There and Back Again


 THERE AND BACK AGAIN by Roger Wain (with Guy Warner)

(or how we took our Whirlwind HAR Mk10s to Cyprus and bought them back again).

I was the ‘A’ Flight Commander on No 230 Squadron at RAF Odiham in Hampshire when the Boss (Squadron Leader David Todd) told me that from mid-March 1968 the Squadron would be taking over the UN support commitment in Cyprus. This was the  United Nations Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) peacekeeping task and was shared in rotation with the Westland Wessex HC Mk2 of No 18 and No 72 Squadrons. 230 Squadron had taken an active part in operations in Cyprus twice before; in 1958-59 when equipped with Scottish Aviation Pioneers and flying the Whirlwind in 1964.

The Squadron had already had the experience of being flown from Borneo in the Short Belfast and our reservation was that the Whirlwind did not respond too well to being taken apart and put together again. The stripping down and rebuilding seemed to produce unwanted vibration, some of which took a long time to fix.  An unsupported ferry was not practical due to the limitations of the VHF radio fit and the fact that the absence of support had contributed to the failure of previous attempts to ferry helicopters long distances. The distance from Odiham to Cyprus was some 2200 nautical miles (2532.2 miles, 4074.4 km). However, our opinion was that a transit with a support transport aircraft meeting the helicopters at night stops with the detachment groundcrew on board to sort out any snags would be effective. David Todd was a good arm twister and the plan was approved.  Dave delegated the planning of the ferry to me, while most of the navigation detail was done by the Squadron Navigators, Flight Lieutenants Dennis Brooks and Dave Holes.

There were a few basic rules. Each aircrew member had his own set of maps and an additional set was placed in each aircraft. Everyone had a set of overnight kit but nothing extra, everything else went in the support aircraft. The crew of each helicopter would always be two, as most of the space in the main cabin would be taken up by the long range tank. This was of light alloy structure and sat in the middle of the cabin floor under the rotor gearbox, which was the optimum position as regards centre of gravity considerations. It contained about 100 gallons (800 lbs, 362.9 kg), which at a fuel burn of about 50 gallons (400 lbs,181.4 kg) gave an extra 180 nautical miles (207.16 miles, 333.36 km) range. The main problem was that this took you very close to the maximum overload all up weight (AUW) of 8000 lbs (3629 kg). Therefore for the first 30 minutes or so you would be restricted to 80 kts (92.06 mph, 148.16 kph).

Of course the long range tanks had to be test flown and I see from my log book that I did a four and a half hour flog to RAF St Eval, refuelling at RAF Chivenor and returning to base.  A few of the pilots who had been in Borneo were used to sitting in the Whirlwind for long spells, refuelling with rotors running to maximise payload but for some it was a new experience, with the potential of four hours plus in the cockpit at one go.  This brings in the question of what we now call “comfort stops” There were no special arrangements but it was one of the reasons for having two pilots (others included the extra weight of the fuel and consequent lack of cabin space. However, it did take two so that you could eat the packed ration in comfort or scratch wherever. But there always had to be a hand or both knees on the stick. There was an effective friction lock for the collective lever but the cyclic frictions required very accurate adjustment so that the stick did not “fall over” if released.) There was one occasion when I had a flight of four going somewhere in the UK for an exercise when we had to allow one of the helicopters to land in a field for urgent “call of nature” purposes, while the other three “circled the wagons” aloft. You could, if you were very careful, put the seat base up and climb down into the cabin. This was not recommended as any inadvertent contact with the cyclic could be disastrous, nor was sitting on the collective on the way down a good idea, especially if you were in the hover; not, to be honest, that there was a convenience in the cabin anyway.

At the planning stage some bright spark realised that a substantial part of the trip would be over water and decreed that all the aircrew should go to Portsmouth and visit the Royal Navy’s ditching trainer.  I did plead previous experience (for real!) but was not excused.  It was worse than the actual ditching I had experienced some two years earlier, in September 1965, when I was on No 22 (Search and Rescue) Squadron at Chivenor. We were on the airfield for some continuation flying at dusk when there was a call out. We flew into a power cable and in the time it takes to clap your hands the Whirlwind yawed right and rolled upside down into the River Torridge, just upstream from Bideford. The first breath of water was a nasty shock. There were no injuries too any of the four of us, except to our pride. 

The Westland Whirlwind HAR Mk 10 was developed from the original Sikorsky S-55, the prototype of which had first flown in 1949. The early Whirlwinds were powered by piston engines, whereas the Mk 10 benefited from a Bristol Siddeley Gnome turboshaft. The engine incorporated an electronic control system which considerably reduced the pilot’s workload. It was faster, had a longer range and could carry a greater payload than earlier versions. The fuselage was basically a large box mounted on four landing wheels, with a slender tail boom attached. The engine was in the nose and connected to the rotor head by a drive shaft which ran diagonally between the two pilots, who sat above the cabin and the engine. This design was revolutionary for its time and solved centre of gravity problems which had plagued previous early helicopters. Many consider that the S-55/Whirlwind was the first truly practical operational helicopter. However, just a reminder for those who never flew the Whirlwind HAR Mk10; it has no autopilot and was not stable, it had to be hand flown all the time.

We set off on March 11 (a Monday); Squadron Leader Dave Todd, Flight Lieutenants Ron “Chunky” Lord, Dennis Brooks, Dave Holes and myself, Flying Officers Bob Babbage, Mick Catlow and Murray Jones in the Whirlwinds XP329, XP395, XR454 and XJ758. That first day we did two legs, refuelling at Orleans and night stopping at Lyon (the total flight time was 4 hours 20 minutes). In those days RAF stayed en-route at civil airports on the Continent and were handled by British European Airways and there were no problems generally, while the food in their in-flight lunch boxes was of the same standard as served to passengers and was really good.  The following day, I was leading with Dennis Brooks navigating, we left for Pisa but as there was a Mistral blowing down the Rhone valley the helicopters were actually doing at least 120 knots ground speed.  Therefore we arrived at Nice in record time, refuelled and flew on to Rome (6 hours 40mins).  Dave Todd never allowed the grass to grow under his feet!  On March 13 we left Rome and arrived in Athens.  I have to confess I cannot remember if we refuelled at Naples or Brindisi  but I remember flying over the crater of Mount Etna which was just off track (flight time 7 hours).

Dave Todd was given a rocket from the Air Attaché in Athens for arriving one day early (apparently there was some diplomatic objection because we were in UN colours), so we had a day off in Athens to maintain the schedule approved by No 38 Group.  We visited the Parthenon and went to the Piraeus and had a most civilised lunch at a harbour side restaurant.  On March 15, back on schedule, we flew via Rhodes to Cyprus, landing at Nicosia (flight time 5 hrs 50 minutes).   We had taken the precaution of suggesting that the supporting Armstrong Whitworth Argosy C Mk 1 from RAF Benson should delay leaving Athens until we had cleared Rhodes so they could use their weather radar to give us a track check, which worked well. 

Lucky me – I had the first detachment and was not back home until early May.   

Cyprus was quite pleasant. We had set the normal detachment length at about 6 weeks, long enough to get acclimatised but more or less OK for the families left at home.  The flying could be very difficult despite the blue sky, sunshine and sea image. The weather could on occasions be quite savage, especially in the Kyrenia mountain range, where some of the landing sites at detachment outposts were very challenging. I remember one site in particular where I had a great problem in landing, the updraught on the forward edge was very strong and contrary to the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), I had to creep much lower than was ideal to get in. These sites were inaccessible to wheeled traffic and there were no mules to be had. Everything went in by helicopter, even water. One strong memory is a radio relay post between Nicosia and Akrotiri where the road was washed out and we had not been able to get in for a couple of days. We flew in at last on a Sunday morning and I can still remember the almost continuous lightning flashes reflected in the co-pilot’s visor. Drink and cigarettes were cheap, especially in the UN shop in Cyprus.  It was hot in the summer but surprisingly cold in the winter months, with that inconvenient switch from khaki drill to blue suits. 

All good things come to an end and in February 1969 the detachment was on its way home as the Squadron was due to move to RAF Wittering in March. Dave Todd had been replaced by Squadron Leader Trevor Jones as Squadron Commander in October 1968.

On February 14, the detachment departed Nicosia for Rhodes and Athens. This time there were the following Whirlwinds: XK986, XP395, XP329 and XJ454 (986 had been flown out by Belfast freighter as a replacement). I had the lead with Dave Holes as navigator from Rhodes on the second leg that day.  It was really nasty – a proper goldfish bowl; bright sunlight, flying into sun and poor visibility.   However the bits of islands that we did see were in the right place and agreed with the map and we made Athens in good time (5 hours 40 minutes). There we encountered problems, one of the pilots was obviously not well and the Embassy provided a doctor who diagnosed flu.  Unfortunately we did not have a spare pilot (or other extra aircrew member).  However our Squadron Engineering Officer had a fair amount of unofficial stick time and he agreed to fill the slot.  

We departed Athens for Kerkyra on February 15, leading with Dave Holes. There were no real problems but there was a westerly wind that was slowly getting stronger and the aircraft were steadily losing speed through the air.  We refuelled and set off for Brindisi (it was obvious that no records were being broken that day).  I was back at No 4 for this leg and I remember that the leader and the others had been really thrown about as they crossed the coast outbound. The Adriatic was not like the holiday brochures either – more like the North Sea in winter (our flight time was 4 hours 15 minutes).

Now on Wednesday, February 16, life got really interesting.  The flight set off for Naples.  The problem was that the Whirlwind 10 had an engine restriction on flying (if memory serves) when the outside air temperature was +5C or below in

precipitation and we were heading for about 5000ft.  We got close but never quite had both limits together.  The high ground was snow covered and really beautiful.  We refuelled at Naples and I had the lead with Dave Holes again.   The target was Pisa where the support Lockheed Hercules C Mk 1 from RAF Lyneham was scheduled to meet us.  Alas, we only got as far as Rome (Ciampino). We had tracked up the coast from Naples not getting anywhere fast and with a lowering cloudbase it was obvious that we would not get to Pisa in daylight.  So we had a stopover at the Pension Woodcock (quite nice, used by BEA for flight crew stopovers) – in sight of the Coliseum.  As we had no civvies, it sadly meant that there was no night life.

So it was on to Pisa on February 17 to be reunited with our gear (flight time Brindisi to Pisa 7 hours 10 minutes). We continued to Nice after refuelling (a 2 hour hop).  Nice was freezing (relatively) and we night stopped at the Hotel George V; where I was pleased to find that I had been allocated an enormous room and a huge bath. On Thursday, February 18 we were back on schedule (or so I thought) and it was off to Lyon again in the lead. We cut the corner over the Alps Maritime and after refuelling flew on to Orleans with Flying Officer Dave Turner (4 hrs 30 minutes).

On Friday and Saturday we were grounded at Orleans. So we sat in the support Hercules with the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) running the HF radio, listening to the Transport Command weather forecast.  For two days the whole of the UK was shut down flying-wise (civil and military) as there was continuous snow or the clearance equipment could not move it before it snowed again.  I remember that by Saturday most of us were running out of money, the servicing crew were entitled to meals etc off the imprest but officers were not.  Dave Holes and I were sharing a room and we pooled our cash and decided that we would have a really good feed that evening. We did. Luckily on the afternoon of Sunday February 20 we managed to get into RAF Thorney Island (2 hours 40minutes). Needless to say the pilot with flu beat us home.  While we were away the UHF approach frequency at Odiham had been changed which caused a bit of confusion when the flight flew from Thorney to Odiham on the Monday (well I never said that our planning was perfect).  So long hauls were possible in an aged 90 knot machine with no autopilot or onboard navaids.  However it’s not careful planning or adequate support or good flying (though they help) it’s down to the grim uncontrollable facts – luck and the weather.  The Whirlwind did well both ways, there were no significant snags.  What shook me was the difference in the two transits.  I suppose that this thought should have crossed my mind earlier – I had been flying for about 14 years when this started!   But of course everyone knows that it’s easier flying downhill (north to south)!  Just in case you ask, I did not go to Wittering with 230 Squadron; I crossed the airfield to the Wessex conversion course and No 78 Squadron in Sharjah.  My 3 months in Borneo didn’t count as an unaccompanied tour!