Above: Neil and Alan fingering the hole on the top of 667's starboard wing
Below: A view of the damage seen from inside the starboard wing
There were no fire detection units inside the fuselage anywhere near the point where the wing had been penetrated. Had New Boy not reported the black smoke, the crew chief would have joined the rest of us inside the aircraft and we would have taxied out for take-off. While taxiing on low power, there probably wouldn't have been much smoke coming from the hole and in any case the starboard wing would have been on the blind side of those watching from Air Traffic Control. However, as soon as we started the take-off run on full power the hot air from the combustion chamber escaping through the top of the wing at around 700°C would undoubtedly have set fire to the entire wing and ignited the fuel in the large tank contained within the wing. By the time that we in the aircraft, or the air traffic controllers in the Tower, had noticed anything unusual, we would have been going too fast to stop in the remaining runway and we would have ended up as a burning heap on the rocky outcrop just off the end of the runway - if the aircraft had not exploded before we got that far.
Oh yes, New Boy at Masirah saved our lives that day. I put him up for an immediate commendation and I was pleased to learn, some weeks later, that he got one from his Commander-in-Chief. But what of Old Hand? What did he learn from this incident? Well, we have a saying in the RAF, "If in doubt, check". Not a bad maxim when you think about it. I like to think the over-confident airman learned a salutary lesson from the incident.
When the immediate fuss had died down, I went across the airfield to Operations to compose and send a priority signal to all interested parties to tell them what had happened. The operations staff, at my request, sent off suitable telegraph messages to the British Embassies and High Commissions further along our intended route advising them that our diplomatic clearances would have to be put on hold. We were all thoroughly despondent, as well as shocked, because we assumed this would be the end of our planned trip to Singapore. Not only would the aircraft need a replacement engine and a repair to the hole in the wing, we knew that there might have been internal burning to the airframe. (In case any pedantic engineers read this: I do know that what I describe in this story as 'the engine' should correctly be referred to as 'the engine change unit' or ECU.)
Overnight several more engineering signals arrived, one telling us that a replacement engine and a fitting party were on their way from UK. Pete Hogg, a cheerful portly gentleman of the old school of RAF engineers, said that to save time we might as well start removing the damaged engine ourselves.This suggestion was received by my crew with considerable incredulity. We were competent and authorised to refuel the aircraft, top up the engine oil and re-pack the tail brake parachute ourselves; we expected to do those things on Lone Rangers, but no-one had ever suggested that aircrew might be required to dismantle and remove engines.
"It's quite easy," said Pete, in that charmingly condescending way that Crew Chiefs used when talking to aircrew about technical matters. "The difficult bit will be fitting the new engine, but the experts coming out from Marham will help me with that."
One of my crew snapped this on my camera when Neil and I were not expecting it! Only Ken Hulse (left) seemed to know what he was doing.
It was hot and thirsty work - the shade temperature on the dispersal was about 40°C and the only shade was that provided by the wing itself. The Masirah engineers thoughtfully provided a cooling trolley which we used to direct ice-cool streams of air into the engine compartment. The Masirah-based engineers then produced a splendid contraption which fitted over the aircraft wing and enabled the engine to be gently lowered on a cable to a cradle underneath. Once we had removed several panels above and below the wing, it turned out to be quite easy to disconnect all the connections holding the engine into the wing and by midday we were ready to start lowering it onto the cradle. Such was the general boredom at Masirah that we had a crowd of airmen and officers watching us for most of the time - probably hoping that we would drop the engine onto the ground. The spectators dispersed only when it was time for the various bars to open. To my great relief we managed to lower the engine onto the cradle without any disaster and, as darkness fell, Pete decided that we had done enough for the day.
Before we left for the Messes, we looked in awe at the hole that had been burnt right through the solid engine casing and then through the relatively thin aircraft skin. We could only imagine the force with which the piece from the combustion chamber had flown off; it could so easily have flown off in directions other than straight up through the top of the wing. It could, for instance, have flown off one way into the adjacent engine, or in the opposite direction into the main fuselage fuel tank where it would have caused an instant and catastrophic explosion. It didn't bear thinking about.