Last Days of the SV10

I scrambled for the number two radio, found a weather broadcast frequency, and listened. It was terrible. The weather brought the cloud base below our landing limits for the navigation aids available, and was not expected to clear any time soon. We should divert. We should wave off now, take whatever fuel we had and head for the nearest runway that could take us. Nairobi was too far for our remaining fuel, as was Entebbe or Mombasa. There was Djibouti; there was only Djibouti. Out on the coast, on the horn of Africa, some four hundred miles away in Djibouti, was the town called Djibouti with a mile an half of good concrete right beside the sea and was far, far away from fifteen thousand foot mountains.

John decided against the diversion. He wanted to make the approach. He wanted to take a look to see the low cloud base for himself. I opposed his view. The others said nothing. We made the approach.

We made the approach despite the fact that the cloud base was reported as four hundred feet, and we, with only a high frequency radio beacon to guide us in, were not permitted to descend below five hundred feet until we had clear visual contact with the runway. Tim and I reviewed the missed approach procedures; they were fraught with problems.

Haile Selassie airport is seven thousand six hundred feet above sea level where the air is thin, where we have to travel faster than we would in thicker, low level, air in order to maintain a safe flying speed. Our indicated airspeed remains the same, regardless of altitude, but our speed across the ground increases, which means we come bowling over the runway faster, and will need to hit our brakes, our hydraulic ‘B’ system only brakes, harder than we do at low altitude airfields. Add to that the fact that the air was hot, much hotter than it was in Paris when we left eight hours ago. Hot air is thinner, which means more speed, adding to the problem of hotter brakes; the whole thing snowballs. All of which increases the importance of accurate positioning of the aeroplane over the runway threshold for a safe landing. Please let me go to Djibouti.

If we do not see the runway when we descend to five hundred feet, if we are still in cloud, our position relative to the runway still uncertain, then we too must go around. We must accurately fly the missed approach procedure, with the emphasis on accuracy because a mountain called Abuye Meda, reaching up to 13,000 feet will be dead ahead of us, and nearby will be another, Talo, going on 14,300 feet, and not far away was old Ras Dashan Terara, all 15,000 feet of him, who has been here millions of years and does not take kindly to noisy aeroplanes buzzing around his ear in the middle of the night, especially when he is enjoying a nice warm thunderstorm on his southern slopes. He might not let us go. He might decided we have to stay here, on his southern slopes high above the city as a warning to all who follow that Ras Dashan does not suffer fools gladly. Certainly we could not consider ourselves safe until we were clear of his peaks.

Now we are less than two thousand feet above the height of the airfield and paying close attention to our altimeters, and our radio aids, and tracking our way towards the runway where we badly need to see the approach lights stretching long before our weary eyes. Busily we check height against distance, start the stop watches over the radio beacon, checked off the seconds to the runway, look at the radar . . . It is all we have; a poor radio beacon and our stop watches and a gloomy radar that is hard to read is all we have until we see the landing lights through a break in the cloud, but they do not come. Brian is handling the aeroplane immaculately, creeping us over the approach he takes us to five hundred feet and lets the aeroplane drift a little lower, a little closer to four hundred feet, but we see nothing. The seconds click by.

John stares ahead, then at the radar, then ahead. I am watching the radio altimeter hovering on four hundred feet, the engines at eighty-eight per cent revs per minute, the airspeed at one hundred and forty-five knots, the rate of descent is zero. The stopwatch has run past the time to the runway. We must have missed it. It must be below us now, if we are in the right place. If we are over the runway and not to one side where there is higher ground. All around there is higher ground. Please, please let me go to Djibouti. Let me open up these throttles and power us into the dark wet night and get us out of here.

Finally John says, “Go around.” Brian calls for climb power. I apply full power – climb power would not be enough in this warm, rare, air from so far down the runway with old Ras Dashand waiting to collect us. Full power is the only way to go, and even then we are not going very far very fast. I will not breathe comfortably again until we are restored to fifteen thousand feet.

We climbed away from Addis Ababa and turned east, directly into the Sun already beginning a new day over all of Africa. Kipling’s line, “The Sun comes up like thunder . . .” came to mind as we struggled in the glare with charts and tables and eventually found Djibouti, Ambouli, Airport just to the south of the city. It was a relief. We had flown for ten hours after leaving Paris ninety minutes late, missed our approach into Addis, avoided old Ras Dashand and his friends, then flew another hour an a half into the blinding Sun. When that mile and half of Djibouti concrete appeared, stretching lazily beside the Indian Ocean, it became the most beautiful piece of concrete we had ever seen.

The man in the control tower said, “You cannot land here. You do not have permission.” Well we did not have another missed approach procedure in us. We only had landings left in our itinerary. We landed and apologized, and explained our situation to the man in the army uniform who rushed out in a jeep to meet us. He was fine after that, and helped us find a place to park, and told the local workers to help us and lend us the Air France equipment to provide air conditioning and electricity for our aeroplane.

Pleased as we were to be on terra firma we were disappointed to learn that there were only a few hotel rooms available in Djibouti: not just in the town, in the country of Djibouti. Accommodation for the travel weary passengers was out of the question – there were not even enough rooms for the crew. So some stayed aboard, to take care of the passengers, while we, the gods from the flight deck and the minimum cabin crew required for the safety equipment, took a couple of rooms and went fast asleep until the legal rest requirements were fulfilled for us to work again. In the late afternoon we returned to the airport and started cranking up the paper work and loading the fuel to create a flight back to Addis Ababa where the weather was now fine. All went well, including the creation of a credible load and balance sheet put together by Tim. I was about to instruct the ground staff to fire up the machine to provide the pneumatic pressure to start our engines when an Air France 707 swooped down upon the runway. In an instant we lost electrical power and air conditioning as the ground staff rushed the equipment to the new bird ready to dib dib, and snap their heels to the masters of the Universe. The start truck went too – even though it would be ages before it would be needed by Air France. Still it was their stuff – we had been lucky, I suppose, to have had the use of their electrical power unit overnight.

We watched as the Air France passengers descended the steps and loaded themselves into the dusty Mercedes bus to be driven to the airless terminal building with few seats and primitive amenities. The fuel bowsers arrived and connected the hoses under the close supervision of the Air France flight engineer. It seemed like a good time to approach so I walked over. He was tall, about six-three, his hair curly and his shirt front open to display more curls on a golden tan topped with a bronze medallion. “Bonjour,” I was struggling to sum up the little French I had. He looked down at me and if an eye can sneer, his did – both of them. He made a noise that might have been bonjour, and raised his eyebrows in search of an explanation for my presence in the shade of his wing. I tried again, “Excusez-moi, j’ai très peu de langue française.”

“You can speak English to me.”

“Ah, good. Might I have use of your start truck for a few minutes?” He looked over to our VC10, then back at me. “Our passengers have been on board for twenty-three hours.” Still he stared. “I only need to start one engine then we’ll be away.”

He held the stare a little longer, turned his attention to the fuel gauges, to the bowser dials, then back to me before he finally he spoke, “Non.”

That was it – I was dismissed. Our passengers would just have to wait until these people flew away, which they did after only another forty minutes, as did we shortly after.

A day later we reached the beaches and sunshine of the Seychelles bringing a happy ending to the outbound journey. The return flights were nowhere near as exciting – for more thrills and spills I would have to wait until the end of the Concorde training.


The Secrets Course

On the first day of the Flight Engineer Concorde Conversion Course we were late because the bus was late. The driver was not sure of his way either to the hotel, or to the British Aerospace factory in Filton, Bristol. It brought the wrath of the Customer Training Manager upon us because the course was tight – very tight with every second accounted in the curriculum. In fairness the angry manager didn’t know the reason for our tardiness when he delivered our reprimand, and subsequently apologized, but as he did I saw a hint of recognition. He and I had been here before – twelve years before when he had been ready with a reprimand because he thought I was a company apprentice not, as I was, an employee of the much valued customer East African Airways. As he looked over the faces of we chosen four for the next course in supersonic commercial transport he also recognised two of us who had attended his courses as employees of Vickers Armstrong before it became British Aircraft Corporation and subsequently British Aerospace Systems. They were fairly strong academics as was another – a peer from apprentice days when he proved many times over that his memory far outstripped mine. Statistics to date said one of us, possibly two, would fail to complete the course and given the company in which I found myself I couldn’t help but feel the pressure.

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