RAAF Darwin and a foggy problem for me - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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RAAF Darwin and a foggy problem for me

I had a desperate thirst having drunk nothing since dinner at 41,000 ft on board the British Airways 707. The remainder of the search party took me to the RAAF Officers' Mess bar and used my needs as the excuse for opening the bar and starting an impromptu drinking session during which I consumed quite a few ice-cold 'tinnies' and some sandwiches. My Boss in HQ at Changi, who had himself served time in Australia, had warned me before I'd set off not to let the RAAF drink me under the table. He said Poms were fair game and I would find that the ice-cold beer would slip down the throat easily and was surprisingly strong. As it happens, I was the last person to leave the bar; presumably the others had gone to work. By that time I felt wide awake, fitter than at any time since leaving Singapore. My reputation was made.

Someone, sadly I forget who, then took me into downtown Darwin for a tour around the town. In the afternoon I was taken for a trip around the local area in a RAAF helicopter. Left: Somewhere north of Darwin airfield.

I took several pics of a group of buffalos with their young: I thought it was a bit unkind because the animals were clearly terrified as we flew around them at a very low height.

Although Malaysia and Indonesia were in a state of confrontation but not a state of war, RAF aircraft never routinely flew over Indonesian territory for fear of provoking a diplomatic incident. The Victors would use what was then known as the 'Blue Route', designed to avoid Indonesian airspace - deemed in those days to be up to three nautical miles from any land. A glance at a map of that part of the world will show what a convoluted route was needed and the Victor navigators would need to keep their wits about them. Indeed, I doubt if the aircraft were able to avoid over-flying every one of the many hundreds of small islands.

This was the helo I flew in. Sorry, I can't remember the pilot's name - but thanks very much - I enjoyed the ride.

The following day I gave my operational presentation to a group of senior RAAF officers. The four Victor bombers were to fly the Blue Route by night at very low level from Tengah to Darwin. The flights were timed to coincide with the opening of a new air defence radar installation a few miles north of Darwin. My audience treated me with great respect bearing in mind I was quite a junior flight lieutenant. It turned out they had heard that I was a "rare Pom who could hold his liquor" and I felt quite proud about that.

On the approach to the northern coast of Australia the Victor bombers were briefed to descend as low as regulations permitted and then carry out a simulated bombing run on the Darwin air base, hoping to avoid detection by the new air defence radar that was about to be commissioned in the presence of the Australian Defence Minister. The flights were timed so that the Victors would arrive overhead Darwin at first light. That was about to create an unforeseen problem for me. To comply with international air traffic control regulations, formal flight plans would be submitted - but only once the Victors were airborne from Tengah. It was assumed that the very poor communications that existed in the 1960s would deny the Indonesian military authorities advance knowledge of the flights and, therefore, give them little or no chance of intercepting the Victors.

The bombers would be short of fuel when they approached the north coast so the weather forecast for Darwin was crucial. In 1965 there was no other airfield anywhere within range that was long enough for the under-powered Mark 1 Victors. It had been pre-arranged as part of the mission planning that the Victors would not take off from Tengah until FECOC received a teleprinter signal from me to say that the weather at dawn would be ideal. I was to send that signal, using the highest precedence and classified Top Secret, no later than one hour before the planned Victor take-off time. If there were any doubts I was to recommend a 24 hour delay. I took myself to the Met Office at RAAF Darwin and consulted the staff. That was when the trouble started.

"At this time of year we almost always have clear blue skies with unlimited visibility," the duty forecaster told me. "However, as you know, it's winter here and the dew point can be quite high around dawn so I've put a 20 per cent probability of radiation fog until 0800 local time in my forecast."

"But how likely is it that fog will form?" I asked and explained why I needed more clarification.

"As I said," replied the Met Officer patiently, "there's a 20 per cent prob that fog will form, which means there's an 80 per cent prob that it won't. It's your decision."

Clearly he was not going to put himself in the position of scapegoat. I signalled that pearl of wisdom through to Singapore and recommended a 24 hour delay. I had no wish to be blamed if fog came down and four valuable bombers ran out of fuel because there was nowhere for them to land. The same thing happened the next day. By that time the RAAF senior officers were worried because their Defence Minister was still hanging around waiting to see how effective the new air defence radar would be. I explained to the Base Commander that the Victors would be short of fuel when they arrived and with no suitable diversion airfield they could not risk arriving if it might be foggy: not on a peacetime mission anyway.

"In that case we'll be waiting three months," said the Base Commander dryly. "The Met folk put 20 per cent prob of fog in their forecast every day at this time of year just to cover themselves. We've not actually had any fog here at Darwin in living memory. The decision is yours, Tony."

The Base Commander actually stood right alongside me in the Signals Centre that evening as I signalled a single word to FECOC in Singapore: CAVOK. That word, an acronym for Cloud And Visibility OK, was the recognised meteorological shorthand for indicating that the weather would be fine. I crossed my fingers very tightly and there was no sleep for me that night.


 
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