The Goldfish Club
RAF Gan in the Maldive IslandsSPLASHDOWN ON THE EQUATOR by John Cooper On Tuesday March 1st 1960, several Royal Air Force men were being repatriated to the United Kingdom after their tour of duty in the Far East. These men were, in the main, stationed at RAF Staging Post Katunayake (known by all as ‘Kat’) in Ceylon. Wing Commander Geoff Atherton DFC (Commanding Officer of Kat) Flight Lieutenant from Pay Accounts: Corporal Bill Grundy (Fireman) Corporal Bill Murray (Engine Fitter) SAC Tony Green (Airframe Mechanic) SAC Stew Tucker (Air Radar Mechanic) SAC Tony Mealing (IR Wireless Mechanic) SAC David Bloomfield (MT Driver) Finally myself, SAC John ‘Gary’ Cooper (Engine Mechanic). This leaves just one RAF passenger whose name is unknown In addition there were two Royal Marines and two Able Seamen from the Royal Navy returning to the UK. This then made up the complement of 14 passengers waiting to board a Handley Page Hastings C1 Tail number TG579 of 48 Squadron (based in Changi, Singapore), for the first leg of their journey, a 600-mile trip to RAF Gan in the Maldive Islands. The crew numbered six. Flt Lt R T D Scott (Aircraft Captain) Flt Sgt G F Applegarth (Co-pilot). Flight Sergeant H.F Kimber (Navigator) Master Signaller P Holc (Signaller) Master Engineer R E Smith (Flight Engineer) Sergeant R Jack (Air Quartermaster) The aircraft was delayed for many hours due to technical problems; we originally should have been en route to Gan by mid-morning. However, due to the delay, the passengers and crew did not embark until 5 p.m. local time, eventually lifting off from RAF Katunayake under clear skies at 5:34 p.m. Apart from the passengers, there were some aircraft hydraulic jacks and the materials necessary to equip the dental section at RAF Gan in the main cabin of the aircraft. Our hand luggage was stowed in racks above our heads, while the larger pieces of personal luggage were in the belly holds. I had a rearwards facing seat on the starboard side of the aircraft, which was adjacent to a window and diagonally opposite the main passenger door. Tony Green, a good friend and work colleague, sat beside me. We were taking photographs of the last views of Ceylon and those brilliant sunsets encountered in that part of the world, chatting about going home after more than two years and looking forward to a good English pint of beer. Before too long it got dark outside and we started to experience some turbulence, which gradually increased in intensity until eventually, we were informed to fasten our seat belts. I had never encountered such buffeting as this before; lightning was illuminating the clouds all around us. I recall wondering why the pilot didn’t fly above the storm, but on reflection realised that cloud banks in intense tropical storms can range from a few hundred feet above sea level to heights well over 30,000 feet. This particular aircraft did not have the ceiling capability, and, to my knowledge, did not carry oxygen for such an eventuality. For a trip of this nature the normal operating height would be about 8,000 feet We were all getting pretty anxious which is something I had never experienced before when flying in both civil and military aircraft, when to our relief the lights of Gan appeared below the aircraft. Meanwhile, on the island, Cpl Andy Mutch, an Air Wireless Fitter was awaiting the arrival of the Hastings. He could hear the aircraft but not see it due to the extreme prevailing weather conditions. Others, including Mike Butler could see the aircraft and estimated its height at 80 feet. I thought the height was probably 400 feet. By pure luck a search and rescue Shackleton MR1 aircraft of 205 Squadron, tail number WB834, had been detached from Changi for two weeks to Gan. Don Ellis, the Shackleton’s First Navigator, recalls the vicious tropical storm and asked the operations officer what the crew of the Hastings should do? The Ops officer replied, “If they had any sense they would return to Katunayake.” The Commanding Officer of Gan, Wing Commander Ewan Thomas was in air traffic control with the duty air traffic control officer and remembers that the crew of the Hastings did a Blind Approach Beacon System (BABS) approach almost totally reliant upon their instruments. Don Ellis recalls the Hastings navigator call “2 miles” and the co-pilot saying, “you’re down to 50 feet.” We overshot the runway on the first approach. Both Stewart and Tony thought the aircraft actually did touch the runway, but David and I are certain it did not. We flew off for another twenty minutes and then made a very long and low approach. With the storm still raging and with no warning whatsoever, there was a mighty crash, a shuddering, and then silence from the engines. Then there came a second crash, which was not quite so severe. The first aid box became detached from its stowage and flew across the cabin hitting Geoff fully in the face, breaking his nose. The final impact seemed almost gentle in comparison to the first two, almost as though the aircraft had ended up on the runway. I distinctly remember looking out of the window and saying to Tony that I couldn’t see the runway lights anymore. It is known that the undercarriage was extended, and on the first impact became detached from the aircraft. We understand that on the first impact at about 125 knots, numbers one and two engines were torn out of their bearings and detached from the bulkheads. It was obvious to us that these two engines were definitely missing It was known that number three engine also became detached. Definitely number four engine was still attached. We believed that the aircraft swung round 180 degrees from its easterly approach and was now facing away from Gan (another Hastings, TG580, crashed on landing at Gan in July 1959, and previous to this two other incidents involving the Hastings, including one on the Greenland Icecap, each time the aircraft swung 180 degrees). A further theory is that in the Gan Channel, where the Hastings came down, the aircraft swung round on the very fast 7-8 knot current. It was not obvious to any of us at that time, but we had crashed into the sea. We first realised this when the AQM, Sgt Jack, opened the main cabin door and water rushed in. Here we were, having just crossed the equator by some 41 miles, and our baptism was about to be realised! With the sudden surge of water into the aircraft cabin our immediate reaction was to evacuate the sinking Hastings as quickly as possible. I certainly recall taking my lap belt off, reaching immediately above my head and taking the Mae West from its stowage, being at least ankle deep in water, buttoning up the jacket but not tightening the straps and exiting the aircraft by the main door. I have since been informed by Frank Ogden an ex Hastings Flight Engineer that if you were to have inflated the life jacket before entering the water there was a good chance of breaking your neck. There was no thought of salvaging any of our personal possessions; it was a question of saving lives that became the priority. We don’t recall having heard any instructions when we were evacuating the aircraft. Some crewmembers and passengers got out via the main escape hatches and stepped into the inflated dinghies, whilst at least four others, including myself, ended up in the sea. I was underwater, I pulled the red emergency toggle on my life jacket, which then inflated and brought me quickly to the surface. I estimate my time in the water to have been less than five minutes – I’m not sure. I had ingested a lung full of water, oil and fuel and found it extremely difficult to haul myself into a dinghy. Either a Sailor or Marine must have pulled me out of the water as I certainly ended up in their dinghy. Stew held onto his life jacket until he got into the dinghy as the buttons were already fastened up. Tony also recalls the buttons as being fastened when he took his life jacket out of the stowage. David recalls having to fight off somebody hampering his progress to get into a dinghy. It is known that the aircraft made one single low-level approach, exact height unknown, over the island from the East and banked to port. The accident report records this time as being 10:34 pm local time, exactly three hours after lift off from Katunayake. In Air Traffic Control, Larry Heywood recalls: “The evening that the Hastings ditched to the east of the island, I was on duty in the ATC tower. It was a quiet evening with little activity on the w/t circuits and I was chatting to the duty controller, Flight Lieutenant Morgan-Smith, when the Hastings made its first approach through the gale and lashing rain that enveloped the island. The aircraft aborted its initial approach and asked for the runway lights to be increased in intensity. This was done, and we strove to see his landing lights through the storm, but it was impossible – it was like a scene from a Hollywood movie. “The DATCO radioed the pilot to confirm three greens – undercarriage down and locked? – The last transmission from the doomed aircraft read: ‘Roger, downwind, three greens, runway in sight. Suddenly there was what appeared to be a feedback screech, perhaps two microphones being opened at the same time, and the cathode ray direction finder reacted to it. The trace illuminated on the screen, orientated east, the direction where the aircraft was expected to be. The DATCO initiated a call; no reply; called again, no reply, and exclaimed, ‘Christ, I think he’s gone in!’ “Controlled panic took over as the SAR (search and rescue) drills were put into effect, and I kept out of the way. I have a suspicion that one of my wireless operators, SAC Russ Taylor, on his own initiative, had made high frequency radio transmitter contact with the air sea rescue launches.” Air Traffic Control then heard nothing and wondered if the aircraft had lost radio contact and so the rescue fire engine was sent to travel the length of the runway to see if the Hastings was on the ground. Roger Stevens, in charge of the Gan fire station was on station alongside the control tower when instructed to ‘Enter the active runway and proceed with caution, because we think the aircraft has crashed.’ Roger and his crew were dispatched to the channel end of the island to search for the aircraft and survivors but found or heard nothing. They were also instructed to wade out on to the coral reef but decided against this course of action due to the presence of sharks and moray eels in the vicinity. The SASF duty crew were taken by vehicle to this point and did wade on to the reef to listen and search for survivors but found and heard nothing. All of the emergency teams on standby were called out. The search and rescue Shackleton, captained by Johnny Elias, was despatched to the end of the runway to shine its lights looking for the aircraft. Johnny thought that if he was to do this he might as well have got airborne, so within 10 minutes they were on the runway threshold. The Shackleton took off and started firing flares from 2 to 3 miles out from the suspected crash site on the first run, and then running in from 2 miles they spotted the Hastings fuselage and dinghies. The two air sea rescue launches were despatched to the scene. Once we were all in the dinghies, a head count was ordered by the Flt Lt pay accounts officer and Stew took this role, giving each person a number, numbering himself last. It was determined that a crew member had been reported missing and we could certainly hear cries of help from what appeared to be the starboard side of the aircraft. Flight Sergeant George Applegarth, who escaped through the side cockpit window, clung to a radio aerial, was washed off that by a huge wave to where the number three engine was sheared off from the airframe. He managed to scramble on to the starboard wing, was washed off that by another wave to the tailplane where he held on for some time until finally being washed away from that. It is known that, of the 20 occupants, all escaped through exits on the port side of the aircraft except George. Despite having a bloodied face and broken nose, Geoff dived into the water from his dinghy and swam after George, staying with him until they were both rescued. Several minutes had passed since the initial ditching and we were able to collect our thoughts and put in to being a plan of action. The first thing necessary was to get ourselves away from the aircraft as quickly as possible for several reasons. When the aircraft eventually started to sink would the suction take us down as well? There was the added risk of high octane avgas fuel and engine oil igniting plus the hazards of battery acids and other volatile substances in the area We had found some paddles in the dinghies and I for one was using one of these frantically trying to paddle my dinghy away from the twisted aluminium of the wings and tailplane. Stew recalls how he had jumped up onto the wing and tried to push the dinghy away from the aircraft, but what we didn’t know was that they were all still tethered to the aircraft by cords I spotted this and asked if anyone had got a knife. It was either a sailor or marine who pulled a knife from his sock and severed the connections; the remainder of the cord was then used to tether all of the dinghies together. None of us are sure how many dinghies were in use, but the consensus of opinion is that there were three, one of which was deflating, probably having been punctured by the jagged aluminium. The one which contained the crew somehow became detached from the other two. Fortunately there was light from the emergency batteries lighting the inside of the fuselage which, coupled with the frequent flashes of lightning from the raging storm, we were able to see what was going on. We had been feeling around the dinghies for emergency equipment. We’d found the paddles this way and at last were making progress by gradually moving away from the point of danger. However, the dinghy that was deflating was causing some anxiety to its occupants. Bill Murray, a rather rotund chap, was being physically ill while at the same time pumping the bellows. They took turns keeping the dinghy inflated by this pumping action. We found ’hats’ to all intents and purposes. These looked like a huge teat end piece of a condom, consisting of a plastic tight fitting hood with a tiny torch bulb in the teat end [McMurdo lights]. To activate the light you had to immerse a small cigarette packet-size battery in water – obviously we had an ocean full of this! There were many of these in the dinghies but how they could be seen from any distance is beyond me. We never came across any other equipment in these dinghies, to my knowledge there should have been emergency rations including ‘dog’ biscuits, Horlicks tablets and other tablets to convert salt water in to fresh water. In addition there should have been a yellow box kite (for day time use) and flares but none of these were found. (David kept his heliograph from his Mae West; this is a signalling device employing a quadrant mirror to reflect the sun’s rays for passing ships and aircraft to spot in such emergencies.) Again, only minutes had passed for all of this to happen. We suddenly heard the engines of a Shackleton fire into life and to a trained mechanic the sounds of 4 Rolls Royce Griffon engines was almost heaven sent. We didn’t know there was a Shackleton based at Gan but, as it turned out, we were mighty pleased that there was one there. We were beginning to settle down into some sort of routine within the dinghies We were by now quite some distance from the crashed aircraft which was still afloat, perhaps two hundred yards away from its tail end. The airfield lights were to our right and we could only see these as we rose on the crest of each giant wave, hanging on to the guide ropes for dear life. How TG579 managed to ride these waves for so long is a remarkable testament to its durability. Again it is a consensus of opinion that she stayed afloat for some twenty minutes until slipping down, starboard wing first, into the deep water. The port wing rose into the air devoid of both of its engines, others noticed that the number three engine was also missing. It was sad to see her disappear, just as sailors would be sad seeing their ship sinking. It could have easily been us going down with it. I find it amazing that if two or three engines were ripped from their mountings, each weighing over a ton, why the wings were not torn off on the first impact? Perhaps the slow aircraft speed prevented this and with the three impacts it would appear as if the aircraft skipped over the waves like a pebble skipping across the top of a pond. Once TG579 had slipped below the waves, it was time to take stock. Stew suggested that everyone remove their shoes and boots to prevent any more dinghies being deflated from sharp objects like exposed nails, studs or blakies. Some shoes were thrown overboard to prevent the cluttering up of the dinghies. Those that were retained were kept on the owner’s laps just in case we had to use them for baling out water. There was water in all the dinghies, caused by both the heavy rain and seawater churning over the sides. It appeared that the Shackleton was airborne by now, and carrying out a systematic search. As Harry recalled “The flares were clear points of light, not fuzzy as they would have been if falling through cloud. The Shackleton was running in on the runway heading firing off single flares one after another. As they passed over the ditched Hastings they would fire off a cluster, pull away then repeat the procedure.” From a passenger’s point of view this appeared to be what I recalled, but the Hastings would have been on its way to the seabed by this time. Shackletons had sophisticated radar on board and carried a crew of ten. Despite the fact that no metal object was on the surface (TG579) this would have been quite easy to detect as if the Hastings were a submarine. I am not aware that the Shackleton was using any Asdic or sonar buoys or other similar equipment. The morale in the dinghies was very good, there was plenty of shouting and singing, the usual ‘why are we waiting’, ‘show me the way to go home’ etc., were all being sung. The flares were getting ever closer and by that we somehow knew that the chances of rescue were extremely high. Some wag suggested what would happen if one of the flares entered the dinghy? How he didn’t get fed to the sharks is anyone’s guess! It was apparent after some time that the Shackleton had found us, as the flares were falling in an arc some distance from the dinghies apparently to guide the two rescue launches to the crash site. We could see, some distance away, bright lights. These were a mixture of the Gan airfield lights and searchlights, which we eventually spotted, seemingly a very long way away. These were only visible when we were approaching the crest of a wave. We really did not know where we had ditched, we knew we were to the east of Gan airfield and would estimate ourselves as being between one and two miles out. What I didn’t know until as recent as April 2001, was that this area is treacherous in that it’s known as the ‘Gan Channel’ separating two islands; Willingili to the east and Gan to the west. This stretch of water is where the calmer lagoon of Addu Atoll meets the Indian Ocean with the tidal waters running quite fast at about eight knots. SAC Brian Barker was on Pinnace 1374, the smaller of the two rescue launches. I can’t remember seeing this boat, but Brian recalls picking up Geoff Atherton and George Applegarth in addition to another dinghy load that we assume to be the other crewmembers. We think this Pinnace arrived back to the Gan jetty after the large launch picked up the passengers and I am informed by Stew that the AQM was with the passengers. There was much rejoicing when the larger launch was approaching us, shouting by all, the waving of arms all helped to keep the morale high. This launch looked huge in comparison to our dinghies and as it got ever nearer the swell looked even worse as there was a backwash between the group of dinghies and the launch. Scrambling nets were attached to the side of the launch and it was with great difficulty to hold on to the rope and then put ones feet on the rope. If you’ve ever climbed a ladder with soft soled shoes on you can appreciate our plight, raging seas, huge swell covered in fuel and oil but I was in good hands as one of the marine craft guys literally grabbed the back of my Mae West and hauled me up on deck, whereas David remembers being pulled aboard by his hair! I was immediately taken below deck and given a blanket and towel and a mug of tea, which I drank and immediately brought back up again along with a concoction of other fluids that were in my stomach. I still remember those mattresses with a ticking stripe cover and feeling very much the worse for wear, perhaps it was part emotion that brought this on. I had never suffered from travel sickness before or since, this was the exception. Stew recalls the hull of the launch scraping the coral, this must have been somewhere near the reef area later as our immediate rescue was from deep water. It must be mentioned here that a heartfelt thank you must go to the officer commanding the Marine Craft Section, Flight Lieutenant Bernie Saunders, his Coxswain Dickie Denman for the bravery shown that night and the crews of those two motor launches who set sail in the worst possible weather conditions. It is understood by various parties that we were in the dinghies for 1½ hours. I have always maintained that to be correct, others think longer, certainly the Pinnace arrived after the large launch and that it is thought the crew and those other two adrift arrived about an hour later. Roger Stevens recalls he gave assistance at the jetty by lighting up the area with the fire engine lights and says the first person he had helped ashore was Bill Grundy who he had previously served with at RAF Ballykelly in Northern Ireland. It is also interesting to note that another survivor Roger helped ashore was a sailor whose comments were “This is the first time I’ve flown with the RAF and they tried to drown me, something that the Navy never did!” I really can’t remember getting off the launch, and how I got to sick quarters without any shoes on, but I do recall being medically examined, and being passed fit to fly to the UK the next day. I imagine that I was given fresh KD clothing that night at Gan, but again I can’t remember. I do remember not being able to sleep. I was in station sick quarters when the crew were brought in and there was much animosity from the passengers towards the pilot, in the form of verbal abuse and finger wagging. I really cannot recollect this happening but I can accept why it did occur. In the official accident report it was determined that on the second approach, at about 2 miles out, there was a brilliant flash of lightning causing the pilot to look into the cockpit to recover his vision. The co-pilot then called approaching 50 feet and almost immediately the aircraft hit the sea. I also remember that, with what few Rupees we had left between us, we clubbed together and bought the Shackleton rescue crew a bottle of whiskey to share among themselves as a thank you. Without their assistance who knows what the outcome would have been. The following morning I joined the queue for some emergency pay as all my leave money was in my camera bag, which was now at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. I had been paid £35 in 10 shilling notes at RAF Katunayake, a king’s ransom in those days (about £700-800 pounds today). The reason we were all paid in brown 10-shilling notes was that pay accounts had run out of white fivers and blue pound notes! In addition to the money all my personal possessions were lost in that accident. The only thing that I had left was my Omega Seamaster wristwatch. When I asked the Marine Craft boys what effects were found, they said nothing apart from the wheels of the Hastings. I am sure they that had mentioned that the aircraft had sunk to a depth of over 1000 fathoms. It doesn’t really matter what depth it ended up in, we lost everything. Stew’s deep-sea box was on board the Hastings giving a new meaning to the term deep-sea box! On the morning following the crash the Shackleton took off again, this time looking for any signs of the Hastings and found the main wheels floating in the lagoon. They were recovered the same morning by the Marine Craft Unit with help from Rod Venners of the SASF who was driving a David Brown tractor.. Within 24 hours of Hastings TG579 crashing into the sea at Gan, we took the ‘white knuckle ride’ back to the UK on an RAF Britannia tail number XL638 (Sirius). We landed at Karachi for fuel. It was shortly after take-off when we had an emergency in as much that a nose wheel actuator failed to operate resulting in ’a nose wheel red’. At the time of this incident no passengers were informed of the problem. I was seated by a window and could see what I thought was smoke coming from number three engine. I stood up in panic and called one of the cabin staff over (a sergeant). Almost immediately the captain announced over the address system that what we were seeing was fuel being jettisoned and what looked like smoke was in fact atomised fuel. Terror went through my body for one hour and ten minutes whilst we circled dumping fuel at the same time that Air Traffic Control was checking that the undercarriage nose wheel was down. I cannot begin to explain the fear and terror that I and other survivors encountered. This fear spread to other passengers not even associated with the Hastings crash. Two others on the Britannia whom I have since re-established contact with were John Bawden and Brian Wilmer. They both remember the white faces and knuckles of the survivors and how the emergency fire crews and ambulances lined the runway and chased after us when we touched down safely I swear that if I had been given a parachute at that moment in time I would have used it as being the easier route of escape… Geoff Atherton flew back to Katunayake in a Shackleton, swearing never to fly in a Hastings again! He was subsequently awarded a commendation for his heroic deeds. Also awarded a commendation for bravery was Bernie Saunders, OC of the rescue launches. Credit must go to all those that took part in the rescue, in my book they were all heroes. On that night they performed the duties that they had been trained to do in very stormy shark infested seas, not knowing whether they were looking for survivors or bodies, or, even worse yet, nothing if the aircraft had sunk without trace. It is to these people that I say a mighty big THANK YOU! Incidentally, the launch Pinnace 1374 can still be seen plying the waters around the Holyhead area in the UK.