The days start earlier in Bahrain than London but I didn’t. I was still deep in slumber when the operator rang to call the crew to the new day. Dinner the previous evening was not much to my taste so breakfast was calling but, just as in Mombasa all those years ago, there was not quite enough time. Coffee and a slice had to do if I was not to keep the bus waiting and who would want to start the check ride day with others waiting?
We didn’t tear out onto the runway and dash for home on the Concorde; we taxied majestically on long legs checking everything meticulously as we went. The early Comets suffered structural, system, and operational problems – planes crashed, people died. It was the first commercial jet transport aircraft so there were unheard of problems of flying for long periods at high altitude and there was much to overcome with the engines – which to use, how to mount them, best way to operate them. Crews had to be trained to fly much faster and that was not so easy given that most were war -time recruits kicked into the air with the bare minimum of training. You could learn by the seat of your pants in a Lancaster or Wellington or even a coastal Shackleton but a jet screaming forty thousand feet into the air at seventy eight per cent of the speed of sound was different – it demanded more of its crew. There had been high failure rates then when piston propeller pilots met axial flow jets with swept wings that could tuck you under at speed, diverge into a Dutch Roll at altitude, and stall over the runway threshold but most, like Bob, came through.
Bob was a WWII bomber veteran who came with ribbons on his jacket, an elegantly groomed moustache, and the manners of a gentleman. Confident, modest, and polite he was very respectful of the Comet 4. It tested him – at every turn from taxiing to take off to landing it tested him. Approaching Dar one night it became clear he was hot and high, too fast and too high, to make a safe landing but he had a solution. “I’ll pump her down,” he declared when the problem was glaringly obvious. “I’ll show you how to get her down.” With that he went into a series of rolls and yaws using aileron and rudder to dump lift until the approach lights on the ground turned from white, too high, red would mean too low, to the correct, orange, colour for landing. It was a nauseating experience up front, in the relatively stable sharp end – how it must have been in the rear as she swung and rolled about the sky I could only imagine. He put her on the ground gently enough, and smiled proudly as he walked away.
That was on the way in to Dar-es-Salaam; on the way out, in the rain soaked morning the situation was a little different. A thunderstorm packed into a towering cumulonimbus cloud was drifting up the coast threatening to close the airfield. Bob spurred us on, “Hop too, Chaps, let’s stay ahead of this weather.” So we hopped too, took off and steered for Mombasa. Sadly the cloud followed and during our descent enveloped both Mombasa and Dar airfields. There was nowhere to go. Dar closed behind us and Mombasa, with only the Voice of Kenya radio transmissions to drive our direction finder, was closing before us. There was insufficient fuel for Nairobi because if we had – if we had loaded up with enough fuel for the 300 mile trip up country we’d have been overweight for the undersize Mombasa runway.
Bob rose to the occasion. “We’ll descend over the sea, out from the coast, and use the VOK transmitter to guide us in.” Had there been an approved non-directional beacon there we could have followed a procedure to establish our position, then tracked in while descending to 500 feet. Without it we had no business below 800 feet but . . . We came in low and slow with the storm crashing around us and saw the coast, saw the waves crashing on the beach, but we didn’t see the runway so Bob opened up the throttles and we climbed away turning back towards the coast. As we went hail hit us hard, deafening hard and the static charge on our airframe set up St. Elmo’s fire on the windscreens. It was dramatic, and it was noisy, no wonder then Stephen, my African cadet flight engineer took fright with eyes bulging so I sat him aside and manned the panel while Bob had another go: Just the one you understand – there was only one further attempt in the fuel tanks.
Reflecting upon the incident now Bob was probably best equipped to handle the situation. He must have had far worse in his Pathfinder days of the 1940s. He must have had many missions where his return was in doubt but there he was – still taking care of us.
For the most part the crews had stepped up to the pace by the time I operated Comets because I came late in the piece – the planes had been in service for eighteen years, if you consider the Comet 1, so the struggles were largely behind them. We had some new ones – fresh problems arise with old machinery – so I had to contend with those but it was comfortable, could be viewed with long perspective; it wasn’t frightening. Concorde was frightening. It was very fast and very new and some of us were not coping so well. Actually quite a lot were not coping so well.