Having previously served on 2 Squadron flying Swifts in the Fighter Reconnaissance role in Germany, followed by a short refresher course at Chivenor, Flt Lt Bill Sheppard joined 8 Squadron in 1963. Here he remained flying ground attack sorties until a few months before the end of his tour, when his FR experience was put to good use by 1417 Flight. At the end of his tour, Bill was initially posted to North Coates on Bloodhounds but was quickly assessed as suitable for instructing and moved to CFS at Little Rissington for QFI training.
“In mid-December 1964 I was tasked, with Chris Cureton, to ferry two Hunter 9s from the UK to Aden. We picked them up at Kemble, where they were prepared for the flight, and the route was to be Kemble - Luqa - El Adem - Jeddah - Khormaksar. My aircraft was the venerable XE649, which had already done a tour on 8. It was coded ‘S’ from 01/04/60 until 17/08/62, when it was sent back to St Athan for its first refurbishment. Now, on 14th December; it was going back out for a second tour. As usual, it was chucking it down with rain when we got to Kemble, and as usual the aircraft weren’t ready in the morning, so we kicked our heels until they were pronounced fit to go that afternoon. So we were late before we’d even started!
The first leg was incident-free, and we duly landed at Luqa (Malta) in the late afternoon, in somewhat better weather than we’d left behind in the good old UK! We night-stopped there, being forbidden, for some quaint reason, to continue in the dark, which put us further behind schedule, but an early start next morning got us equally uneventfully, into El Adem, in pre-Gaddhafi Libya. Here Chris’s aircraft started playing up. When it worked, the later Hunter starting system of a turbine turned by ignited Avpin was great, but a series of starter-bay fires ordained that we should always have the bay door open for starting, any resulting flames being ‘patted out’ by the attendant airman equipped with an asbestos glove - crude, but effective. This in itself was no great problem, though it did rather negate the purpose of the system, which was to effect a rapid start followed by an equally rapid getaway in the event of a ‘scramble’. The Avpin tank, in theory, held enough of the stuff for at least three starts. However, Chris’s aircraft began developing another problem, when, having pushed the starter button, all that happened was the ‘wheeee, phut’! Not an uncommon phenomenon. There was a little black box on the inside of the starter bay door and standard practice on failed start-ups was to wallop it with the butt-end of a large screwdriver, and most times it took the hint and did what it was supposed to do. With the ground-crew at El Adem fully conversant with the foibles of Hunters, this was no problem as the box was duly thumped and Chris’s mount sprung to life!
Soon after getting airborne, we changed to the frequency we had been given for contact with Cairo control, but when we called them for the appropriate clearances they weren’t interested, telling us to call some-one else on a frequency we didn’t have (of course!). After a bit of an argument, I finally called Chris over to a frequency that was for nothing in particular, and told him to spread out to a good three thousand yards line abreast, so as to keep a bloody good lookout behind us, while opening up to a cruising speed of around Mach .9. Not fuel-efficient, but that was not the worry - possible Egyptian military curiosity was! We then steered a course down the dead centre of the Red Sea until within radio range of Jeddah, which luckily seemed to have heard of us, and allowed us to land there without further argy-bargy.
And this is where the story really started! We were met, in the mid-afternoon, by a somewhat bewildered gentleman from our Embassy in Jeddah in his Land Rover and, after being refuelled by a marvellous Arab from Shell, who knew all about refuelling Hunters (from where?), even to banging the drop tanks at the appropriate places to get the float-switches to do their stuff, we set off to get further clearance from Air Traffic and to seek out more Avpin. The first was successful, the second not, so we had to pray we had enough for our last start ups before Khormaksar.
In those days Jeddah was a sleepy little airport, servicing the needs of a nascent Saudia with its DC3s, plus the odd similar aircraft from Aden, and at that time of day it was virtually deserted. Air Traffic were friendly and helpful, but there was no-one else around at all - just us, our two warbirds, and the Embassy chappie! No chocks, no ladders, no fire extinguishers - nothing! And Chris’s aircraft playing silly-buggers with its starter.
His was obviously the first priority, so we concentrated on that. By climbing up via a drop tank, a wing and the spine, and dropping into the cockpit, he readied to start up while I looked after the starter bay. And of course - wheeee, phut and nothing else! The Embassy chap looked quite amazed at this display of modern military technology and was more astonished when I asked him if a) he had a tool kit and b) if so, did he have a screwdriver, preferably a large one? He foraged about in the bowels of the Landy and found what I wanted, so I dived under Chris’s aircraft and gave it another try - same result. Not only did the prospect of a night - or more - in Jeddah not appeal, but there was the not-trifling matter of diplomatic clearance to consider, the renewal of which could have stranded us there for a couple of weeks or more! So, to the bewilderment of the watching diplomat, I hammered the black box with the handle of his screwdriver and signalled Chris to give it another go. Thanks entirely to this bit of delicate technical expertise, the starter acknowledged it was up against a superior intellect and burst into life, and a modicum of flames was extinguished by waving the door about (I seldom, even in those days, wore flying gloves!), before closing it and retreating in triumph!
Now for mine! Having left the parking brake on, Chris exited his aircraft using the reverse procedure of his entry as I got into mine in like fashion. It started up first time and after Chris had climbed back into his cockpit, we waved good bye to the diplomat; who was shaking his head in disbelief, and off we went! We should really have gone down the Red Sea to where it joined the Indian Ocean, turned left and up the coast to Aden, but after a while I had had enough, so we took a short cut across Yemen, figuring that their Air Force radars weren’t likely to bother us too much. A little later we called Khormaksar and heard the welcome voice of our own ATC, before breaking into the circuit and landing - job done!
All par for the course on many a ferry trip, but it did make me wonder what would have been the outcome had something gone wrong - Chris’s parking brake slipping off or a genuine fire on one of our starts at Jeddah, for instance. One or both of us court martialled or something, probably, as of course we had broken, if not every one, at least several, of the rules in the book. Good fun though and I bet the Embassy chap in Jeddah dined-out on the story for a few weeks after that! Some consolation for what can hardly have been a plum posting.
XE649 stayed with 8 Squadron until 20/10/66 before being returned for yet another refurbishment and back to Bahrain to serve with 208 Squadron from 17/06/67. Having remained with 208 until 24/02/69, it returned to St Athan for the last time. Whoever had the pleasure of ferrying it on these occasions could probably have left it to its own devices as it would have found its own way!”
“8 Squadron was on one of its frequent detachments to Bahrain over the Christmas period in 1963 and, shortly before starting a four-day Christmas break, our OC, Tammy Syme, dined with the OC of 3 (I think) Para, who were based on the island at the time. During what was probably a fairly alcoholic evening, the Para Boss opined that Air Force chaps didn’t have the bottle to leap out of aeroplanes, preferring to stay within except in emergencies. Tammy hotly disputed this, to which the Colonel responded that as they were going on a jump at Sharjah shortly, why not send some of his nancy-boy pilots to jump with them - or words to that effect! ‘Done’, said Tammy, and next day, somewhat sheepishly, he told us what he had said and asked if he could have, say, six volunteers. Pete Loveday, Steve Jarvis and I, plus another three whose names I can’t recall, raised our hands. I had actually completed the abbreviated para course at Abingdon a few years before, notching up two jumps from a tethered balloon and three from a Hastings - one of a couple of types in which I have taken off several times but never landed, the other being the DH Rapide some time later.
The next day we set off for the Para camp, where we were given a rudimentary lesson on how to land and roll with it and that was that. A couple of days later we embarked in a Beverley at Muharraq at dawn, along with a number of paras in full battle garb, kit-bags etc., and headed off to the Jebel Ali area, a flattish piece of desert used by the paras for training. Feeling a bit out of place in our comparatively poncy-looking flying suits, we were subjected to cynical and amused smirks from the hefty thug-like paras as they probably wondered why we were there. On reaching the target area, the Beverley disgorged its load of paras on a couple of runs at about 800’, before climbing to 1,000’ for us. Despite the option of opening the back end, we exited from a side door in quick succession and floated gently down to earth - or sand. Except, however, in my case. Having checked the ‘chute was okay, I looked down, and instantly sensed where I was heading for; within all that sand was one piece of flat rock, and of course, no matter what I did to the virtually unsteerable para-type ’chute, I dropped inexorably towards it. On impact, I executed my three-point landing - heels-arse-head in quick succession - backwards, which made sitting down rather tender for a day or two (the heels had boots, the head a helmet, the arse...!), but otherwise no problem! The six of us then gathered up our ’chutes and awaited the Beverley’s landing to pick us up and take us home.
The atmosphere on the way back was somewhat different from that on the outward flight. The paras were more friendly and pressed upon us tin mugs of their special-brew called ‘Tang’, a powdered orangeade drink made-up to a strength that could dissolved stainless steel! It went down surprisingly well. Although they didn’t hand us an honorary Red Beret, we had vindicated Tammy’s rash boast and gained respect from those toughies in the Paras.
There was an interesting postscript to this a little while later. During the Christmas break, most units, ours included, had installed ‘billet bars’ for the lads to imbibe for as long as the copious stocks lasted. Needless to say, the 8 Squadron bar ran out of beer early on the final evening, so Pete Loveday and I went searching other bars for any surplus we could buy from them. After a fruitless search amongst several, we entered one bar in which everyone instantly froze, staring at us in a distinctly unfriendly manner. Somewhat taken aback, I asked if they had any spare beer we could buy and was about to receive, I’m sure, a frosty reply, when a voice in the crowd shouted, ‘Hey, mate, didn’t you jump with us at Sharjah the other day?'. On realising whose bar we were in, I replied in the affirmative, whereupon beers were firmly pressed upon us and we left with half-a-dozen cases of the stuff! Hardly enough to quench the drought at 8 Squadron, but better than nothing. Happy days and it did a bit for inter-Service relations too.
Poor Pete was killed in Malaysia in February 1966, when, with myself and three others, he was on a detachment flying Jet Provosts on a trial for Forward Air Controllers. On one sortie, having done his bit with them, he gave them a beat-up, but sticking up above the forest canopy was a sole, leafless tree. This he hit with his starboard wing, taking it clean off. The aircraft flipped over immediately and plunged into the jungle, killing him instantly. A sad, but very quick, end to a super guy.
It was not just the lads who lived in Tyneham huts at Sharjah, as on the late 1963 detachment there were eight (or ten?) of us ‘drivers’ sharing one too. The day it pissed down early on a Sunday morning, we were awoken by the noise of it on the roof. I suddenly realised that it was FRESH WATER - as opposed to the sea-water showers we had there, so I yelled at the rest to get outside and have a much needed fresh-water shower. We all stripped off, and dashed outside, and started lathering ourselves with proper soap - not the horrid stuff you needed for a sea-water shower. Great! Then what happened? - it bloody stopped raining, and there we all were, covered in soap, so we had to go back into the usual showers and rinse it all of in sea water!! Sod's Law!
On that same detachment, 8 Sqn OC Sqn Ldr Tammy Syme told Mike Flynn, a newly arrived pilot, and thus the junior officer, to make coffee for him and a visiting AVM? He duly did so, and luckily Tammy took the first sip. Being very new, Mike hadn’t realised that the normal taps gave sea water - there were special taps for fresh water - and he had made the coffees with brine!”