We had followed Monty and the 8th Army up as far as Benghazi and then dropped back to base before being sent off on detachment down the Suez Canal to Abu Suir airstrip near Ismalia for a quiet time for a bit. We were flying night Beaufighters which necessitated and NFT (Night Flying Test) during daylight hours.
I was in the flight hut, always busy making something. Presently crewed up with the Squadron Flight Commander. He put his head round the door and called out, Harry, the kites ready for NFT OK I said. No rush he replied.
So I collected up my bits and pieces and deposited them under my bed before strolling out with my flying kit only to see the aircraft taxiing across the desert sand towards the runway. I walked hurriedly over to join the four or five ground crew watching the aircraft and addressed them. Whos Squadron Leader Hooker got with him? One of them replied, He came out and said anyone like a trip so Harry Kemp jumped in and said yes please, Sir.
The ground crew were always anxious to fly whenever possible. Harry Kemp was a keen young lad who had put his age up to join the RAF, just a year or so before. I, with the ground crew, watched the aircraft accelerate down the runway with no little concern, anticipating a telling off for dragging my feet when the Squadron Leader returned.
We watched the aircraft take off and climb steeply up to 700 or 800 feet. It then turned to starboard and did a half circuit of the airstrip and promptly came back into land, turn off, and taxi towards the dispersal point. It was then the ground crews turn to be concerned as something must be wrong.
The problem was all too apparent as the plane got closer. The escape hatch above the pilot had broken loose, then travelled back along the fuselage and cut off the observers Perspex cupola, like the top off an egg!
The plane stopped, the bottom hatch opened, and little Harry Kemp - 5 ft plus one or two inches tall climbed out as white as a sheet, but fortunately unscathed.
I silently sent up a prayer of thanks to the Almighty. With my 6 ft 2 inches sitting in the observers seat, my head touched the top of the Perspex dome. It would not only have been the Perspex chopped off, but my head also.
I never did get the dressing down expected. As a rigger it was Harry Kemps job to make sure the pilots escape hatch was secure. It was against all rules for the pilot to do an NFT without a competent Observer to also check the radar and associated equipment.
I met Harry Kemp a few years ago at a Squadron Reunion. Then in his seventies, he brought up the incident, relating it in detail. His main concern was that he lost his hat and had to purchase another from his meagre pay.
Me! I am thankful I have still got my head.
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page last updated 28 June 2010: © ACA Surrey Branch 2010