TEMPESTUOUS JOURNEY

Gordon Tripp - Pilot
213 & 72 Squadrons

In 1952, recently out of the RAF and searching for any flying job, I was contracted with another pilot called Blake to deliver six Tempest IIs to Pakistan. The trip, Blackbushe, Brindisi, Bahrain, Karachi and home on BOAC was supposed to take a week.

Stored since being withdrawn from RAF service, the aircraft had received major inspections, so we did not expect problems when we reported to RAF Aston Down one September morning. The Tempests, in new camouflage paint, had a green square on the fuselage containing the crescent and star of Islam. Each was fitted with two 90 gallon drop tanks.


Gordon Tripp

First stop was Blackbushe for Customs.

Leaving there Blake immediately disappeared into cloud. Later he called saying his instruments had frozen up, and he was going back. I returned in case he needed help landing without an airspeed indicator, but he managed it successfully.

The water they removed from his pitot system proved that the aircraft had been left out in rain without covers being fitted. I acquired a piece of canvas to tie over my pitot head to prevent this re-occurring. Blake used a condom.

Starting again next day we were immediately separated in cloud and I went on alone. The oxygen supply was about two hours, whereas we had over four hours fuel.

With possible exhaust fumes in the cockpit (like the Typhoon) the RAF used oxygen at all times; however, we were no longer in the RAF. Not having been able to top up I was now down to half a tank.

Using it two minutes at a time, at 15,000 feet was making me feel quite sick. Fearing that I was experiencing engine fumes, I switched to ‘Normal’ and breathed again until it was empty. A recurrence of nausea then convinced me that I should land.

I got a homing to the French Air Force station at Dijon, and after a spell on the ground, feeling recovered, took off again. They could not supply oxygen, but, I was assured, it would be available at Marignane airport, Marseilles. I did that leg at low level and did not suffer any more untoward effects. There was no oxygen there either.

I went low level to Brindisi next day, where the Italian Air Force was equipped with Mustangs. The American fittings, incompatible with British, leaked as they tried to top me up. I did get a half tank.

When I landed at RAF Nicosia, Cyprus, the following afternoon, Blake’s Tempest was on the ramp. Here, we could at least get proper servicing

The next leg, direct to Bahrain, was a considerable flight across featureless desert. The RAF prohibited flying single engined aircraft on that route. All went via Habbaniya.

Blake, inexperienced in the area, announced: ‘Stick with me. I’ll get you through.’ Because the company had delivered other aircraft on this route, I allowed myself to be convinced.

Ninety minutes after leaving Cyprus Blake reported ‘My oil pressure just went to zero’ and then gave a Mayday call. RAF Mafraq, Jordan, answered, with homings to the airfield. It became obvious that the problem was an indication, as without oil the engine would have seized. Investigation revealed that the pipe had broken off the back of the gauge. Oil, pumping out at 90 psi, would have presented a problem eventually. We went off signals, and confidently awaited answers, which never materialised.

Blake was resourceful. He persuaded engineering to fit an Anson gauge, which they strapped to the floor. Ready to go again, he confided, ‘The pilots who are pretty experienced in this area reckon we should go via Habbaniya.’ He looked at me, hopefully.

I smothered a grin. ‘Suits me.’ I answered, so the following day we dog-legged via Habbaniya and negotiated a sand storm that forced us up to 19,000 feet to Bahrain. I remember the oxygen perking me up as I took a few puffs every five minutes, and sinking back into a lethargic state, as I switched off.

The heat in Bahrain as we packed our kit into the ammunition tanks next day was unbearable.

We arrived at Drigh Road, Karachi. I landed, and switched off. A man got up on the wing, stuck a can into the cockpit, sprayed it full of lethal smelling gas, then insisted I close the hood. I resorted to the oxygen mask again.

Next day I boarded a BOAC Argonaut. What incredible luxury that was. After two weeks I was back at Heathrow.

The second trip commenced ten days later. The company had not sent aircraft to Pakistan previously. The route had been chosen by selecting a field at the maximum range the Tempest could fly in a straight line. We got it severely modified.

En route to Brindisi, Blake had a high oil temperature, so we diverted to Nice. Our next stop was Bari, Italy, due to his auxiliary fuel tanks not feeding.

The following day we set out for Cyprus. Crossing Greece, above cloud, I heard Blake calling ‘Mayday’ again, with oil temperature off the clock and pressure dropping. Mountains there were up around 8,000 feet, well above cloud base, but moments later, he reported that things were returning to normal.

I was having difficulty keeping up. He started climbing to get over the build ups. I increased power, changing gear on the supercharger lower than normal, but by 17,000 ft the boost was minus a half at full throttle. Blake had vanished, far ahead.

The Tempest had an air filter that cut out when the wheels came up, but mine was obviously stuck. After three and a half hours I landed at Nicosia. Blake was waiting for me.

‘How would you fancy going on alone from here?’ he asked, as if he was the only one with troubles. ‘No problem,’ I answered, ‘once I get this filter sorted out.’ The RAF fixed his oil cooler shutter open with a metal bracket, and disconnected the automatic switch on my filter. I did an air test and the boost stayed normal at height.

Next day, strapped in, I saw something flickering in the sunlight over my shoulder. I crouched down, peering into the forward reaches of the cockpit.

Fuel was pouring out from somewhere in a stream. I turned it off, climbed out, and told Blake what had happened.

‘Lucky you saw it.’ He said. ‘You could have wound up a fireball after take-off.’ I thanked him for the thought.

This leg was planned to Baghdad West, then on to Bahrain. The snag delayed us another day, but we had a more difficult problem. The Tempest used a cartridge starter, but a number had not worked. We were running short and they were not easily available.

At Baghdad West we refuelled. Blake used three cartridges to get his engine going. I managed a start with the last one. Wherever we stopped now, we would be stuck.

After take off Blake circled the field. I called up to know what was wrong. ‘My oil temperature’s off the clock again.’ He replied. It showed no sign of returning to normal. Reluctantly, he told me he was going back in. Having seen him land safely I pressed on to Bahrain. The nearer I could get to Karachi the better chance I had of getting some cartridges.

I signalled Drigh Road, without much hope. I remembered after Blake’s landing at Mafraq, someone in Karachi remarked: ‘Yes, there was a signal. Something about oil pressure.’

The second day, one of the RAF contingents at Bahrain said ‘I think we’ve got a box of those in the armoury.’ They had indeed – left behind by a pilot going to Karachi.

Next day I was on my way. Before leaving I sent several to Baghdad. Blake, however, had acquired a cartridge from the Iraqi Air Force, who were flying Furies. It was too long for the breech of the Tempest, but that was solved by sawing a bit off the end.

120 miles from Drigh Road I noticed a river of oil spilling onto the starboard wing, and actually rippling in the slipstream. I debated whether to go direct, but took the slightly longer route via the coast and dry land. It was years before Jaws, but I knew what could be waiting below in the Indian Ocean.

I got to Karachi, but on the ground, with reduced airflow, the oil temperature went off the clock and the pressure dropped alarmingly.

I taxied in as fast as I could, cut the engine, was out of the plane and twenty yards away before the man with his spray could get to me. He wanted me to get back aboard, but I procrastinated. Finally he went off in a huff.

A pool of oil had formed the length of the fuselage, so I asked a mechanic to dip the tank. It showed just over an inch. I must have been within minutes of a failure.

Again the trip had taken two weeks by the time I got home.

On Armistice Day, with the last two aircraft, en route to Nice, I noticed my pneumatic pressure falling. This was serious. The gyroscopic effect of a large, four bladed prop made the Tempest prone to vicious swings. Under full power the lurch to starboard on take off was controllable with hard rudder, but landing, the swing the other way always needed braking.

In the RAF I had seen several aircraft land without brakes, and had to do it once myself. Most wound up losing their undercarriages in the soft sand off the runway in Egypt. I had additional problems in the drop tanks, however if I jettisoned them I would not be able to continue to Karachi.

At high power I could hold 200 lbs pressure that was left, but could not increase it. I flew the rest of the way faster, but at a high fuel consumption.

Throttling back to lower gear and flaps at Nice the pressure dropped to 100 lbs. As I landed, it dropped further, but had enough to come to a stop. I decided to taxi in, wastching closely. As I did the pressure built up to normal, so there was nothing I could show an engineer. I shrugged and tried to forget about it.

An hour out for Brindisi next day the brake pressure started fading again. I increased power and stopped any further fall, again with high fuel consumption. The weather was getting worse, particularly to the south, so we landed at Clampino Airport, Rome. Again as I taxied in the brake pressure returned to normal.

I talked to the engineers but there seemed little they could do. I could not even demonstrate the snag. I spent a week in Rome. The first two days’ weather reports were horrendous, with towering cu-nimbs and the threat of ice everywhere. The third day Met told us there was a window of clear weather over Athens if we were quick.

We stowed our kit and started up. Blake taxied out. I got clearance and as I turned the microphone on my oxygen mask off the switch came away in my hand. I cursed. The weather was 8/8ths low cloud. Blake was airborne, and I was effectively without radio. Frustrated, I abandoned the flight, and took the oxygen mask to the radio station. It took a few minutes to repair.

Next day the “window” had closed. I met a BEA Captain, just in from Athens and enquired about the weather. He asked: ‘What de-icing equipment have you got?’ I had an alcohol spray to clear the windscreen. He shook his head. ‘You are going to get a lot of ice.’ I shrugged. ‘I’ll try again tomorrow.

The eighth day, with a better forecast, I took off. I remember squeezing through gaps between hills with just enough room to get under the cloud. Over the water, it was at sea level in places. I was not familiar with Athens so was determined to stay below cloud if possible. The weather improved in the last stages, and I duly landed at Ellinikon airport.

I left next day in relatively good conditions, but for the last 150 miles I was again in the “clag”. This did not bother me too much as I was used to Cyprus.

I related my brake problem to the Flight Sergeant in charge. ‘We have a lot of work on’ he said. ‘I can’t tackle it for two days.’ ‘I just want it fixed before I go any further’ I replied.

The fourth day I did an air test. They had checked the pneumatic systems, even covering the lines with soap solution to pinpoint any leaks without finding a thing. Likewise, in an hour’s test flight I was unable to reproduce the snag. I landed, aware that all possible had been done, and started next day for Baghdad West.

I climbed to 15,000 feet, over Lebanon, then Syria, checking the brakes regularly. Everything seemed normal.

The explosion in the engine swung the aircraft sideways.

A red light shone fiercely from the panel and the vibration was so bad that I could barely read the instruments. The oil temperature was at maximum, and the pressure fell rapidly to zero. The engine was finished.

I called ‘Mayday’, and was answered by Cyprus radio, so someone knew I was going down. I shut off fuel and ignition and looked for a good spot to land. Everywhere seemed flat from that height. I decided to drop the tanks, so that if they did not come off I had time to bale out. I pulled the lever. Both parted company from the Tempest. I could no longer hear Cyprus as I got lower. At 1,000 feet I jettisoned the hood.

Suddenly the ground that had appeared flat took on an undulating appearance. I was quite low now, and committed to landing, too late to start searching for a better spot. A rise in the ground prevented me from seeing anything ahead. I resisted the temptation to pull back on the stick and try to stretch the glide. A stall at that point would have been disastrous.

The Tempest brushed the top of the rise. Prop blades bent along the cowling. A shallow valley opened up before me. I headed down into it, and this time there was no bounce, just skidding along the soft earth, feeling the rapid deceleration, and then, everything was still.

In seconds I was out of the plane making tracks to the rear, away from any possible explosion or fire. Neither occurred. I began to wonder how far I was from civilisation, then three fighters passed overhead. I thought: ‘Good. Somebody’s looking for me.’

Later I found out that they were indeed looking for me – to shoot me down. One of my drop tanks had exploded within sight of a village, so it was assumed that I had slipped across the border from Israel, and dropped a bomb. The state of war was still very much alive at that time.

Arabs started to appear. I wanted them to stay away from the aircraft so I tried to convince them that the ‘benzine’ (petrol) might blow up.

A young soldier cycled up and saluted enthusiastically. I wrote a note addressed to the police or military, and he took off, riding at top speed. An hour later he arrived back in a truck with a dozen soldiers. An officer asked, in good English, if I was the pilot and then, was I hurt. I answered yes, and no. The next question sent my heart into my boots. He said ‘How many more bombs have you got?

I looked at the soldiers, armed with sub machine guns, miles from anywhere, in that patch of semi-desert. I denied carrying bombs, and explained I had to shed the drop tanks to do a belly landing. I asked if anyone had been hurt. Fortunately, it seemed not.

We went to the aircraft and I demonstrated the jettison lever which apparently satisfied him.

I breathed again. My personal gear was retrieved, a guard was posted on the plane and we proceeded to the barracks in Homs. There, I was given a stiff scotch and a meal and finally dispatched into the care of the British Consul in Damascus. Next day I was issued with a visa and started making arrangements for the recovery of the Tempest.

When everything was complete I caught a plane to Cyprus, and from there to UK arriving home on Christmas Eve. At some stage I realised how lucky I had been when the previous contract was cancelled. Though disappointed then, I now knew that I might not have fared so well in Syria if that job had materialised.

It was to fly a batch of Spitfires to Israel.

Links & Notes

Tempest II http://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/london/collections/aircraft/hawker-tempest-ii.cfm
BOAC Argonaut http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BOAC_C-4_Argonaut_Heathrow_1954.jpg

page last updated 15 Nov 11: ACA Surrey Branch 2010