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A Gannet Ditching - Julian Hayes

From Fly Navy September 2021, under Obituaries

“Lieutenant Adrian Donald HEWLETT died in Spring 2021

From References: while flying FAIREY GANNET XR431 of 849B Flight on 7 September 1964 during a night landing the aircraft missed the wires, bounced and crashed ahead of the ship, Centaur, off Singapore. Crew recovered by plane guard, LIEUTENANT A.D. HEWLETT slightly injured, LIEUTENANT A.E. SIMS and SUB-LIEUTENANT J HAYES unhurt”

The ditching might have brought to a premature conclusion a year of adventure for myself, then a sprog observer on 849B Flight. The Flight had embarked in HMS Centaur from Culdrose on the 22nd December 1963 for twelve months “East of Suez” in accordance with the then policy of maintaining two fixed wing carriers in that (enormous) theatre. Today, that policy would be far detached from present realities but then was amply justified by subsequent events.

Incidentally, starting a year long deployment three days before Christmas may now seem a bit hard. One would like to think that at least it allowed the carrier being relieved (HMS Eagle?) to sneak home in time for the festivities, but I suspect not!

The first “event” of the deployment was probably not what their Lordships* had envisaged when despatching their smallest fixed wing carrier to sea but, within 48 hours of air group embarkation, a sudden increase to the ship’s vibration and noise level and a southward deviation from the planned course was soon explained by a broadcast to the effect that Centaur was diverting to assist a cruise ship in distress near Madeira. The Lakonia had suffered a catastrophic fire leading to a hasty and not totally successful abandonment of the ship. On Christmas Eve I was flying in the SAR Whirlwind (the pilot, Rod Engledow, was a mate) looking for survivors but, sadly, finding and recovering only bodies. Christmas day saw Centaur disembarking that sorry cargo in Gibraltar.

* (it was only during the succeeding year that the Admiralty morphed into the MOD)

There followed a non-stop Med passage and then canal transit, still in winter blues, emerging to the increasing Red Sea heat as we continued South. Blues gave way to tropical whites and, in my case, a first opportunity for the latter to see the light of day since issue at Dartmouth. This rig was apparently designed to avoid showing much if any bare leg as the shorts stopped only when meeting the white stockings’ tops. However, the onboard Chinese tailors were soon in action, excising a good 4” or more from the shorts bottoms.

Arriving off Aden, the ship commenced a two week work-up. My most enduring memory of this period was my first stint as the Flight Duty Officer, who was required to be on deck during aircraft launch operations. To the heat and humidity or the Gulf were added the heat, incredible noise and efflux of the Sea Vixens as they taxied and blasted off the front end, followed by the rather gentler event of the Gannet launch. Dante’s Inferno springs to mind.

Following an intensive work-up, Centaur was to have taken welcome passage to Singapore. However, news of an army revolt against the duly constituted government of Julius Nyerere in Tanzania resulted instead in the ship embarking 45 Commando, some pongos and a couple of RAF Belvedere heavy lift helicopters and steaming south for Dar es Salaam. On arrival the marines and soldiers were disembarked by Belvederes and 815 Wessex and, with the help of Sea Vixens beating up some of the more distant insurgent barracks, the revolt was quickly subdued. My only contribution to events was in flying to Mombasa with a ship’s cash officer, holstered gun at his waist, to collect the requisite cash denominations for local requirements. This involved our Gannet in launching from anchor, so an extra kick up the backside from the catapult to compensate for lack of launch wind, and necessarily landing ashore in Dar es Salaam on our return, which made us the only members of the ship’s company to have a run ashore there.

Mission accomplished, we sailed North for a few days R&R in Mombasa before commencing delayed passage to Singapore.

The next three months were variously spent in and around Singapore, the air group disembarking to the various RAF stations when Centaur was alongside, and, in between, with visits to Subic Bay, Hong Kong and, not to be forgotten, Pulau Tioman (“banyan island” !

Towards the end of May, the ship was back off Aden disembarking 815 Wessex, stripped for the troop carrying role, to assist with countering the Radfan insurgency. Abandoning the pingers to this unaccustomed task, Centaur sailed once more for Mombasa, thoughtfully first disembarking the remaining Air Group to Nairobi for a very pleasant two weeks of comfortable hotel accommodation, a temperature which at the 5,000’ elevation was a blessed relief after operations off Aden, and some airborne safaris. Not quite so good for the Squadrons’ ground parties who travelled by sleeper train from Mombasa to Nairobi but were robbed in transit by thieves boarding the train during the night.

Leaving Mombasa and re-embarking the fixed wing Air Group, Centaur first returned to Aden to collect 815 Squadron. I never found out much about how their operations went but a few months later was pleasantly surprised to be issued with a General Service Medal with Radfan clasp, as were the rest of the ship’s company.

Returning to the Singapore area, the ship called at Madras for a few days en route. My abiding memory of that visit was that those of us who might have wished to imbibe alcohol were necessarily issued with a certificate vouching for our alcoholism which permitted us to purchase 2 bottles of beer while ashore!

By the time of our return to Singapore, the “Confrontation” between President Sukarno’s Indonesia and the Malaysian Federation had hotted up. Apart from mounting a full-scale conflict in Borneo, Indonesia had been landing dissident forces on the Malay peninsula. Consequently, the Gannets were tasked to fly AEW/ship search operations in the Malacca Straits with an alert Sea Vixen on the catapult ready to launch and investigate any suspect targets.

By mid-September a related task arose from the fact that HMS Victorious was limping back from a no doubt pleasant visit to Australia. The “limp” would have been due to a perennial steering/engine problem which subsequently resulted in her spending time in Singapore dockyard. The passage to Singapore necessarily involved transiting in reasonably close proximity to potentially hostile Indonesian Islands and Centaur was therefore tasked with supporting her passage. In practice that meant keeping a Gannet airborne, again in the AEW/surface search role.

Digressing once more before coming to the actual subject of this history, namely the “ditching”, it is fair to say that the Gannet was generally regarded as a safe and reliable aircraft, compared to, say, the Sea Vixen although, in fact, there were a fairly significant number of aircraft losses during the Gannet’s relatively brief career and sadly these included a proportion of crew fatalities. One of B Flight’s 4 Gannets had already been lost, a few weeks earlier. Ironically it was in the course of an SAR search for the crew of an 892 Sea Vixen which had mysteriously disappeared on a routine flight off Malaya and of which no trace was ever found. The Gannet suffered a serious fire warning and the pilot carried out a faultless daytime ditching. The crew of Frame, Bradburn and Christie were thereafter re-christened Flame, Badburn and Crispy by an unsympathetic Flight line book officer.

Returning to “the ditching” and the operation in support of Victorious, our crew, of Adrian Hewlett (Senior Pilot), Alan Sims and myself, launched at 23.30 to take up a barrier in the direction of the returning carrier. Whether we saw anything of note I cannot now recall, but we returned for our landing slot three hours later. It was a dark night but swell and any breeze were slight. We made two approaches to the deck, touching down but not taking a wire, whereupon the pilot applied full power, and we successfully “boltered”.

On our third approach we again failed to pick up a wire but this time the Double Mambas remained ominously quiet. I was first aware of the scale of problem when Adrian yelled “we’re going in” which just gave me time to eject my hatch before the aircraft hit the sea. The cabin quickly filled with water. I then released my seat harness and swam out of the hatch opening. There was a moment’s unease when something appeared to snag but that quickly cleared. There was then a degree of disorientation in deciding which way was up (witnesses from the flight deck reported that the aircraft sank undercarriage uppermost) but that was resolved by the inflated life jacket bringing me to the surface, conscious of having ingested a certain amount of paraffin flavoured sea water via the nasal passages. Thereafter everything happened very quickly and as, without conscious thought or effort on my part, my side buckles were released, dinghy inflated and I was sitting onboard taking stock in no time at all. I later said a fervent “thank you” for all those regular wet and dry dinghy drills, underwater escape training, and aircraft escape drills which we all had to routinely undergo.

The next event was that I was aware of Alan Sims swimming alongside, notably lacking his own dinghy. It was apparently the practice of some “old and bold” Gannet observers to release all their harness straps except for the seat harness immediately before landing onboard, the theory being that they would be better placed to exit the aircraft swiftly in case of a crash on deck. The reality now was that that Alan, splashing about in the South China Sea, was feeling vulnerable to shark attack with the consequence that he quickly ended up sitting on my lap in an already congested inflatable.

Having established by hailing that our pilot had survived also and was sitting in his dinghy a little way away, we turned our thoughts to attracting the attention of our would-be rescuers. Both individual SARBE were pinging away but we decided to let loose some pyrotechnics. First to hand were the relatively new Mini-flares, comprising .22 sized cartridges which would send up a red flare some 50-100’ and were fired by a thumb operated spring and firing pin enclosed in a metal tube. Between us, we managed to fire about three of these flares before the action of screwing the cartridges into the top of the tube resulted in unscrewing the bottom of the tube so that spring and firing pin were both lost irretrievably in the bottom of the dinghy or overboard. We then turned to the heavy artillery in the form of the one “jungle rocket” included in the dinghy kit. This was designed to blast through 200’ high jungle foliage so a much more serious piece of kit. We managed to fire off this beast just as the plane guard destroyer, HMAS Vampire, loomed alongside out of the darkness. Allegedly the rocket passed between the ship’s A and B turrets!

We were quickly hauled aboard via a ship’s boat, examined for damage, and fed a couple of tinnies of the “amber nectar”. We were returned to Centaur the next day.

L-R Adrian Hewlett, Julian Hayes, Alan Sims

About 10 days later the ship was in Hong Kong where I was somewhat bemused to be told by the Flight SESO that I was due for wet dinghy drill. Apparently the real thing didn’t count and hence I found myself jumping off a ship’s boat in Shark Bay to go through the usual drill but this time winched to safety by the ship’s SAR helo.

Whilst in Hong Kong I reached the pinnacle of my rugby career by being selected for the “Far East Fleet” against Hong Kong. Some of our team members were from Vampire and afterwards expressed satisfaction that those nights of following Centaur around during night flying had at last been demonstrated as a worthwhile duty

I gloss over the rest of this commission although it continued to be eventful, with further visits to the Philippines and Singapore including more “Confrontation” operations (which ultimately produced a second bar to our General Service Medals).

The ship returned to Pompey 12 months almost to the day from its departure.

As to our Gannet crew, Adrian Hewlett subsequently left the service to “take cloth” while Alan Sims transferred to the RAF.

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