Whether or not Army pilots were destined to fly helicopters or fixed-wing aeroplanes, all students had to complete a preliminary sixty flying hours on Chipmunks. This was a two-seat, single-engine aeroplane developed shortly after the Second World War and was a superb primary trainer.
There were twelve on my course and our first huge hurdle was to go solo. A really talented student typically went solo after around eight to nine hours flight instruction. If this hadn’t happened by approximately twelve hours the student would go on ‘review’ which was the first phase of being rejected.
My instructor was a monosyllabic ex-RAF pilot from Poland. Soon after our first flight together both he and I realised that I would struggle to make it. The morning of my twelfth lesson dawned and I still hadn’t gone on my own. As we climbed into the aeroplane he, amazingly, shook my hand. I had no idea whether this meant an early farewell or was a gesture wishing good luck. After our fourth bumpy landing, he slid back the cockpit and said, “Go and **** yourself.”
A fourth leg
Only one member of my course had absolutely no problems. He was a large, genial sergeant who was supremely self-confident. Solo-ing after only nine hours, he was the first to do the next hurdle which was the initial solo navigation trip.
Watched by the rest of us, he took his time walking out to the aeroplane and with a cheerful wave he taxied for take-off. The weather was fine with good visibility and a cloud base of around three thousand feet.
His flight consisted of a three legged track, each leg ending at a prominent landmark and normally took around forty minutes. After over an hour he had not returned and his instructor initiated the search procedure. Just before the first search aeroplane taxied, the student was spotted joining the landing pattern. When asked what had happened, he told us that he enjoyed it so much, he had added a fourth leg. Unlike his instructor, we students were all so impressed. It wasn’t until three or so years later, he admitted to me after several beers what actually had happened.
Apparently the first leg was fine, he identified the initial landmark and shortly after turning onto the second leg he found himself above cloud. Unfazed he said that he knew how fast he was going, also how long the next leg would take so all he would have to do was to continue and turn onto the final track for home at the correct time. Shortly before he had calculated when to turn he saw a break in the cloud and quickly descended to see a large ship to his left.
He was well on the way to France.
He was so lost and confused that when he turned to look for land he had no idea where he would coast in. Luckily he recognised Christchurch where he had recently spent a holiday after which he was able to pick up the aerodrome’s homing aid enabling him to return to base.
Blue-faced in Aden
When I try and identify what sparked my love of the Arab world – amazingly it was a war.
After qualifying to fly the Army Air Corps Scout and Bell 47 helicopters I was sent to Aden where the Yemenis were fighting for their independence from Great Britain.
Although later the fighting spread to the city and to our eventual withdrawal from the country, when I arrived the hostilities were still confined to the mountains around 40 miles to the North of the city of Aden.
I flew for around six months on operations for the Army Air Corps before my regiment arrived and we formed the Air Squadron. This consisted of 6 Bell 47 helicopters.
Four incidents will always remain with me.
Rescue missions and stuffy protocol
The first was the scandalous way in which night casualty evacuations were conducted. The RAF helicopters were based in Khormaskar which was about twenty minutes flying time to the operations area.
When casualty evacuation was required, the request initially had to be made to the RAF. During daylight hours this was no problem and the response was efficient and professional. But the local RAF Commander refused to allow his helicopter pilots to fly in the mountains by night. However, he insisted that the initial call for any casualty evacuation still had to be sent though RAF channels. So the wounded had to wait for the call to be refused by Khormaskar, for the RAF to contact the Army requesting a helicopter, for the response to be initiated and for the flight to arrive in the operational area. This entailed a delay of a minimum of forty-five minutes which, in a number of cases, proved fatal.
I remember one night being scrambled to pick up the survivors of an SAS patrol that had been ambushed. By the time I arrived four had died. I shall never, ever forget the hatred in the eyes of their comrades. There was not only no time nor would have been any point to try and explain the reason for the delay.
Calling in the big guns
One of our tasks was to ‘call in’ the jet fighters to strafe the opposition when identified. The mountains in which the fighting took place consisted of hundreds of deep valleys pitted with numerous caves. The insurgents used these caves from which to operate and to store ammunition.
The problem was to communicate to the fighter pilots as they pulled up exactly the location of the target. So a method was initiated whereby the helicopter pilot flew as close to the target as possible and, as the fighters pulled up, threw a coloured smoke grenade which was easy to identify from the air and to guide the jets onto the target referencing from the smoke.
The timing had to be exact. Too early, the smoke would have dissipated and too late the fighter pilots would not have had time to identify the target accurately.
Alan, a very good friend, always had wanted to fly and, in particular, to be an active part of an operation. He asked whether he could come with me the next time I was tasked with the role.
Within a week the opportunity appeared when I was asked to confirm the presence of opposition in a cave complex. I contacted Alan and together we were able to establish that, indeed, there was considerable activity.
A stubborn pin
As soon as we heard over the radio that the fighters were airborne, Alan asked if he could throw the smoke grenade. I agreed and we waited for the jets to report pulling up. The message came and I told Alan to pull the pin and throw the grenade clear of the helicopter. He tried to pull the pin but was unable to extract it.
By now the fighters has started their climb and immediate action was essential.
Stupidly I told Alan to keep hold of the grenade and I leaned across the cockpit to grab the ring holding the pin in place. I pulled hard. The pin extracted and the grenade fell from Alan’s hand and rolled under the floor immediately in front of his seat.
Dense blue acrid smoke filled the cockpit. Vision was impossible. I jettisoned both doors and put the helicopter into a violent side-slip to clear the smoke. With eyes still streaming with tears I was at last able to see enough to keep control of the helicopter.
Having landed we realised that our faces, hands, clothes and the helicopter’s perspex screens were stained an azure blue. The staining lasted more than a week. Soldiers and airmen alike laughingly pointed us out as we passed as the ‘two blue idiots’ wherever we went.
An unexpected wager
About six months after the arrival of my regiment we hosted the Army parachute team who came to practice desert drops. As far as I remember the team consisted of eight ‘macho’ young heroes.
Throughout every meal they dominated conversations with stories of derring-do. One young gentleman was particularly sneering in his open derision of anyone who had not the bravery to parachute. The situation became more and more intolerable until at dinner one night a fellow officer interrupted him halfway through one of his interminable anecdotes saying “anyone can parachute. It really is nothing out of the ordinary.” The young superman rose to the bait and sent out a general bet that none of us would dare make a jump.
I was sitting next to a very great friend of mine, Alex, who was a Beaver pilot. The Beaver was a high-wing propeller-driven short take-off and landing machine principally operated as a bush aeroplane. Alex nudged me and said “make him put his money where his mouth is!”
Without thinking I asked him how much was he prepared to bet. Twenty-five pounds – a huge amount of money in those days – was the answer.
To my horror, Alex answered for me and took up the challenge on the condition that we were provided with one of the team’s parachutes.
Rising to the challenge
Next morning Alex took me to 7,000 feet above the desert to the north of our base and brought the Beaver to just above the stall speed. I climbed onto a wing strut and jumped.
An experience never to be forgotten.
After the first rush of adrenalin, the parachute opened and suddenly there was silence. I seemed to be stationary in the air.
I had just started savouring the wonderful view of the desert and the background mountains when I realised that the ground was coming up – very fast. Except for being dragged by the parachute for around fifty metres on landing before I was able to operate the release harness, mission was accomplished. Alex and I split the twenty-five pounds.
The thick red line
At a point on the Northern border separating North and South Yemen is Bayhaan. If you continue north you enter the Empty Quarter and to the West of the town are mountains. I had known the local British intelligence officer since our childhoods. One morning he came to me map in hand and said that he wanted me to take him along the border for a reconnaissance pointing out on his map the track he wanted us to follow. I compared the route with my map which showed the border in a thick red line.
“Bill,” I said, “that track takes us three or four miles over the border.”
With a paternal look he replied that the intelligence published the border to be three or so miles inside the international borders to ensure stupid people like myself did not come close to crossing. Thus incidents were almost sure to be avoided. Of course I believed him until we were bracketed by three machine guns as I crossed the thick red line on my map. Dawn and I caught up with him some forty years later in his lovely house on the banks of the River Usk in Wales. When I reminded him of his deception – the reply was a wry smile.