Vickers Vikings on the West Coast Route
By Mitch Stirling
Cumulonimbus with anvil.
The Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) is an awesome display of weather. It extends around the circumference of the earth at the equator and follows the sun as it migrates seasonally to the north and south. The birthplace of some of the strongest storms on earth, it generates extremely hazardous flying conditions for all things in the air.
Experienced pilots can spot the early warning signs of its approach — a change of wind direction on the surface, or the tell-tale signs aloft of "mare's tails" riding on high-altitude winds. Up and down draughts of thousands of feet per minute are not uncommon in these towering giants, along with cascading waterfalls of ice and rain and blinding pulses of electricity. From the cockpit of an aeroplane at night Charlie Bravos (Cumulonimbus) can be seen far off, below the distant horizon, sparking and flashing like a gigantic arc welder. As they draw nearer they seem to climb up and up and up, until 50 000 feet and more is reached. Then the fun begins. "FASTEN SEAT BELTS."
Of course, many thousands of domestic and international flights penetrate lines of storms of varying intensity during the course of the rainy season. With their on-board Radio and Detection and Ranging equipment (Radar), modern airliners are well-equipped nowadays to detect and avoid storm cells. In fact, it is now a legal requirement for all aircraft above a certain weight, operating in the commercial category, to carry said equipment.
Not so back in the 1950s, before the advent of airborne weather radar, when Central African Airways was plying between Salisbury and London in their old Vickers Vikings. Long distance meteorological forecasts were very unreliable in those far-off days and METAR and TAF information was completely unknown. Pilots knew they would encounter the ITCZ at some stage on their journey, but they had to rely on years of experience to help them navigate around bad weather and arrive safely at destination. Unhappily, this art of visually spotting areas in a cloud that may be dangerous, or where hail might occur, has been lost to most of today's high-flying pilots. They have become dependent on modern technology.
Those old boys were experts, but even they could be caught out on occasions, as Radio Operator Ralph Ward describes in an incident when a sneaky, embedded Cb lodged itself on track. "What a noise there was, with rain and hail hammering and banging on the cockpit roof, the undercarriage warning horn yodeling at us (on account of the throttles being retarded and the wheels in the Up position) and the Vertical Speed Indicator pointing up to heaven at 2 000 fpm. After staggering and crashing around in the sky for what seemed like hours, the skipper finally looked out his side window and announced, with an odd sense of humour ... I've got a wing! "
Fortunately the old Vikings were solid machines with two powerful 1 690 bhp Bristol Hercules engines. The passengers travelled in fairly spartan conditions, but they were constantly under the watchful eye and expert care of an air hostess who would attend to their every need, even during en route night stops. Many of them will be remembered affectionately for their skills in caring for travellers of all ages. It was a family affair, where a flight departure might even be delayed because some little girl left her pink handbag in the terminal building (ask my wife!) The front office, which leaked like a seive in the rain, was spacious enough for the two pilots, a flight engineer and a radio operator. There was a Very hatch in the roof in case of any untoward incidents and a length of rope was always carried, to wrap around a prop and pull-start the engine in the event of starter failure. At 210mph (182 kts) they cruised along unpressurized for seven hours at a stretch, at an altitude where all could breathe comfortably.
Above:Viking interior. There was quite a high step over the spar box in the centre section of the cabin where stiletto heels used to inflict some damage, so ladies were asked to remove heels when boarding.
Above: Viking cockpit with Captain Bob Hill and Cliff Venter at the controls.
photo 4: "It was a family affair", with mail and cargo adding significantly to the load.
The first scheduled flights to London by CAA in 1953 followed the Great Lakes/Nile Valley route through East Africa. But during the Suez crisis of 1956 a new route had to be blazed, up the west coast. The river Congo and the volcanic mount Cameroon at 13 255' (4 040 metres), the Upper Niger, the semi-arid Sahel and the vast emptiness of the Sahara desert were all unfamiliar territory to the crews of CAA. And it soon became clear that a working knowledge of the French language would be very helpful in the French territories of West Africa.
Above: Captain Alan Morris.
Above: R/O Ralph Ward.
Above: C.A.A. Ticket
Above: Miss Harris (3 years)
Above: Les Booth's map.
Quotes from Ralph Ward and Alan Morris will help to describe the journey. "The first day would take us to familiar Lusaka and Ndola and then to unknown Luluabourg, somewhere in the middle of the Belgian Congo. Thence to its capital Leopoldville (Kinshasa) where crew and passengers spent the first night in the Sabena Rest House, after nine hours in the air."
Above: at Lusaka.
Above: RMA Kafue at Ndola.
Above: VP-YJB Luapula, Vickers 614 Viking 1 c/n 138, delivered to BEA before CAA.
Next day's flight included four and a half hours to Doula which was "quite a place, and landing there could be a trifle hair-raising. The runway appeared to be cut from the jungle which consisted of giant trees interspersed with narrow little creeks. And just up the road was Mount Cameroon, sticking up like a sore thumb. As a result the area was generally considered unhealthy."
"Then to Kano in Northern Nigeria (British territory) for a second night stop in one-bed cubicles at the old RAF barrack block at Kano airport. This was a very interesting place and had quite a history, dating back umpteen centuries and had been the headquarters of the Arab slave traders. The Shell representative there, a South African, was the instigator of many a hectic night stop. Then there was that flock of vultures that used to perch on the kitchen roof at the rest camp. It always made me feel uncomfortable the way they looked us over."
Above: Luapula at Kano with Captain Shorty Rosser, F/O Peter Barnett, R/O Ralph Ward, F/E Harry Newland-Nel and F/H Nan Challenor.
After a 4 am early morning call at Kano, the travellers embarked with the promise of a long, hot day ahead. There were a number of hops en route to get them across the Sahara to Algiers on the Mediterranean coast, so they departed for Niamey in north western Niger, on the river, under the weight of every British gallon of fuel they could squeeze into the tanks. Then to Tessalit for another refuelling stop, if required. Tessalit in Mali was a strategically important French outpost in the mountains and part of the French Sudan until 1959. It is said that whoever controls Tessalit controls the Sahara, even today. With a war of liberation raging across the border in Algeria, the supply of fuel and oil was a major problem in the Western Sahara region. Everything had to be transported by road from Algiers, 2 000 miles away. But the French were highly organized and could refuel the old bird and have them airborne again in 20 minutes.
Above: Tessaret (Tessalit) sand runway and refuelling drums.
It was another two hours to Aoulef, Algeria, in the middle of the Sahara. "There was a huge oasis there — a great, dark green splash in the middle of endless yellow sand. The runway consisted of a flat bit of desert with white markers indicating the landing area and a medium frequency radio beacon was the only radio aid."
Above "refuelling was done by a jolly Frenchman."
Avove: : endless shifting sands of Algeria.
"It was always a relief to arrive at Maison Blanche airport in Algiers after staggering along for 12 hours through the bumps and clear air turbulence (CAT) over the desert. We used to creep up to 12 000 feet ... and the passengers who were not asleep by then were airsick. As we approached the capital in darkness for he final sector of the day we could see gun flashes in the mountains to the south — probably the National Liberation Front (FNL) attacking a French outpost. A let down to 800 feet was carried out, with the aid of Radio Range (a long out-dated American system of which we had theoretical knowledge only.) Then touchdown on a long, wet black-top runway, uncomfortably close to a mountain range, with a marvellous ground lighting system and a maze of coloured lights reflecting on the wet taxiways. After a day of 15 hours 30 minutes duty time, 12 hours 6 minutes actual flying time, passengers and crew were ready for a good helping of hebergement ... accommodation, shelter, hospitality. The Hotel San George was surrounded by a magnificent botanical garden. It had been a sultan's palace and used by Army HQ during WW11."
On the final day they crossed the Med in comparative comfort and entered a whole new world of climatic conditions and congested airways. Anxious moments were spent watching ice accreting on the leading edges of the wings through frosted cockpit windows, with the de-icing fluid rapidly dwindling away! Limited VHF frequencies and old type microphones were all they had, so oxygen masks were donned to reduce background clutter. When the cockpit heating was inop the crew resembled an RAF bomber on a mission (not surprisingly as it was, after all, a development of the Wellington bomber!) They would re-join the airway at Marseilles and after a call to London Airways would be greeted, with some relief, by a courteous reply from Air Traffic Control.
From the early days of the first Viking Coach Class Zambezi Service to London in 1953, big juicy King pineapples from Uganda were always conveyed to Heathrow Approach, as a thank you gesture from Central Africa — small reward for an efficient talk down and a warm welcome. Three nights and four days en route and a journey through three distinct climatic zones — ranging from thunderstorms in the tropics, to the searing heat of the equator, to ice and rain in Europe — was a journey of epic proportions by today's standards.
But fresh in the memories of all CAA Viking crews would have been the loss of friends and colleagues in the crash of Viking Shangani in Tanganyika on 29 March 1953. Captain Perry St Quinton, First Officer Wally Mollett, Flight Engineer Tommy Ivison, two hostesses and 8 pax were killed in a catastrophic in-flight structural failure of the starboard wing. All Vikings above a certain number of hours were immediately grounded; one in the UK, one in Blantyre, two at Ndola, and the rest in Salisbury. Vickers produced new spars from an alloy, less prone to fatigue, and these had to be replaced in situ in very primitive working conditions ... particularly at Ndola in the open air. The replacement of 22 feet of the lower main spars were carried out by CAA engineers who completed the task in a shorter time than Marshall's of Cambridge ... and with superior workmanship. (Interesting to note that with ultra-sound and X ray tests available today, this tragedy may have been avoided.)
Above: : Tanganyika 1953, wreck of RMA Shangani VP-YEY Vickers 616
Viking 1B c/n 168.
Viking 1B c/n 168.
Above: Spar change VP-YJA with Gordon Campbell, – Bob Garrett,
Charlie Wallace, Roy Downes, – Joe Jennesen, – .
Charlie Wallace, Roy Downes, – Joe Jennesen, – .
Joe Jennesen and Bob Garrett later joined the RRAF, with Bob rising to the rank of Wing Commander (Engineering). Bob's son Walter was killed in a Vampire collision in 1956. Roy became a captain with CAA/Air Rhodesia and his son, named after Walter, is a captain with British Airways.
Above: : VP- YEW Zambezi, first delivery in 1946. Vickers 616 Viking 1B c/n 146, with Captain Reg Bourlay in command.
Above: VP-YEW and the first de Havilland Dove VP-YES at Wisley.
Above: : VP-YEX Kafue, Vickers 616 Viking 1B c/n 159 (written off at Belvedere in 1955.)
Above: The Smoke that Thunders.
Thanks to Nicky (Elphinstone) Pearce for the wonderful old snap shots taken by her mother Jean, and to Chris Bourlay for priceless oldie photies from his father's albums. And thanks to Roy and Walter Downes, Alan Harris, Derek Hill, Tony Ward and Geoff Reid for all their photo contributions and background information. David Stirling's photo of the Sahara desert was taken recently from a Solenta Aviation Beech 1900 while on contract in Algeria. Last, but not least, thanks to Les Booth for the excellent map which showed all of us where we were going.
Thanks to Mitch Stirling for sharing this story and photographs with ORAFs. Thanks Mitch
(Please visit our previous posts and archives)
Pineapples and C.A.A.
By Jeremy Boyd
The recent mention by Mitch Stirling of CAA crews buying "big juicy King pineapples from Uganda" in his recent - as always, excellent - story "Vickers Vikings on the West Coast Route” has prompted me to send you this image.
A CAA crew (I believe it's Captain Rod - or is it Ron ? - (The Iron Man) Mackie plus one other (unidentified) deplanes from Viscount VP-YNA RMA Malvern somewhere down the route with their pineapples already safely and securely on terra firma! Location is unknown - maybe Lusaka - but going by other photo‘s in the sequence it may also possibly be an airport in the Belgian Congo (Stanleyville/Elizabethville). Other shots have Sabena passenger steps at the rear though these might be of later stops on the same flight. Date also unknown but ‘RMA Malvern’ shows the fully painted nose panel that goes all the way to the tip, which is a CAA colour scheme that only appeared on this particular aircraft circa the latter half of 1956.
Thanks to Jerry for sharing these memories and photograph with ORAFs.