Malayan Lone Ranger post Cuba Crisis - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Malayan Lone Ranger post Cuba Crisis

No sooner had we returned to Finningley after the Cuba Crisis had died down than our crew was rather surprised to be allocated another Lone Ranger - this time a splendid three-week trek to the Far East and back in Valiant WP211. We set off from RAF Finningley on 23 November and the first stop was at El Adem. We certainly had not expected to be back there again so soon after the Cuban Crisis. The real reason the RAF had for maintaining a base at El Adem was for aircraft staging between UK and the Far East and for aircraft wishing to use the live bombing range in the desert a few miles south of the airfield. Incidentally, in those days those days RAF Marham in Norfolk was known as "El Adem with grass" because that part of Norfolk was almost as desolate and remote as the Sahara Desert (well, it was to those airmen who know both stations!)

I can't speak for other crews who flew this route but on the second day we took a short cut across what was known as Nasser's Corner - the point in the Sahara Desert where the borders of Libya, Egypt and Sudan join in the middle of nowhere. Strictly speaking, the airspace of Egypt was out of bounds to RAF aircraft - probably something to do with the 1956 Suez Crisis! However, there was no ground radar able to see us cut the corner and no known foreign aircraft capable of detecting us and it saved us about 20 minutes flying time.

The second night stop was in Nairobi. Most RAF activity was based at RAF Eastleigh on the eastern outskirts of Kenya's capital but the runway there was not long enough for Valiant operations, so we had to use the international airport at Embakasi. We had no opportunity to visit RAF Eastleigh, which was a pity because I'd had regular radio contact with that base when I was serving as a wireless fitter at Gangodawila in Ceylon and it would have been nice to meet some of the chaps there.

We had a rather unconventional approach to the landing at Embakasi. The airfield was on a high plateau 5,300 feet above sea level. In the 1962s RAF pilots routinely set their altimeters to what was termed 'airfield QNH' which gave the aircraft's height above mean sea level, not height above touch down. (The technical term for the altimeter setting that gives zero feet on touch down is 'airfield QFE'.) The weather for our long curving approach from about 10,000 feet was superb: not a cloud in the sky, and no other traffic. The Air Traffic Controller told us to change to the local frequency for landing instructions when we had visual contact with the runway. In spite of the superb visibility, for some reason our pilots changed frequency before they had visual contact with the runway - they were probably admiring the view - now they were embarrassed!

"No other traffic, you're cleared to land" called the Local Controller. Only then did the pilots admit that they could not see the runway. The navigator told them that it should be dead ahead, range six miles. For those not familiar with the Valiant, I should remind my readers that the three rear crew members had no forward visibility at all and precious little visibility out of the small side windows.

Suddenly the awful truth dawned on the two pilots and the navigator more or less simultaneously. We were flying at 5,000 feet on the altimeters, 300 feet below touch down height; no wonder they could not see the runway! A burst of full power enabled a zoom-climb and then the runway hove into sight, several degrees off to the left, and we made a safe landing. The terrain short of the Embakasi runway was well below runway height and it was, apparently, very easy for unwary or unfamiliar pilots to misjudge the approach path - even if they remembered which altimeter setting they were using. I imagine those watching from Air Traffic Control must have been interested to see a huge RAF V Bomber zooming into sight from below runway level!! The three of us in the rear of the aircraft were less impressed.

I seem to remember, vaguely, that there was a fictitious story, film or book doing the rounds in the 1960s where a bomber flying with a faulty nuclear bomb on board, had to land at Nairobi because it was the only airfield higher than 5,000 feet above sea level - the height at which the nuclear bomb in the story was set to detonate automatically. The mind boggles!

RAF Gan, just six miles north of the Equator, was our destination for the third night stop. Gan airfield was officially ten feet above sea level in 1962, but with Global Warming nowadays having to be taken seriously those ten feet may be diminishing. The distance from Nairobi to Gan was 2,200 nautical miles, flying the entire route within about 10 nautical miles of the Equator. Our actual flight time was 5 hours 35 mins - almost the maximum range of Valiant WP211 because it was not fitted with long-range tanks. There were no other airfields en route should we have experienced an in-flight emergency once we'd left the African mainland astern. The entire crew was very quiet (anxious?) throughout the flight!

As the AEO, I came into my own on that leg because the only means of communicating with Gan, or anywhere else, was by Morse on the RAF Flight Watch Network. By one of those strange quirks of high frequency radio transmissions, most of my 30-minute position reports were acknowledged by the UK flight watch station at Gloucester in UK although I occasionally heard acknowledgements from RAF Changi on Singapore Island.  Only when we came within 150 nautical miles did we hear from Gan Air Traffic Control on VHF. They told us that a violent electrical storm over the Island had caused a total electricity failure for several hours.

Our final destination was RAAF Butterworth located on the mainland opposite Penang Island in the north-west of Malaya (that was the country's name in 1962). When the RAF had left Butterworth in 1957, the station had been handed over to the Australians. The purpose of our visit was to take part in Air Defence exercises with the RAAF, using our electronic jamming equipment to make life difficult for their defending fighters.

After several entertaining days, including shopping and tourist visits to Penang and an overnight trip in our Valiant to RAF Tengah on Singapore Island and back (1 hr 35 minutes each way) to pick up some spare parts for a dodgy engine (the engine which had failed on take-off on 29 November - see logbook extract above), we returned to UK from Butterworth arriving back at base loaded up with duty free goods for Christmas knowing that Customs Officers rarely turned out to meet RAF bombers returning from operational overseas detachments.

Total flying time outbound to Malaya was 19 hours 20 minutes; inbound to Finningley was 19 hours 55 minutes. As our navigator said when we got back home: "It was much easier to find Embakasi in Kenya than Gan in the middle of the Indian Ocean!"

There is another story about Nasser's Corner on my Afterthoughts Website here (opens in a new window)

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