Search and rescue operations - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Search and rescue operations

I saw far more of the Libyan desert 48 hours after that first trip to Idris when our crew was, for our first time, the duty SAR crew. We were summoned from our beds about midnight, were airborne well within the hour and remained airborne for 12½ hrs. Our task was to search for missing Canberra B6 WJ772 of 139 Squadron that had left Luqa about three hours earlier, with two crew members on board, en route for the bombing range south of RAF El Adem at the far eastern end of Libya. Nothing had been heard from the Canberra after it had taken off. The alarm was raised when the Canberra's crew did not check in with ATC at El Adem when expected.

The standard procedure for the first search aircraft on task when searching for an aircraft missing on a routine flight from A to B, was to search across the assumed course the aircraft should have taken. We carried out the night part of the search between Malta and El Adem at about 2,000 feet, initially listening for the aircrew emergency distress beacons and watching for emergency flares. Once dawn broke, we descended to low level for a visual search over the same area. After 12 hours, having seen and heard nothing of the Canberra, we were relieved by another Shackleton. 38 Squadron continued the search for a whole week, night and day, but no trace of the Canberra or its crew was found, and the search was eventually called off.

On 8 February 1959, eight months after WJ772 had gone missing, a group of Bedouin came across the Canberra in the desert 160 miles SSE of Gabes in Tunisia. Some of our squadron navigators reckoned that in order to get to that position the Canberra must have flown on a heading of 200 degrees from Malta when 100 degrees was the required heading to reach El Adem from Malta. No-one, however, could think of any reason why both pilot and navigator of the downed Canberra could have flown all that way without realising they were well off their intended course. The Canberra was, reportedly, relatively undamaged when it was found but the two crew members were not inside; the ejection seats had not been used and the aircraft fuel tanks were virtually empty. Talk around our squadron when that report became known was that the crew must have deliberately force-landed, in the dark, just before their fuel ran out and they had then, for whatever reason, decided to walk away across the desert.

Aircrew were always taught that if they were forced to eject over or force-land in the Sahara they should stay with, or close to, the aircraft because it would provide shelter from the heat of the sun and the cold of the desert nights. Furthermore, search aircraft were much more likely to find a crashed aircraft than one or more men walking alone in the desert. Crucially, no-one could imagine why an experienced crew should opt to make a hazardous forced landing in darkness rather than eject from the aircraft.

Above: This is Taff Davies (left) and Dave Head looking really enthusiastic in freezing conditions at dawn on RAF Luqa airfield about to get airborne on some long-forgotten 38 Squadron sortie c1958.

Afterthought in 2015. If you are sufficiently interested in this incident there are several references to it to be found on the Internet by searching for 'Canberra WJ772'. However, the references I found are contradictory in several respects. For example, one reference lists three fatalities not two. Another reference states that, "One of the navigators is listed on National Memorials as being buried in Algeria" but doesn't specify which national memorial although it does name the navigator in question (I choose not to repeat that name). You may wonder whether WJ772 had not in fact been planned to fly to El Adem but was, instead, on a covert mission to monitor a French nuclear test explosion in the Algerian Sahara. That might also explain why there were apparently three airmen in the Canberra, not two as we had been briefed before our SAR missions; the third occupant presumably being a specialist observer of some kind. (There is a related story about French missions during the Algerian War here.)

There is anecdote about a 'mysterious' SAR mission I flew on in my Afterthoughts website here (opens in a new window).

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