Sqn Ldr Mike Murden

There could not have been a sharper contrast between the job Sqn Ldr Mike Murden left behind in Bomber Command and what awaited him on arrival at Khormaksar. In August 1960 he became Engineering Officer to 8 Squadron, a unit which had just converted to Hunter FGA.Mk.9 aircraft to which were later added four FR.Mk.10s. These pages were created from a composition of articles by Mike that were published in the Royal Air Force Historical Society’s Journal (No. 18) and in ‘Through Eyes of blue’.

The Technician’s burden

A few hours after my arrival I was taken to meet the CO, Squadron Leader Rex Knight and his pilots. I was delighted to be made so welcome. But the next day my mood turned to dismay when I met the NCOs and airmen, many of who seemed shattered from working long hours in an appalling climate with inadequate resources. All work had to be undertaken in the open because there was no room in the hangars except for aircraft on second line servicing. Engine ground runs were carried out on the crowded aircraft dispersals. On my first morning a corporal engine fitter had lost control during an engine ground-run, the aircraft ‘jumped’ the chocks and then collided with the end of the hangar. Such an accident should never have happened but, to a certain extent, the man was a victim of the circumstances at Khormaksar at the time.

Then there were dust storms and sand everywhere which caused much of the unserviceability including engine malfunctions, brake failure, electrical and undercarriage problems. The intense heat also added to our difficulties. On one occasion we waited weeks for replacement fuel bag tanks. Spares, sent out by ship as deck cargo, melted during the journey and fell apart when unpacked on arrival. Much needed improvement came towards the end of 1960 when the squadron moved to a newly constructed headquarters and dispersal. Even so our established strength, based on previous UK experience, was totally inadequate for Aden.

Because of the exceptionally high levels of equipment failures and severe shortages of spares an unacceptable number of aircraft were grounded waiting for AOG spares. Command staff took firm steps to remedy the situation but it was many months before improvements reached the squadron. These many problems did not stop us getting on with squadron routine including reconnaissance, practice on the range and supporting the Army on Dhala convoys which were accompanied by one of our pilots as Forward Air Controller. On these occasions we had armed aircraft standing by for intervention.

On 13 January 1961 Flt Lt Les Swain disappeared on a routine flight near the Yemen border. We were all very upset at the loss of such an experienced and popular pilot. Every available aircraft was sent out to search. Hunters, Meteors and Shackletons all returned with bullet holes. For several days the ground crew worked incredibly hard throughout daylight hours doing rapid turnarounds and rearming aircraft. At times like this every possible serviceable aircraft was needed even though the majority had deferred defects. So before most aircraft could fly I had to impose limitations by making ‘red line entries’ in the Forms 700. I was often concerned about the airworthiness of these aircraft and the possible consequences of further failures during subsequent operations. Fortunately there were no such incidents during my time on the squadron.

When the whole squadron moved to the Gulf on exercises our place at Khormaksar was taken by 208 Squadron from Nairobi or carrier-borne aircraft of the Royal Navy. Ground crew usually travelled by Beverleys of 84 Squadron. On the way we would refuel at one of the route stations such as Salalah.

Following a most welcome visit by Air Cdre Ivor Broom, from the Air Ministry, the Unit’s manpower establishment was considerably increased. By February 1961, new hangars had been constructed, spares were more plentiful, technical manpower had been increased and pilots were getting more of the flying needed to remain proficient. At the same time, behind the scenes, contingency plans were being drawn up for ‘Vantage’. One of the larger exercises in the spring of 1961, this involved all three Services. Carrier-based aircraft of the Royal Navy relieved 8 Squadron at Khormaksar so that we could move to Sharjah and practice for ‘an emergency somewhere in the Persian Gulf’. Army involvement in the exercise included The Trucial Oman Scouts and Coldstreams at Burami Oasis.

Kuwait Crisis

These changes came just in time because by mid-1961 it seemed increasingly likely that General Kassim would send Iraqi invasion forces into Kuwait. So whilst there was still plenty of room for improvement, we were better prepared than we had been a year earlier when, on 30 June 1961, 8 and 208 Squadrons were ordered to move immediately to Bahrain, together with 30 and 84 Squadron Beverleys carrying ground crews and spares. For 8 Squadron that meant a flight of 1300 miles from Khormaksar. But 208 Squadron had to fly from Nairobi and cover almost twice the distance. On arrival at Khormaksar 208 had a sandwich lunch, still wearing flying suits, before the two squadrons departed, ‘cutting the corner’ over Oman, to reach their destination early that evening. There was a real possibility of a Gulf War.

The Mark 9 Fighter Ground Attack aircraft carried two 230-gallon long-range fuel tanks on the inside pylons giving the type the extended range needed for their role in the Middle East. Operation Vantage included the possible need for the Hunters to fly from Bahrain to the Iraq/Kuwait border and beyond, jettisoning tanks on the return leg. So on arrival we refuelled immediately and I sent airmen to collect more tanks and jettison-cartridges from the contingency Stockpile. In the meantime we began painting white bands around the rear fuselages of our aircraft to distinguish RAF Hunters from those belonging to two similar squadrons operated by the Iraqi Air Force alongside their MiG-15Bs. There were 500 long-range tanks in the Stockpile, so the planners must have expected a lengthy campaign. To my dismay the men returned to tell me that there were no explosive bolts in store. A few urgent signals confirmed that none could be located anywhere in the theatre. So the plan to ‘jettison’ was out of the question. A decision was made to remove the long-range tanks fitted to every aircraft and replace them with the smaller 100-gallon version.

By this stage all bowsers were full, so they could not be used to empty the contents. We had no option other than to drop every tank onto the sand, roll it onto its side, and empty the contents - being careful not to get fuel on the tyres. All the empty tanks were contaminated with sand and had to be scrapped. Most of that night was spent reconfiguring tanks, so there was no time to finish painting the fuselages. We had very little sleep before returning to the aircraft.

The next morning we were ordered to move into Kuwait. Together with the ground crew, I was in the first Beverley to take off, soon to be followed by the Hunters led by the CO, Squadron Leader ‘Laurie’ Jones. Visibility was appalling and everyone on board the Beverley was wondering about the whereabouts of the Iraqi aircraft. The crew eventually located Kuwait Civil Airport and landed, but as we taxied in we were ordered to take off immediately and continue to the partly-completed Kuwait New airport. As we came to a standstill we could see helicopters from HMS Bulwark coming in to land. During the morning several Centurion tanks came out of hiding and moved to the perimeter. But we soon lost sight of them because the visibility remained at about 400 yards for most of the next few days. Consequently almost every take off and landing was a very hazardous business.

The new airport was incomplete and had never been used before. We moved into the terminal building which had no windows, doors or services. Within minutes of our arrival a Kuwait Government official came to me offering over 100 cars, trucks and cranes for unrestricted use by the British forces. Petrol would be issued free to any driver wearing a British uniform. Squadron pilots were quick to volunteer to help so we soon had vehicles available to unload the continuing stream of Beverleys and other aircraft. The build-up of forces seemed phenomenal and before the day was out included aircraft from Cyprus and UK. The whole airfield became seriously congested and matters were made worse when we realised the Hunters were sinking into the perimeter track which consisted of newly-laid tarmac that was melting in mid-day temperatures of 125°F. We could not touch the aircraft. So much of the servicing, such as engine changes, had to be done at first light while it was cool. It was thirsty work and Fg Off John Volkers was very popular when he managed to commandeer a truck load of Pepsi Cola for the airmen. By the end of the first day we found places to sleep on the concrete floors of the terminal building, but it was very hot inside and some pilots found it cooler to sleep on the aircraft wings.

On the second morning we began work very early while it was still cool - the only time to do an engine change. Field kitchens had been set up and were most welcome. For several hectic days I remained the senior engineer at Kuwait and soon found myself drawn into all sorts of problems well outside my official duties with the squadron. Aircraft continued to arrive all day and throughout the night from Cyprus, UK and the Far East, including commandeered Argonauts and Comets. On arrival from UK, Britannias sometimes stayed on the runway and kept engines running because no external power was available. Operating conditions could not have been more hazardous. Most of the time visibility was down to 400 yards at ground level. On the third night a newly arrived airman from Lyneham went out to marshal an incoming Britannia. In the dark, tired and blinded by blowing sand, he walked into a propeller and was killed. We were all deeply upset by the accident. A few days later Fg Off ‘Flick’ Hennessey, of 208 Squadron, took off on a local reconnaissance flight using an 8 Squadron aircraft. He became disorientated in the poor visibility and was killed. It was a frustrating time for Hunter pilots because of the dreadful visibility. After the initial rush to reach Kuwait it was at times near-impossible to carry out reconnaissance. That same morning a bomb exploded on a Beverley at Bahrain so we then had additional worries about terrorism.

That first week I was the senior engineer at the airport, so I continued to be involved in most technical activities on the base. Each morning the Oil Company insisted on signatures for enormous quantities of aviation fuel. And during the week more than a hundred technical tradesmen from UK, and some from Singapore, reported for duty. They had no tools and were not acclimatised, so it was impossible to use them all on aircraft maintenance. Many had to be employed unloading stores and armaments.

Senior officers visited each day from Bahrein, and I usually attended daily meetings with SASO, OC Ops and sometimes the AOC, who always arrived in his distinctive white Canberra. Expatriates at the Oil Company, grateful for our intervention, offered over-night use of air-conditioned accommodation to some squadron pilots.

On the fourth day there was an early morning scramble by two Hunters after a reported intrusion by an unidentified aircraft. The pilots did not encounter any Iraqi aircraft but the incident proved a timely reminder of the need to remain vigilant. The Iraqi Air Force must have faced similar difficulties with visibility in the Kuwait area. By the time the weather cleared the build-up of British Forces was nearing completion. Initially limited radar coverage of up to 80 miles was provided by HMS Bulwark as she stood close to shore during daylight hours. But the carrier had to move off-shore each night as a precaution against attack. After the first few days everyone began to relax a little and a few of us visited HMS Bulwark by then in Kuwait Harbour. On 9 July HMS Victorious and her escorts arrived from the Far East and provided much improved radar cover.

There were now over 5000 men and a considerable number of aircraft there. By mid July it seemed that Iraq had abandoned its plan to invade Kuwait. Whilst there was a need to remain alert, settled routines were being established. Despite the order to ‘Minimise’, signals traffic was overloaded most of the time and great ingenuity was needed to get AOG (Aircraft on ground) parts for aircraft. The health of pilots and tradesmen suffered for each extra day spent in that dreadful climate.

After the initial build-up of forces was completed, 8 and 208 Squadrons took turns to rotate between Kuwait and Bahrain and then between the Gulf and Khormaksar. Even though facilities at Bahrain were far from ideal, pilots could resume training and it was possible for everyone to have the occasional day off work. But after the Kuwait Emergency life had changed for everyone involved, as had the continuing British presence in the Middle East.

On 22 November 1961, whilst we were in Bahrain, two aircraft took off on a routine training exercise. Only one returned reporting that his No 2, Fg Off Dick Gaiger, had overtaken him in a dive and disappeared into cloud. A subsequent search found aircraft wreckage in Qatar. Dick had been killed on ejection. The Qatar government would only allow one person to visit, identify the body and return with the remains. I was asked to go so that I could also use the only opportunity to visit the accident site and report back to the Board of Inquiry (since no one else would be allowed to visit at a later date). I flew as the only passenger on a Pembroke aircraft and was left on the runway with a promise that I would be collected the next day. I had only a few hours at the scene but managed to work out what had happened. Without a pilot on board the aircraft had hit the ground upside down, straight-and-level. I found it had suffered a nose-down tailplane runaway caused by a fault in the actuator circuit. In an emergency the pilot could use the standby trim switch but it was first necessary to isolate the faulty circuit by pulling out the circuit breaker. Unfortunately the Pilot’s Notes made no mention of the circuit breaker.

The next morning I returned to Bahrain with Dick’s body. After the funeral I explained my findings about the accident to the pilots. That afternoon Martin Webbon took off as one of a pair. In a subsequent tail chase he found himself unable to pull out of a dive. Shortly after that we had a call from Air Traffic telling us that Martin had put out a ‘May Day’ call and mentioned ‘tailplane runaway’. Realising that he could not pull out of the dive, Martin pushed hard on the controls using his feet and then blacked out from the negative-G as he did an outside loop. He landed the aircraft safely but had two black eyes caused by his escapade. Both tailplane malfunctions were reported immediately to Command Headquarters and to our colleagues on 208 Squadron. Local orders were issued to deal with the problem and I wrote an article which was published in the Command Flight Safety Journal. But, despite repeated requests from Khormaksar and Steamer Point, there was very little feedback of information from Air Ministry during my remaining time on the squadron.

On 30 March 1962 Khormaksar held a station Open Day. The 8 Squadron contribution was by three Hunters. Two aircraft made low, fast passes from opposite ends of the runway whilst a third, piloted by Fg Off Peter Blackgrove, made a supersonic dive to reach the centre of the runway at the same time. To our horror, Peter failed to recover from the dive and flew straight into the ground. Later that day we recovered the tailplane actuator from the wreckage and confirmed that the accident had been caused by a runaway tailplane.

I was not sorry to return to UK at the end of my tour in Aden. By the time I left Aden six pilots had been killed including John Volkers and Martin Webbon. I had been deeply upset by the loss of each of these friends and also by the death of the airman. I am not sure that life was much happier for those servicemen who succeeded us.