafield. The airport was an all-over field with cinders rolled into the grass to delineate the preferred landing and takeoff area. Adelaide Airport [West Beach] as it now exists was under construction.

Over the next eight years (1948-1956) I progressed through the various stages from a base grade to Approach Controller, to Aerodrome Controller, to En Route Controller, to Operational Control. I completed the Civil Aviation school (I recall that Don Charlwood and Allan Woodward were on the same course). The major change in this period of time was the introduction of the Flight Progress Board instead of the Rodoniscope.

After some months I was transferred back to Melbourne to work in Head Office in a Unit of three people planning the future of Air Traffic Control for Australia. My particular duty was to plan Area Control procedures for a number of years into the future, including the use of equipment which was still in experimental stages, e.g. daylight-viewing radar. The radar at the time was Second World War vintage. It involved an operator who would telephone his observations from his darkened room to the Approach Controller, who would then calculate the separation of the air traffic.

In 1952 I was informed that I was being transferred to Darwin to fill the position of Senior Air Traffic Controller-Northern Territory Region, as it was then. This involved the oversight of Air Traffic Control and all operational factors. Of particular interest at the time was the closure of Darwin Airport for about three weeks whilst the strip was resurfaced.

I was given a staff of about ten people, each person having particular attributes necessary to run Daly Waters as an international airport. This involved fuel companies, ground maintenance staff and radio operators. At the time Daly Waters consisted of five houses, a bush Hotel (which still stands), thousands of flies, bore water and dust. We took over the Daly Waters Hotel to provide accommodation and two Hostesses assisted with the catering. Every night there was partying-on, with stockmen appearing from nowhere because of the two females available!

The first aircraft that landed at Daly Waters was a Constellation carrying the incoming Lieutenant Governor for Victoria, with myself representing the Australian Government. Another person passing through was P.G.Taylor. I was advised that he was to make use of the Marine facilities at Darwin Harbour as he was engaged in transferring Defence force dependants from the Middle East (ex Malta to Sydney) in his Catalina. Unfortunately the facilities were no longer serviceable and I had the task of finding somebody who was familiar with seaplane moorings. I had to find drums of fuel, a punt to take the fuel to the aircraft, a workboat and a boat for use as a ferry. I spent a few interesting hours talking with P.G. Taylor.

Air Safety Investigation

After six months in this position in Darwin I left Air Traffic Control, returning to Melbourne where I took up a position as specialist investigator of Air Traffic Control incidents. I wanted to convince the public that flying was safe. Eventually the position was expanded to include accident investigation. At this time six Accident Investigators were based in Melbourne.

Accident investigation in South Australia and the Northern Territory was coordinated from Adelaide. Investigations in Tasmania were handled by Melbourne, while Port Moresby looked after the Australian territory of Papua New Guinea. About four years later the system expanded to providing individual Investigators in each capital city.

In 1959 I was posted to Sydney - the only city I had not applied for! Eventually we had about three staff, including investigation staff. I was promoted to Superintendent at Waverton, overlooking the harbour. The workload was huge, to say the least.

In 1967 I was despatched to the USA to undertake the American Investigation Course. This involved some weeks at school followed by familiarisation with American facilities and training methods, which included attachment to the National Transportation Safety Board in San Francisco.


Above: National Aircraft Accident Investigation School Class 27, 27 February-24 March 1967. Russ Watts arrowed. The NAAIS was established in 1963 in Oklahoma City, USA.

On returning to Australia I discovered that another officer had undertaken a similar trip the year beforehand and he had made certain recommendations as to what should be done in Australia. My recommendations were to be taken into account and the two of us became responsible for the formulation of a national training scheme. In essence, I was responsible for the practical field training and he was responsible for the day-to-day training of all staff in DCA.


After a number of years I decided to broaden my horizons and applied to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in Montreal, Canada, for a new position of Chief-Aircraft Accident Investigation and Prevention. I was employed at ICAO to undertake two specific tasks:

  • Rewrite the international Handbook on accident investigation.
  • Modernise the international agreements in relation to the exchange of information between countries and see that they were instituted.

I soon discovered that the proposed Handbook was non-existent and countries had not contributed any significant information as promised at international meetings. Also, countries were not complying with the reporting system initiated in 1947. Over a period of two years I gathered the necessary information from various countries, edited it and produced a manual primarily for the use of developing countries. This was distributed world-wide.

In developing the reporting system, I initiated the computerisation of data that covered all airline accidents. I then commenced the basic work necessary to cover all third-level aircraft i.e. commuter aircraft of smaller airline operations under 60,000 lbs. ICAO takes little interest in light aircraft or non-commercial operations.

To achieve my objectives I attended various conferences with government heads in Civil Aviation Departments and travelled extensively through the USA, England, Europe and the Middle East. The work with ICAO was very interesting. Within the organization three groups developed. The first of these groups was dominated by the UK, USA and Germany. The second group was dominated by the French and to a significant extent by the Spanish-speaking countries. The third group comprised various developing countries, being influenced by the USSR and China.

One item of particular interest to me was the black-box recorder [Flight Data Recorder]. The recorder at the time was analogue and limited in its capacity to provide information. Major countries in the world were developing digital recording, with each country pursuing its own direction. I managed to coordinate a concerted effort that resulted in agreement on technical specifications. It became standard in the majority of airline operations (there was no problem in standardising with the major airlines, but it was more difficult with the smaller airlines). It was agreed that twelve parameters would be recorded instead of four. As the airlines bought new aircraft, they realised that the same technology could be used for aircraft maintenance. From that point on no further difficulties were experienced.

I was able to resolve a similar problem of standardisation with the Pinger, an instrument that sends out a sonar signal when the black-box is in water, given its name by the "ping, ping" sound it makes.


Above: Russ Watts speaking at a the
23rd International Air Safety Seminar run by the Flight Safety Foundation in the USA in 1970.
Russ presented on the subject of "Review of Accidents".

The Middle East

One of the highlights during my time with ICAO was in early 1973 when the Israelis shot down a Boeing 727 flying under Libyan registration, with accusations being made to the United Nations as to who was at fault. This was shortly after the assassination of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich by people connected with Libya. Israel was hunting the perpetrators of the massacre.

This became a matter for consideration by the UN Security Council and it was decided that ICAO would conduct a fact-finding mission. I was asked to nominate one or two people who could undertake the mission. When these nominees declined, I was approached by the President of the ICAO Council to undertake the task. I agreed subject to my having a completely free hand and adequate resources (money!).

I needed about six people and I nominated the required fields of expertise. Although the President agreed to these provisions, I had to be accepted by Libya and Israel and have the approval of the Australian Government. The President organised the personnel and a meeting in Rome was scheduled within a few days. The team comprised a Meteorologist from the UK, a Boeing 727 pilot from the USA, an Air Traffic Controller from Argentina, a radio expert from India, and myself.

On the day of my departure from Montreal there was a raging snow-storm and the aircraft on which I was travelling collided with a vehicle while we were taxiing. I was aware that there were two or three other flights due to take off shortly to Europe, so I convinced the Air Hostess to contact the departures staff, who arranged to hold another aircraft that was loading. I grabbed my briefcase and boarded the other plane without a ticket, having to leave my luggage behind. I sat down, the door closed and I discovered we were headed for Copenhagen.

I arrived there early in the morning and spent part of the day sight-seeing before catching a direct flight to Rome, arriving that evening. (I gave my address to British Airways and they delivered my luggage to Rome next morning.) Over the next few days I briefed the group on how I intended to proceed as they had never been involved in such an exercise before. We used the World Health Organisation (WHO) facilities in Rome.

Having advised Libya that we would be arriving there, we were met by the Deputy Director General of the Civil Aviation organisation. After two or three days we flew to Benghazi, which was the home base of the 727 that had been shot down. From there we flew to Cairo where we spent a number of days talking to Air Traffic Controllers and military personnel.

I should mention the basic details of the flight. It commenced in Tripoli and was to proceed to Cairo. The aircraft was allegedly lost and had missed Cairo. When the pilot realised this, he had to turn back and in doing so flew over the Sinai Desert that was occupied by the Israelis. The aircraft was intercepted, had not complied with international signals, had ignored warning shots, and was shot down. About twelve people had been killed and there were some survivors.

Since this was a fact-finding mission as distinct from an accident investigation, I was able to question the Egyptian authorities in relation to the defence of Cairo as it was apparent that the defence organization was unaware that the aircraft was off-track. (At the time Egypt and Israel were at war.) From Cairo we proceeded to Cyprus, a neutral country, where we could stop, think and re-organise. From there we flew to Tel Aviv in Israel. My escorts were the Senior Officer from the Attorney General's department and Moshe Dayan, Chief of the Armed Services in Israel. I remember in the Operations Room in Tel Aviv there was a fantastic photo of Moshe hanging on the wall. Moshe Dayan was a colourful figure who wore a black eye-patch over one eye.

The Israelis were extremely efficient but had preconceived ideas of how I should be proceeding, so I put them straight from the word "go". Although they did not like it, they complied. This took place on the first afternoon. Next morning we sat down with much ceremony and microphones were placed on the table. I was unperturbed as I gathered the room had been bugged. I stood my ground and they came to the party.

I visited the hospital in Tel Aviv where I interviewed some of the Libyan survivors and the co-pilot who was severely traumatised. It was arranged for the Israeli Air Force to fly me to the crash site in the middle of the Sinai desert. We took off in a small aircraft but had to turn back due to bad weather. We changed to a DC-3 and landed on an Israeli aerodrome at the front line of the Israeli defence. At that time it was highly secret. Due to the limitations of capacity I could take only one investigator with me. Although the flight was at a very low level around the sandhills I did not see very much but was able to take photos.

We arrived at the crash site which had been fenced off and secured with armed guards as well as guards on the surrounding sand hills. A buffet lunch was served in a large marquee. Having eaten about half a meal and still dressed in my city clothes I started tramping around the sand dunes. It was hot! There had been rain the night before and by the middle of the day the insects were crawling out of the sand. I had no hat - nothing!

The basic fuselage and cockpit still existed. I examined the fuselage and my partner, the cockpit as he was a 727 pilot. I could see where the bullets had entered the fuselage and was able to conclude the angle of attack. My partner found some paperwork, but I had my doubts as to whether or not it had been planted. We returned to the marquee and an Army character approached me, saluted and informed me that a car was waiting for me. I asked, "What for?"

"You mentioned that you had never seen the canal", he replied.

We had been there about two hours. It was Friday and there was limited daylight so I asked how long it would take to fly back to Tel Aviv. I decided to be politic and skipped the visit to the canal. We arrived back in Tel Aviv as the sun was setting (the beginning of the Sabbath when work is frowned upon - that won me some "brownie points"). On Sunday we completed our enquiries and then I went to dinner with my Israeli observers (bodyguards). The restaurant was also a music hall with nearly all those in uniform carrying weapons and having a great time singing together and doing western dancing.

We flew back to Cyprus, which was experiencing its own problems between the Turks and the Cypriots. This is the place of "The Green Line". The city is still split in two to this very day. In Cyprus each person on the team was required to write up his report. It was during this period that it became evident that the French investigating personnel had independently interviewed one or two survivors who had subsequently died before our UN investigations.

Having disbanded the fact-finding team (members returned to their own countries), I flew to Paris to interview officers of the French investigation organization. I had discovered that the steward of the flight was of French nationality and the co-pilot, who was still alive, had French connections. Both these people had been interviewed previously by the French authorities. This information was useful as it confirmed other information we had gathered.

From Paris I proceeded to Montreal where I prepared a report to be passed by ICAO to the UN. It was satisfying to me that not one query came back to me as to the validity of what I had to say, probably because each country involved had something they did not want to publicise.

To reconstruct what had happened... The Boeing 727 was leased by an American firm to Libya and was crewed by a French captain and co-pilot of Greek descent. A navigational aid (NDB) located in Egypt was not working. Unknown to the pilot, the aircraft had entered a jetstream. The crew eventually recognised that the aircraft had passed south of Cairo. The aircraft was making a right circle over the Sinai and probably inadvertently approached an Israeli aerodrome, although it was also possible that this was an excuse to spy on fortifications.

The pilot of the fighter aircraft fired warning shots in front of the aircraft. The shots were seen by the co-pilot but ignored by the captain. The Israeli pilot's description of what occurred was confirmed by survivors and to some extent by the cockpit voice recorder although there was some suspicion the voice recorder may have been "doctored". I believe this was not the case, as I had a voice recording from Cairo Air Traffic Control. The blackbox recorder appeared to confirm the co-pilot's story although, again, there had been ample time for it to have been "doctored".

The Israeli pilot claimed that his second run was made from the rear with a view of impacting the extremities of the wing, but in my view it was a frontal attack from above. The report I gave to ICAO was limited to what was factual, not what I had concluded, so I guess this restricted any argument. The investigation came to a conclusion during the last four weeks of my term with ICAO.

Home Again

On return to Australia I took up the position of Superintendent within the Air Safety Investigation Branch and as a consequence I became responsible for the majority of significant investigations. Eventually I was promoted to the Acting position of Head of the Branch occupying the chair for some ten months. I decided to widen my horizon and applied for a position with the Northern Territory Administration. On December 8, 1978 I was appointed to the position of Ombudsman of the NT, a position I held for six years.

After leaving the Northern Territory I took up a position (part-time) as Chairman of the ABC Promotion Appeal Board (Qld) and the CSIRO Promotion Appeal Board (Qld).


Russell Watts passed away on 11 March 2008, as this web page was in preparation.

(Photos: Russ Watts collection)

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