Fg Off Tony Haig-Thomas

The author is indebted to Tony Haig-Thomas and his publisher Martyn Chorlton (Old Forge Publishing) for allowing me to use extracts from Tony's excellent, tongue-in-cheek, book Fall out Roman Catholics and Jews in this website. Should you wish to purchase a copy, see the Bibliography page for ordering particulars.

As a young 21-year old Pilot Officer, Tony Haig-Thomas was posted to Aden May 1959, arriving at Khormaksar on a Comet C.2 on 6 May for a two-year tour. Having marched himself in at the relevant station sections, he reported for duty with 8 Squadron on the following day. Already an experienced pilot with several types under his belt, Tony went was one of those to experience the transition from Venom to Hunter on an active front-line unit.

Day one and shot at - welcome to Aden

On the morning of 7 May I awoke early, breakfasted and hastened on foot and in the heat to 8 Squadron. There I met Andy Devine, my Flight Commander who had flown F-86 Sabres in Korea with the USAF and he took me up to see my boss, Sqn Ldr Rex Knight, also a Korean War Sabre Pilot. The Squadron was equipped with 18 Venoms and two Vampire T.11s and shared a hangar with the Arabian Peninsular Reconnaissance Flight (APRF) which was equipped with four Meteor FR.9s and a T.7.

The Squadron adjutant Barry Wylam brought some papers into the office and, being a curious type, when he and the boss went out for a moment, I had a look at some other papers on the boss’s desk. The signal on top of the pile was to inform the Squadron of my posting; on it the boss had written ‘who is this chap, do we want him?’ Probably not was the answer, but dear me, I certainly needed them. My interview over, it was down to the crew room to see if I could get someone to put me on the flying programme. ‘No’ was the answer, so I went next door to the Meteor Flight to let them know that another Meteor qualified, current, and instrument-rated pilot of exceptional ability had arrived. Their T.7 was serviceable, and not being flown, so Sam Small was authorised to show me the operational area. Soon we were airborne and heading north at low level down the winding road through the mountains that led to Dhala, an army camp on the Yemen border beyond which were the baddies trying to destabilise loyal tribes in the Aden protectorate on behalf of their communist paymasters. I found the low level operational flying very exciting. Soon Sam pulled up and flew over some mountains further east to show me Al Qara, a pretty medieval town built on a pinnacle of rock. I had no idea that, later on, however pretty it might have been I would have to knock down one of the houses. We flew round it twice and then suddenly Sammie Small said ‘Look at that bastard shooting at us from the roof of that house’. In the back seat, and under a sudden and violent increase in ‘G loading, I was not sure that to do an aggressive low pass was a particularly good idea with someone actively shooting at us. Perhaps the baddie would run out of ammo before we got too close.

Venom debut

Two days later, and after another Meteor recce, Andy Devine put me down for an acceptance check in the Vampire T.11 and then he said I could fly the Venom. I flew the Vampire, passed a quiz on the Venom and was scheduled for a solo the next morning. The Venom was a pilots dream. On my first solo I was the only one flying from the Squadron as the other aircraft were being prepared for ops the next day. I completed my general handling including a compressibility run up to the M.88 limit, where it was just as twitchy as the little Vampire FB.5 on which I had trained, and then returned to the Khormaksar overhead for a practice flameout landing. The sky was blue and the visibility unlimited, unusual for that time of year, as I set up my flame out pattern at 12,000ft. suddenly I heard a pair of Venoms call for taxi, they were being flown by two ferry pilots from England to 208 Squadron, our sister unit in Nairobi. The pair got airborne and then, suddenly, I heard Red Leader turning down wind for immediate landing. Roger Lead do you have a problem?, replied the tower. Negative my ammo, door has come open. I will land and have it closed. They were the last words he spoke; the aircraft flicked and spun in from around 600ft; a huge pillar of black smoke rose up to me. I flew round it a couple of times at 10,000ft and then, remembering that 8 Squadron had lost seven Venoms and six pilots in the previous six months, decided to do a nice wide, gentle circuit before landing. That was not quite the end of the story as Andy Devine came out of our crew room and, not aware that there were any Venoms in transit, saw one turning crosswind after take off then crash and burn. He knew that I was the only aircraft airborne so he ran up to the boss’s office to tell him that the new pilot had crashed and was definitely dead. The boss rang the Wing Commander flying who told the Group Captain, at which point I taxied into the Squadrons apron to everyones relief - mine too. Perversely one of the recent run of 8 Squadron ‘fatals had been caused by the same problem with the ammunition door. These two small panels just behind the cockpit covered the ammunition tanks and were the only place for a pilot to put any belongings or clothes. I do not think, even today, that anyone knows whether the pilot stalled in the turn at nearly maximum all up weight, or if the open door caused a breakdown of the airflow over the tail plane. If I had to guess, it would be the former as both Vampire and Venom, although fitted with wings of different sections, were very prone to violent departures at low speed.

Smile please!

One day we were briefed that some heavy machine guns had arrived at Al Qara and we were not to fly near the place. Unfortunately, Al Qara was a very picturesque town on top of a pinnacle of rock in the upper Yaffa district north east of Aden and Manx Kelly, one of the APRF FR.9 pilots, having just acquired a new Japanese cine camera, thought Al Qara would make a nice shot for the film he was making of flying in Aden. He throttled back, dropped one third flap and flew slowly past the town cine camera in hand; his filming was rudely interrupted however and on landing it was found that he had thirty-eight bullet holes in his aircraft. The Squadron engineering officer said that the aircraft was to be written-off but the Group Captain overruled him as it was his favourite Meteor and, in spite of the four hundred man hours required to repair it, repair it they must. Eventually, three months later it, was done and Manx took off for an air test which, naturally, included a lot of low flying, that is until he collided with an Egyptian Vulture, which finally did for the aircraft what the thirty-eight bullets had failed to do and the aircraft was scrapped.

Dodging the flack

There were many variations to our day-to-day operational flying. We used methodology transposed direct from the NW Frontier of India, a very similar wild terrain, and with an equal amount of misplaced hope that dissident tribes could easily be brought to heel with a demonstration of air power. Most of both protectorates were peaceful but the wild men in the hills were more or less untouchable. Anyone who was operational in Aden knows that the contemporary hunt for Osama bin Laden is doomed to failure unless he is betrayed, the Afghan-Pakistan border being a carbon copy of the Upper Yaffa district in Aden. I have mentioned flag waves but we also dropped leaflets to tell residents of a village that so and so’s house would be knocked down the next day. This triggered a standard response with the doors being taken off the house, as wood in South Arabia is scarce and valuable. The appointed hour would see most of the village guns ready for the first drive of the day - the arrival of the Venoms. Hundreds of rounds would be fired at each aircraft as it made its precision attack on the designated house and holes were frequent in our aircraft. At one stage our Squadron had 22 Venoms and in two days eighteen of them had small arms damage; if I hadn’t seen it for real I wouldn’t have believed that a jet aircraft could take as much punishment as they did without any effective damage.

One day they got lucky. Andy Devine and John Morris were knocking down a house at good old Al Qara when Andy heard “Red 2 I have been hit”. Andy enquired as to whether John could finish the job with one more pass, assuming it was just the usual bullet hole, and was surprised to hear “Negative Lead, I have lost control of my engine and am bleeding quite a lot”. A lucky round had come through the cockpit, severing the throttle and high-pressure cock control runs, and then passed through the top of his shoulder before stopping in his parachute. Luckily JM had 9000 rpm set and this was sufficient to clear the mountains and return to Khormaksar where he flew round and round until his fuel was exhausted. He was then able to carry out a flame out landing, as with no HP cock control, he was unable to shut down the engine; the LP cock was unusable by him as it was on the floor of the left-hand side of the cockpit and his bullet wound was in his left shoulder.

The Hunters arrive

Following a six-month stint as Station Adjutant at RAF Salalah, some 600 miles north of Khormaksar, Tony returned to Aden and a squadron fully re-equipped with Hunter FGA.9s and a sad loss.

T.7 fatality

On June 1 1960 Andy Devine, who was due to go home shortly, and had been posted to a ground job in the UK (as Flight Commander at a recruit school which must have pleased him), kindly asked John and me if we would join him and his wife April for dinner. I had had a good day and at last flown two sorties in our twin seat Hunter with John Morris, so we much looked forward to a social evening with April and Andy. John and I arrived at 19:30 but Andy had not turned up as the Squadron had been night flying, so April gave us a couple of drinks and we waited. Suddenly there was a knock on the door and the Station Commander appeared; he said nothing to us, but John and I realising that this was not a social call, left at once. Andy was dead.

One of the new pilots, Mike Walley, had been having a dual night check and both he and Andy were used to flying the much higher performance Hunter FGA.9. They had climbed to what would have been 20,000ft, by time, in the Mark 9 single-seat aircraft but was in reality only 10,000ft in the T.7. Aden nights are dark and altitude can in any case only be determined by reference to an altimeter. Misreading of altimeters by 10,000ft was very common indeed in the Hunter era and came about due to the mismatch of power between the single-seaters, which were flown all the time, and the trainer version with the smaller 100-series Avon, flown very seldom. The standard let-down in those days was to home overhead at 20,000ft, be given an out-bound heading which was then followed by a steep descent to half the start height plus 2,000ft. Hunter T.7 XL615 started its descent and called “Turning left in-bound at 12,000ft”. A few seconds later there was a big flash in the desert as the aircraft buried itself in the sand and exploded. It had actually been at 2,000ft when it started its turn, and not 12,000ft.

Rhodesian detachment

The Squadron was being sent to Rhodesia; a deployment, via Nairobi, to Gwelo, a Royal Rhodesian Air Force station some three hundred miles south of Salisbury. Paralysis had set in as a great deal of work is involved in deploying an entire Fighter Squadron - including of course spares and engineers - some 2,000 miles and so no-one was particularly interested in getting me airborne, except myself. ‘Starry’ Knight, the Squadron CO, had decided that I needed a dual check before I could fly a Hunter again and that, as I was out of practice, I should fly down to Rhodesia in a Beverley of 30 Squadron with the ground crew. I was elated as can be imagined.

A most memorable flight

Back in Aden, I was briefed to take two Hunters up to Bahrain and bring two very tired aircraft back to Aden, refuelling at Sharjah each way. It was one of my more memorable flights. Tim Seabrook flew as my No.2 and we arrived at Bahrain and night-stopped. The next day, fully fuelled, we left for Sharjah and, having more fuel than we needed, flew low-level to burn it off. All RAF low sorties are flown at 420, 480 or 540 knots representing 6, 7 or 8 nautical miles a minute. I went for 480 in crystal clear conditions at 4,000ft. Qatar appeared, looking exactly like the map and we passed across its northern tip. Whenever I see a map of the Persian Gulf today I remember that sortie. We landed at Sharjah, refuelled, and departed high level for the nearly 1,000-mile flight to Aden via overhead Salalah and thence down the coast 600 miles to Aden. We settled into the high level cruise over the great rolling red sand dunes of the empty quarter of Arabia. It is called the Empty Quarter because there is nothing, absolutely nothing, there and I sat marvelling at the silence and beauty of the scene with Tim a mile abreast of me. Suddenly, in my headset, I heard a click, just that, a tiny electronic click. Thinking it might be a ‘dolls eye’ magnetic indicator on the fuel panel I glanced down and saw to my horror that I had lost transfer pressure from my right hand fuel tanks; worse still, as I looked, there another click and the left hand dolls eye showed a left hand fuel failure. I had 1,300lbs of usable fuel in the main collector tanks until I flamed out and then I was dead. I pressed the transmit button “Hey, Tim, I have had a double transfer failure”. Back came the words forever etched in my mind, “Sooner you than me, mate”. There was nothing I could do except for the flame extinction followed by my own, from thirst, a couple of days later in those great red rolling sand dunes. Tim said nothing and then with my fuel down to 600lbs I heard another click, the right hand fuel system started pumping fuel back into my main fuselage tank, it failed again. Then the left side started feeding and I flew back to Aden with a stream of transfer failures and recoveries. When I got home the engineers said that there was insufficient pressure to transfer any fuel and were surprised that I made it. So was I.

Knocking the house down

During this time minor political troubles erupted, leading to minor military operations. An area had been proscribed west of Ataq due to bad behaviour by the locals. I was leading a pair and the proscription seemed to be working - there was not a camel, goat or man to be seen. Then, right in front of me, was a camel. I turned hard left through 360°; my No.2 following, sighted on the camel and touched the gun button; as soon as I had fired I pulled up and around to see what had happened. The camel was nowhere to be seen, and then I saw a huge red circle where the camel had been and now wasn’t. That big red circle has remained with my conscience ever since. On another occasion there had been trouble at Al Qara, again, and Manx Kelly and I were briefed to knock down a house. Leaflets had been dropped the day before to avoid human casualties, the wooden doors removed to avoid financial loss, and the village guns lined up to enjoy the sport. Until around ten o’clock there is little wind in up-country Arabia, making it ideal for a gun attack, as our trusty rockets were not accurate enough to guarantee precision work. Manx and I got airborne and headed north eventually swinging into a large fast orbit to ensure that we had identified the correct house. Once satisfied, Manx turned in but just as he was about to fire, a great ball of white appeared from behind his aircraft followed by a long white trail stretching for a mile behind. I called “Red lead you have been hit”, and found that he had had no idea. I tucked up in close formation and saw that the whole of the back end of his right hand drop tank was missing but no other damage. The white trail was fuel being sucked out of his wing tanks. Manx said that we would finish the job with one pass, turned in again followed by me at around a mile not wishing to put my gun sight on my leader. Manx had fired-out so I put the fixed cross well above the house to allow for the gravity drop at extreme range, assumed no wind, and dumped a full war load in one pass, and was enormously pleased and slightly surprised to see my rounds on the target. Manx called me to rejoin and we headed south; suddenly he called me into close formation and accelerated, then, applying ‘G’, he pulled into a loop, then another one and then a barrel roll. I had flown my first formation aerobatics while staring at a big black hole that was all that was left of my leader’s 230 gallon tank.