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Christmas Island Visits by John Gerrish


My first visit to Christmas Island was in October 1959 when acting as co-pilot to Capt. Watkins (Chief Pilot). The schedule used a DC6, reg.G-APOM, Blackbushe - Gander-New York, then G-APON New York - Omaha - San Francisco - Honolulu -Christmas Island - Honolulu - San Francisco - New York - Kingston (Jamaica) - Bermuda - Gander - Blackbushe.
The second visit was in November 1959 with DC6 G-APON. This time I was Captain under training to Capt. Twomey, the schedule being Blackbushe - Istanbul - Bahrain - Bombay - Bangkok - Hong Kong. We had a two day stop over awaiting further instructions. These were to proceed to Christmas Island to take service personnel to the U.K., this time co-pilot under supervision to Capt. Gudmundson. The route was very interesting, Hong Kong -Guam 9 hr 20 min - Canton Island (Phoenix Group) 13 hrs 10 mins. (This small island with sea at either end of the runway was used as a refueling stop for Quantas Airways on its schedule to the Western Seaboard)- Christmas Island 4hrs5Omins. Stopover, then Christmas Island - Honolulu 5 hrs 35 mins - San Francisco l0 hrs 20 mins. These flights from Hong Kong to San Francisco put into perspective, the vastness of the Pacific Ocean having taken 43 hrs 15 mins in the DC6. The rest of the flight was San Francisco - Winnipeg 6 hrs 45 mins, aircraft changed to G-APOM - Winnipeg - Gander 7 hrs 25 mins, change to Capt. Twomey again - Blackbushe 9 hrs 10 mins. This completed a round the world flight in 13 days and 99.00 hrs flying time and about 115 duty hours. I then had 13 days off! On both these island flights the airfield on Christmas Island was occupied by a loan Handley-Page Hastings aircraft of the R.A.F.

The third visit to Christmas Island was when I was in command of DC6 G-APON on 7th May 1962 when we departed LAP - Keflavik - Montreal - Chicago - San Francisco - Honolulu -Christmas Island, arriving on the 12th May 1962. We had been delayed in Honolulu with an engine problem for over 5 hours and were looking forward to a rest (operating as a 24 hr crew, 3 pilots, 2 flight engineers, l navigator and 1 loadmaster). On arrival a RAF Sqdn. Ldr came to the flight deck and said that we would be unloaded within the hour for our departure to our next destination. I stated firmly that we had reached our flight time limitations as laid down by the Civil Aviation Authority and a return to Honolulu would breach these regulations which I was not prepared to break under any circumstances so, he said we should go, I said we could not. He was obviously concerned by our presence but finally accepted the facts. He advised us to attend a briefing at the Officers Mess as soon as possible. This we did and he issued us with radiation detection badges to be worn at all times. We were also issued with dark blue wrap-around glasses. The briefing was that at 6.a.m the following morning the Americans were scheduled to drop an atomic bomb a few miles from the island. At that time a siren would sound indicating a B29 would be starting a bombing run from overhead. A further countdown would follow as the aircraft reached the dropping point, which would be some miles to the west of the island and then a further countdown from bomb release to ignition point. We were instructed to remain in bed, wear the blue glasses and on the countdown to ignition, pull the bedclothes over our heads, face the wall and brace at the point of ignition. After the briefing we dined in the mess and the officers present told us that they had been on standby for this drop for the last 5 days but nothing had happened and so it was unlikely to take place in the morning! However, they had watched previous bombs and to get a good view of events we should meet on the beach soon after 6.a.m, watch the orbiting B29 and if the countdown to the drop proceeded, wear our glasses, turn our backs to the west, wait for the countdown to ignition and five seconds afterwards we could then turn to see the fireball develop

I should say here that there was a certain amount of apprehension at this suggestion as it was known that the Sqdn. Adjutant, who looked after the Sqdn, cat, put it in his chest of drawers before shutting himself in his wardrobe when the tests took place.

However, all but one of the crew decided to go to the beach which we did the following morning. The glasses were so strong that one could look at the sun, which appeared as dull as the moon. We could see the B29 flying a race track pattern overhead, we estimated at about 25,000ft, and on the third outbound leg the countdown began. We stood with our backs to the west when bomb release was called and waited for the countdown to ignition. The first result was that the light through the glasses was as bright as the sun, and an almost immediate rush of heat. After one of the officers counted to 5 we turned to see this black and red ball in the sky, estimated at 20 miles and 10-15000ft gradually develop and expand, sucking up a column of water from the sea, then expanding upwards and outwards to eventually form the high altitude mushroom shape seen on television. A few seconds after ignition the shock wave hit us and slight damage done to a couple of huts. Nobody spoke, and we returned to the mess for breakfast before departing for San Francisco. The only comment made to us was that it had been the biggest test they had seen and they thought it was a megaton bomb at least.

I cannot explain the feeling of everyone concerned, and we left, each with our disbelief at what we had seen and hoped never to experience anything like it again. Memories will last a lifetime!

We night-stopped San Francisco feeling very subdued and in the morning at breakfast it was discovered that all seven of us had not experienced a normal male bodily function during our stop over despite seeing the very attractive ladies of the City. It was rather worrying as the same "lack of libido" prevailed after a night-stop in Bermuda with other British Eagle Crews! This problem quickly hit the grapevine so that when we arrived back to LAP we were greeted as "The Sterile Seven". Fortunately "things" returned to normal, but being reminded of this membership took a long time to fade.

Actually the flight from San Francisco to our next destination was also memorable. Initially it was intended to fly to New York, refuel and proceed to Bermuda. At the flight briefing we found that the Met. forecast was showing an excellent synoptic pressure pattern across the whole route to New York and beyond. We were not carrying any passengers or freight, so we could take full tanks. The navigator's calculations indicated that at our higher than usual cruising altitude, we would benefit from very strong tail winds the whole way, and we calculated that if all went to plan we could fly direct to Bermuda and arrive with the regulation two and a half hours holding fuel. After some initial query as to the exact position of Bermuda (!), the flight plan was amended to "cleared by A.T.C " to New York with further clearance to Bermuda obtained approaching New York". Distance approximately 2,570 SF to NY, 775 NY to Bermuda. We completed the flight of approximately 3,345 st.miles in 12 hours at an average speed of 285m.p.h.
Not bad for a DC6, but with a little help from the wind.
P.S. Considerable changes had taken place on the island's airfield since my last visit in 1959 and a number of American aircraft were present, including a number of B57's, the British Canberra, built under licence. These aircraft had what appeared to be tubes fitted on the wing tips. Several of the B57's took off immediately after the explosion to fly into the cloud to collect samples, so we were told. I hate to think of the consequences for the crews!

John Gerrish