Library Reference Number: 044
In late 1962, the Central Fighter Establishment (CFE), which had been based at RAF West Raynham for years, was moved to RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire where the newly extended runway was suitable for Lightning operations.
CFE consisted of a headquarters "Think Tank" unit staffed by very experienced fighter pilots on ground tours and 2 flying units. The Air Fighting Development Squadron (AFDS) which had moved at the same time from RAF Coltishall was tasked with the development of fighter tactics, primarily for the Lightning while the Day Fighter Combat Squadron (DFCS) was responsible for training day fighter combat leaders and weapons instructors. DFCS also had a secondary role of visiting the Hunter squadrons operating in the fighter/bomber role and based overseas in order pass on new doctrine and to assess their standards of tactical flying and weapons delivery. This secondary role required DFCS to deploy some of their own aircraft to the overseas stations to provide sufficient resources to carry out the task and this is the story of one such deployment in which I took part.
Late in 1962 the Boss, the late Sqn Ldr Roy Watson, announced we had been tasked to visit the Hunter squadrons in Cyprus, Bahrain, Aden, Singapore and Hong Kong. We were to take our own aircraft as far as Aden and once we had completed the work there, some of the team would go on to the Singapore and Hong Kong by RAF Transport Command while the others would fly our aircraft back to Binbrook. This was because the Hunter did not have the range to stage to the Far East. Unfortunately, I drew a short straw and did not get to the Far East; I did however have the marvelous experience of flying a Hunter to Aden and back.
The weeks leading up to our departure were filled with route planning and the submission of requests for diplomatic clearance for overflight and landing clearances for the various countries along the route. The team of pilots was to consist of the Boss and 5 others. We were to take 2 single seat Hunters Mk6 and 2 two seat Hunter Mk7 trainers and each aircraft would be fitted with 4 under wing fuel tanks giving an extra 400 gallons of fuel.
Eventually our departure day dawned and, as was not uncommon in Lincolnshire in winter, it was very overcast and snowing. The snow clearance teams did, however, do a good job and all 4 aircraft got away safely. We climbed to 40000 where we entered the cruise at Mach .85 or approximately 530 knots (95% best range speed) and where each aircraft was burning about 4 gallons of fuel per minute. Our destination was the French military airfield at Orange some 60 miles north of Marseilles and, apart from some difficulty with French air traffic controllers who insisted on speaking only in French, we all landed there safely 1 hour and 40 minutes after leaving Binbrook. The French provided us with fuel bowsers and oxygen trolleys and 4 of us got on with the replenishment while the other 2 went off to get the met forecast and to calculate and submit the flight plan for the next leg. Some 2 hours later, replenishment and planning complete, we were all airborne again heading for the RAF airfield at Luqa in Malta, which we reached uneventfully after a flight of 1 hour and 40 minutes.
The plan included a night stop at Luqa so, after the aircraft had been prepared for the next day, it was off to the transit mess for a beer, a shower and a change into civvies before heading into Valletta and Sliema for a cultural visit!
The next day dawned bright and clear, at least as far as the weather was concerned, and we all got away safely heading southeast for El Adem in Libya. This leg was almost entirely over the sea and there was little to do except to maintain accurate headings and airspeed and keep a neat and tidy formation. We had some spare fuel as we approached El Adem and we were able to have a look at Tobruk and some of the WW II battlefields in the surrounding desert before landing 1 hour and 25 minutes out of Luqa. Once again all the aircraft were serviceable and after another do-it-yourself turnaround, we were off on the last and shortest leg of this the first stage of the tour to Cyprus. After a flight of 1 hour and 15 minutes we landed at the large RAF base at Nicosia where we would be working with the resident Hunter squadron.
Some 10 days later, we had completed our work and it was time to move on, this time to RAF Muhurraq on Bahrain Island in the Persian Gulf. The direct civil routes were not, for political reasons, available to military aircraft and we would, therefore, have to take the northern route and stage through Turkey and Iran. This route, because of the proximity of the USSR to the north and Syria and Iraq to the south, presented us with something of a problem because Distance Measuring Equipment (DME) was the only navigational equipment fitted in our Hunters and there were no DME ground stations in the region. This meant that we would have to navigate by dead reckoning and map reading and, if there was complete cloud cover below and the winds were other than forecast, we could very easily stray inadvertently into forbidden airspace in one or more of those countries. HQ Near East Air Force came up with the answer: a Canberra from the Akrotiri bomber wing in southern Cyprus would lead us along the dangerous part of the route.
It was not quite as simple as that, however, since we would have to land at Diyarbakir in eastern Turkey to refuel and the Canberra could not get diplomatic clearance to land in Turkey. So it was decided the Canberra would delay its take-off for two hours after our departure and then fly along our planned route overhead to Diyarbakir and then on to Teheran. Such a delay would allow us to land, turn the aircraft round and get airborne again in time to rendezvous with the over flying Canberra at Lake Van: a very large area of water some 80 miles east of Diyarbakir. So much for the plan!
We got airborne from Nicosia at the pre-arranged time and as soon as we were out of radio range from Cyprus our problems began. We were unable to make radio contact with any station in Turkey but we continued on our flight plan as we had sufficient fuel for a short holding time at Diyarbakir and a return to Cyprus should we be unable to land. When our stop-watches told us we should be in the vicinity of Diyarbakir, we still we had no radio contact and we could see no sign of an airfield through the fair sized gaps in the clouds.
The Boss ordered one of the single seaters, which carried more fuel than the 2 seaters to go down through a hole in the cloud and search for the airfield. Fortunately, the searching pilot was very quickly successful and called the 3 of us down to join him. We all landed safely at Diyarbakir somewhat to the surprise of the residents!
The Turks produced fuel bowsers and gas trolleys very quickly and we got all four aircraft turned round and the flight plan submitted well within two hours Then came the next problem: one of the F6 had a fuel low pressure warning light stay on after engine start, thus precluding take-off and we were all forced to shut down, climb out and hold a council of war. Meanwhile our Canberra was getting ever closer but not yet in radio range! In due course we were able to make contact and told him we were going to be stuck for the night and arranged a rendezvous at Lake Van for 1400 hrs the next day. There was nothing he could do to help so he continued on his way for a night out in Teheran.
The Turkish Air Force engineers rose to the challenge of the Hunter fuel problem and the aircraft was declared serviceable by the end of the day. Meanwhile, we had been accosted by 2 somewhat sinister 1940s looking characters in long civilian leather coats and trilby hats who informed us that they would be responsible for showing us the city, for getting us to a hotel and for arranging the evening's entertainment for us. The whole thing went well and was very interesting but it was perfectly obvious we were not to be allowed out of the sight of our "minders"! In due course we retired to our hotel which rejoiced in the name Touristi Palast and which was very far removed from any western concept of a palace with very sparsely furnished rooms having no hot water and a single unshaded light bulb dangling from wires coming straight out of the ceiling!
The following morning our minders collected us and drove us back to the airfield where we completed our planning and in due course got all four aircraft airborne in time to make our Canberra rendezvous. It was a cloudless day and the lake came into view bang on the nose as we approached the top of the climb. We made radio contact with our Canberra, and in due course, established we were all overhead the lake. We could not see the Canberra, however, although there was a contrail heading westerly and a very long way south of us and the lake. After some discussion, our formation leader asked the Canberra crew to turn onto a reciprocal heading to get us all going the same way. No sooner had he done so than the aforesaid contrail began to turn and in due course ended up on the same heading as us. We duly converged with it and lo and behold, on the end of it there was our Canberra proving once again that single seat pilots, pound for pound, prefer the fuel! We arrived at Teheran with quite a lot of fuel remaining and the Boss led us up into the mountains to the North of the City for some low flying. The mountains are around 10000 feet high and we all got something of a surprise to discover aircraft performance at such a height above sea level is markedly different to the performance at the low flying heights we were used to in Europe. Once on the ground we were taken under the wing of BOAC who had a station at the airport. Our aircraft were replenished for us and we were whisked off by an Iranian driver for a hair-raising journey to our downtown hotel. The road had 6 lanes in each direction with multiple traffic lights at its many road junctions, which everyone ignored while driving at ridiculous speed for the conditions. Nevertheless we got to the Caspian Hotel opposite the US Embassy in one piece and found everything was on the house courtesy BOAC!
The following morning we were back at the airfield to do our planning for the next leg to Bahrain. There was a catch, however. Iran, at that time, had claimed sovereignty of Bahrain Island and would not allow any aircraft to fly there from Iran, so we were obliged to lodge a flight plan to Sharjah at the east end of the Gulf where the RAF had a staging post. Once airborne and safely beyond radio range from Teheran, we declared a minor problem necessitating a diversion to Bahrain!
We remained in Bahrain for 7 days working with the resident Hunter Squadron and had ample opportunity to see something of life in an Arab country with its strange mixture of ultra-modern and medieval.
The penultimate leg of our journey was to take us down the Gulf and over what is now the United Arab Emirates before turning southwest to run down the south-eastern coast of the Arabian peninsula to the RAF staging post at Salalah in the Oman.
To the south of the Emirates lies the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia which is very aptly named and where one would not wish to arrive on the end of a parachute. There was, therefore, a strong incentive in single engined aircraft not to cut the corner so that in the event of an engine failure, there was some hope of being able to get out alive! The leg to Salalah took around 1 hour 45 minutes and there we all had our first experience of landing a Hunter on a hard sandy natural surface. The staging post ground crew took over our aircraft and we retired to the crew room for a cold drink and a snack. Here we met the crew of a Vickers Valletta which had blown a sparking plug on one of the engines and who were awaiting spare parts coming from Khormaksar.
The aircraft was operating in the aero medical role and had some nurses in the crew. We were told, probably apocryphally,during a walk into the local village, that male crewmembers had been offered 6 camels for one of the nurses!
Some two hours later, we were ready to go and here for the first time, we had a little excitement. The two seat Hunter 7 did not have the more powerful engine of the Mk6 and was somewhat underpowered. Moreover, the available runway length was only 1800 yards of natural surface so takeoff was a matter of full power and hope: hope that as the end of the runway came up we had sufficient speed to unstick. We did; but there was not a great deal to spare!
The leg down the coast was quite spectacular, even from 40000 feet, the gaily-coloured mud skyscrapers of the coastal towns could be clearly seen as well as the desert and mountainous hinterland with all its magnificent scenery. About an hour after leaving Salalah, the mountains of Aden came into view and some 20 minutes later we all landed safely at RAF Khormaksir which was to be our base for the next 10 days or so before setting out on the return journey. At the time, not many single seat aircraft had undertaken such a journey and it is to the great credit of the companies which built the Hunter and its engine and the ground crew who serviced them that it could be accomplished safely and with virtually no technical problems.