Caravanning and RVing in Australia

Murphy's not the only joker

Chapter 7
'Red' Bennett was a great practical joker and a couple of his pranks stand out in my mind. We used to carry service personnel and their families all over the Middle and Far East and naturally flew with the auto-pilot engaged once we reached our cruising height. One day Red sent the crew one by one back into the passenger cabin to chat idly with the people there. Finally, when none of the crew were left on the flight deck, he appeared ­ walking backwards and paying out string from balls held one in each hand. He pretended to be controlling the plane by tugging first on one side and then the other. Some gullible passengers believed it was for real!  

One day at Idris in Libya he announced to the startled passengers that he had to stay for some important business but would get a lift in a jet fighter and be at our next stop in time to greet them. He explained that the second pilot should be OK to do the trip as he had flown single-engined aircraft although he had never landed a Hastings!

Leaving them with this rather frightening thought he dashed back down the steps, around to the front of the aircraft and climbed a ladder up through the emergency exit into the flight deck. Arriving at Habbanyah in Iraq, he reversed the procedure and rushed into the rear of the passenger compartment to ask how they had enjoyed the flight.

Murphy nearly finished us on a trip to Singapore to pick up casualties from the guerrilla war being fought in the jungles of Malaya. We had a full load of passengers including a pilot who had bailed out of his Brigand fighter over the sea and was too low for his parachute to open properly before he hit the water and broke most of the bones in his body. This poor man was strapped to a stretcher near the loading door and could see out through a round window in the door.

We were heading for Lyneham on our last leg before reaching home, when we were informed the weather was too bad for landing and we should divert to Tangmere ­ a Fighter Station on the South Coast. I was flying with 'Red' on this occasion and, as all the hospital facilities for receiving casualties were available at Lyneham, he decided to attempt a landing despite the low cloud cover.

Lyneham is on a plateau and the approach is made over a wide valley ending with a steep slope covered in pine trees and as we descended through the dense cloud we were 'talked down' by a ground controller using radar to track our heading and altitude. His coolly confident voice continually told us we were on the 'glide-path' until suddenly he cried, "I've lost you ­ look ahead and land."

Just then Murphy thrust his large nose into our affairs as we burst through the cloud to find we were well below the airfield and heading straight into the pine trees. 'Red' slammed the throttles wide open ­ nearly breaking my wrist as he did so as I was controlling the power on the duplicate levers from my station. With a sickening roar we lunged upwards and managed to get through the tree-tops and gain some altitude.

There was a lot of vibration from one engine and we later found the propeller was bent, the undercarriage wouldn't retract and the flaps wouldn't come up. From his stretcher, our Brigand pilot could see the left tailplane with strips of duralumin peeling off in the slipstream from damage caused when we sheared the top from a large pine tree.

A very long forty minutes later, we arrived over Tangmere and they sent a Meteor fighter up to inspect our damage before landing. The pilot said our undercarriage looked OK, so Red put us down very gently and at a higher speed that usual to make sure we didn't stall. On the ground we were able to see that the tree that damaged the tailplane had gone right through the front spar, cracked the main spar and the whole thing could be moved up and down as it was only attached by the comparatively small rear spar. A plane without a tailplane doesn't fly! Our Brigand pilot saw this and told his wife, "If you ever see me with both feet off the ground at the one time, shoot me as I will have lost my mind!"

Separate pieces of pine tree had jammed the flaps and undercarriage and the propeller on No 2 engine was bent which accounted for the vibration. Good one Murphy!

Soon after we were married we bought a BSA three-wheeler and this was a fabulous little machine providing you remembered that the one wheel at the back didn't follow the same track as the front wheels. It was easy to straddle a bump or pothole only to have the back wheel hit it with a tremendous jolt. It had a powerful air-cooled twin-cylinder engine of about 1100cc and with its lightweight fabric body and canvas hood had an excellent power/weight ratio ­ in other words it went like the clappers and the bigger the hill the faster it went.
One dark night we were heading down to Fordingbridge to spend the weekend with my parents and had made good time until Murphy persuaded an idiot in a car to turn right with no signals just as we were overtaking him. Three-wheelers are not the most stable vehicle for violent manoeuvres and ours did some interesting things with first one and then the other front wheel high in the air as we spun while I desperately fought to avoid the car and keep our vehicle under control. Fortunately no-one was hurt and there was no damage but Vi, who was seven months pregnant at the time, was badly shaken and decided to have our son Chris a couple of days later despite the efforts of the doctors to postpone his arrival.

The BSA had given her a fright earlier in the piece when the silencer fell off as we were motoring quite fast and she was startled when the open exhaust roared just under her feet.

The little three-wheeler with its badly fitting celluloid side-screens and bumpy ride wasn't the best transport for a young baby so we bought a little Ford 8 panel van which was ideal for carrying such essentials as cots, prams and all the other accoutrements needed to transport a small child around the countryside.

I was still flying all over the world with Transport Command and so Vi and Chris sometimes went home to Yorkshire while I was away. Then, when I got home, I would motor up to join them at the farm before we returned to Lyneham. At the end of one trip to Singapore, we had been held up for a couple of days ­ Murphy I suppose ­ and the Captain decided to do the last two stages of the trip with no break between them. This meant we left Habbanyah in Iraq in the early hours of the morning after an early call around 4am, flew to Idris in North Africa to refuel and have a meal before doing the last eight hour hop back to Lyneham. Arriving there late in the evening, it was a couple of hours before I arrived back at our married quarters just before midnight.

The house was cold and very lonely with Vi and Chris away, so I quickly changed out of uniform, jumped into the Ford and headed north. It was a cold, foggy night and as there were very few cars with heaters or demisters in those days, this meant a very cold, tiring drive with eyes straining to see through the fog. After the strenuous day's flying I should not have been driving at all ­ never mind under those conditions, but Murphy was kind for once and woke me up half way round a fairly sharp corner going far too fast. Quick reflexes fortunately let me straighten the car up and brake sufficiently to get round the corner but I decided, belatedly, to stop and rest till daybreak.

On my first trip to Australia I finished up with no clothes! Murphy had loaded my travelling wardrobe on to the wrong aircraft in North Africa and sent it back to England and all I had was what I was wearing. This happened to be normal RAF uniform, as it was winter when we left, and it was entirely unsuitable for the tropics. I was able to buy some shirts and shorts in Singapore but the customs officers at Darwin were very suspicious when I said I had nothing to declare ­ not even any clothes. In the very strict NCO's mess at Woomera in South Australia, I was made to sit hidden behind some foliage in an outer room as I didn't conform to mess standards according to the feisty old Warrant Officer in charge. He was formerly an NCO in a Guards Regiment of the British Army so that must have accounted for his hidebound attitude.

We flew from Woomera to the site of the first atomic bomb test in Australia and we had to refer to this as 'X' in our logs. I believe it was in fact called 'Emu' and was used before Maralinga.

Our job was to take samples of various things that had been exposed to radiation back to England together with a team of 'boffins' who had been associated with the test. Every morning before take-off the boffins would go around the cargo with a Geiger counter to see how 'hot' it was ­ in other words if the radioactivity was within safe limits. Thank goodness Murphy didn't tinker with that lot!

He did have one little go at me though while in Australia. I had gone to the aeroplane on my own to do some checks one afternoon while at Woomera on the way back to England and, when I had finished, pulled the ladder up that was used to get into the aircraft when there were no steps around. I did this for security, and I then dropped to the ground by hanging on to the lip of the doorway and then letting go. Unfortunately I was wearing a signet ring and this caught on the lip and left me suspended by one finger. Quite painful! I was never able to make that ring perfectly round again after that.

During my time with Transport Command I had flown close to two thousand hours but eventually I decided to apply for an instructing position back at Dishforth. While this gave me more time at home with Vi and Chris, it meant flying constantly with trainee crews and the stress eventually got to my stomach and I developed a sort of pre-ulcer condition that saw me out in 'civvy-street' without much in the way of qualifications for a 'proper' job.
 

Chapter 8

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