Who Wears the Whiskers

Photo on 21-01-2016 at 15.47 #3I visited Dar-es-Salaam, in East Africa, more times than I could count in the latter part of nineteen sixty-seven, and most of sixty-eight, but I never wandered the town. I never poked around the little dukas and market stalls, or visited the monuments because I only saw it from the bus. I saw the lights and cooking fires on arrival, a little before midnight, and the dusty streets just as the Sun arose to light my departure but I never left the bus between the airport and the hotel.
Four or five times a month during those years marking the end of the British Empire and the beginning of coloured television I would work with a couple of pilots to take a Comet 4 from Nairobi to Dar-es-Salaam in the evening and bring her back via Mombasa in the morning. It was pleasant work that took only the evening of the first day and the morning of the second with five hours at the hotel in which to sleep. I was naive twenty-three, in my first flying job, and thought myself the cat’s whiskers.300px-BEA_de_Havilland_DH-106_Comet_4B_Berlin
One day, a little before 7am with the Sun bursting up over the Indian Ocean, the number three engine failed to start. It didn’t turn. The Captain hit the start button again; the co-pilot reselected; I checked the electric supply from the ground. Nothing. Nothing happened and I knew why. The cable loom running through the engine bay, behind the fire shield, was burned through. I knew this because four years before in the British European Airways maintenance hangars overhauling Comet 4B aircraft I’d been detailed to clean and repair each of these looms in each of the engine bays on more than one occasion. It was a dirty job, up on a ladder, involving spraying noxious cleaning fluids inside the narrow engine bay, and therefore best suited to a keen, bright eyed, apprentice building experience for his first maintenance license. When they were clean I submitted them for inspection where, invariably, they were found to burnt – the insulation damaged and some of the conductors shorting to others. Often I was given the job of repairing the loom by cutting away the damaged sections and crimping in new wire.
In Dar-es-Salaam that morning I told the Captain about the burnt wiring loom and suggested we delay the flight for a couple of hours while I organise a repair crew.
640px-DH.106_Comet_5H-AAF_EAA_LHR_10.05.64_edited-3 (1)“No,” he said resolutely, “that’s maintenance work. You are my flight engineer. I need you to operate the aircraft not oversee repair work. Nairobi can send out a team.” He hopped out of his seat and headed off to the flight office to telephone home and decide on the best plan. When he returned he told the co-pilot and myself to prepare for a three-engine flight to Nairobi. “They’ll send another aeroplane for the passengers.”
The co-pilot busied himself with charts and tables for a three-engine take-off then asked me to look up the three-engine cruise tables. “We don’t need to fly on three-engines,” I said. “Just to take-off. Once we have some airspeed the number three engine will be turning fast enough to light it up. We can fly home on four engines or come back here and pick up the passengers.”
The two pilots looked at each other. I knew what was coming. “Can we refuel with an engine running?”
I shook my head. “We’re already overweight for a landing back here even without the passengers.”
“We can’t take-off with the bags on board if the passengers are not,” declared the co-pilot. “That’s against the law.”
“It would help to take the bags off. We could probably get authorization for a modest overweight landing,” I ventured.
The baggage handlers said they would not load baggage with an engine running so we left the bags on board. The Captain didn’t seek permission for an overweight landing. He just took-off on three engines and, after we lit the forth, which was number three, he turned down wind to position the aircraft to land gently and roll to a stop with the barest use of the wheel brakes. The passengers scurried aboard and we were away again with all engines running. It was a happy ending story in which a twenty-three year old ex-apprentice learned a bit about ex-wartime bomber pilots and who, exactly, was the cat’s whiskers.

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