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Library Reference Number: 196

A Grand Bit of Co-op In Aden

Sqd Ldr Bill Campbell, AFC, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA

Our Desert Refueling StopAfter escaping from the V-Force when the Vickers Valiant was scrapped I transitioned from purveyor of death to saver of life, a role in which I would remain for 27 years. My first SAR posting took me to the ‘Barren Rocks of Aden’ in 1965. SAR jobs were few in the prevailing security climate with most of our flying taken up with Internal Security Patrols flying troops around to help ensure the safety of our airbase, RAF Khormaksar. We flew many VIP sorties providing safe transit for senior Colonial Government and Armed Services officers and occasional visiting Members of Parliament. We carried out a few rescues of local Aden casualties but our primary role, SAR for military aircrew brought only sporadic jobs. Nothing very serious happened to the Hunters, Beverleys, Argosies, Shackletons, Dakota, Twin Pioneers, Wessex, Beavers and Sioux which inhabited the base. We did, however, get one very interesting job which was to involve some surprising co-operation.

The first warning for the job came in from the Rescue Co-ordination Centre at HQ Air Forces Middle East at RAF Steamer Point on the afternoon of 18th July 1966. A German cargo vessel, the MV Braunfels of Bremen, en route from the Persian Gulf with a crewman suffering a cerebral haemorrhage would be coming within our range the following day. To advance the time of pick-up the RCC was proposing that we position 120 miles along the coast to the east at a little village called Ahwar, refuel, carry out the ship interception and pick-up, return for a further refuel at Ahwar then return to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital landing site near base. We had a few questions; where and what was the fuel at Ahwar? How were we to find the ship’s latest position before we took off from Ahwar? Would we have any top-cover? The RCC had most of the answers, in fact they had a ‘cunning plan’, quite ambitious.

First of all, a 37 Squadron Shackleton would be sent out to find the ship. Secondly, a 21 Squadron Dakota would transport enough drum fuel for our two refuels to the airstrip at Ahwar. Once the ship had been located the Shack would report its position, course and speed to the Dakota (on the ground) while we were refuelling. After refuelling we were to proceed with the Dakota providing top cover while the Shackleton would remain with the ship and provide homing information. After delivering us to the ship the Dak was to be released and the Shack would provide top-cover and navigation assistance for the remainder of the mission.

That all sounded good, but what about a pump to transfer the fuel from drums to helicopter? The RCC had thought of everything – the local Political Officer had a pump and would deliver it to the airstrip! We aviators had only a vague knowledge of the responsibilities of ‘Political Officers’ and couldn’t imagine that one would ever have had such a piece of equipment out in a little desert village in the back of beyond. Pumps like these were cord-pull and had to be regularly serviced to ensure at least easy if not first-time starting, like the average lawn-mower. This could be the Achilles heel of the whole operation, but they reassured us that all would be well.

The rest of the afternoon was spent briefing with the Shack and Dakota crews and being coached by an old NCO Nav, who had carried out more ship interceptions than I had had hot breakfasts. The flight boss could well have given him the job but I was duty Nav the next day and that was that. One key bit of advice he gave me was to prove crucial; the Whirlwind in Aden had absolutely no navigation aids and all navigation had to be by dead reckoning using compass and estimating wind speed and direction from observing the wind-lanes on the sea; there was a risk of missing Ahwar on return and arriving in the area not knowing which way to turn to find it. The advice was to deliberately avoid it to one side so that there was only one way to turn to find it.

The 'Motley Crew' mentioned in the textWe had an early start getting airborne at 0640 hours on a bright sunny day but with a brisk wind. Sand was already blowing when we arrived at Ahwar, mostly a collection of mud-brick buildings, and found the airstrip beyond it, just flat sand outlined by white-painted boulders. We landed alongside the Dakota whose crew had already rolled out the fuel drums, but where was the pump? Just as we were starting to think that our concerns were to be realised a cloud of dust in the distance heralded the arrival of the village’s battered old ‘official’ Land Rover.

The motley crew who were piled on board didn’t fill us with confidence about the condition of the pump. There was an obvious leader, smartly dressed in khaki and a local militia man in uniform but the remainder were what you would expect in this neck of the woods, slinging ancient Lee-Enfield rifles with bandoliers of bullets around their waists. On board the vehicle was the precious pump with its octopus-like hoses and earthing wires. Now for the test, could we get it started? The local expertise didn’t stretch to any technical knowledge of the pump, they were just the delivery crew.

Inspection of the pumpFortunately our pilot was a really inquisitive ‘boy-scout’ type who, if he found anything electro-mechanical, would dismantle it out of curiosity and re-assemble it, but usually with some spare parts left over. After a lot of tweaking and hauling on the cord he got the pump going and we were in business.

Refuelling the HelicopterWhile all this had been going on the signaller on the Dakota had been trying to raise the Shackleton on R/T but the range was too great. He reverted to W/T morse and tapped away on his key for some time with no success. High-frequency (HF) comms were notoriously fickle, the ground wave might fail but the air wave bouncing off the ionosphere could give round-the- world comms. Neither in this case linked the two aircraft, 65 miles apart, but both aircraft could connect to the RCC at Steamer Point 130 miles away, and that laborious link was the means whereby we got the ship’s information.

Refuelled, off we went with the Dakota doing race-track circuits around us because of the different airspeeds. The ship was around 65 miles off-shore and with the help of the Shack we had no trouble finding her.

MV BraunfelsThe winching of the casualty was not difficult and off we started on the return, deviating a few degrees to ensure arriving a few miles to the east of Ahwar. The Shack did the same race-track pattern as the Dak had done but as we got within 10 miles of the coast he warned us that visibility at the coast looked very poor due to blowing sand. He flew ahead and then reported a full-blown sandstorm was affecting the Ahwar area. We didn’t as much approach the coast as fly into this great bank of blowing sand stretching up many thousands of feet. We could just make out the difference between sea and land and turned westwards for Ahwar. Fuel was not plentiful due to the increase in windspeed and we could see nothing of the ground. There were no landmarks anyway, just the village and it was mostly sand-coloured. The Shackleton crew did a great job in finding the airstrip and held us on radar, giving us headings to steer, making lengthy transmissions so we could use our homer on them.

It was very disorientating trying to visualise our track as we watched the compass and the swinging homer needle bring us onto a northerly heading. They asked us frequently if we were visual with the airstrip and eventually told us we were overhead, but we could still see nothing. Malcolm started a gentle spiral descent and at about 100 feet we spotted the white-painted boulders and landed with the emergency minimum 150 pounds of fuel. The cheery reception party were there to help and eventually departed with their superbly reliable pump (and the empty drums, seemingly a valuable commodity to them).

The return trip to the hospital was uneventful, once we got out of the sand-storm area, with Station Medical Officer Nick carefully monitoring and treating the patient till we delivered him to the Khormaksar Beach Military Hospital near the base.

We received a nice letter from the ship’s owners telling us that the seaman was making a good recovery in his home city of Essen, and to round things off, the German Consul in Aden, accompanied by the Station Commander, Group Captain Michael Beetham, presented the Flight with a boxed collection of LP’s of the Brandenburg Concertos (which I still have).

It was a very satisfying and interesting job, with excellent co-operation between aircraft crews and an imaginative piece of co-ordination by the RCC staff. I have to admit, though, that we regretted doubting the contribution of the Political Officer and his merry men with their vital delivery of the pump. It was a pleasant experience mixing with a bunch of locals who were quite unlike their countrymen in downtown Aden who were attacking servicemen, civilians and their families with grenades, RPGs and bombs. I’ve never forgotten the few minutes we spent with those likeable rogues.

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