Anthony Caffyn - My first Comet flight
Some 10 days ago (Feb 2015) the BBC ran a programme on the De Havilland 'Comet'. Having, as a National Service REME subaltern (1958-60) volunteered for my second year's service for the Far East, I was very fortunate to be posted to Malaya, I flew there from RAF Lyneuam courtesy of RAF Transport Command. This was in mid-August 1959 and was my first ever flight in an aircraft, which was a Comet 2.
The BBC programme whetted my appetite to find out more about the Comet, and as a consequence I have found on the internet a lovely photograph of a RAF Transport Command Comet 2 in flight, which could well have been the aircraft I flew to Singapore in, as well as a lot of information about Comets, etc.
Although, over 50 years ago, I still have clear memories of the flight.
My group were bussed in by army coach from REME Arborfield mid-morning, where we were taken into a meeting room. We were briefed by a Flight Lieutenant, who informed us that we would be flying from Lyneham to Nicosia, then onto Karachi, then down to the RAF base at Ceylon, before crossing over to Singapore. The flight times for each leg of the journey would be between 4 to 4½ hrs. We were then briefed on safety procedures and possibly other matters, before the Flight Lieutenant announced that there would be a four hour delay as there was a problem with the emergency braking system. Being ignorant of flying matters and being a typical 'Brown' job, this pleased me , for I felt that if the RAF was worried about an emergency braking system, then they were not as 'gung-ho' as some films and the media liked to portray!!
After the briefing I went-up to the Flight Lieutenant and asked if the Comet 2s were only strengthened versions of the Comet 1s which crashed, and had round windows instead of square ones. He confirmed this was so, and went on to say(and this is true) that when the RAF acquired the aircraft from BOAC they were told to carry out a visual inspection of the aircraft after every 24 hours flying time, and to restrict flying ceiling height to 24,000 feet - 'But we don't worry too much about that.' For my first flight - rather comforting!!
Eventually, around 7pm we took off, and I must admit, in the evening sunlight the British countryside looked absolutely beautiful, especially to a first time flyer. Somewhere over the Channel darkness fell. During this leg of the flight a burly flight sergeant, acting as cabin staff, handed out haversack rations and the aircraft captain sent round an info sheet giving details of our flight. Around midnight (local time) we landed at Nicosia, Cyprus. Except for a bar which was open, the rest of the terminal facilities (if there were any) were closed. The passengers on the aircraft, were a mixture of commissioned, non-commissioned officers and other ranks. The officers, of which I was one, objected to being asked to pay 4/6p (1959 prices) for a half pint bottle of beer and boycotted the bar, but the other ranks were quite content to pay this amount!! (Their pay must have been better than that of a NS subaltern!!)
After 90 minutes we took off again on the leg down to Karachi. Again haversack rations were handed out together with the captain's info sheet. I got some sleep in before we started the descent into Karachi International airport. This was the only time in all the occasions I have flown in both fixed wing aircraft and helicopters when I have felt sick, as we descended like being in a roller coaster in the middle of a tropical storm. Stepping out of the aircraft, and although raining the heat rose up from the ground and really hit me. We were bussed to the BOAC rest hotel(?) and treated to a full English breakfast, even if the bacon and eggs were a bit greasy! After a couple of hours we took off on the next leg. As I understood it, as we were a military aircraft with uniformed military personnel on board we were not allowed to overfly India, and consequently flew down just off the west coast of India,which we could see, down to Ceylon. Although, having had a full English breakfast, the flight sergeant produced the standard chicken and salad haversack rations.
It was at this stage, that the flight became interesting. As I looked out of my window (I was seated at the back), I thought we seemed to be flying very high, and it was at this time that the captain sent round his info sheet: 'Height, 42,000 feet'!! The words from the flight lieutenant came back to me - 'BOAC said a flight ceiling of 24,000feet!!' I looked out of the window at the tailplane and, with alarm, saw this flexing up and down and thought of metal fatigue. Having some three months earlier graduated from what is now Loughborough University, but was then Loughborough College of Advanced Technology, where I studied 'Automobile Engineering (Retail and Management)' where one of the subjects was 'Metallurgy', I had some knowledge of metal fatigue, however, a little knowledge can be dangerous!!
Having accepted the knowledge that we were at 42,000ft, the next excitement was when an alarm bell rang in the flight deck, there only being a curtain seperating this from the passanger cabin. The 'Fasten Seat Belt' sign came on and the burly flight sergeant came hurrying down the length of the cabin, torch in hand, and disappeared to whatever there was behind me at the back of the aircraft. After a few minutes he reappeared, somewhat out of breath and sat down next to me. I asked him what was going on. He replied, and I can almost quote him verbatim: 'We don't no why, but on nearly every flight on this aircraft a fuse blows, which although not serious we have to check out, but no one can find the reason why it does.'
Excitement over, and in the evening light we descended into the RAF Katunayake Base at Ceylon. What a beautiful situation! My first experience of the tropics, which could hardly be bettered. We were given an evening meal at the Officers' Mess before we departed for the last leg of our flight across the Indian Ocean and down the Straits of Malacca before landing at the RAF Transport Command base at Changi around midnight, where after about a 90 minute wait a REME Land Rover turned up, and we driven right across Singapore Island, past the infamous Changi Jail, to Pasir Panjang where the REME base was. Happily, no one wanted to know us for 36 hours and I only got up when 'stomach time'told me to do so.
I apologise for writing at length, but I hope I have given you some information which will be of interest to you. I do not know for certain whether it was 216 Sqn that flew us to Singapore, but from I've found out from the internet it would appear to have been so. I must however make this point. If one makes allowances for not having lovely air stewardesses, and are prepared to accept a burly flight sergeant as the cabin attendant, then I cannot say more than that the RAF looked after us so well, and having flown many times subsequently, the RAF Transport Command flight to Singapore rates as one of my best.