SPLASHDOWN ON THE EQUATOR
Handley Page Hastings TG579 Mark C-1 was commissioned to be built for the Royal Air Force by the Air Ministry under contract number 4186 at the Handley Page Headquarters and aircraft factory at Cricklewood, Hertfordshire as part of an order of some 200, which was later cut by 25%. 579 was completed on 12th April 1949 and handed over to the Royal Air Force 241 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) the following day, the full history of the aircraft is recorded on Air Ministry Form 78 from this period until its transference to 48 Squadron Far East Air Force on 20th January 1958 and its delivery to RAF Changi, Singapore on the 31st January 1958. (This information was kindly supplied by the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon, London)
48 Squadron crest
Handley Page Hastings C-1 TG569 but with an appropriate GAN call sign courtesy of John Smith of The Handley Page Association
The Operations Record Book (ORB), RAF Form 541, for Royal Air Force Changi, Singapore of 48 Squadron dated February and March 1960 is marked `secret’ with a three lined entry inked out between the period 25th to 29th February (leap year) 1960. This appears most odd, as although the Malayan Conflict was still ongoing at this time, why should an entry be struck out completely for a transport aircraft carrying only freight or passengers? I am reliably informed by one of 579’s crew members that they had made two return trips from Katunayake to Karachi ferrying Pakistanis who were instrumental as the ‘local’ labour constructing the new airfield at RAF Gan under the control of Costain Construction Company, this does not tie in with the (ORB). The Squadron Record Book does show an aircraft visiting Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Edinburgh Field (called ‘The Edinburgh Special‘) 300 miles from the then Top Secret Woomera Rocket Range in South Australia where the latest RAF V-bomber air launched Blue Steel bomb was being tested at both Woomera and off Kangaroo Island. Any errors to any official RAF forms at that time were always struck out with one single line in red or green ink and endorsed and countersigned by a Non Commissioned Officer (NCO) or Commissioned Officer in order that the entry was still readable but to be ignored in having any relevance. Form 541 for the last week of February shows up another anomaly in that the detail of work carried out by 48 squadron is not in chronological order where usually the RAF were very diligent and precise in their official recording of any documentation. (Form 541 was supplied by the Public Records Office, Kew, London for a fee). I must say that both myself and others think that perhaps the cargo that was on board was other than ‘dental supplies’ for RAF Gan but this is pure supposition as other details will emerge later to bring this theory forth.
579 departed RAF Changi on the 29th February 1960 and headed for RAF Katunayake, in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) with a one and a half hour stop over at RAF/RAAF Butterworth in Malaya. The crew comprised:
First Pilot Flight Lieutenant R.T.D.(Bob) Scott
Second Pilot Flight Sergeant George F. Applegarth
Navigator Flight Sergeant H.F.(Ken) Kimber
Signaller Master Signaller Peter Holc
Engineer Master Engineer R.E. (Romeo) Smith
Air Quarter Master (AQM) Sergeant R.(Derek) Jack
Please note the times given are UK Zulu times and are not local times, for RAF Gan add 5.5 hours, and for Katunayake add 6 hours . Also to be noted is the word ‘secret’ which is in a different type to the rest of this R.A.F. Form 541. The entry preceding the above has a three lines blackened out. Interesting to note that during the Suez crises of 1956 a squadron operation book dated 01/11/1956 does not have any mention of ’Secret’ typed on the document, this was the day that Venoms from Akrotiri went into action on Egyptian Airfields. (Courtesy PRO London - Fee paid)
Of the above six aircrew it is interesting to note that only one was a fully commissioned officer, F/Lt Scott, he was a highly experienced pilot, by the 1st March he had over 5000 flying hours accredited to him of which nearly 800 flying hours were during darkness, on Hastings type aircraft alone he had over 3000 flying hours. He was also rated a Master Green Instrument pilot and in those days there was nothing higher in value than to read and fly by his aircraft cockpit instruments alone. Scott was apparently regarded ‘as his own man’ from reports passed on to me and I cannot substantiate this but have to mention this here and now regarding some of the events that follow. On the Official Accident Report (OAR) it is mentioned that Bob Scott was an above average pilot, and previous to this trip he had flown 36 hours in the previous 30 days.
F/Sgt George Applegarth was the second pilot (called co-pilot today), his total flying experience at this point in time totalled well over 2000 flying hours with a little over 500 hours on type, interestingly the Official Accident Report (OAR) does not contain any information to the number of night time flying hours that George had completed nor does it mention any previous flying to this trip in the preceding 30 days, so it must be assumed that this is to be correct if the OAR is to believed in its statement or non statement. It is understood that he had been involved in an accident whilst flying a Scottish Aviation Single Pioneer aircraft in Malaya in 1958 and despite being trapped upside down in the cockpit was able to be extricated by emergency rescue crews. I think this incident co-relates to that of Pioneer CC1 #XE512 of 209 squadron where upon landing the aircraft ground looped into a ditch, I also understand that the Board of Inquiry apportioned the blame on the pilot, despite the theory that the aircraft had been serviced prior to this landing and that some control rods had been incorrectly installed the wrong way round. The Board of Inquiry report to this accident still exists and it is endorsed ‘not to be destroyed until 2008’, however information on this accident cannot be obtained from the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon as they have no accident record card!
The passengers totalled fourteen, those known to be on board were:
Wing Commander Geoffrey Charles Atherton DFC and Bar also Officer Commanding RAF Katunayake.
A Flight Lieutenant from Pay Accounts at RAF Katunayake
Corporal Bill (Paddy) Grundy a fireman from RAF Katunayake being repatriated to the UK
Corporal Doug Murray an aircraft engine fitter from SASF Katunayake also being repatriated.
Junior Technician(?) ‘Spike’ Castle an engine fitter (this name is unconfirmed)
Senior AircraftsMan (SAC) David Bloomfield an MT driver from Kat being repatriated
Senior AircraftsMan Tony Green an Airframe Fitter returning to his hometown in Liverpool.
Senior AircraftsMan Stewart Tucker Air Radar Mechanic returning to Cornwall from his tour.
Senior AircraftsMan Tony Mealing Air Wireless Mechanic from Harwich.
Senior AircraftsMan John ’Gary’ Cooper Engine Mechanic on SASF from Cambridgeshire.
Plus two sailors and two Royal Marine Commandos where nothing is known about these . (Photos of all survivors)
‘Spike’ Castle taken in 1959 (John Cooper) last seen at RAF Lyneham.
Tony Mealing on the left, believed to be living in Australia and Stewart Tucker two of the passengers on TG579 at Christmas 1959 RAF Katunayake.
John ‘Gary’ Cooper at 10500’ on May 14th 1959 returning to Katunayake in Hastings WJ336 from
the Far East Air Force Tennis Championships. (photo John Cooper)
W/Cmdr Geoff Atherton was our Station Commander at Katunayake and an extremely likeable person and CO that you would and could find, although one such officer described him as a martinet, to run a neat and tidy ship that was the way things were in those days, he was an Australian who became a war hero in the Pacific Campaign in 1944, he accounted for five Japanese bombers and fighter aircraft and a further half claim before he was shot down himself, successfully ditching his aircraft and being subsequently picked up safely by a Catalina amphibious aircraft.
On Tuesday 1st March 1960 TG579 took off from Katunayake at dawn to make a round trip to Royal Air Force Station Gan, the Southernmost island in the Maldives chain, part of Addu Atoll which lies almost exactly 41 miles due south of the equator . The journey from Ceylon to Gan was some 600 miles in distance and took approximately three hours to reach, although on a previous detachment to Gan in May 1959 my journey there to Gan lasted four hours and five minutes in, again, another Hastings aircraft. For 579 that day and the crew this totalled eight and a half hours in flying and turn round time, presumably an average sort of working day, however the aircraft was reloaded and refuelled at Katunayake with aircraft hydraulic jacks and ‘cased dental equipment’ to equip the new purpose built dental section on Gan plus a box of RAF shoes after being repaired at Katunayake and returning them to Gan. It is also known that some ‘diplomatic mail bags ‘ were also on board, these bags were always immune from inspection by foreign customs or immigration officers and had a free passage to no matter where their final destination was to be.
Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Defence UK showing a Vulcan overflying RAF Gan and the nearby island of Wilingili (sometimes spelt and certainly pronounced Vilingili). The white of the waves are shown crashing on to the soft and hard coral. The land ceases where the runway ends.
These aircraft jacks were loaded, lashed and chained to the floor anchorages immediately across the wing spar and up to the cockpit bulkhead to give even weight distribution and easy flying characteristics for the pilot to handle his aircraft, this was part of the task of Derek Jack (AQM) who knew the fuel load and also knew the weight and balance trim sheet of the aircraft. These jacks were extremely difficult to manoeuvre, they were heavy and rested on rounded metal pads, the smell of hydraulic oil within the jacks was ever present. The passenger seats were situated aft of the dental equipment and always faced rearwards for safety reasons and stretched down towards the rear bulkhead.
Meanwhile the crew and passengers had been waiting in the Air Movements Section lounge waiting it seemed like an eternity to board, I know I had been waiting from early morning to embark
and I also feel there had been some technical problems with the aircraft between its return from Gan before departing again as I can recall the bantering between my fellow aircraft mechanics and myself before boarding. There was according to the ORB a three hour delay and I always maintained that a propeller change was necessary on number one engine whilst the aircraft was being reloaded but Derek and David thought it was an instrument snag, either way we were delayed due to technical problems.
The 1st of March 1960 was a Tuesday and having packed all my kit the day before I was looking forward enormously to going back home to England after over two years away from dear old Blighty.
I had been paid by pay accounts for my four weeks leave money and as recalled now by all four ’found’ passengers we were paid in brown ten shilling notes (equal to fifty pence today), pay accounts had run out of white five pound notes and blue one pound notes, so my pay totalled £35=0=0 paid in seventy notes, to me this was a Kings Ransom in those days and the bundle was so thick that I had to put this wad into my camera bag as I could not keep this amount in a pocket of a Khaki Drill (KD) shirt.
I understand from conversations with a third party that the pilot F/Lt Scott was determined to reach Gan that night ’at all costs’ as he did not want to stay overnight at Katunayake. Eventually we were summoned to walk across the aircraft apron with our hand luggage at about 1700hrs local time, having said cheerio to all our mates and work colleagues here at long last we were on board the aircraft. The aircrew had accepted the aircraft as serviceable and duly signed the Form 700, the pilot and flight engineer did their external checks, all in order they boarded the aircraft, the AQM Derek Jack closed the door, ensured that all escape hatches were secure and that we, as passengers were fastened into our seat belts.
This Hastings of 48 squadron RAF Changi replaced TG580 that crashed on Gan in July 1959
by having the same call sign as 580 (Golf Papa Juliet). It is identical to TG579 except that it carries
wing tip fuel tanks thus making this aircraft a C-1A mark. (photo courtesy of Alec Keith)
One after another all four Hercules engines fired into life, the gills attached to the cowlings would have opened and normal temperatures and pressures on each engine would have been achieved, the two outboard engines would have been opened up to maximum RPM with brakes applied against the huge wooden chocks., followed by the two inner engines to test for any mechanical error. The pilot when satisfied that all instruments were functioning normally and that the remainder of his crew were also satisfied that all was in order at their work station would have signalled to the Duty Marshaller for ‘chocks away’. Immediately on the wheels turning the pneumatic brakes would be applied to test that these were working satisfactorily, throughout this time the hiss of the brakes could be heard or one of the four engines would react to the throttle opening to turn the aircraft off the dispersal area and onto the perimeter track to taxi to the end of the active runway.
Just before approach to the runway further checks into wind on the four engines would have been necessary, any other air traffic in the area would have been given the clearance to land, after all the Royal Air Force shared the facilities with the then Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF) and all civilian airliners flying to and from the Far East and Australia used Katunayake as Colombo International Airport.
Air Traffic Control (ATC) would have given permission for 579 to take off, this was duly performed at exactly 1734hrs local time (OAR), we were at the quarry end of the runway, all four 1675 horsepower Hercules engines would have been at maximum RPM and the brakes released, lift off occurred at about three quarters of the way down the coconut tree lined runway here we were airborne the ground beginning to look ever further away, we then flew over the lagoon at the western end of the airfield and soon saying farewell to the coast of Ceylon, with cameras snapping taking those last images of the setting sun over the Pearl of the Indian Ocean. This image will always last forever as these sunsets in this part of the world are spectacular and after all I was leaving my ’second home’ that had been mine for over fifteen months.
John Cooper addressing a forty strong group of survivors and eye witnesses in front of a sister Hastings showing the size of the Hercules engine and Rotol propeller blades at a reunion at the Imperial War Museum Duxford in July 2001 (photo courtesy of Stewart Tucker)
Just before 1900 hrs local time darkness had fallen and we were two hours flying time away from RAF Gan on the first leg of our journey home, none of us can recall the time that we started to experience some turbulence, but it was certainly dark, Tony recalls Derek asking us to fasten our safety belts (lap straps). After a period of time the turbulence turned into buffeting and became more pronounced as time went on. Intense tropical storms can hit anytime where cloud banks can reach up to 30000’ or more and a Hastings aircraft could not overfly this height as it did not possess the ceiling capacity to do so, we were flying at the usual 8000-10000 ft altitude without oxygen.
Rain could be seen sweeping alongside the porthole shaped windows, in fact I was sat next to one of these facing aft on the starboard side, diagonally opposite the main entrance/exit door just aft of the trailing edge of the wing. Ferocious streaks of lightning lit up the clouds and I became quite unsettled over this intense buffeting and I voiced my concerns to my mate Tony Green who was sat next to me, I had flown quite a lot previous to this trip, including looping the loop, stall turns, falling leaf etc when an air cadet but was never more apprehensive than now.
Flying in a Hastings someone recalled was like flying in a drum, there was some quilted green padding (officially called cabin soundproofing linings) which was supposed to act as a noise insulator in the upper reaches of the fuselage, I can’t be sure now as it so long ago but I always felt that we could hear the thunder over the roar of the engines, and if this was the case that thunder must have been mighty loud, Stewart also recalls this thunderous noise. My immediate reaction to all of this was that the pilot would fly back to Katunayake, but here we were with a highly experienced pilot flying with the ‘best and safest airline in the world’ flying on to our destination, no turning back we were plodding on through this horrendous storm. Harry Heywood (in Gan ATC at the time of the accident) recalls “The local weather conditions were often horrendous, the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) covers an area between 23 degrees North and 23 degrees South. With no weather Radar on board the aircraft the crew and passengers would have taken a battering if they encountered thunderstorms en route”
Corporal Harry Heywood at his station at RAF Gan Air Traffic Control Tower (photo courtesy Harry Heywood)
Suddenly the airfield lights at Gan appeared, we approached low and fast at 2034hrs (there does appear to be a difference of times between the OAR and the operations record book!) according to the OAR exactly three hours after take off from Katunayake, the OAR describes the first run in as an overshoot “when making a landing at night and in heavy rain and thunderstorm, first pilot overshot from his first approach due to poor visibility”. As an engine mechanic, and having flown nearly 100 hours in Hastings type aircraft alone and completed countless engine ground runs testing all aspects of the engine performance and the pitch from fine to coarse pitch and feathering of the propellers I was in a position to know that there was no sudden surge in power, there was no change of pitch in the propellers, in my opinion a fast low approach does not necessarily mean an overshoot, I feel that the pilot, Scott was getting ‘a feel’ of the situation.
View from the inside of a Hastings at night, approaching an airfield (John Cooper)
Corporal Andy Mutch , an Air Wireless Fitter was awaiting the arrival of 579 and said that he heard more than saw the aircraft on its first approach due to the poor visibility, SAC Rod Venners an Engine Mechanic was off duty and had been watching a film in the Astra Cinema, but that the film had to be stopped due to the pelting rain on the corrugated roof of the cinema and rushed outside to see the aircraft make its approach. Junior Technician Mike Butler saw the aircraft make a low approach and thought the height was 80’, he had regularly climbed the telecommunications towers as part of his job so had some idea of height. Brian Smith on First Line Servicing recalled the awful weather and 579 making a low pass parallel to the runway before banking to the left to make another approach. We know from the OAR that the cloud base was 420’ and that the aircraft had approached below that base for it to be seen by some and for myself to see the airfield lights from a passengers point of view.
Corporal Andy Mutch from SASF posing on the coral reef at RAF Gan (photo courtesy Andy Mutch)
Andy Mutch today , has helped in my research.
Don Ellis was a First Navigator on the off-duty Search and Rescue (SAR) Shackleton of 205 Squadron detached to Gan from RAF Changi in Singapore and recalls “Gan was being assailed by one hell of a thunderstorm which probably started before sunset (approx 1900hrs local time), though I couldn’t be sure, we asked the Operations Officer/Senior Navigation Officer what he thought the Hastings might do and he thought that if they had any sense they would return to Katunayake”. Don continues “When the storm was at its worst the Air Traffic Controller (ATC), F/Lt. Dave Schab, was in the Control Tower together with the Commanding Officer of RAF Gan Wing Commander Ewan Thomas. The Hastings made an approach and the captain decided to go round again. Gan had ACR7 radar which was not a lot of use in conditions like that so they were relying on the crew doing a Beam Approach Beacon System (BABS) Approach“.
Keith Greenwood a Corporal Telegraphist was the supervisor of the air to ground communications within Air Traffic Control at Gan. Keith recalls having ‘gone on duty at 0800hrs that morning the 1st March 1960 that there was a Hastings departing Gan for Katunayake that morning and remembers working the aircraft outbound and then after he did a quick turn round (at Katunayake) he came back to Gan and landed around lunchtime. he then took off early in the afternoon again bound for Katunayake . Anyway I finished work at approx., five o’clock, and after having my tea and getting showered and changed was making my way to the Corporals Club in the intense storm, when I heard the sound of a Hastings do an overshoot. my first thought was that it was the one coming in from Aden, but remembered I had heard that one land whilst getting changed, I could hear 579 going around for a second attempt at landing‘.
A Hastings was equipped with an Instrument Landing System (ILS) but was of no use if on the ground there was no such transmission system and presumably there were no middle markers anywhere to transmit any signals as these would have to be positioned in the sea on either buoys or vessels. ILS means that radio navigation will line up the aircraft to the line of the runway whilst flying under International Flight Rules (IFR) this was put into place if the weather conditions prevailing were below the minimum standard required for sustained flight under visual flight rules. ILS was fitted at Katunayake, this was a long established airfield and combined international airport, the only reference to a similar system at Gan is from the maps showing buildings on Gan in 1964, kindly supplied by Mike Butler. RAF Gan in 1960 was replacing the base at Katunayake as a staging post from the UK to the Far East and although ‘operational’ was not complete in all its buildings and facilities.
At Gan the island measures one mile square and sits at a maximum six feet above sea level, the only runway runs the exact length of the island positioned roughly east to west, one and a half miles in distance, therefore if a crosswind occurred aircraft such as a Hastings would literally have to ‘bounce in’ on the runway, using hard rudder into wind until the aircraft could be aligned on to the runway. If the crosswind was more than 23 knots it was not advisable for a Hastings aircraft to attempt to land, that type of aircraft would either ‘have to hold off’ (circle the airfield vicinity until the wind dropped or was in the right direction) or divert to the next nearest airfield. The problem at Gan was the next available airfield was.......a return to RAF Katunayake 600 miles away! There were no diversion airfields for hundreds of miles, Scott had to get in to Gan that stormy night, he could not return to Katunayake as he and his crew would have been out of hours, they by this time had spent 14 hours and 50 minutes actively involved in flying to and from Gan including turn round time, I understand from other pilots that the maximum time on duty was a stint of 16 hours in any one day.
It would appear here that there was no room for error and that this journey was doomed from the outset. The runway was numbered 01from the west and 280 to the east.
As an example to this John Joyce ex RAF Seletar Marine Craft Unit, who coincidentally worked with me whilst I was on the adjacent Sunderland Flying Boat Squadron, recalls his flight home to the UK in a Hastings aircraft that had departed RAF Changi and was attempting to land at Katunayake. ’The Hastings had a reserve crew on board, the pilot made three attempts at landing, aborting the first two and when finally landing on the third attempt, the crew stood up and clapped and cheered!
On that initial run into Gan the aircraft banked to port having come in on an easterly approach, the aircraft flew off for some twenty minutes, still the tropical storm was ranting and raving, the buffeting was intense, I had imagined that the pilot was ’holding off’ for the storm to abate but not so as according to the OAR “on the second approach there was a brilliant flash of lightning at about 2 miles (from the runway) causing pilot to recover his vision. Second pilot (George Applegarth) then called ’approaching 50 feet’ and almost immediately aircraft hit the sea”.
The OAR continues “...minor injuries were sustained by all members of crew and passengers. The primary cause of the accident was error by pilot in that:
A) Having descended below his calculated break off level of 420’ and losing visual contact with runway due to lightning flashes and rain, he failed to take immediate overshoot action.
B) In the meteorological conditions prevailing, he failed to make a standard bad weather circuit on established instrument approach. Instead he made a very long low approach to land in marginal weather conditions, and failed to have navigator co-relate ‘Eureka’ range with L.(?) readings. Causal
conditions were (1) Pilot Fatigue and (2) Impairment of vision by rain”
The above OAR has been interpreted from a handwritten report, at times almost illegible, by Harry C Heywood (in Gan Air Traffic Control at the time of the accident) and Neil Jones an ex Hastings pilot.
An anonymous telephone call to me relates the co-pilot call ‘500,400,300,200,100, 50ft’ in a conversation between the two pilots where the aircraft suddenly fell, when I asked if the problem was ’elevator control’ this particular caller said ‘and power’, he would not elaborate but said that I was very lucky indeed (as we all were) to survive such a crash. This could not have been a hoax call as there are too many accurate statements that have been made by this caller and I do not want to jeopardise my chances of a ‘follow up’ at this stage, for the moment we will call him ‘224 group’.
There was a terrific crash of such intensity that the whole aircraft juddered, I had turned to Tony and said “I can’t see any runway lights” and with that a second less severe crash occurred followed by a more gentler crash almost as if we had made a normal landing, without restraining lap straps on we would almost certainly have been ejected from our seats. At that point in time none of the passengers knew that we had crashed into the sea, 579 had skipped the Indian Ocean like a flat pebble crossing a pond at a speed of 125 knots. We were less than one minutes flying time from the runway threshold.
The first impact shook the inside of the cabin and a first aid kit became detached from its stowage, this flew across the cabin and hit W/Cmdr Geoff Atherton fully in the face, we later heard that this impact had, ironically, broken Geoff’s nose. After this first impact there was silence, there was no noise from the sweet hum of four Bristol Hercules engines anymore, three of the four engines had been completely ripped out of their bronze and steel bearings from the wing bulkheads each weighing over a ton, only number four engine (Starboard outer) remained on 579.
Don Ellis, First Navigator on the reserve Shackleton at Gan made the comparison between a Shackleton and a Hastings coming into land, ’Shack crews in those days regularly bombed at night -with the Navigator using the low level bomb sight-from 300 feet so it would have presented no problem to be below the cloud, knowing the range to the runway threshold. a normal instrument approach to the runway would have commenced at 1500 feet , on the centreline at 5 miles, reducing height by 300 feet each mile, so that at 1.5 miles your Hastings should have been at 450 feet descending. It was generally agreed at that time that your survival was due to the Hastings characteristic tail down attitude on the approach, which meant that the initial strike was probably not too far aft of where you were sitting‘.
The undercarriage was down and locked and was severed on its first impact with the sea, either from the linkage above the oleo leg or just sheared off in a position similar to TG580 of 48 Squadron that had met a similar fate at Gan on 2nd July 1959 this time on terra firma where the pilot was attempting to land in a cross wind.
Hastings C-1A TG580 of 48 Squadron RAF Changi that came to grief whilst attempting to land in a crosswind at Gan on 03/07/1959, note the position of the snapped off oleo leg under #2 engine. (John Cooper)
A Flight Lieutenant stationed at Fairy Point HQFEAF at that time informs me that a Wing Commander (name withheld) was also on board our aircraft, and that he was doing an assessment on the crew, usually called ’checkers’ to all and sundry. Apparently these highly experienced aircrew officers could and would travel anywhere at a moments notice to board any aircraft they felt they wanted to check on the aircrews ability, if it was the case this particular night that this Wing Commander was on board he must have been highly impressed by the end result! His report would be filed with the crew report. The name that has been given to me is of South African stock and although the name sounds familiar, without a copy of the passenger list I cannot verify this.
Upon the third impact it was at this point that Air Quarter Master Derek Jack had risen from his seat lifted the yellow and black striped emergency handles of the exit door on the port side and jettisoned this into the sea, he obviously knew what had happened as he was wearing a flying helmet and was able to hear the conversation with the rest of the crew. This was Derek’s first flight out of Changi as an AQM on 48 Squadron after he had left Malaya! Upon opening this door there was a surge of water into the fuselage area and here we all were just having crossed the equator by 41miles realising the traditional baptism of being immersed in water! As I and others recall the water surged in just above our ankles, I undid my safety lap belt and reached above my head to the Mae West (Lifejacket) plywood stowage, pulled the lifejacket down but found it buttoned up as recalled by the other passengers, slipped my arms through this and buttoned it up, at this point I did not tighten the straps up as I didn’t know there were any! Stewart Tucker recalls as a result of this accident that thereafter all life jackets on military aircraft of the RAF had to be placed in their stowage with the buttons undone.
Within less than a minute of the door being opened, and the water rushing in and the donning of the Mae West I had vacated the aircraft and jumped into the sea and I apparently was the third person out through that door! Stewart recalls not putting his Mae West on until he had entered a dinghy, at this point in time there was a lot of shouting, perhaps we had only seconds or at the best just a few minutes before the aircraft sank without trace.
An ex Hastings Flight Engineer of 24 Squadron , Frank Ogden, informed me recently that if a person jumping into the sea with a Mae West inflated would more than likely break their neck as the momentum of the body submerging into the water would be restrained from the inflated collar of the life jacket trying to keep that body afloat and further if the jacket had been inflated within the aircraft those that wanted to escape through the wing hatches would not have been able to do so. David still retains his heliograph from his Mae West as a souvenir, this was a device used for signalling aircraft, ships and people on land to say that a person was in distress and could only be used when the sun was shining, it was a quadrant mirror with a small hole in the centre attached to the life jacket by a length of strong string secured in a flap pocket
Of the 14 passengers some did escape onto the port wing through those emergency hatches, whilst Stewart, Tony, myself and David Bloomfield and others jumped into a fuel and oil laden sea, as Tony recalls ’all the fuel and engine oil tanks had ruptured and we were jumping into a sea of neat fuel’. We all took a lung full of this stuff and there was nothing we could do about it as the storm was still raging and the waves were mountainous. In hindsight we had enough time to vacate the fuselage area by the wing hatches, but at that time it was deemed necessary to exit via the nearest door, there was also the possibility of fire and explosion, thankfully that did not materialise. Master Signaller Peter Holc says that the crew’s Mae Wests were in a wardroom and that after the impact the door could not be opened due being distorted. He along with others vacated the aircraft via the port wing and stepped into a dinghy.
Derek Jack took from the luggage stowage two dinghies and threw these into the sea, he does mention that all the wing dinghies were unusable as they had been ripped out of their stowage by the impact and by the engines becoming detached causing immense damage to the wings. I understand three dinghies were in use, one that 4 members of the aircrew had entered, by vacating the aircraft through the emergency hatches on the port side and the two that Derek threw out of the fuselage.
Frank Ogden, recalls that on many an occasion he used the public swimming baths at Swindon for official survival dinghy training especially useful for medical staff at the nearby station at RAF Wroughton, when having to CaseVac ill or injured servicemen/women back to the UK. In the event of a ditching one of his jobs was to carry a spare fire-axe in order that if the ‘dinghy pull’ over the escape hatches did not work he had to physically break the seal on the two glass/perspex panels on each wing and manually pull the release lever thereby exploding the CO2 bottle which would automatically inflate the wing dinghies.
I found it extremely difficult to get to a dinghy only feet away due to the huge swell, I have found out recently that all these dinghies had a rope ladder which was an easier way of entering the high rubber walls of these life rafts, I managed to cling to a guide rope looped around the edge of a dinghy and was hauled into this by either a sailor or Royal Marine, the marine we think had a name similar to (B)Lampede and was at that time serving on board HMS Gambia, he was on his way home to the UK due to compassionate reasons. I thankfully was in the water less than five minutes, these guys had apparently entered the dinghy by stepping into it from the port wing!. David meanwhile was the first one aboard his dinghy which was punctured from the twisted aluminium of the port wing, he recalls ‘ one lad panicked-screaming for me to help him-he nearly pulled me overboard- I’m afraid I had to punch him to quieten him down’.
It is worth mentioning at this point that there is an abundance of marine life prevalent in and around the lagoons and sea off the Maldives, Sharks are mans worst enemies in this area and although we did not take this into account at the time, but some time later, we were made aware of their presence but in hindsight they would have been kept at bay by firstly the impact of 579 on the water and then the strong mixture of AVGAS (100% Aviation Gasoline), thick engine oil and battery acid hazards, all of these were a volatile mixture that could have ignited at any time. Strong enough to keep the white tipped or reef sharks at bay but we were amongst all of it, Tony recalls ‘diving into an abyss where twisted metal was an added danger’!
The co-pilot, Flight Sergeant George Applegarth decided to vacate the aircraft through the cockpit side window, a narrow opening but in such dire circumstances he managed to squeeze through and clung on to the Instrument Landing System (ILS) aerial, a wave swept him off this to the position of where number three engine had been torn out of its bearers. He managed to scramble on to the starboard wing until he was washed off this by another huge wave, the dinghies on this side of the aircraft were torn to shreds and were of no use, he was washed to the tailplane and eventually washed away from this. The only light at this time was coming from the red emergency lights of the aircraft cabin area and from the flashes of lightning that vividly lit up the night sky, we all were completely disorientated , for George being by himself this must have been terrifying.
Pilot Officer Colin Vincent had been posted to Head Quarters Far East Air Force (HQFEAF) and attached to the legal branch, he had seen the Board of Inquiry reports a short time after this accident. Colin recalls via comments to Mike Butler (author of the book ’Return to Gan’) “ the weather on the evening of the incident was atrocious. The pilots claimed the rain was so heavy that the screen wipers could not cope with it and the accumulated water caused a refraction, making the approach and landing lights appear about a mile closer than they really were, so the Hastings landed in the sea about one mile short of the runway“. I have heard this account from many eye witnesses and is partly borne out by the OAR.
Colin continues “As soon as it was evident what had happened, one of the passengers W/Cmdr Geoff Atherton took charge..........it was his calm authority which ensured that the passengers exited the aircraft into the life-rafts in an orderly manner, that all the crew were safe, and that the rafts were kept together until rescue by the high speed launch“.
It is worth noting at this point that none of the four found passengers can recall anyone taking control, initially it was ‘everyman for himself’ and there was obviously some panic to vacate the aircraft as quickly as possible and to enter the dinghies and vacate the area of immediate danger from fire or explosion.
Having said that once inside the dinghies less panic became apparent, Stewart was on the port wing with water by this time, nearly up to his waist, desperately trying to keep the punctured dinghy away from the twisted metal. I was in another dinghy having found a paddle, along with others, paddling frantically to get away from the aircraft but to no avail. Stewart recalls that I had called out to ask if anyone had a knife as the dinghies were still attached to the aircraft, I recall someone saying this but could not remember who, by great fortune one of the sailors or marines pulled a knife from his sock and severed the cord. This was done to two of the dinghies and the remainder of the cord was used to lash these two dinghies together, I cannot recall what happened to the third dinghy with the crew in, Derek Jack the AQM was at this time with the passengers in the other two dinghies.
An officer from the Pay Accounts section at Katunayake asked Stewart to number all the survivors, he recalls numbering himself nineteenth and last and we all had to remember our own individual numbers. One person was missing and we could hear screams for help, it was at this point without any hesitation that Geoff Atherton dived out of a dinghy and swam off in the direction of the stranded survivor, for over 40 years all those survivors that we had contacted always thought it was the flight engineer who was washed away, but I had found out in July 2001 via Brian Lloyd of the Changi Association that this indeed was the co-pilot George Applegarth, via conversations with George‘s son Chris. Geoff stayed with George in the water isolated from all the others until rescued some one hour after the other passengers, along with the rest of the crew, Geoff received a well earned Queen’s Commendation for his deeds that night and in my book deserved a very much higher award as he unselfishly thought of others before himself. In reference to these awards it must be mentioned that this is on hearsay alone as I have checked with the Reference Services of the National Library of Scotland and for the period of the whole of 1960 through to 1962 there is no mention in the London Gazette archives of any bravery awards given to W/C G Atherton or F/L B Saunders. If these awards were given, and surely they must have been, someone kept this very quiet from too many prying eyes.
Being completely lost at that point in time, all we knew was that we were east of Gan airfield, again up until just recently Mike Butler had informed me that we were in or very near to the notorious Gan Channel. This channel separates Gan to the west and Wilingili to the east, it has an extremely fast flowing current dependent on the state of the tide (reported to be 8-10 knots), this flows in to and out of the Addu Atoll Lagoon.
TG579 was by this time still afloat and probably since our initial crash only a few minutes had passed,
I find it incredible that a 40 ton laden aircraft could have survived such a horrific impact where three engines and the undercarriage were torn out and the wings and tail section still keeping the fuselage afloat whilst taking on water. It is a miracle that the wings were not torn off, if this had happened the aircraft would probably have sunk without trace and as an eye witness on Gan said suddenly a Hastings aircraft would have been transformed into the shape of a submarine without any lateral support. The design team at Handley Page must be congratulated for their efforts in making the Hastings aircraft the best non flying boat the Royal Air Force took delivery of! Only one other Hastings, TG 613 crashed into the sea, this was 140 miles off the Mediterranean Coast on 22nd July 1953, after the aircraft had taken off from Castel Benito Airfield in Libya, all the crew survived this aircraft ditching after three engines cut out. The OAR report claims that this was due to ’engine gulping’ but my father told me then and just after my ditching that this was because Oil Mineral Detergent (OMD) was put into the engine oil tanks at Castel Benito instead of Oil Mineral, he should have known the cause of the accident as this aircraft was one that came under his control for regular routine servicing when he was in charge of RAF Lyneham Aircraft Servicing Flight (ASF) and a directive would have been issued from The Air Ministry in checking the correct oil was always used, as OMD was a cleansing oil agent and once heated became frothy, suggesting gulping ! (Did the Board of Inquiry use this as a convenient excuse in not blaming an individual on this occasion?)
The two dinghies lashed together were now leaving the scene of the accident, much frantic paddling was necessary to take us away from the danger, we were certainly well clear and aft of the tailplane.
I think with the efforts that we had made in paddling away we all could have easily entered the annual Christmas Day Dhoni (a locally made Maldivian boat) races held in the Gan lagoon and we would have won hands down! Just occasionally we could see the lights of RAF Gan to the west, this was as the dinghy was riding a crest of a wave, until disappearing when we entered the trough, for the sea state was still very rough indeed, the lightning was still flashing with huge cracks of thunder overhead but the rain was beginning to abate a little.
We knew that Gan Island was to the west of us from our position, what I had not realised until early 2001 why the nose of the aircraft was pointing east, two theories have been put forward, on the first impact with wheels down it is possible that the aircraft slew round 180 degrees upon hitting the water (it is known that at least two other aircraft that were involved in ground accidents that both slew approximately 180 degrees). Or the other theory is that as 579 was floating that it was being turned and carried by the strong current and wind, the fin of 579 would have acted as a sail and both ideas are feasible. I have also been informed that the port wing could have touched the sea first resulting in both port outer and inner engines being torn off, nothing is discounted but I do feel the first two reasons being more accurate.
Meanwhile on land the full force of the rescue operation was well in hand with the following taking part:
Flight Lieutenant Reg Wheatley was the Station Signals Officer on Gan and was also the Station Duty Officer that night and was positioned at the time at the end of the runway, he could see the landing lights of the Hastings on its final approach when without reason the aircraft suddenly ‘dropped’ into the sea, Reg is the only eye witness known so far, that witnessed the crash. He immediately returned to Air Traffic Control to assist in the subsequent search and rescue.
Corporal Harry C Heywood worked in Air Traffic Control (ATC) and was on duty along with Roger ‘Steve’ Stevens who was in charge of the station fire section taking up his station alongside ATC as was normal practice. ATC was positioned on the north side of the island approximately one third of the way down the runway from the Fedhoo causeway (West) with direct access to the runway for emergency vehicles to enter.
Harry recalls the events as they unfolded that night “The evening that the Hastings ditched to the east of the island, I was on duty in the ATC tower. It was a quiet evening with little activity on the wireless transmitter (W/T) circuits and I was chatting to the Duty Controller, Flight Lieutenant Morgan-Smith, when the Hastings made his first approach through the gale and lashing rain that enveloped the island. The aircraft aborted its initial approach and asked for the runway lights to be increased in intensity, this was done and we strove to see his landing lights through the storm, but it was impossible. It was like a scene out of a Hollywood movie, the Duty Air Traffic Control Officer (DATCO) asked the pilot to confirm ’three greens’ (undercarriage down and locked on all three wheels) and the last transmission heard was his answer, ‘Roger, downwind, three greens, runway in sight‘”.
Harry continues “ Suddenly there was what appeared to be a feedback screech, perhaps two microphones being opened at the same time, and the Cathode Ray Direction Finder (C/R D/F) reacted to it. The trace illuminated on the screen, orientated east , the direction from where the aircraft was expected to be. The DATCO initiated a call, no reply, he called again and still no reply and exclaimed ’Christ, I think he’s gone in’ or words to that effect. At that point controlled panic took over as the Search and Rescue (SAR) drills were put into effect and I kept out of the way. I have a suspicion that one of my wireless operators Senior AircraftsMan Russ Taylor, on his own initiative had made high frequency radio transmitter contact with the Air Sea Rescue (ASR) launches“.
Keith Greenwood still in the Corporals Club recalls ‘I don’t think I had more than a couple of sips of my beer when someone rushed in to tell us that the aircraft had gone into the oggin’ Keith recalls being summoned back to work.
Roger Stevens and his crew in the Rolls-Royce powered crash tender were instructed to ‘ enter the active and proceed with caution , because we think the aircraft has crashed’. Another eye witness had described the crash tender traversing the length of the runway, shining its search lights to see if the aircraft had landed having had a complete W/T failure, such was the state of the weather that in extreme storms of this nature the pelting rain tends to ‘bounce’ off the surface causing a refraction where a mist forms immediately above the surface and very little is visible. Roger recalls that ‘ he and his crew were dispatched now to the eastern edge of the runway, known to all on Gan as The Channel End to search for the aircraft and survivors but saw and heard nothing’.
Photo of Roger Stevens at RAF Gan during his 1960 tour of duty (courtesy Roger Stevens)
Roger and his crew were also instructed to wade out on to the coral reef to again look for survivors but decided against this due to the presence of sharks, moray eels and sea slugs in the vicinity. Corporal Andy Mutch and SAC Brian ’Ricky’ Smith on SAS Flight duty crew had a similar experience, they recall being taken to the same end of the runway by vehicle and instructed to wade on to the reef, this they did, to listen and search for survivors but like Roger and his crew heard and saw nothing and were instructed, after some time, to ’stand down’ by the station adjutant and were given a bottle of rum for their efforts.
By great fortune from the survivors point of view, but by design from FEAF two Avro Shackleton Mark 1 Search and Rescue aircraft were positioned on RAF Gan, both detached from 205 Squadron
at RAF Changi, Singapore. These were long range maritime reconnaissance aircraft, affectionately nicknamed ’The Old Grey Lady’ from its colour scheme and more often known as just simply ’Shack’, and as one former crew member was once reported as saying ‘she was like 14000 rivets flying together in formation‘! Immediately after this accident my next station was RAF St Mawgan and coincidentally I and Stewart Tucker had three and a half years on 201 squadron servicing and flying many hours in them as a member of the servicing crew wherever the squadron was despatched to, on detachment or exercise.
Avro Shackleton Mark 1 of 205 squadron RAF Changi Singapore taken at RAF Katunayake, Ceylon in 1959 this one indexed WB835 was numbered one up from the one piloted by John Elias WB834 on the night of the rescue (photo John Cooper)
The on duty Shack was index number WB834 and had a crew of 10
Captain and first squadron pilot was Flight Lieutenant John Elias
Second pilot was David Parry-Evans
Two Navigators, Bill Williams and Barry Wallace
A Flight Engineer Flight Sergeant Medlam
Five Signallers, Master Signaller Lyall, F/Sgt. Wright, Sgt. Thomas, Sgt. Head and Sgt. Rushmere.
A special mention of thanks must go to the captain and crew of this aircraft for their involvement in our rescue, for within minutes of TG579 ditching John Elias started up the four Griffon engines of his aircraft and was instructed to taxi from the dispersal area to the Channel End of the runway and to shine the powerful lights of his aircraft to look for the ditched Hastings, the crew and its passengers. As recalled by Don Ellis. ‘John thought if he had to do this he might as well get airborne’, which he did probably about 20 minutes after the initial crash, no one is certain of this time but this time is within reason.
It is worth recalling that this aircraft took off in what was described at that time as the worst storm the island had encountered from those stationed on Gan, and that this aircraft took off in conditions identical to those which Flight Lieutenant Scott was trying to land his Hastings in! I understand from conversations with members of the current Shackleton Association that John Elias ended his flying career with an astonishing 14500 flying hours on Shackleton type alone. His co-pilot David Parry-Evans (now Air Chief Marshal Sir David Parry-Evans GCB CBE) and John must have been dispatched by someone above to have achieved this miracle of airmanship!
Personnel on Air Sea Rescue Units (ASR) were often known as ‘Sailors in the RAF’ indeed a book titled just that was written by Keith Beardow and published in 1993, an extract from Keith’s book recalls the night our Hastings ditched “..........in the treacherous shoals east of the airstrip and this probably was the first major search and rescue of the 1960s”.
Two ASR launches were based at Gan in a large Marine Craft Section (MCS) Pinnace 1374 (Still plying the waters around Holyhead, North Wales!) and Rescue and Target Towing Launch (RTTL) 2748 (Apparently now in a maritime museum in Bristol, England). Again a huge thank you has to go out to these guys who eventually came out to rescue us, their bravery must match Geoff Atherton’s deeds and the Shackleton crew, under normal circumstances these crews would not venture into these treacherous shoals especially in those horrific weather conditions at night, but they did.
Those that were on duty prepared their boats for immediate launch and despatch, there were many other volunteers that came to lend a hand, guys off duty and some that had no connection with ASR experience all came along to the section. Squadron Leader Bernie Saunders Officer Commanding the MCS took charge of the situation and was awarded a commendation for his heroic deeds. Whenever I see a RNLI station I think of these guys that night as often these crews only have to turn out in the most horrendous of weather conditions, risking their own lives to save others, they are a breed apart!
Bernie, the previous July, and others were despatched to Gan in Hastings TG 580 to help quell a local Maldivian uprising in the Addu Atoll centred on Gan (I was here at about this time but saw and heard very little), this story is well documented elsewhere but mention of his lucky escape should not go unnoticed when 580 crashed on the runway whilst coming into land at Gan on 02/07/1959. Fortunately there were no serious casualties, odd that two consecutively numbered aircraft from the same squadron crashed in the same area within nine months of each other well over a thousand miles from their main base! Brian Smith was on the island at that time and recalls dashing to the scene to help passengers escape and along with the duty crew enter the vacated cockpit area to switch off the electrics!
This is Roger Stevens crew in action at RAF Gutersloh in Germany on practise on a Hastings, the same principles apply wherever they serve! (photo courtesy Roger Stevens)
One crew member from each boat has been traced, Dave Watson who was the second coxswain on the RTTL and Brian Barker who was a Motorboat Crewman on the Pinnace, also traced is Dave Minns a medical orderly off duty at the time but volunteered his services at the Base Hospital as soon as the emergency arose.
The Rescue Target Launch positioned at the jetty at RAF Gan (photo John Joyce ASR/MCU Seletar)
Back at the crash site we could hear the throaty roar and growl of those four 2455 horse power in line Rolls Royce Griffon engines start up on land, this sound is unmistakable to an aircraft engine mechanic, as mentioned earlier we did not know that any Shackletons were stationed on Gan at this time, in fact the reserve Shack had apparently only arrived from Changi an hour before we were due in to Gan according to John (Mo) Botwood a Signaller on board. Don Ellis was the First Navigator on this aircraft as well as John. Another Shackleton crew member Tony Raybole was also an aircrew member on 205 Squadron although not at that time connected with these two aircraft, was visiting RAF Gan at that time and again recalls the atrocious weather that night. Tony thought that there had been serious casualties and also more than the 20 on the passenger manifest as per The Daily Telegraph report of Friday 4th March 1960. (see text article)
I was always under the impression that 28 were on board, 6 crew and 22 passengers but not so, the OAR states 6 crew and 14 passengers, odd how the newspaper report thought there were more passengers on board the aircraft also as this report was written by a correspondent in Nicosia, Cyprus, therefore they must have received an official press release from the Air Ministry the rest of the newspaper article appears to follow the OAR. Many people who have been in touch with me think this figure higher with 26/28 being the average! Derek Jack had the passenger list and the cargo manifest (trim sheet) in his attache case and this case was retrieved by Derek and its contents handed over to the Official Board of Inquiry (BoI), more on this subject later but none of this documentation is available today, that is the official word from today’s Ministry of Defence spokesperson The Personnel Management Agency (PMA) Secretary at RAF Innsworth.
We still had a major problem with one dinghy that was deflating, Stewart, Tony and David plus at least Doug Murray was in this dinghy as Stewart recalls that they were hunting around the dinghy to find safety equipment. Doug was a rather rotund chap and whilst being physically ill was sitting on the bellows, a device used to keep the dinghy inflated, once found each of the occupants took it in turns to pump the bellows fifty times before passing it on to the next person in turn, this system appeared to work well and maintained enough air in the compartments to keep the dinghy afloat.
In all dinghies there was supposed to be safety equipment stowed in a flap within the dinghy walls in case of a long period of survival at sea. The following are some of the items of equipment that could be used: A large yellow fabric box kite with strong string extending nearly a mile and obviously to be used only in daylight conditions, a wind up distress radio sending out an S.O.S. signal, emergency rations of chocolates, hard boiled sweets ,and ’dog ’ biscuits which were very hard and dry, Horlicks tablets, bellows, paddles, a knife in a plastic floatable wallet that was tethered to the dinghy, and tablets that would turn salt water into fresh water and McMurdo lights fitted to the top of a plastic tight fitting cap .
The only survival kit that we found that night was the paddles, bellows and McMurdo lights, I have been reliably informed by two safety equipment personnel that often the chocolates, sweets and Horlicks tablets were ’fair game’ to some of these equipment suppliers and once one member of an equipment section was court martialed after being found guilty of such a misdeed. Derek Jack threw two dinghies out of the fuselage, perhaps it was these that had only minimum survival equipment on board, three dinghies were definitely in use, so I assume that one wing dinghy was usable.
The McMurdo Lights were seemingly at the time of our emergency almost a laughable excuse to relieve some of the tension we were going through, imagine the scenario, fourteen people in two dinghies in a rough sea, visibility very poor a couple of miles from land and at that time no one knowing of our exact whereabouts. Here we were about to put these hats on our heads and to all intents and purposes they looked like the end of a giant condom, the teat had a small torch bulb inserted in the end, to activate this bulb the plastic hat was fitted with a lead attached to a floatable battery and once immersed in water, bingo the light would shine. My misgivings at the time were unfounded as I had imagined that no one on land, from a ship or a searching aircraft could or would ever spot one of these, but these were very effective and gave off a lot of light. These were likened to the glow that a street light would give off in wartime Britain to a high flying enemy bomber looking for a target to discharge his load! A signaller on board a Shackleton would have spotted these without question. Keith Greenwood recalled to duty in ATC recalls the pilot of the rescue Shackleton saying that they had spotted 9 lights in the water, these were indeed the lights from those torch bulbs.
The Hastings aircraft was some two to three hundred yards away from us by this time was about to succumb to the depths of the Indian Ocean, 579 had stayed afloat for some twenty minutes until sufficiently filling up with enough water to overwhelm the cockpit and fuselage area, she suddenly lurched to starboard and slipped gently below the waves port wing uppermost in the almost blackened sky, devoid of its engines, and almost defiant with its red emergency interior lighting still aglow. Never-the-less a sad sight as all sailors would recall when their ship was about to meet its end.
TG579 about to take a trip to Davy Jones locker after staying afloat for 20 minutes (John Cooper)
Recently I read a report about some land based aircraft being named after an inland town, e.g. Halifax, Lancaster, York, Lincoln, etc and where this was so, no seaplane/flying boat would bear an inland name, therefore they usually had some connection with the sea, e.g. Felixstowe, Hythe, Solent, Sunderland etc. So perhaps the South Coast town of Hastings was chosen knowing that one day a Hastings aircraft could pretend it was capable of being also a flying boat! The OAR accepts that 579 made ‘a long low approach to land’ and another book briefly claims that 579 actually landed in the sea much to the embarrassment of the pilot, due to the refraction reasoning! Well if this was an embarrassment to the pilot what sort of embarrassment was this to the ‘best airline in the world’ of the Royal Air Force, perhaps this is why this story has been hidden from view for over forty years. The intention was obviously to land the aircraft on to a properly constructed runway as the undercarriage was down and locked, if there was such an emergency where the aircraft had to ditch into the sea there would have been a ‘wheels up’ approach. I am just glad that the crew and ourselves were not aware what was about to occur as the situation could have been much worse.
The Shackleton was now airborne and, according to Don Ellis, was firing off 3.5 inch flares from three miles to two miles out from the projected crash scene on the first run and then running in from two miles they spotted wreckage and dinghies where the two ASR launches were despatched to the scene. Some flares appeared very close and one wag in one of the dinghies asked what would happen if one entered the dinghy, how that guy never got fed to the sharks is anyone’s guess! Harry Heywood recalls “the flares were clear points of light, not fuzzy as they would have been if falling through cloud. The Shackleton was running in on the runway line firing off single flares one after another then as he passed over the crash scene he would fire off a cluster, pull away then repeat the procedure“.
By this time morale in the dinghies was very high, lots of shouting and singing some of the old ’chestnuts’ e.g. “Why are we waiting”, “Show me the way to go home”, “It’s a long way to Tipperary” etc., was being sung with some vigour. Brian Wilmer an Air Wireless Mechanic on SASF recalls the ASR crews saying that when they got back to the pier on Gan that ‘all the survivors must have been mad they were all bloody singing when we arrived on the crash scene!’ A sobering thought though was when Stewart suggested that all boots and shoes should be removed to avoid any more punctures occurring from nails, studs or blakeys. This we did, but some shoes were retained in case we needed these for baling out water, there was water in the dinghies from the residual rain and the sea water splashing over the high sided dinghy walls, I recall there was some water in my dinghy but nothing to worry about. In recalling all taking boots and shoes off, Derek Jack reminded me that part of the aircrafts manifest was a box of shoes being returned to Gan after repair at Katunayake, apparently there was no skilled cobbler based at that time on Gan. At this point we appreciated the possibility of Sharks, Barracudas and other unwanted creatures about us, we were well away from the danger area of fuel and oil so these sea monsters would have been in the area , if these dinghies had gone down and our legs were dangling, .........well who knows, I still have dreams about this!
Being trained to ward off a shark attack! (John Cooper)
The Shack by this time was circling overhead, I cannot recall seeing this but certainly could hear it, I am informed that the crew would have been under the 420 foot cloud base firing off their flares, there certainly was no mistaking the sweet sound of those four Rolls Royce engines though. We knew that help was not far off, in fact we were soon able to see more than just the runway and airfield lights of Gan we could see search lights scanning the water, again the storm was still ongoing but by now had abated to a more acceptable level. I can still feel that swell in that dinghy riding the crests of those waves and again falling into the troughs , soaked to the skin, and covered in oil and fuel!
Our thoughts were still with George and Geoff who were still in the water, my God that must have been absolutely terrifying for them perhaps not knowing whether they would ever be found, no McMurdo lights on their heads, no dinghies even to cling on to, what must have been going through their minds, I suppose the only comfort that the two had was that they had each other as company. What must have been going though their minds, would they be spotted that night or later that day or the next or the next.......It is known that they were both picked up by the Pinnace an hour after the main party along with the other four crew members in their dinghy, but in what order I do not know. Brian Barker recalls this event but like most of us after 40+ years the memory fades and he cannot remember too many details. I really cannot remember or even understand how the crew in their dinghy became separated from the passengers in their dinghies, apart from George going out through a cockpit window the others I recall being on the port wing waiting to get into the dinghies, if Derek Jack had not despatched the two internal dinghies into the sea, I again dread to think of the circumstances...............
The RTTL was approaching our dinghies and I and others recall the elation in being spotted, we must have shouted ourselves hoarse, perhaps not that anyone could hear us but to just to relieve the tension. The next part of the rescue was probably the most difficult, as here was a high sided rescue boat coming alongside two tethered dinghies in a huge swell. Scrambling nets were hung over the side of the launch and although some of us got a hold on to these we could not hold on due to the wash between the boat and dinghies. I can’t be sure but somehow I remember a boathook or something similar being used to keep the dinghies alongside.
I certainly recall grabbing the scrambling net and somehow hauling myself on to the lower rungs, I could not climb the nets because we had no shoes, and if you have ever climbed a runged ladder with soft soled shoes on you will get some feeling of the pain! Someone on board the launch literally grabbed hold of the back of my Mae West and hauled me up and over the side and on to the deck, David recalls being pulled up by his hair, we all agree this part of the rescue was very difficult, we were all taken below deck and literally just collapsed on to mattresses with ticking stripes, we were given blankets (on the equator?), a mug of tea which at the time was very welcome but I brought up again immediately this was probably through part emotion but more likely because of the fuel and oil I had swallowed, travel sickness was something I had never ever suffered from and to this date still do not! We were absolutely shattered, we were mostly young fit men in our late teens or early twenties looking forward to going home, what a way to start the initial leg of your journey, an episode certainly in my life that I shall never ever forget. Dave Watson was on board this vessel as second coxswain, and recalls the poor weather and the refraction theory causing the crash, he also says that 48 Squadron from RAF Changi presented a plaque to the unit for their brave efforts that night, it has also been suggested by Stewart Tucker that on our return to the pier at Gan that he thought the RTTL was scraping the coral, this has not been confirmed but due to the state of the weather and sea anything that night was possible!
Arriving at the jetty was indeed a welcome sight, there were many people in the area from medical staff and ambulances, to fire engines shining there lights, all very willing to lend a hand. The time now was thought to be somewhere between 2230-2300 hours and a consensus of opinion was that between the ditching into the sea and landing on the jetty that one and a half hours had elapsed, that is a remarkable testament to the skill and bravery of all who took part in achieving such a feat. Roger Stevens from the fire department recalls the first person he helped off the RTTL was Corporal Bill Grundy who he had previously served with at RAF Ballykelly. Roger more amusingly recalls that another person he helped ashore was one of the sailors whose comment was “This is the first time I’ve flown with the RAF and they tried to drown me, something that the Navy never did!”
John Bawden worked in Air Traffic Control on Gan and recalls that we were all taken to Station Sick Quarters (SSQ) and apart from some that had ingested fuel, oil and sea water that fortunately no serious injuries were sustained. How we got to SSQ I cannot recall, someone said by RAF coach, however I got there I know I was not wearing any shoes. I really can’t recall too much about the medical examination, David, Tony and Stewart recall that we were asked if we felt fit to fly to the UK the next day by the medical staff. Any one in their right minds would have said ’yes’ to that question after the trauma and drama we had just endured.
Dave Minns recalls “I was on Gan that night and although off duty I, along with the entire medical section, reported to sick quarters. Nobody knew what to expect-whether there were to be any fatalities or serious injuries, whether everyone would be rescued , whether a long search would ensue. As it turned out it was nothing short of miraculous! I remember being on the jetty and helping people off the RTTL, all wrapped in blankets and shivering. Then since very little medical attention in terms of suturing, bandaging , etc was required we were stood down”.
So to summarise on the injuries, those that had vacated the aircraft by jumping into the sea all had swallowed a various concoction of fuel, oil and sea water, Geoff Atherton had received a broken nose, all passengers and crew received minor injuries from being thrown around in their seats , either from strap abrasions or from very minor cuts. I am aware that George Applegarth was hospitalised from having fuel burns where the mix of nylon from his socks reacted with his long stay in the fuel laden water. Tony Green recalls his skin peeling like a snake about a week after the accident, this again was put down to reaction from the fuel on to his skin.
David Bloomfield suffered many problems with his eyes as a result of being immersed in fuel, and was ’grounded’ for service in Europe for the rest of his career. David has not flown since this accident, and I haven’t flown since 1969 when discharged from the RAF, neither of us have had the confidence to get airborne. Geoff Atherton refused to fly back to Katunayake by another Hastings and as recalled by Don Ellis was taken back to Kat by his Shackleton crew! Both David and I have had awful flashbacks of this incident over the years suffice it to say that some can forget these episodes in their lives and some can’t, both of us can’t , some people do not understand this but until you have been in a situation like this I think it is for everyone to keep an open mind and understand some of the victims anxieties.
The Pinnace was now on its way back to the jetty with, as recalled by Keith Greenwood the normal crew and volunteers and some of the crew did not know who were the rescued or the rescuers as everyone was as sick as dogs! They arrived about an hour after the RTTL, Geoff and George plus three other crew were brought into the sick quarters, apparently the passengers castigated the first pilot as he walked in with a lot of very rude comments and finger wagging, I do not recall this but at that time understand the anger that was being vented towards him, having said that if I was to meet Flight Lieutenant Scott today I would be the first up at the bar to buy him a drink! Talking of which we as passengers clubbed together with what few Ceylonese rupees and annas that we had left and purchased a bottle of Scotch and presented this to the valiant Shackleton crew as a very well deserved thank you.
RAF ASR Pinnace 1374 rescued the aircrew (photo courtesy Zoltan Pasztor)
I understand that all the crews next of kin at or near RAF Changi was informed of the mishap that night, was visited by the then Squadron Commander Wing Commander Miles, unfortunately none of the survivors airmans families was informed in the UK to the situation.
Sometime that night we were given a change of Khaki Drill (KD) clothing, as what was left of our possessions, all our personal effects were gone, everything we had bought as souvenirs to take home as presents all vanished without trace, all our leave money now at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, plus my wonderful collection of photographic gear, the RAF had lost the lot. Fortunately our deep sea boxes were on a freighter somewhere on the high seas, these were our personal possessions that would arrive in the UK about six weeks after us, the possessions that we had taken out to the Far East, our photo collections that we could not carry with us and those bulky items that could not be taken home on an aircraft . Stewart’s journey to the UK was almost a ‘last minute’ decision, he recalls me painting up his deep sea box with the mandatory white letters and numbers evenly spaced and legible, his box was in the hold of 579 together with our other personal gear and blue uniforms, the meaning of a deep sea box has a different meaning to Stewart than the rest of us for he had lost everything, his box was in Davy Jones’s locker!
We were all offered a meal, all rejected this offer, we were then given a bed for the night in one of the new transit billets. I could not sleep, I recall being awake most of the night reliving those events as I have done on and off even to this day . Many have said how lucky I was that night to escape with my life, yes I was certainly lucky escaping the jaws of death by the skin of my teeth but I also have a different view on this and consider myself unlucky that I was on only one of two Hastings transport aircraft of over 150 built, that ever crashed into the sea, of many thousands of journeys that these aircraft had made in almost 30 years of existence my number was being called! Unfortunately from the time of that accident I had a number of lucky (!) calls through to my discharge from the RAF in 1969 and decided from then onwards that no longer was I to be put through any more nightmares, to this end I have not taken to the air since!
Unlucky too for others, one sailor not having flown before, Geoff Atherton’s second ‘ducking’, George Applegarth’s second accident and Derek Jack’s first mission with 48 Squadron, his second resulted in another emergency after a weeks survival leave, he was on board another Hastings about to lift off from RAF Changi to RAF Kai Tak with a full compliment of Ghurkas on board when a wheel caught fire, the take off at 90 knots had to be aborted and the aircraft had to be evacuated. Plus all of us returning to the UK the next day had the emergency on ‘the white knuckle ride’ in a Britannia aircraft at Karachi .
I recall very little of what happened the following morning Wednesday 2nd March 1960, I guess that we had breakfast in the Airmens Mess and I do recall queuing for some reason round a building, for what I know not, I do recall many people being there and many questions were being asked. I had mentioned to the MCU crew if they had been out and found anything, they had retrieved both the wheels to the aircraft and a brief case as recalled by Dave Watson. Rod Venners had helped retrieve these wheels with a David Brown tractor early that morning, Don Ellis recalled the reserve Shackleton taking off to look for wreckage and confirmed that the only item that they could find was the undercarriage. We were informed at that time, and are unanimous in this, that our aircraft was now lying in 1076 fathoms of water (over 6000 ft down), today we know this not to be the case as the Admiralty Charts for this area suggest 800-1200 feet. More on this subject later.
We had been told that we were now taking a trip back to the UK on Bristol Britannia XL638 named ‘Sirius’, I had never flown in one of these aircraft but had serviced them many times on their through visits to Singapore via Katunayake, they were dubbed ‘The Whispering Giant’ and were manufactured by the Bristol Aeroplane Company at Filton, manufacturer of the Bristol Hercules engines that powered the Hastings, this was a successor to the ill fated Bristol Brabazon. The ‘Brit’ was powered by four Bristol Proteus engines and could carry in excess of 100 passengers, XL638 belonged to the combined 99/511 Squadron at RAF Lyneham, I understand from Tony Green that some of these passengers en route to the UK from Singapore were removed from this aircraft at Gan to make way for the survivors and were none too happy !
Bristol Britannia XL638 Sirius (photo courtesy John Bawden). This Britt was the only one in RAF service that was written off in an accident! Honest I wasn’t on board at the time!
I recall with some apprehension on getting on board this Britannia, but in those days if you declared yourself fit to fly you would fly! The RAF’s philosophy to anyone involved in an aircraft accident was to get them up in the air again as soon as possible and so it was with us, no questions asked, for in less than eighteen hours we were airborne again. We had left RAF Gan on our way to Karachi in Pakistan, David, who felt extremely anxious recalls sitting next to a survivor who was writing many things down on a few blank pages in the back of a book, we think this was myself as I recall in SSQ writing the names down of some of the passengers and crew, I kept these notes for years but cannot find them now. I still do retain my original application for membership of The Goldfish Club later in the year of 1960, this is a club that is pretty exclusive and one can only join if ‘crashed in the drink and surviving the incident by use of a Mae West or inflatable dinghy’, today there are only 600 members worldwide.
The journey to Karachi was uneventful, I cannot remember too much about the trip as most of the journey was flying over water and what with the previous nights experience had seen enough of that to last a lifetime! Brian Wilmer on board recalls how the knuckles of the survivors were white by just gripping tight on to the armrests. The landing made me nervous but we had safely touched down on the runway, we then had a refuelling stopover and made our way to the airport lounge for a couple of hours, apparently as recalled by Stewart we were not to fly to Nicosia in Cyprus as the crew were under instructions not to fly at night, however there was a change of plan. This now is how we endured ‘The White Knuckle Ride’ ,we were summoned back to the ’Brit’ and took up our respective seats and again I was sat next to David, in a rear facing seat overlooking the trailing edge of the starboard wing, a similar position to that when I was on the Hastings. We lifted off and farewell to Pakistan, but not so for within minutes what looked like smoke coming from number three engine, I summoned a Sergeant Steward over, stood up and I said that the engine was on fire, he forcefully told me to sit down, this caused panic within the passenger area. Almost immediately the captain Flight Lieutenant Thomas came over the address system in a calm voice to reassure us that what we thought was smoke coming from both wings was in fact atomised fuel being discharged from the fuel tanks, this mixing with the cooler air giving the effect of smoke.
The actual passenger flight information sheet, this I kept as my lucky memento from XL638
He said that we had an undercarriage emergency and that the nose wheel light was showing red on his undercarriage instruments and that we would be returning to Karachi airport to get this checked out after lightening most of the fuel we had just taken on board the aircraft. We flew around what I can only describe as a desert area off loading this fuel, dumping it out of harms way, I knew what an ‘undercarriage red’ meant either the nosewheel was locked down or it was somewhere in between being jammed in a half way position. This was it, my number had been finally called for certain, the fear within me was unbearable, I swear that if the availability of a parachute was there I would have taken this easier course of action and jumped out, for one hour and ten minutes we circled, seventy minutes of pure mental hell. Less than twenty four hours had passed from being in one catastrophic situation to another, we flew low over Air Traffic Control at a slow speed for ATC to confirm that the nosewheel was down. No other comments were made over the intercom, would we make it in, we circled again, fleets of ambulances and crash tenders were taking up positions either side of the runway, that was alarming in itself, I should imagine that the pilot and crew had practiced such emergency drills in countless ‘circuits and bumps‘ training exercises and knew exactly what to do in such emergencies but it definitely was not good for our morale.
John Bawden and Brian Wilmer was on board and had caught the ‘Brit’ out of Gan, John recalls that as we were making our final approach , an Indian Air Force Constellation passenger aircraft flew in just below us in case we didn’t make it, apparently this was too close for comfort and appeared to break flight rules. Our main wheels touched down, very gently with the emergency vehicles racing down the runway in case of fire or if the nosewheel buckled, but this held firm and the aircraft was taxied very slowly onto the dispersal area. A huge sigh of relief came from all of us. Apparently the fault was with a nosewheel actuator and was replaced by B.O.A.C. who had a spare relay switch, we were then taken to a hotel on the outskirts of Karachi for the night.
Tony recalls 41 years after the event that this ’white knuckle ride’ was more frightening for him than the Hastings incident the night before and that someone was ’having a second go at us’, David, Stewart and myself concur. David recalls “ it was an awesome experience to be aboard an aircraft that was jettisoning a full fuel load, I was obviously still suffering from the effects of the Hastings crash and to couple this with this new experience was, to say the least, terrifying and stressful“.
How on earth were we going to sleep again and face this next leg to Nicosia, well somehow we did make it the next day, Thursday the third of March, we were in Nicosia, the door opened up and what seemed like an icy blast entered the cabin area, we had just left the tropics and were now in a more temperate zone and still in KD clothing, we could not win. Early March in North Central Cyprus is not an ideal month to sleep in a tent, yes that is how we were looked after, that was our transit accommodation for the night, if you get kicked in the balls twice you might as well have three kicks!
Tony Green recalled that the food was revolting, someone else said the slop bin at the end of the servery was where we had put our greasy eggs, we could not do anything about it, we couldn’t go to the NAAFI for a meal or a drink as none of us had any money! But here follows the rub.....
......we were trading in our emergency Khaki Drill clothing for a new UK home blue uniform, we all went to the clothing stores but they did not have the full uniforms to kit us out, we had a rag bag of a collection of second hand clothing given to us, Stewart who was an SAC and 5’ 7” high came out wearing a Corporal’s greatcoat and trousers that were too long for him, Tony, David and I were all over six foot tall and I guess that I drew the short straw as my trousers were about two inches above my ankles! The sailors could not be equipped with Naval uniform, they didn’t have any in the stores so they gave them RAF uniforms. What an embarrassment we looked not only to ourselves but to the branch of the services we were representing, we must have looked like something out of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. At breakfast the next morning it almost seemed as if all those in the mess stopped eating to stare at us, to cap it all we couldn’t wear a collar or tie as the RAF never supplied front or back collar studs, these had to be purchased separately by the individual from the NAAFI and as we didn’t have any money we had to wear and retain our KD shirt....and so it goes on, who decided we could wear RAF white issued hand towels around our necks I do not know but all of this beggars belief, but that is exactly what we did! David informs me that upon his arrival at his new unit, RAF Waddington, he was met at the guardroom by a senior NCO who severely rebuked him for wearing civilian clothes, David recalls that he had to pay £34 for a complete new uniform, something he took up with his Station Commander Group Captain Brown, but still he had to pay this full amount, the equivalent to his four weeks leave money that the RAF also lost! I wonder what that Senior NCO would have said to David or the rest of us if we had turned up at our new unit wearing the kit that we left Lyneham in?
Similarly Corporal Doug Murray was informed when he arrived at RAF Topcliffe that the RAF were trying to make him pay for his full kit, something that Doug refused to do. This is recalled quite clearly by Keith Greenwood and continues that he and Doug were drinking buddies at Topcliffe and describes how Doug broke a leg jumping out of a Vickers Varsity aircraft that had crashed on the runway, Doug had run over to lend a hand to get survivors out and he himself was the only casualty!
Terry Warner today living in Wales recalls one of the Marine Commando passengers on board from HMS Gambia stationed with him in Singapore recalls that he was (Marine Blampede?) on his way home for compassionate leave, the only uniform that he received was again a mix of RAF ‘Blues’ and when he arrived at Portsmouth was refused entry to the base as he was improperly dressed!
We took off for RAF Lyneham the next day, and landed in the UK late in the afternoon, this was our homecoming, something we had been looking forward to in over two years serving the Queen and Country, having no money for three days this is how we were treated, this is an extract from David’s letter to me in July 2001 ” I can state quite categorically that we were given the five pounds cash at Lyneham. I don’t know if you recall, but they were going to put us into transit accommodation at Lyneham because none of us had any documentation, money etc. We all rebelled and stated that we were going home that night no matter what! The flight lieutenant air movements officer stated that he did not have the authority to let us go and we told him in words of short syllables to find someone who did. It was some thirty minutes later that we were each given the five pounds and a railway warrant-that’s fact!” I vaguely recall this but Stewart reckons before we were paid this money that he went to phone home in Penzance, having no money on him asked the operator to ‘reverse the charges’, his father answered the phone and refused to accept the ’reverse charges’ because he thought Stewart was phoning from Ceylon!
We were sent hurriedly through Customs and Immigration, we had nothing to declare or any documentation and despatched to Swindon station by RAF coach. Tony recalls that he ’had a distinct impression that the RAF wanted to get rid of us by now and to get rid of a potentially embarrassing situation as soon as possible. We all made our separate farewells and some of the passengers of the Britannia and at least two survivors recall being on the west bound platform of Swindon Station when two Redcaps (Military Police that were ever present on railway stations in those days) approached one of the sailors sporting a full grown beard, no hat, wearing an RAF Greatcoat and a white towel wrapped around his neck. One passenger Brian Wilmer said that one Redcap was nose to nose with this sailor and shouted “ And whose f*****g army do you think you are in laddie”, the sailor pulled back his arm and clenched his fist ready to strike the MP when Brian and others restrained the sailor. Someone then explained to the MP’s the events surrounding the incident and they both retreated, these MP’s were to be avoided at all costs, how I did not encounter the same at Paddington station is beyond me!
Forever a Redcap!
I arrived home at 0030hrs Saturday morning the 5th March 1960, and later that morning I had to borrow a mixture of my brothers and fathers clothes in order that I could go shopping to buy a new wardrobe of clothing. My father lent me the money until the RAF forwarded me an advance of pay, I couldn’t draw any money out of the Post Office as I had lost my savings book. The RAF sent me my posting through from RAF Innsworth which was 201 Squadron RAF St. Mawgan in Cornwall and four additional weeks ‘survivors leave’, this then meant that I did not have to report to my new unit until early May.
My father was a Warrant Officer in the RAF stationed at that time at RAF Upwood in Cambridgeshire and on the following Monday at lunch time brought me home a General Application form to fill out to claim compensation from the RAF for the loss of my pay and personal possessions. A few days later this Gen App was rejected by the Station Adjutant on the grounds that I should claim from my own insurance company, I was not insured, no one had informed that I needed insurance. The RAF had sent me to the Far East on a tour of duty, they also brought me back home (Just!) they had carried me and my personal possessions at no charge, through a representative of the Royal Air Force on the night of 01/03/1960 they did not deliver me or my possessions safely to my destination, proof 41 years on shows that the captain of 579 was negligent in not carrying out his duties from the Official Accident Report. Before we stepped on 579 at RAF Katunayake no one informed us that we had to wear a Mae West Life Jacket or swimming trunks in case we missed the runway by 1.8 miles! The pay of £35=0=0 was an entitlement, I had given my services and paid my taxes, graduated pension and other stoppages, this was never repaid.
In over 40 years I tried to ask a lot of questions about why this accident happened, I always had a suspicion that something was amiss, every time I asked through my Squadron Commanders or via Gen App forms there was stony silence, when I started insisting that someone told me something I was then sat down in the CO’s office and lectured to, still insistent I was on at least three occasions warned off by the ‘conduct prejudice to good law and order act’ of Queens Regulations were read out to me by a disciplinary NCO in front of the CO and this would have been annotated on my service records. You had to in those days to be very careful what was said to any superior, basically I was being read ‘The Riot Act‘ and if charged with such an offence could result in a lengthy stay in the RAF Detention Centres at Colchester or Shepton Mallet. In 1960 when someone told you to jump three foot in the air just to be on the safe side you would jump three foot six!
I could not and would not accept this, I felt that a miscarriage of justice had been done and I would not let matters rest (in 2001 I found out that David Bloomfield did exactly the same over the years and at least did receive a medical pension for his efforts but this took many years to achieve), I got myself quite a reputation, application after application to be discharged from the RAF was submitted, all were rejected out of hand, I had signed a 12 year contract and my only way out was by purchasing my discharge thus severing the contract of engagement, this I could not afford to do, I really could not and did not want to take any more crap!.
I took to drinking alcohol shortly after this accident and started smoking, my heavy drinking got me into trouble on at least three occasions, on one occasion just 8 weeks after getting on to my new unit, and again on each ‘fizzer’ was warned about my future conduct, I had by this time no ambition to further my career, I had lost heart and interest, although I always did my work satisfactorily and enjoyed being ‘at the sharp end’ of the RAF, I could not wait to get out of the mob!
Throughout my married life (from 1962) I kept a personal diary, they mention in some detail my animosity towards authority to such an extent that when posted to RAF El Adem (Libya) in 1963 my diary reads;
Tuesday 08/10/1963 “.........later in the morning I was told that I was due to fly to El Adem on Tuesday next 15th October, in the afternoon I stirred it up a bit by putting in a Gen App form to buy myself out of the RAF (I still did not have that amount of money) which was organised by F/Lt Soames and F/Lt James. I saw W/O Fittock and W/O Ford plus eventually S/Ldr Hickox in SHQ for 1 1/2 hours, in the end they sent off a signal and a phone call to Gloucester (RAF Innsworth) which took 1/2 an hour”
Thursday 10/10/1963 “.... I was told I could not buy myself out of the RAF”
Friday 11/10/1963 “ ........I was summoned to see S/Ldr Hickox in SHQ about my discharge from the RAF and he pointed out that I must be at RAF Lyneham by 1715hrs on Tuesday or face a possible courts martial” this was witnessed by several people and again my service record was annotated to this effect , again QR’s were read out to me! I was also told that my application would be considered when I arrived at El Adem, that is how the RAF worked in those dark days, in addition to the fee to purchase my discharge (£200) I would have to make my own way to Benghazi and pay £51=10=0 for a single ticket to the UK!
No one in authority asked me what my problem was from the time of the Hastings crash to the point when I left the service on 13/07/1969, there were never any questions asked about how we survived this accident, what, if any, recommendations we could make to future rescues, what was our mental state later in life. If anyone over the years was ever a witness or was involved in any accident then that person would have been interviewed by some one in authority, not one of the four surviving passengers were given this opportunity. A Board of Inquiry was convened at RAF Gan two days after the event according to the AQM Derek Jack and M/S Peter Holc, apparently the pilot F/L Scott was posted off 48 Squadron immediately afterwards and ended up as an adjutant at some RAF station somewhere, and the only other person that gave evidence that I am aware of was W/Cmdr Geoff Atherton DFC. From my research I understand that the Board of Inquiry was chaired by a Wing Commander Holt.
I was also informed that F/L Scott flew back on the Britannia to the UK with us the next day as he was due to take up a conversion course flying Britannia aircraft instead of Hastings, this though I cannot confirm.
Once the seeds of doubt were put into mind I really suspected that something was being covered up by someone, one of those seeds sprung to life some 40 years after the event, I was determined one day to find the cause, the RAF would not tell me anything, I could not find out anything about the accident, the 30 year rule came into being here (I wasted 10 years as I thought there was a 40 year rule!), this rule allows the Government to withhold any information from public gaze for this period of time where questions could be asked but no answers given.
When the 30 year rule expires on ’classified’ material, this then is released to the Public Records Office (PRO) in Kew, London on the first day of January following the 30th anniversary of the incident, in our case 01/01/1991. If this was a civilian aircraft investigation the AAIB would release these results to be made public immediately, in order that all operators of civilian aircraft could act on improving flight safety, this Hastings we were on was a transport aircraft and was no different to a civilian airliner, it carried passengers and freight just the same but in military markings, so why the secrecy?
Research at the PRO Kew by a relation of Harry Heywood has turned up the following:
Air 28/1471 Operations Record Book REF Gan Feb 1957 to Dec 1960
Under summary for March 1960 General:
Early in the month a Hastings crashed into the sea during its final approach to land. Fortunately, the aircraft floated for some time after impact and the 20 people on board were able to enter dinghies. It was dark and raining at the time of the incident but the survivors were quickly located by a Shackleton which was in the air within 20 minutes of the crash occurring. The Shackleton kept the crash area illuminated with flares and homed S.A.R vessels onto the dinghies. All survivors were safely in the Station Sick Quarters within 2 1/2 hours of the ditching but nobody was seriously injured.
Correct except 19 survivors only were able to enter dinghies and one vacated the dinghy to save the life of one other leaving 18 in the dinghies!
Air 20/10617 - RAF Gan 1959-1960
Extract from a letter dated April 2nd 1960 Gan: Addu Atoll to the Office of The High Commissioner for the UK. Colombo, Ceylon
Report for the month of March 1960
A Hastings aircraft, coming into land, crashed into the sea and sank on March 1st. Luckily no-one was injured, and all were quickly picked up by the rescue launches. Signed H. A. Arthington Davy, UK Representative for the Maldives .
The above two official documents differ in as much that one reports states nobody was seriously injured and the second saying there were no injuries, pedantic maybe but inaccurate statements!
In a couple of books that I have read in my research, there is mention that Form 1180 (OAR) have disappeared on certain Hastings crashes over the years, whilst others have been recorded, in other words there has never been an official word from the Air Ministry/MoD as to why these records are not available, similarly to some of my medical records. So therefore I have to pose this question ‘who has what to hide?’ It is not for me to make an assumption but it should be down to officialdom to make a statement as to their whereabouts.
On several occasions I have been informed from various parties to the fate of 579, to avoid embarrassment to these individuals I will not name these or their organisations. The story goes like this. The crew thought that they had come down on a reef, and there was a leisurely exit, taking caps and such like from the racks before getting into the rescue boats-only to see the aircraft sink in 70 fathoms just after they all left the aircraft........
Another similar story to the above was doing its rounds within an organisation where it was stated that The AirQuartermaster opened up the door to let some fresh air in and surprise, surprise water rushed into the passenger compartment, thinking they had landed on the reef the passengers refused to leave their seats to avoid getting wet and awaited the arrival of the ASR launches to pull up alongside......
Another in the same vein For weeks afterwards the aircraft was afloat on the edge of the reef, but it was fortunate for the passengers and crew as when the aircraft ditched they were able to walk ashore on the coral reef....
The above reports are held by me, who on earth propagated these seeds of untruths? Was this put out by the then Air Ministry verbally to put the media off reporting something more serious, Governments can act in mysterious ways when they want to, how can any one find out anything if the records do not exist except for two scrap pieces of handwritten documents. Several individual aircrew have also sceptical views on Official Accident Reports as to who was responsible for a crash or what technical problems arose resulting in an accident, some have no faith in these findings whatsoever.
It is also interesting to hear from many people the depth of water the aircraft sank, this ranges from a few feet to 8000 feet, even the Hydrographic Office and the MoD do not know, I have a map for the Indian Ocean as supplied by the HO and the whole area south, east, and west of the Maldives stretching right up beyond the Laccadive Islands to the coast of Pakistan where this entire area over the years has been surveyed and charted. For a twenty mile radius around Gan Island nothing shows up, why not, even the Royal Air Force does not know where the aircraft is positioned, well if they do they are keeping that story close to their chest. Perhaps as someone has said, that if the aircraft was in shallow water would it have been possible to salvage the wreck and retrieve the ’dental equipment’ bound for RAF Gan, no records exist. Brian ‘Ricky’ Smith claimed that the crashed Hastings could be clearly seen from above through the clear waters on the approach from the east of Gan on the runway line, if this was the case thousands of servicemen/women must have seen this wreck before it being encrusted in barnacles or coral, this must have been a thought provoking sight for those passengers that didn’t land on the first attempt and had to do another circuit or two!
I had previously written to The Wrecks Officer at RAF Innsworth and asked these salient questions:
1> Is this wreck out of bounds to divers?
2> What depth of water does the aircraft lie in?
3> What is the exact position on a datum chart is the aircraft positioned?
4> Has there ever been an attempt to salvage any part of this aircraft?
This then is the official reply “........Unfortunately my enquiries have proved negative. I have contacted the Air Historical Branch to ascertain the information requested in your letter however they were unable to help. I can confirm that the wreck is out of bounds to divers. The aircraft remains the property of the Royal Air Force and as such cannot be tampered with or removed“
So we know that the aircraft is there officially. Why is it out of bounds to divers? We are told that there were no fatalities on board the aircraft that night and therefore this wreck cannot be regarded as
a war grave, so was some of the cargo sensitive making it out of bounds, especially if diplomatic mail was on board , I have spoken to several diving organisations, that regularly dive this area and without exception no one knows anything about this wreck! Permission can be granted to dive RAF wrecks and also to salvage aircraft at that organisations expense with prior approval from Innsworth, so why the secrecy?
The following is extracted from ‘www.wreckrespect.org.uk’ regarding The Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 known in its abbreviated form as PMRA:
“1> Protected place - this allows any vessel that’s exact location is unknown, to be designated by name. In reality this means that, should a vessel be awarded such protection , divers cannot enter or remove any artefacts. It does not ban diving on the vessel.
2> Controlled site - This protects a vessel that’s whereabouts are known on recognised charts. Diving on vessels which receive this status can be done with a licence issued by the MoD and dives can be for the purpose of investigation (survey) or recreational.”
The above term wreck, applies to military aircraft as well as ships.
I again responded to the RAF Wrecks Officer who has since advised that she has taken advice from the legal department (presumably the RAF) and I quote from this letter
“Even though the aircraft is in international waters it still remains the property of the Crown and as such it is an offence to remove or interfere with it in any way. I have nevertheless spoken to my legal department who confirm that, because the wreck is not a war grave, there would be no objection to a diver entering it as long as no damage is caused. Additionally I have spoken to the Receiver of Wrecks who have asked me to state that it is an offence under Section 236 of the Maritime Shipping Act of 1995 to retrieve anything other than that of a personal nature from any wreckage“. I wonder what the act entailed pre 1995? Is not this odd that the above information was not given to me the first time round, as the spokesperson said the ‘wreck was out of bounds to all divers’. If I knew this by just accessing a web page or two why cannot a person in charge of that particular department be aware of the law. You just get fobbed off all the time.
As the 1942 film title One of Our Aircraft is Missing starring Eric Portman, suggests a different meaning some 60 years on, I feel someone ought to make a movie on this subject and title it Strewth We Have just Missed The Runway by Two Miles starring Gary Cooper!
Here are a few theories and thoughts:
1> Was this accident an embarrassment to the Royal Air Force? I think it was hugely embarrassing for one of their experienced pilots to land his aircraft in the sea.
2> Why keep it a secret for 30 years? So that those involved would forget about the incident after so long.
3> Why were not all the survivors asked to give evidence to the BoI? The least that anyone knew and could testify the better for the RAF.
4> Why were the derring-do deeds of Geoff Atherton not more significantly rewarded that night? A gallantry award might be given a lot of publicity, just what the RAF did not want, adverse publicity. This guy without doubt put his own life at risk despite being injured to save the life of a comrade.
5> Where is the aircraft 579 positioned on the sea bed? No one knows exactly‘ leading to a theory as to was it salvaged?.
6> Why was the Operations Record Book marked ’Secret’ and a three lined entry blacked out? Was it because 579 had a previous incident or that it was carrying some ‘sensitive’ cargo?.
7> Why was the RAF Katunayake Station Commander on board the aircraft?
8> Where is the passenger and freight manifest? Destroyed 20 years after the event so I have been informed, why destroy this before the 30 year rule comes into effect, is there after all something to hide. I am reliably informed that this document exists from four different people.
9> Where is the Board of Inquiry report? I am again informed that this is still in existence, but official sources say this again was destroyed after 20 years, 10 years before the release of the 30 year rule document.
10> Was the pilot wrongfully blamed for the accident? Did he accept the blame to cover-up something more sinister and paid off?
11> Was there a technical problem that has not been discussed? eg A Hastings C-1 had a poor accident record with the hinge bracket on the tailplane I have contact with two ex airframe fitters who recall doing the modifications to cure this problem unfortunately for TG577 in 1965 it did not help, this one plunged into the ground near Abingdon with the loss of all 41 on board, at that time Transport Commands worst peacetime accident.
12> The Operations Record Book entries at the very end of February 1960 are not in chronological order, why not?
13> Only two handwritten documents exist relating to this accident, one is at times illegible, why were these not typewritten? The second part is in code, today the RAF will not tell me what the code figures mean.
14> Was the altimeters set incorrectly? The answer lies at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.
15> Why only one commissioned officer as aircrew? The others I am led to believe were at times in fear of the pilot.
16> Why was ILS not in position on Gan?
17> Why did the aircraft not return to Katunayake? The reason for this I know is that the pilot and crew were out of hours.
18> The most alarming thing that I have learned in my research is did the aircraft have enough fuel to divert back to Katunayake, I am told not, is this then why there is no documentary evidence still surviving?
19> My Record of Service states that I had emplaned for the UK at Gan on 02/03/1960, but this is in code. My main records were destroyed 6 years after leaving the RAF, isn’t it brilliant that they do not tell you until 35 years after the event.
20> My medical records are not annotated to this effect, in fact some of my medical records have gone astray.
I started looking into this Hastings incident about a month after I bought a computer in January 2001, the first thing I did was to contact Channel 4 Teletext Service Pals, and had a fairly good response from eye witnesses or from some who could point me in the right direction. My most important contact was Mike Butler author of ‘Return To Gan 1960 & 1998’, Mike has helped me tremendously (and I suppose yice versa) by passing on all sorts of information, maps, photos, eye witnesses accounts, etc. Since our first communication in February 2001 I have met Mike twice, both times at the Imperial War Museum Airfield at Duxford, Mike’s knowledge of Gan and Addoo Atoll in the Maldives is probably second to none. We have had our differences of opinions and this is good as it opens up a wider debate resulting in more information!
I then started to make contact with the Ministry of Defence (RAF), I asked for and received a copy of my Record of Service but there was little on here that I didn’t know, my ’nitty gritty’ file had been destroyed in 1975. The further I delved into this research the more bizarre things became, I asked for the Official Accident Report through the Air Historical Branch at RAF Bentley Priory and eventually received a copy of these hand written almost indecipherable reports (see copies) firstly from the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon followed by an identical version from the AHB. I returned a letter to the AHB to ask if this could be interpreted into laymans language, no reply, I repeated my request two months later and still no reply.
Later I wrote to the legal department of the RAF at St Giles Court, London, asking for my pay (that the RAF lost) to be paid back, I was given a lame excuse under an Act of Parliament from The Crown Proceedings Act of 1987, now this really is a bone sticking in the back of my throat, the MoD cannot pay me back this money but they can pay a farmer compensation in North Wales or in The Lake District if the RAF’s low flying Tornados or Jaguars causes distress to their cattle, sheep or horses. It is certainly a strange world!
I then sent e.mails to various MoD (RAF) departments, some lame replies were given, including one from The Inspectorate of Flight Safety (IFS/RAF) which gave a completely different answer to the AHB version. Often these e.mails and letters were totally ignored or asked me to refer to another department all the time being fobbed off. A second e.mail to IFS six months after I had sent the first
asking if their department could forward to me a copy of a Board of Inquiry report, the answer came back within two days (unusual for the MoD) to say that ‘as the information you are requesting may be privileged, I am unable to answer your question’ and here is the rub I then write to the PRO who refer me to the RAF Museum at Hendon, they in turn refer me to the AHB who just refuse to answer my letters on this or any other subject.
I asked three different departments for my service medical records and each one refused, I knew that these had to be made available by law, so I wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence the Right Honourable Geoffrey Hoon MP at Whitehall asking for these records to be made available and gave 40 days notice for the MoD to comply with the law, they did but some of the crucial documents are missing and their disappearance cannot be answered!
I had written to the Secretary of the Personnel Management Agency (RAF) at Innsworth and really this department has got themselves tied up in knots over what constitutes the meaning of ‘Casualty’ on the OAR, the PMA claims there are 7 different scales of the meaning casualty, but they do not meet the criteria mentioned on the OAR, in fact The Secretary at first denied that there had been any injuries until I pointed out that on the OAR it stated that “ minor injuries were sustained by all members of crew and passengers”. I replied and received nothing in return, I waited two months still no reply and then wrote to Mr Tony Blair, The Prime Minister (see reply) asking for someone in the MoD to respond to my letters and within two weeks I received a reply again from The Secretary of the PMA, he replies that there was/is not a ‘cover-up’, not once have I said this to the MoD, I have always thought that there was a ‘cover-up’ and mentioned it in e.mails to fellow researchers and spoken on the phone to various parties.
The reasoning behind the cover-up theory is many, the strongest is the embarrassment to the ‘squeaky clean image’ of The Royal Air Force, the landing in the sea is the most obvious, many eye witnesses have come up with the refraction problem, that is what was thought to be the actual runway was a reflection of the sea. Not from two miles out as the navigator should have had a ’fix’ on the airfield, did the co-pilot see the same image, we will never know, presumably Air Traffic Control knew the aircrafts position from its signalling image devices or was this ’operational station’ not carrying the latest radio and radar navigation aids, we shall never know. We will not know as the Board of Inquiry report was destroyed after 20 years (ref secretary PMA 2001).
I also have a letter from a Wing Commander at RAF Innsworth dated and signed that relates to my medical records, ‘that all important Royal Air Force documents are typewritten‘, the Official Accident Report is handwritten, now was that Wing Commander generalising or just referring to my medical records, if he was referring to the latter then what he is stating is that the operation on my right big
toe in 1957 (Pages typewritten) is significantly more important than the loss of a 50 seater 40 ton aircraft belonging to Her Britannic Majesty’s Air Force ( Pages hand written)!
Some aircrew members of 579 and those from the rescue aircraft involved are not prepared to put into writing what they can recall re the incident, my suspicions are, has someone in authority told these people not to discuss this matter, as I myself am reminded on occasions by others, ‘we all signed The Official Secrets Act’ in those far off days of ’the three wise monkeys, hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil’ probably rings true today, there is nothing secret about this incident, that is the official line from the MoD . It is also interesting to note that after this accident that some of those involved were promoted, why? Was this a way of keeping others ‘quiet’, I have a signed statement from a pilot, not connected with this incident, but was a witness at a Board of Inquiry who has no faith in the Board of Inquiry findings, he says that the officials conducting such an inquiry must always lay the blame fairly and squarely at someone’s door, whether it be a technical problem or pilot error, someone ’has to carry the can’. I realise that the passengers could not have provided any information regarding the accident to the Board of Inquiry, but I am totally perplexed why we were not asked about our immediate survival, the equipment that we had (or didn’t have!) any advice that could have been passed on to future crews or passengers that would have perhaps assisted in their survival. In hindsight today of course it would be a different ball game, courts of inquiries are set up at the drop of a hat, they sometimes last months and often have the attention of the media, virtually nothing can be hidden from view! Even ‘behind closed doors’ hearings are treated as fair game by many and some just cannot wait to release information of a confidential nature. I can not subscribe to the fact that innocuous accidents such as TG579 should not be reported, surely the advice and findings should be available to all.
The runway at Gan was only in operation approximately six months before this prang, its entire length measures 8700’ (slightly more than 1.5 miles) almost the 1.5 nautical miles distance (9115’) that our aircraft came to grief from the very end of that runway. When this runway was being constructed in 1959 by Costains, I walked the length of this runway which at average walking pace would have taken 30 minutes to complete. I feel that our aircraft probably ditched further out than the distance given by the then Air Ministry, no one knows where this aircraft is lying so this figure cannot be refuted. If the rescue launches set sail immediately after the alarm was raised and taking into account the treacherous shoals, the state of the tide, the flow into or out of The Gan Channel it took the RTTL some 45 minutes at least to reach us, and to take us on board and then return to shore. Even allowing for a conservative 7 knots around the island of Gan and in the ’narrows’ together with 15 knots in the open rough sea I feel the RTTL would have travelled some five miles to have reached us also allowing for the Shackleton to locate us first, so allowing for the position of the MCU pier and the traversing of The Channel I reckon our distance was some 3 miles from the end of the runway. It certainly seemed that the island seemed like a long distance away, the runway lights extended right to the edge of the reef from the end of the runway amounting to another 150 feet on the runway line and that these lights were at there maximum lux. These lights could only be seen from the dinghies when on the crest of a wave in poor visibility, if you have ever arrived at Portsmouth at night by boat these lights can be seen from several miles out.
I have also been approached to the theory that 579 did not have enough fuel to return to RAF Katunayake, well we know for a fact that if the aircrew had returned to Kat that they would have been very much out of hours. At the time I could not accept this statement but have since heard that on these isolated island trips that enough fuel only was on board to take the aircraft to its objective airfield and that pilots are trained to ditch their aircraft in to the sea in case of such emergencies and again because of its isolation the RAF airfield near Stanley in the Falkland Islands has been muted as a prime example, as there is nowhere else to divert to after the point of no return from Ascension Island to the Falklands . 579’s undercarriage was down and locked so I can’t subscribe to this theory.
An interesting theory is that the altimeters could have been problematical in a storm of such ferocity, I am told that the pilots each had an altimeter which they correctly set on take off at Katunayake, I have also been informed that the Navigator also had an altimeter on his console. As for incorrect altimeter settings a Malaysian Comet 4 in 1964 was approaching Nairobi Embakasi airport which is at a height of 5300 feet ASL, with undercarriage down and locked it touched down 9 miles short of the runway in a game reserve at night, fortunately eventually landing at Embakasi, checked over for a heavy landing check and flown back to the UK with undercarriage down! So like our Hastings were these altimeters set correctly, were they indeed calibrated correctly by the instrument mechanic/fitters, the altimeter is calibrated in feet and is basically an aneroid barometer and can be affected by intense weather conditions such as we were encountering. Coupled with this theory did both the pilots, flying through a storm of this intensity, wear goggles to avoid the flashes of lightning from affecting the retina of the eyes? I am reliably informed that on looking at lightning ones vision is affected for some twenty minutes later but with the goggles down and the instruments turned full on in dark conditions then you are not blinded by the lightning but conversely you can’t read the instruments! In a nutshell you are in a no win situation unless of course, in hindsight, one pilot had his goggles down keeping an eye on what was thought to be the runway and the other pilot without goggles down looking at the instruments. I am sure that all these parameters were covered at the Board of Inquiry and that probably is why it has been destroyed!
A couple of interesting remarks from The Aviation Service Manager at the Meteorological Office Bracknell to me via letter “There is an aviation meteorological saying, ’flying high to low-look out below’, this means that if you are flying towards an area of low pressure with a constant pressure setting on your altimeter you will be descending as you track towards the low purely by virtue of the fact that pressure is decreasing below you” .............. “tropical storms are made up of areas of embedded cumulo-nimbus (CB) cloud which, particularly in the tropics, contains large amounts of ascending and descending air resulting in turbulence which could be of a severe nature. These updraughts /downdraughts can cause great problems for aircraft below the cloud base and can increase lift in the updraught causing the aircraft to rise, but causing ’sink’ in the descend causing the aircraft to descend. Some well known problems of this nature can occur on approach to airfields when slowing down and so called ’microbursts’ from CB have been known to be contributory factors in accidents”.
Weather conditions that night obviously was a contributory factor to the crash occurring, altimeters are unpredictable in such weather as a tropical storm, also as the aircraft was flying so low was there a sudden downdraught under the storm clouds causing the aircraft to drop several feet, as the co-pilot reported after the flash of lightning blinded the pilot “approaching 50’ and almost immediately aircraft hit the sea”. For each millibar change of pressure there can be as much as 30ft difference in height recorded and a storm of that intensity 2mb would have put our aircraft in a crical position. Of course the RAF Form 700 Technical Log Book would confirm the calibration tests on the altimeters but like all of this documentation relating to this aircraft finding anything of this sort is about as rare as finding fresh rocking horse manure!
The following are notes extracted from information gleaned from web sites connected to The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the USA and although a huge subject I have condensed these into but a few poignant paragraphs and assume from its mainly commonsense approach that what is taken for granted today presumably was the norm for 1960.
‘The power of a thunderstorm is truly awesome and it is totally indifferent to your presence, the potential for placing your aircraft and crew into a hazardous situation is very real........almost any thunderstorm can spell disaster for the wrong combination of aircraft and pilot.
a) Turbulence........potentially hazardous turbulence is present in all thunderstorms and a severe thunderstorm can destroy an aircraft........it is almost impossible to hold a constant altitude in a thunderstorm and manoeuvring in an attempt to do so produces greatly increased stress on the aircraft.......generally, visibility is near zero within a thunderstorm cloud...........and lightning will make precision instrument flying virtually impossible.
b) Effect on altimeters.........pressure usually falls rapidly with the approach of a thunderstorm.....if the pilot does not receive a corrected altimeter setting, the altimeter may be more than 100’ in error (recall co-pilot of TG579 calling approaching 50’)
c) Lightning.........can puncture an aircraft skin, damage communication and navigational equipment and igniting fuel vapour.........nearby lightning can blind the pilot rendering him momentarily unable to navigate either by instruments or by visual reference.
Do’s and don’ts of thunderstorm flying;
1> Don’t take off or land in the face of an approaching thunderstorm
2> Don’t attempt to fly under a thunderstorm
3> Do circumnavigate the entire area
4> Turn up cockpit lights to highest intensity to lessen temporary blindness from lightning
5> Do keep your eyes on your instruments, looking outside the cockpit can increase danger of temporary blindness from lightning.’
It must be restated here that this was an intense tropical storm of which the likes had not previously been experienced at RAF Gan in the memory of those on the island at that time, the windscreen wipers of a Hastings is small in comparison to todays automobiles, approximately one half the length.
Probably the most bizarre theory that has been proposed is that 579 was carrying some very sensitive cargo, we know some of the cargo was aircraft hydraulic jacks these could be seen (and from the oil, smelt!), only one person has come up with what was in the cases and this was supposed to be equipment to furnish the new dental equipment section at RAF Gan, where did this equipment come from? RAF Katunayake was closing down as an RAF military base, did it come from here or up from Singapore? If it was new equipment and flown from the UK why was it not flown on a direct route to Gan, this station was now fully operational? I really do find the following most extraordinary to say the least, the Operations Record Book for 48 squadron immediately before and after this accident has the following discrepancies:
1> The entries are not in date order.
2> The entry immediately prior to 579 taking off from Changi is completely blackened out over a three lined entry. (Two trips to Karachi not mentioned)
3>One entry shows a Hastings WD498 completing an ‘Edinburgh Special’ run to Edinburgh Field, after the demise of 579 but these were known to be a regular round trip, in South Australia via Darwin from its homebase at Changi, this base supplied Woomera Rocket Range, at the time a ’Top Secret’ research station with personnel and equipment.
4> The Document is stamped SECRET, in different type print to that on the RAF Form 541is another form of ’secret’ in different type. Why on a transport aircraft history?
5> Two of the pages of the forms are of different sizes, the one concluding February 1960 has enough room for 27 entries whilst on the following page it has room for 29 entries for the month of March 1960.
6> Interestingly on the header ‘for the month of March 1960’ the first entry is dated 29/02/1960!
7> The same typewriter has been used throughout and it appears that the same typist operated this typewriter, it being consistent with its settings by margins, full stops, commas etc.
8> The entries for the month of February are on a different printed form to those of March, but all probably typed up on the same day.
9> The time of take off from Katunayake to the time of ’arrival’ at Gan is not consistent with the times mentioned on the OAR..
I will leave you to draw your own conclusions but clearly someone has something to hide!
Today The Inspectorate of Flight Safety (IFS) part of the Ministry of Defence in file IFS/420002 states the following:
1> Do not plan to land away at a strange and tricky airfield in the dark.
2> Beware of non standard, rarely practised approaches in poor conditions.
3> Press-on-itis kills.
4> Beware visual illusions.
Pity the above directives didn’t apply in 1960 or did they?
According to other reports that I have read, aircraft ditchings by design rarely turn out right, where crew and passengers are preparing for ’the splash’ and according to one report from the USA 16% of fatalities occur in such an event. In crashes (including rarely landing in the sea) where no notice is given on an impending ditching most crew and passengers survive, in hindsight I am only too pleased that the crew and passengers were not aware of the circumstances leading up to us hitting the water, as I am positive this would have been a whole different ball game!
In my research a lot of people have asked why after 40 years have I started to look into the demise of TG579, well I have already explained that this little episode was kept quiet for 30 years and I have had sleepless nights off and on for more years than this, there was no way of finding out and without the ’learning and information tool’ that a computer possesses I would still be none the wiser. This has unravelled some of the mysteries and it has certainly helped me trace some of the other survivors and eye witnesses.
I have twice landed in the sea, one by design in a Short Sunderland Mark V of 205/209 Squadron just north of the equator, the second as explained above just south of the equator, from the latter point of view this was the start of my bitterness towards the establishment of the Royal Air Force and all that it stood for. I had no further ambitions as far as promotion was concerned, I did take my fitters course for eventual return to civvy street where at least I had the qualifications if I ever needed them, so I stayed a Junior Technician until the end of my engagement in 1969. Flight Lieutenant Scott pilot was promoted to Squadron Leader on 01/07/67 and retired on 25/05/77 aged 55. Flight Sergeant G Applegarth was commissioned on 30/07/64 and promoted to Flight Lieutenant on 20/07/67 and retired on 18/08/73 aged 49.
The Daily Mail along with over 200 regional and local newspapers throughout the country and local radio stations as well as many web sites around the world brought survivors and saviours together at a reunion in July 2001 at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford where we had the opportunity of looking inside a sister Hastings (TG528) and recalling our experiences, this to me was a very emotional episode in my life in 1960 and also in 2001and it is to those rescuers that we owe an enormous debt of gratitude. I wish we had found more rescuers because these were the very people that were trained to do a job of work so effectively and excelled on the night in question with their heroic deeds beyond the call of duty.
The four passengers brought together by the Daily Mail in July 2001at the Imperial War Museum Duxford by the door that we all exited into the sea., from a sister Hastings TG528. Clockwise from top left Tony Green, John ‘Gary’ Cooper, Stewart Tucker and David Bloomfield (photo courtesy of David Bloomfield)
In the year of this accident (1960) there were 80 Royal Air Force written off or struck off charge (SOC), since then this number thankfully has not been beaten, in fact to the end of the last century the record of losses is a mere shadow of those days when Britain still had to protect its Empire, having said that the number of aircraft in the RAF today is only half of its strength from 40 years ago. Of just over 150 Hastings aircraft built 33 had been written off (Category 5) in accidents over a period spanning more than 30 years, this is not a bad record in comparison to some other transport aircraft for this period. I am not disregarding the Official Accident Report completely but from all the evidence I have gathered I consider the following to be nearer the truth...........that TG579 had either incorrect altimeter settings or more probably the aircraft dropped like a stone due to malfunction of the hinge bracket assembly on the elevator controls through the intense buffeting the aircraft had to endure throughout the storm. I certainly cannot accept the official finding that the pilot was blinded by lightning as there were two pilots and I certainly cannot accept that an experienced pilot of Scott’s ilk would have taken his aircraft so low so far from the runway threshold, that seems inconceivable. The then Air Ministry had something to ’cover up’ and it was to apportion the blame on something or someone, the evidence is at the bottom of the Indian Ocean and that is hidden for ever and a day. So the blame was put on someone and that blame was apportioned to Flight Lieutenant R T D Scott. Many aircrew that I have had the privilege of discussing this issue with do not share the same sentiments as a Board of Inquiry report and that there are always two sides to every story, we have heard the ’official version’ and as there is no other documentation still available from the MoD then I am afraid you will have to draw your own conclusions.
I would have hoped that the Royal Air Force as an institution would have co-operated with the survivors, but they didn’t and still haven‘t, they abandoned us at RAF Nicosia like the Ministry of Defence has abandoned us all today, this is something that I will never forgive or forget!
To those who served at the former RAF station of Katunayake/Negombo perhaps you recall the following sung to the tune of Galway Bay:-
If you ever go across the sea to Changi
They will tell you of a little emerald isle
Where the coconuts are always ten a penny
And the men of Lanka Luft all make a pile
When they tell you this my friend then don’t believe them
Or they’ll post you to Negombo straight away
Where you’ll find yourself a job on jungle rescue
Or doing G.C.T. at D.L.A.
You must keep a wary eye for TicPalongas
Another one for nuts upon the brain
And there’s just another trap for the unwary
And it revels in the name of Monsoon Drain!
Now it’s not the sight of snakes alone that get you
Or the amount of elbow bending that you do
That gets you home on a CaseVac Hastings
It’s just a combination of the two
When the time has come for you to leave this island
And you sail out from Colombo one fine day
Spare a thought for those that you have left behind
Who dream of home 6000 miles away!
(Kindly supplied by Sylvia Hambidge)
Staging Aircraft Servicing Flight Billet Christmas 1958 (photo John Cooper)
A Kane cartoon from 205/209 squadron Seletar, reminding us of our first arrival as MOONIES!
Copyright John Cooper
The photographs/illustrations/maps and any other image are the copyright of their respectful owners.