An unscheduled landing in the middle of a war zone - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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An unscheduled landing in the middle of a war zone

In September 1961, immediately after the Finningley Battle of Britain Open Day, Wing Commander Denys Sutton, my Squadron Commander, called me in and asked if I would like to go off on a flying trip to Gibraltar. Naturally, I agreed with some enthusiasm. He said that the Boss of the Bomber Command Bombing School (BCBS) at nearby RAF Lindholme (which since 1985 has been a civilian prison) needed the services of a 'commissioned signaller' to fly with an all-officer crew on a navigation training flight in one of their Hastings aircraft.

The Handley Page Hastings transport aircraft in those days were equipped with 20-channel VHF radio sets for short range work and a World War 2 high frequency TR1154/55 for communications when out of VHF range of any ground stations. Only air signallers and AEOs had the necessary Morse code skills to operate the TR1154/55, so I fitted the bill.

The operating crew at the front consisted of two pilots, a navigator, a flight engineer and me. Down the back, in what was in most Hastings aircraft the passenger compartment, there were several student navigators and two staff navigator instructors beavering away on their specialist equipment - which I believe was the same as used in Vulcan and Victor bomber squadrons. My crew position was a small cramped area immediately behind the captain. I was required to send position reports to the worldwide RAF Flight Watch organisation at least every 30 minutes. In between I amused myself by making practice calls to RAF signals stations as far afield as Cyprus and Singapore. Every hour or so, one of the students brought refreshments up to the front cabin - there were no air quartermasters as such.

Above: This fine pic of Hastings TG505, the subject of this story and now safely in retirement, is copyright Robin A Walker and reproduced here with his kind permission. Please take time to visit his own website to view his many fine images here (opens in a new window)
The flight time to Gibraltar in Hastings TG505 on 22 September was 6 hrs 45 minutes. The route, avoiding Spanish airspace, took us across France; we turned west when the Mediterranean was reached. As was normal in the unpressurised Hastings, we flew the route at around 10,000 feet so there were some spectacular views as we flew over, and between, the French mountains.

The two days off in Gibraltar were very enjoyable. The pilots, flight engineer and staff navigators did their own thing, whatever that was. I was just five days past my 26th birthday so I was by far the youngest member of the staff crew and I gravitated towards the student navigators for recreational purposes. During the daylight hours we visited the famous apes on top of the Rock and did other touristy things including shopping for duty-free goods. Because I had been to Gibraltar only a couple of years earlier on my final Shackleton flight, I was able to recommend the best night clubs to patronise so each evening we walked across the Spanish border to La Linea - a favourite watering hole and night club centre.

Above: The only road in and out of Gibraltar showing, bottom left, the international border check points. I did not have a telephoto lens for my Pentax 35mm camera so the definition is rather poor on this scan from an Agfacolor transparency .
As on my previous visits to The Rock, we had to ensure that we crossed back into Gibraltar before the border closed at midnight because it was illegal to remain in Spain overnight. We used our RAF ID cards at the border posts in lieu of passports because that ensured that we were not delayed by customs and immigration procedures. On the second night we cut it fine and had to run; we crossed the border just before the Spanish gates closed. The Gibraltar police about 100 metres further on guarding their side of the border were obviously accustomed to RAF personnel cutting things fine.

Our luck was about to change because the return flight to UK, which was meant to follow the reverse of the outbound route, was much more eventful. After departing from Gibraltar, we flew eastwards across the Mediterranean but, after about 80 minutes, one of the Hastings' four engines failed with a low oil pressure problem. The captain informed the crew that he was returning to Gibraltar and he told me there was no need to declare an emergency because the Hastings would fly quite happily on three engines, but I should contact Gibraltar to alert them that we were returning for a precautionary asymmetric landing. Because we were well outside VHF radio range of Gibraltar, I used the HF frequency 5695.5kHz, the daytime RAF flight watch 'guard' channel which not only provided reliable communications around the world but was also used for search and rescue operations. We were all quite pleased at the prospect of at least one more day on the Rock.

There were quite a few RAF stations always listening out on the guard frequency including Gibraltar, Cyprus, Gloucester, Prestwick, Uxbridge, St Mawgan (Cornwall), Khormaksar (Aden, now Yemen), Singapore and Hong Kong. They all had point-to-point communications with each other so if the specific station a signaller called did not answer immediately, one of the others always did. In my case, St Mawgan answered my initial call and acknowledged that we were returning to Gibraltar on three engines. I knew they would relay my message to Air Headquarters Gibraltar and to HQ Bomber Command in the UK.

A few minutes later the Captain called me on the intercom and told me to transmit an emergency message to report that a second engine had failed and that we were now unable to maintain height. There was now one unserviceable engine on each side. We were already down to about 8,000 feet above the sea and the aircraft was slowly but inexorably descending. The Captain announced on the intercom that his intentions were to make an emergency landing at the nearest suitable airfield. He told me he would let me know which airfield that was when he had chosen it. As I was preparing the message I had to send, one of the navigators thrust a life-saving jacket into my hands and told me to put it on immediately. Things were beginning to look serious.

Every RAF signaller had his favourite mnemonic for remembering the format of Morse distress messages. The messages, either a Mayday or a PAN message, had to be in a precise format, brief but to the point. (PAN, in international aviation and maritime usage, is an acronym for "Possible Assistance Needed and is just one grade down from Mayday.) There were two mnemonics in general use, but I always remembered PATCASATNI: Position And Time; Course And Speed; aircraft Altitude; Type of emergency; Number of souls on board; Intentions of the captain.

Mayday messages in Morse code began with 'SOS' transmitted three times in quick succession to alert all stations who heard the call to cease transmitting and copy the distress message down. Pan messages started with 'XXX' repeated three times, but otherwise the contents followed the same format as an SOS message. A Mayday message would only be called for if the captain thought that a crash landing or a ditching in the sea was imminent and inevitable. In the circumstances we found ourselves in, a PAN message was the appropriate one because the captain had indicated that he thought he would be able to reach an airfield.

I started transmitting the PAN message, in which I stated that the Captain's intentions would follow shortly. My message was acknowledged instantly, first by St Mawgan who then automatically assumed charge of the frequency, and then by several other stations who chipped in briefly just to acknowledge that they too had heard the message. Other aircraft possibly listening out on the same freqeuncy were ordered to "QRT PAN" - which meant "Maintain radio silence, emergency in progress". I heard no reply from Gibraltar but that caused me no surprise because we were probably within the HF skip distance (too technical to go into here). I informed the Captain that my emergency message had been acknowledged. He then told me that there were no airfields in Spain within our reach because high mountains were in the way. Instead, his intention was to head south for Oran, a place in Algeria I had never heard of, but one of the staff navigators knew there was an airport there.

To amplify my emergency message, I needed to know the 4-letter ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) abbreviation for Oran. By convention, when using Morse we had to use the ICAO abbreviation for airfields, not the plain language name; that was to avoid any possible confusion because airfield names were not always the name of a city. Because we had not planned to go to into the African sub-continent, no-one on board had the document which covered Algerian airfields so we could not look up the ICAO code for Oran. When I transmitted my complete message again, I had no option but to transmit that our intention was to land at "ORAN in Algeria". (These days, but not in 1961, the ICAO designator ORAN represents An Numaniyah Airport in Iraq, 140kms south east of Baghdad.)

While I was broadcasting to the ground stations in plain language that we were heading for 'Oran in Algeria', the captain himself broke in on the intercom to order the whole crew to "Prepare for ditching" because he was not sure we had sufficient height even to reach Oran on our two remaining serviceable engines. He ordered me to upgrade the PAN message to SOS. I transmitted an SOS message a couple of times, each time updating our course, speed and height which I could read for myself off the pilots' instrument panel. By that time we were getting very low, 1,000 feet above the sea the last time I looked at the altimeter, but I could see through the pilots' windscreen the North African coast appearing through the haze. I can honestly say that I didn't feel any alarm because I was too engrossed in what I was doing.

Suddenly the co-pilot called out that we had company: there were two armed French fighter aircraft flying alongside. We were relieved but not entirely surprised to see them because our pilots had been unable to talk to anyone on the 20-channel VHF radio, which was crystal-controlled for UK and selected European stations only. We all knew that there was a war going on between France and Algeria and that we were now flying in airspace strictly prohibited to all non-French aircraft. Furthermore we knew, or at least suspected, that the French carried out nuclear tests over their territory in the Sahara. (Wikipedia currently puts it this way: "There were 17 French nuclear tests in the Algerian Sahara between 1960 and 1966, starting in the middle of the Algerian War (1954–1962)." The French possibly thought that we were spies pretending to have an emergency until they saw that we had two engines out of action.

The captain put the aircraft undercarriage and landing flaps down at the very last minute and the Hastings flopped down safely, but heavily, on the runway at Oran La Senia. We were heavy because we had been carrying sufficient fuel for the flight to UK but with no means of jettisoning what was now a considerable surplus. Until we touched down, I had been repeating the distress message over and over again in Morse on the HF because I had not heard any acknowledgement, but on the final time, as we hit the runway, I added that we had landed safely and that I was closing down HF watch.

During the Cold War, the RAF and USAF had contingency plans for how to deal with the sudden and totally unexpected arrival of a potentially hostile aircraft – particularly ones that could carry a large number of armed troops. From time-to-time both the Americans and the British carried out ‘no notice’ practices of the procedures. It is possible that the French at Oran thought that our sudden arrival was an exercise to test their security.

We followed a truck which came out to guide us and the Captain shut down the remaining two engines when we reached the parking area. We were greeted, not by Algerians but by a whole bunch of armed French Air Force personnel. Many of them had rushed out to the airfield to watch our arrival. They were very keen to know where we had come from, where we had been going, how long we had flown on two engines, and why we had chosen to land at Oran. We were driven first of all to a room where we could be questioned.

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