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Library Reference Number: 171

A Night Out With The Boys

Marie Thomas

Vivian Thomas was a Saltire Branch office-bearer for several years; firstly as Chairman then Branch President until his death in 2006. Over the years, Vivian’s wife Marie has always been a welcome guest at our Ladies’ Day events. In the following account, Marie describes her flight in a Nimrod in 1990 as ‘A Night Out With the Boys.’

'This is your survival suit,' said a baby-faced member of the crew. It transpired that he had been appointed to be 'captain's doggie', or general dogsbody, for the flight. He handed me a cylindrical canvas bag, the size of a small kitbag. Into it was pressure packed a brilliant yellow garment of heavyweight shiny plastic. 'Keep that beside you, or at least within reach. It's in case we have to ditch,' he said, with a convincingly serious expression Just thinking about that put me into a state of dismay. Would there be time to struggle into this monstrosity if the end were nigh? The crew were supposed to get them on over their flying suits in about thirty seconds, he said. I was not wearing a flying suit but a uniform which included a skirt. How, then, to climb into stiff yellow plastic legs? I was not happy about the idea of arriving half-clad in the sea and hoped earnestly that there might be room for manoeuvre.

Round my neck was placed the traditional Mae West, beloved of every war movie since time began. I did not consciously think about a parachute, possibly because the captain's doggie had told me that the aircraft was well-stocked with inflatable dinghies. It all sounded hideously dangerous, but we were now ready to fly.

It would be hard to describe how it feels to be a supernumerary member of an aircrew. Certainly it bears no resemblance to catching the Heathrow shuttle. This trip marked for me the end of nearly twenty years in uniform (Royal Observer Corps), and of being loosely attached to the RAF, and so it was to be a special farewell-cum-birthday present. Something more memorable, perhaps, than a plaque to hang on the wall - an Atlantic patrol in a Nimrod, a large and graceful flying machine packed with technology, lined with computer screens and carrying a crew of thIrteen men. On this occasion, there were only twelve.

We plodded out from the briefing room to the crew bus, me with my kitbag and Mae West, the other dozen additionally burdened with their flight bags and all manner of equipment. They looked a bit like Winnie the Pooh in their teddy-coloured flying suits, with large transparent pockets holding notepads and maps and aides memoires. The captain's doggie carried a large and lidless aluminium teapot. This looked particularly incongruous. The wind was blowing hard and in the distance I could see an orange windsock being buffeted horizontally. I could also see a classically distressing feature of the wide, open farmlands of the Moray Firth. Like a low fog hanging several feet above the ploughed fields, the fine dry topsoil was being blown away.

Widely spaced around the enormous airfield were dispersed several aircraft, looming anonymously in a pale, dull, almost cream-coloured fuselage paint, The crew bus disgorged us beside one of these. We filed aboard. I was allocated a seat near the tail of the plane, well out of the way of the aircrew, and tried to look as unobtrusive as possible. Only a couple of feet away was secured a large rack of objects looking alarmingly like bombs. These turned out to be smoke canisters, sonar buoys, flares and similar things which could be ejected from the plane when the heavy 'bomb doors' below were opened. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever be in a situation where I would hear the command 'bomb doors open' in real life.

I cannily inspected the oxygen outlet above the seat and switched on the intercom beside it. Almost an hour must have passed while the pilots ran through their endlessly repetitive duet, checking every item involved before, during and after flight. The low, monotonous litany made me feel drowsy. It had been a long drive to RAF Kinloss. A jeep arrived and an airman carried the 'in-flight catering' to the most minuscule galley I have ever seen. Ground crew mechanics finished their routine tasks and the jets started up. Without the comparatively luxurious fuselage insulation of civilian aircraft the noise was deafening. When the captain's doggie was sent to ask if I would like to come up to the flight deck for take-off, he had to shout in my ear.

The flight deck, like any other, was virtually lined with dials and gauges. I exchanged what I hoped were confident smiles with the two pilots. But as the din and vibration built up and the aircraft strained against its brakes, I found I was clinging to the back of the flight engineer's seat. From time to time he touched various instruments with his gloved hand (I noticed that the crew all seemed to wear thin silk gloves) and gave me a reassuring thumbs-up and a shouted commentary on the take-off. I was almost completely deafened by the noise of the engines, but nodded sagely and gesticulated instead of trying to answer. Passengers in civilian planes wear the lap-strap type of safety belt, but aircrew have a double harness involving both shoulders and waist. I suddenly realised that all the crew were securely strapped into their positions, while I stood all alone and totally vulnerable on the flight deck. I felt terribly brave and pioneering as the Nimrod finally hurtled down the runway and, at last, into the sky.

We flew west, and after some time the captain's doggie brought me an air chart, embarrassingly inferring that I might be able to follow the navigation. He also brought the enormous teapot. Round his neck was a plastic bag of disposable cups and sugar. The teapot had already had the milk added to it. Never have I tasted such wonderful tea. No tea will ever again taste so wonderful as did that tea, in my hour of need.

Sonar buoys were dropped as a check on the efficiency of the Nimrod's radar, and as each of them was ejected individually a blast of icy wind rushed around my feet. The elements seem horribly near when you are sitting two feet from a hole in the floor of an aircraft roaring just above the Atlantic. Could the awful draught simply suck me out? It was all a bit worrying. The sea was rough and created unsatisfactory reception, so the pilot brought the plane down to an even lower level. I wanted to struggle into my shoulder harness, but because of the obtruding Mae West I couldn't get the buckles to fasten. The angle of the plane was such that I felt sure its wings must be vertical. At that angle, the Nimrod performed an incredibly tight circle. I was convinced that if the massive surge of the engines diminished by so much as one knot, we would slip sideways and disappear under the Atlantic. The grey water heaved below. It looked so threatening, and so near to us, that it made my heart thump.

We were following the sunset. Long after it should have been growing dark, the low sunlight still glistened on the aircraft's huge nacelles. Through a break in the clouds I can remember seeing the coast of the Faroes, but eventually, reluctantly, darkness began to fall. Somewhere in the night, I missed Iceland. I also missed a fairly close encounter with a Russian 'Bear', the vast four-engined propellor-driven equivalent of our Nimrod. These Soviet planes patrol the same huge areas as NATO aircraft, but there is a feeling in flying circles that the spirit of glasnost may have begun to take over from the previous sinister shadowing. Somewhere around midnight, we all had supper. I was concerned that I might be encroachmg on the crews’ flying ratIons and politely professed willingness to have anything that they didn't want. From what was surely the smallest refrigerator in the World, we ended our meal with choc-ices.

There can be few sounds more reassuring than the solid ‘clunk’ of an aircraft's landing gear engaging with the home runway. In the darkness broken only by jewel-coloured lights, the Nimrod rolled on to trigger an electronic eye that sent up huge fountains of fresh water to spray the fuselage, washing away the accumulation of salt which results from low-level flying over the sea and which, if not removed quickly, causes great corrosive damage. The crew bus drove up to the plane to collect us and a swarm of ground crew appeared out of the night. The captain's doggie had remembered to bring his teapot, but had left one of the hand-held cameras on board and was sent back to fetch it in disgrace. At air operations, I handed in my kitbag and Mae West, and before the crew went to be debriefed, I hugged them all round and thanked them for everything. It was a very long way home and I had to race the milkman to our front door, but I was still euphoric when I went to bed in broad daylight. It had been quite a night!

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