Author Topic: Red Cross Flying - by Chrisg  (Read 2336 times)

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Red Cross Flying - by Chrisg
« on: July 14, 2009, 03:44:46 AM »
Red Cross Flying, getting there.....as in, in Theatre...

by

Chrisg


So, I wrote this, then I realised it was damned long, and wondered if that might not be off-putting. But a couple of reviewers, whom I thank profusely, have said no, go for it, so here it is....

All happened a long time ago, and its not any more glamorised than I could help, being basically a person who prefers to remember the good stuff, but can report the bad.....

If it is liked then I will write some of the stories of that odd little time in my life, a lot shorter than this, and well, we'll see, I think amusing and interesting, if you like this sort of thing....


.....Another very different story from my memory banks for those who enjoy this stuff.

First a little background:

When Nigeria was handed back to its people by the UK in the sixties everyone had high hopes for this seeming model of a colonial state, but they overlooked its underlying structure. Before the white man came three tribes had occupied the area that comprised the country and one, the Ibo from the south, were not much liked by the others. During the colonial era the Ibo, a pretty smart race, had occupied a lot of senior posts, which was looked upon jealously by the others. Then, not long after the hand-over, oil was found in the Bight of Biafra out from the Niger delta, off the Ibo's territory. That just made things worse. Tribal unrest rose, there were a few atrocities and outright murders and the Ibo came to think that they wanted nothing to do with Nigeria as a whole, better to return to their lands and live off the oil royalties.

Naive to say the least.

But they went ahead and declared Biafra a separate country and of course war broke out, the tribes of the North wanted that oil money as well. Both sides had overt and covert foreign backers, the UK being particularly compromised since officially it had to support the Government in Lagos, although Kano in the North was more the seat of power, many British civil servants had friends amongst the Ibo, and it was British Petroleum that had struck the oil.

It was an African war, fought with handmedown weapons, mercenaries on both sides, and it quickly degenerated into chaos, no real front lines, civilians dragged into the fighting, crops destroyed. Whilst the war dragged on and the world wrung its hands, but did little, the country began to starve to death. Eventually the conflict collapsed rather than ended, and agencies like Red Cross moved in to try to save the millions of refugees, primarily down in what had briefly been Biafra.

That was where I came in.

I'd finished flight training with the RAF and was about to go on leave before being assigned to a squadron. I got home to find in my mail a plea for help from Red Cross, they needed pilots desperately and I'd been on their register since passing my CPL, before I even entered the Air Force.

I thought about it, decided the planned bacchanalia in Nice could wait, called Whitehall and received permission to go fly for Red Cross for a couple of months. I reported to their offices in London later that day.

After sitting down with a couple of their planners there was one obvious thing I could do to help. Several organisations, even a few individuals, had offered aircraft to assist in the planned air lift of supplies, but in most cases it was on a come and get it basis. The aircraft, which were mostly old DC-3s, C-46s' a few DC-4s, were scattered all over Europe. I flew out to Geneva that night. In Switzerland the RC had assembled a bunch of volunteer mechanics to overhaul and make ready for Africa any aircraft that were suitable, the Swiss Government were being more than a little lenient on what qualified for an airworthiness certificate, but first the aircraft had to be gotten to Geneva.

For a couple of weeks, with a young, barely qualified co-pilot I zoomed all over the place picking up aircraft and getting them down to the mechanics.

Once in Geneva they were given a once-over, and then ferried on down to Africa, RC had a base of sorts on Fernando Po, an island in the Bight, from whence they were ferrying in supplies to ground teams who were carving out makeshift strips in the Delta - a sometimes dangerous job, some fighting was still going on, although officially the war had ended, and the delta was a nasty enough place at the best of times, snakes, big and small, crocs, various other not too pleasant inhabitants.

When most of the aircraft had been brought in one more had to be fetched from Lisbon, an old DC-3, well actually the military C-47 version. It would be the one I'd ferry down, then spend the rest of my time flying into the delta until London called me home.

We bummed a flight to Lisbon and next morning I went out to take a look at the 'plane.

A very tatty old lady, this one had probably flown the skies of WWII, in fact flicking through the dog-eared logbook showed time spent on the Berlin airlift, in North Africa, over in Turkey. The old girl had been around, but she had been sitting here in Lisbon for almost a year, paint fading, tired bones slowly deteriorating, probably hoping she could now rest for ever.

Sorry I thought, as I began checking her over, there's one more little adventure for you yet.

At sometime whoever had flown her had been a heavy cigar smoker, the scent still hung in the cockpit, and a wipe of the windows with meth took off quite a film of congealed smoke. But both her old Pratt and Whitney 1830 radials fired up after a little coaxing, everything seemed to move the right way when I exercised the yoke and kicked the pedals around, the flaps went up and down, a bit slowly, but a top up of the hydraulics fixed that. A couple of new batteries, top off the tanks and she was ready to go.

The first take-off convinced me she would do. She lifted from the runway in a surprisingly spritely manner, and we orbited the field for twenty minutes or so, getting to know each other, whilst my co-pilot worked on putting back the smoke layer with about half a pack of duty free Camels. Not really cut out for old airplanes, he preferred the smaller Cessna twins he had been flying before the company had retrenched him.

The landing was sweet after that test flight, a perfect three-pointer, the old girl could do it in her sleep, hardly needed me.

I went off to file a flight plan whilst the tanks were topped up again and an hour or so later we took off. Spain had some peculiar flight restrictions in those days and I didn't want to take her over the mountains anyway so we staged down to Gibraltar, refuelled, although she had much more range than that, and then followed the coast past Spain and up along the Riviera where I been going to spend this time drinking fine wine, eating good French food and chasing well tanned blondes. To the delight of my co-pilot a few of the last hopped up and gave us a cheerful wave when we flew along some of the nudist beaches, he was glued to the binoculars for quite a while, watching things bounce. You take your fun where you can on long slow flights.

It was as we crossed the coast inbound to Geneva that I realised things were not quite all right. We were losing speed. A quick glance back showed why - her tired hydraulics were leaking somewhere, and both main undercarriage legs were hanging out in the breeze, half extended, as a result. Damn! Well you can crank them up and down in a DC-3, but its tiring work, I decided to lower them the rest of the way rather than risk any hassles, doing so would take pressure off the system, but the drag would make us late.

So, at a very sedate 90 odd knots we came into the Geneva circuit, annoying to the passenger jets already queued up, and control gave us a clearance.

On the downwind leg I called for flaps, which my co promptly operated, and the 'plane immediately tried to yank herself out of my hands and go dig a hole in the ground.

Somewhat pandemonium in the cockpit, me cursing, pushing in opposite control inputs to pull the right wing up, yelling at co who was already doing what I wanted, retract the damned flaps - they had done what is supposed to never happen, one of the Douglas split "brakes" had not extended, the other had. Not good. And whilst I was dealing with that I was also reaching over him on the quadrant to grab a fistful of power, we were losing speed as well.

From outside it probably looked dramatic enough, the right wing going almost down to vertical before I caught it and hauled it back, inside it was bedlam for about ten seconds. Then the balky hydraulics reluctantly retracted the left flap and she dropped back in my lap. Hmm, old, yes, now feisty, and schizoid, any more surprises in store?

I was a little late on base with all that going on, but nothing critical, and having seen the true state of the hydraulics I made a point of putting her down right past the keys, a nice long jet strip in front of me. Which was just as well, the brakes were as soggy as overcooked spaghetti. We rolled past two exits before I felt comfortable to turn off, and then kept it very slow before doing a nifty ground loop and stop - a trick learned in Tiger Moths.

Well, that sure woke me up. I exited down the cabin to the rear door with a co who was about to go get very drunk and whom I never saw again.

A crew chief that I had developed a rapport with came running up:

" That looked dicey!"

"Hydraulics I think, topped them off in Lisbon, didn't see any leaks, probably just being used again after a long rest, any idea how long to fix?"

"Nuh, need to trace the system, go get a beer."

"Scotch....as Old Fashioneds tonight I think....."

"Enjoy, I doubt you are going anywhere tomorrow...."

He was right. It took two days to trace out the convoluted hydraulics of the old girl, patch a myriad of leaks, replace hoses, mop up spills, pressure test and pass.

I spent the second day pitching in to assist, Geneva had lost its charm, I was being drawn South, needing to get into the action, and into Africa. The sub-continent does that to you, and I'd been bitten long before, bumming around as super cargo on a friend’s old DC-3 that he made a living out of shipping parts to oil rigs and such. Those school holiday escapes from the cold of England had taught me a lot about Europe, and North Africa.

There were a few little matters that needed attending to before I left Europe, and one had to be done quietly.

The Red Cross frowns on its personnel being armed. Understandable, but I was not going into a war zone without a little back-up fire power, nor even contemplating a, solo as it turned out, ferry flight across the Sahara without taking a few precautions.

A few phone calls soon secured me a suitable pistol, a Browning Hi-Power, automatic 9mm. I'd of preferred a Colt .45 auto personally, but handguns are not that easy to obtain in Europe without a lot of formalities, especially for a British citizen. The Hi-Power also has a couple of major advantages over the timeless Colt, 14 rounds of easily sourced ammo to a load, 13 in the mag, one up the spout, and the one I obtained came with two spare mags. It would do.

The other things I wanted along were easier to find, a first aid kit, water bottles, survival rations, cigarettes and a couple of bottles of good scotch. There were not likely to be too many off-licences open along the way.....

Nowadays I doubt a pilot would get away with flying a DC-3 solo on a trip like that, especially a young pilot. But I'd been around, had many more hours of flying time than a lot of the older guys, and besides, I didn't bother asking permission, I just filed a plan and left.

Out from Geneva, along the coast of Italy on the western side, we trundled along at a sedate 140 odd knots, at 8000 feet. The mechanics had given the engines the once over as well and all seemed well with them but I had a long way to go, no point in stressing anything.

I'd left early with the intention of getting across the Mediterranean before nightfall. It was a time of change in North Africa, a couple of years before I would of been able to fly into the US airbase at Wheelus in Libya and receive a good 'ol USAF welcome. Now the base had been handed back to the Libyans. Red Cross had negotiated landing rights but other pilots had reported the reception as being a little chilly. As a serving RAF officer I decided that was not a smart place for me to go. Tunis, although not as well equipped, would suffice, with the advantage that I would not have any long over-water sectors - I could refuel in Naples, hop to Sicily and then over the narrow strip of the Mediterranean and into Tunis for the night.

Which was what happened, a scenic but boring flight, nodding off in the cockpit before having a broken-English discussion with Tunis tower and on the ground before nightfall.

Tunisian immigration stamped my passport without comment, customs politely ignored the pistol in the cockpit when they checked the 'plane over, and I sealed her up for the night as best I could, nothing ten seconds with a pocket knife would not defeat, but everything of value was in my duffle anyway.

Outside the airport I spent a few minutes finding a taxi-driver that looked at least vaguely honest and not too likely to kill us both on the way to town. The one I found was a huge guy, big grin and enough English to figure out I wanted a hotel, one with a shower, and if I liked his driving he would get a return fare next morning

I don't remember the name of the hotel, but it was surprisingly pleasant, cool rooms, running water, good food, and ludicrously cheap. After the past few weeks in Europe I was bemused to find the whole night costing me less than a few drinks in the bars I'd been frequenting.

My friendly driver was back at dawn, and drove me out to the airport. He wanted to take a look at what I was flying and I had no objection. The 'plane was untouched, one advantage of being tatty, it hadn't attracted any interest - Geneva had done nothing much to its externals apart from painting on the required big red crosses.

The driver wandered around with me as I did a pre-flight and waited for the fuel truck to turn up, shaking his head somewhat dubiously he asked me where I was off to. I told him Fernando Po and he didn't know where that was so I grabbed a chart and showed him. His eyes widened and he muttered something that could of been, "crazy bastard" or perhaps " God makes a lot of fools." Either way he was obviously about as underwhelmed by my mode of transport as I was by his ancient Citroen taxi.

It was a long flight to be doing solo, about 1,600 miles, a little over 10 hours flying time at the speeds I had settled on yesterday. But I was keen to get there, courtesy of the RAF there was a pack of Dexedrine in my pocket to keep me awake, my thermos had been filled with good hot coffee at the hotel, and whilst the first part of the journey was over pretty well empty desert Kano was at the two thirds mark if I needed a divert or just decided I was too tired.

The fuel truck arrived and its driver and the taxi-man watched with amusement whilst I used a hygrometer to test the fuel for water content. Once you get off the beaten track fuel storage standards drop markedly, and some places the locals are not above adding a bit of water deliberately to boost their profits. It's not the fueller whose going to be dealing with failing or at best rough running hot engines if the h2o content of their product is too high, its me - I ignored them and ran the test. There was more water in it than you'd find in Europe but it was ok, so I directed him to fill all the tanks and kept an eye on him as he did so. Meanwhile my driver nonchalantly went to light a cigarette, and seemed quite hurt when I snapped at him. Europe was just a couple of hours away yet I was in a different world, and loving it.

Fuelled up, bills paid, paperwork complete and goodbyes said I was on my way. The air was already warming up but the old girl took to the air without any fuss, lumbered back up to 8,000 and we headed south.

About four hours later I was bored out of my brain.

The reason you have a co-pilot on trips like this is not because it takes two people to fly straight and level and check course and winds and systems for hours at a time. A trimmed out DC-3 practically flies itself, even in the bumpy air over the Sahara as thermals rise off the hot sand. It's to have someone to talk to, play cards with, keep an eye out whilst you read a book, anything to ease the monotony of long distance flight, The slowly passing, drab scenery, the clocks and watches that seem to have stopped, the barely interesting odd conversation over the radio with jets flying high above. Solo all you can do is sit there, almost in a trance, puff on the odd cigarette, sip coffee, munch on some nuts or dried fruit, daydream, but whatever else you do stay awake.

I was just debating with myself whether to pop the first dexy to keep myself alert when circumstances made that unnecessary.

A sudden change on a couple of gauges caught my eye, cylinder head temp in the port engine and oil pressure, same motor, one rising, one falling.

It had happened in an instant, before I could do more than sit forward for a closer look it became very obvious that it was not an instrumentation issue - there was a loud bang followed by a cloud of very black smoke from the left engine and I was immediately reacting on the 'dead leg, dead engine" basis, kicking in right rudder, closing the left throttle, reaching for the prop feathering, punching in the extinguisher. It's something you practise a lot when learning to fly multi-engine aircraft, all over in seconds and taking stock.

The motor was stopped, any fire there may have been already snuffed out, but the prop had not fully feathered, once again there was a damned big hand pulling on the left side of the aircraft, trying to spin me out of the sky. A locked, unfeathered prop is an awful lot of drag, and that's just what I now had.

It quickly became apparent that I was not going to be able to easily maintain altitude. All that drag, hot air, and even with little to no cargo in the hold I still had quite a substantial fuel load. Any pilot who has lost an engine in flight knows how protective you suddenly become of the one you have left, mine was currently in near full boost and working harder than I liked.

It was time to consider putting down on the desert before that decision was taken out of my hands.

I had just passed one of the expanses of fine gravel that make up large parts of the desert all across the Sahara, I turned back, and began to descend.

I knew I would be most likely out of range for voice contact with any ground stations with the old asthmatic radios I had to work with, but fortune smiled from that point of view. High overhead a passing British Airways 707 picked up my call and passed it along. Before we moved out of range of each other as well he was able to advise me that the news had been relayed through to Geneva, together with my approximate position, I was a little too busy to check it exactly, help would be on the way.

Now all I had to do was get down in one piece.

I was below a thousand feet by now, using altitude in preference to rpms to take me back to that scree field, and here it was, a little smaller than I remembered from up higher, and a little bumpier, but there was a decent looking flat stretch over there.....Change course to line up for a straight in approach, gear down, flaps, at least the hydraulics were behaving....We touched lightly, throwing a shower of gravel up behind the live motor, and bounced around a little on the rough surface before coming to a halt, not one of my best landings but highly acceptable under the circumstances.

I shut everything down, conserve battery power for the radios for later, and leaned back in the seat, letting out a long breath. “You really do resent me bringing you back to work don't you?' I said softly to the old plane.

A sudden movement under the nose of the airplane brought my head snapping up. A camel, a tall man in a burnous atop, was walking slowly past me.

'Now what?" I thought, before quickly unstrapping, shoving the Hi-Power down the back of my jeans and heading down the fuselage to the door.

I jumped down without worrying about the small set of steps and found myself surrounded by half a dozen men on camels, rifles in the crook of their arms.

This was getting surreal, like wandering onto a set of Lawrence of Arabia.

I thought I was ready for just about anything, but what actually happened was perhaps the least likely of all.

In a rough Texan drawl the leader said:

" We all saw ya coming down, anthin' we can do to help?"

It was just a little bit too much for one day. The middle of the Sahara, a busted aeroplane, and now this....I burst out laughing, and continued to chuckle for quite a while....

Toureqs. the wandering nomads of the desert, a magnificent people, tough as nails, the Arabs who had once wiped out half a battalion of Rommel's finest when he sent them into the desert to attempt to enlist them. One of that misbegotten formation had staggered out of the desert weeks later with a simple message: 'We prefer the other side, thank you."

Their leader had learned English from some Texan wildcat oil drillers years ago. not that well, but he sure had the accent.

By the time I stopped laughing and passing around a pack of cigarettes an informal camp had begun to be established, under the right wing of the DC-3, the left was dripping oil. Only three of the six of them had much in the way of English, and my Arabic is pretty well limited to some awful curses and a few beseechings but it didn't matter. The inevitable coffee was brewed, I dug through supplies on board and assembled a scratch meal to which they contributed, no alcohol of course, but as the heat of the day began to wane we got to know each other.

They had been watching the planes with the red crosses for a few weeks, what surprised me was how current they were with world affairs, they knew exactly what had happened down in Nigeria, they didn't approve, and they were happy to help a pilot in distress.

There was not a whole heap they could do of course, a quick look at the engine when the aircraft had cooled off a little convinced me it had most likely gone to its maker, a new unit was going to be required. About an hour after that we saw a contrail high in the sky and I hurried to turn on the radios. It was another commercial jet, who passed on my updated information, and a better position fix, with the advice that I would be on the radio for ten minutes from 6am the next day, on the hour. There was no way anyone was getting here with the necessary parts and skills today.

What could well of been a rather cold and lonely night turned into a superb evening of confused conversation, food and drink, they didn't care if I had a scotch or three, just not for them.

I woke at dawn and began my radio vigil.

My new friends refused to leave until they were sure all was well. At the 10am radio check I received an immediate reply from an inbound French air force transport. They had agreed to assist and were coming in with mechanics and a replacement engine. Twenty minutes later they were passing over us, low and slow, scoping out the landing possibilities before touching down in a flurry of dust and taxiing over to shut down close.

The next few hours were a bustle of activity, much Gaelic cursing and a lot of thumping and banging. The wrecked motor came out, a replacement was bolted in and connected, the prop transferred. These guys were good, but there was no way we were getting out of here today.

The French. They sure know how to unwind. As the sun set a fire built of packing materials was lit, food appeared, wine, I was wondering when the dancing girls were going to make an entrance, but alas.....

The next morning finished the engine change, a test showed it had all been connected korektlie and after quite a deal of back slapping our Toureq friends it was time to go.

Two dusty takeoffs and we hooked up in a loose formation whilst I ran a series of checks. A new engine is a pretty major transplant, but it seemed all ok, so after a few minutes of tooling around we went our separate ways and I went back to flight tedium.

Well, not really, that had been one of those magical times that life can dish out every now and then.

I droned along the rest of my planned route and arrived in Fernando Po late that afternoon.

It had been quite a little adventure, just getting here, now the real work would begin.

The old girl settled down and behaved after that. I flew her for a few days then was rostered elsewhere. I've no doubt she remained cantankerous, but she had shown me an unexpected good time, and now she is probably rotting slowly somewhere in West Africa, at peace at last......


:-) Enjoy


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