Prang at Night
It was made plain to us that conditions under operations were not expected to be particularly rosy so night flying was planned to give pilots the experience at landing by night under primitive conditions. It all seemed to be very informal. The flare path was to be marked by a row of what looked like (and probably were) seven or eight watering cans filled with paraffin. The spouts of which were filled by rags, to be set on fire.
This all looked very dicey. I was to try it out and pointed the aircraft parallel to the flares, taking care to set the direction on the instrument panel. I took off well before the flare path started with about 15º of flap and she was soon airborne. There was no time to savour feeling of complete isolation that night flying always gave me. To make the operation more like the conditions we were to find on operations we were flying from an ordinary field and those dim flames were hardly visible from 1,000ft. Strained eyes tried to keep them in view. The approach was almost by feel with one eye on the instruments and the other on the dull smoky orange flicker of the flares.
I had the feeling that I was coming in a little too fast but the main thing was to keep her exactly on course. Suddenly the flares were alongside: the wheels touched and no sooner were they seen than I was past them. CHRIST! It should not be that bumpy. She was lurching from side to side and all hope of maintaining the heading was lost. We were pranging -
Switches off. Brace for the prang! After a jolt that threw me hard upon the belts she slowly tipped forward and I prepared for her to go over on her back but she remained almost vertical. Get out! Pull the pin holding the straps - yank the helmet off - smell of petrol - turn the release on the parachute and give it a bash - it fell away.
Now what? It was black - velvet black and no sound but a few creaks from twisted metal settling back. I was lying across the gun sight and the canopy with feet scrabbling to find the seat to stand on.
You FOOL! You BLOODY BLOODY FOOL! You HAVE PRANGED!
It would not be wise to stay in the cockpit in case of fire but she was at such an angle that she could go over at any time. My eyes were becoming accustomed but there was no idea if the engine cowling was damaged. Nothing for it. I crawled over the mirror on the top of the canopy and steadied myself; the banks of the exhausts on each side still glowed faintly. I slid to the ground, holding hands clear of the exhaust stubs pleading that fate had not left any projecting metal.
I realised that adrenaline was coursing through my body and tried to work it off by walking as fast as I could in a circle round the aircraft. I was still doing it when the ambulance arrived with our new Medical Officer running beside me. "Sparkie! Sparkie! You are in shock, come and sit down!" He repeated it over and over again until I burst out laughing. All in all it was probably the right thing to do. When the body is prepared for flight perhaps a bit of rapid physical activity is the best thing. The MO was new. He was Indian, a little flabby but he had a sense of humour. I missed the my old MO friend but this one was to be with us until I left the squadron and eventually became almost fond of him.
It was my first prang and I just could not understand it, after all I was perfect; how could I prang on a night landing. It all remained a bit of a mystery. I had ended up in a Muslim cemetery among the graves that had tipped her over. The ground crew gathered up the 'flare path' and that was the end of it. The CO should have been jumping up and down and threatening courts martial but not a word. I was never blamed and have just left it where it is; a memory. A letter home suggested that he was partly to blame but in retrospect, just leave it as it is. Surprising that there was not even an inquiry. There is, however a Hurricane propeller tip in my bookcase. I stroke it once in a while!
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Edward Sparkes ©1998-2002