A Close Thing . . . by Ralph Swift

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Malta calibration was to prove traumatic. As well as my usual sergeant navigator I was carrying a Sqn Ldr navigator (who shall remain nameless). It had been a tradition in the RAF that the pilot in control was the captain of the aircraft but some of the senior navigators felt that it diminished their role and had lobbied the air ministry to change the unwritten rule and make them captain if they were senior officer on board.

On this occasion we were calibrating Wardia (Malta) and had done a couple of successful runs when on the last run I noted a line of large storm clouds directly across our track and towering to over 40,000 feet, we were calibrating at 25,000 feet, about two thirds the height of the storm clouds and the most dangerous height to enter a well formed storm. I told my navigator we should abort the run since it would be almost impossible to maintain any sort of height and heading which was essential to the task. These aircraft were flown by hand and without benefit of auto pilot. The Squadron Leader Navigator feeling the need to make a command decision literally threatened me with an inquiry if I should abort the trip and demanded that we complete the run. I was left without a choice if I wished to avoid retribution so I just tightened my straps, put my head down and entered the storm. The conditions were very violent and, as suspected, it was impossible to maintain any accurate height or course. We then ran into very heavy hail and ice pellets, so much so that it dented all the leading edges and scored the canopy and I was forced to reduce speed so we lost the run anyway. On returning to Malta it was obvious that the aircraft had sustained too much damage to carry on calibrating and permission was obtained to fly it back to England for repairs. The Squadron Leader departed Malta by other means of transport and left me once more with my usual navigator Sgt Mike Thompson.

The return trip to England was planned at 46,000 feet and all went well until the coast of Southern France came up on the skyline. There was suddenly a bang accompanied by a shower of dust and debris, an explosive decompression,

I stuck the nose down and carried out an emergency descent to about ten thousand feet. We were still over the sea and all my navigators charts etc had literally been sucked off his plotting desk. There was a large split in the canopy directly in front of me, it had no doubt been weakened by the storm of the previous day.

Without any maps or charts, I maintained my heading until the coast of France came up and then turned westward along it. We were burning fuel at a great rate at this altitude and needed a place to land, I had visions of the canopy disintegrating and leaving me sitting in an open cockpit if it did not decapitate me in the process. Eventually a large town came into view with an airfield just outside it which had sufficient runway length for our purposes. I dropped my wheels circled the tower, got a green light and landed. We were at Istres just outside Marseille.

We spent a miserable week at Istres (it was December) whilst they sent a team out from England to try and replace the canopy.

But it has a large number of explosive bolts all around the periphery in case you had to jettison it to eject and the facilities at Isres were not sufficient to be able to do the job.

A decision was made by the authorities after five days to fly the Canberra back to England, as it was, at low speed and low level and at night. On the cold night of December 12th 1955 I took off and flew westward initially to avoid high ground until we came to the Bay of Biscay and then set course for England. We were frozen all the way and I had to keep the seat lowered so that if the canopy caved in it would not incapacitate me. We were low and slow and virtually blind but we finally made it. It took about two and a half hours of somewhat tense flying and navigating.

That was Canberra WJ 681, the explosive decompression took place on December 7th 1955 and the flight back to England Dec 12th.

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