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Capt. John S. Gerrish's report of the flight

JANUARY 14th 1966 - JANUARY 29th 1966

The Route
L.A.P - Basle - Idris - Leopoldville - Johannesburg - Luanda (Angola) - Recife - Rio De Janeiro - Winhoek - Johannesburg -
Leopolville - Idris - Basle - L.A.P

The flights to Jo'burg were routine and uneventful.

Before departure Jo'burg we asked operations about the situation in Luanda with regard to the Civil War in that area, also what navigation aids were likely to be available on the Rio - Winhoek flight. The only nav aid available on the African side was a non directional beacon situated at Walvis Bay to the North West of Winhoek. It appeared from NOTAMS that this beacon was erratic, but efforts would be made to ensure its operation for our return flight. The sector from Jo-burg - Luanda was uneventful, but on landing we were escorted to a parking space which was controlled by armed guards. Not unusual for African countries! Although the correspondent writing in the Travel and Trade Magazine stated that he had enjoyed the nightlife and striptease of Luanda in his article, we, as a crew, were advised by the Hotel Manager that the rebels of the Civil War were on the outskirts of Luanda and advised us not to leave the hotel - unusual for adventurous Eagle Crews!! (Flt. Time 5 hours).

The sector Luanda-Recife, some nine hours forty five minutes, passed peacefully except for communication problems on HF frequencies with Dakar and Luanda. Reg did some excellent navigation. Contact with Recife brought the problem of height clearances being given in metres instead of feet. This required some rapid calculations in conversation (engage brain - pronto). As the article states, plane spotters at Recife thought we had come from Jo'burg, Germany, and were amazed when we said we had come from West Africa.
(Flt. Time 9 hours 45 minutes)

Sector Recife - Rio de Janeiro. Uneventful flight except for conversion of metres to feet and poor English Air Traffic Control.
(Flt. Time 3 hours 45 minutes)

Rio de Janeiro - Stop Over - On arrival the devastation caused by the violent storms of the three days previous was obvious. To appreciate the situation, some five hundred people had lost their lives in mud slides on hills surrounding the city and the electricity was only available for short periods during the day. This meant that there was no air conditioning in the hotels with temperatures over 100 degrees F, with humidity above 90%. All tourist sight seeing facilities were closed, particularly as the cable car to Sugar Loaf was not operating. I believe some people climbed the Corcovado Mountain topped by the figure of Christ with arms outstretched. Varig, the State Airline, our handling agent, having only one person who spoke and understood English to any standard, all led to a very frustrating and trying time.

Reg Peake and I spent some considerable time discussing the flight planning arrangements for the flight to Windhoek. The first consideration was to have the aircraft refuelled with full tanks. As the shut-off valves were at the front top of the tanks, it was necessary to have the aircraft either on level or a slight upslope. The fuelling people co-operated and we taxied the aircraft to a re-fuelling point on a slight upslope so the tanks were really full. I believe I am correct in saying that there were small spirit levels set in the navigation table on the flight deck for this purpose.

The Meterology Department were helpful, but said they could only supply a forecast for the first thousand miles or so. To cut a long story short, someone produced a Met Bible, a publication by a man named Sutcliffe, in the 1930's who specialised in not only meteorology but climatology. This book was used by the C.A.A. in setting the examination papers for Pilot Licences in the U.K. His theories on climatology were accepted, apparently without question, even in the 1960's and although I personally disagreed with him in certain aspects (personal experience) I chose to believe him when he said that at that time of year winds over the South Atlantic would average zero mph. We also spent some time with the Communications Department getting advice on the likelihood of finding useful radio frequencies. Reg and I had discussed the best time for departure in order to make the best use of astronavigation for the flight. We decided to fly the first thousand miles in daylight in order to utilise astro in the middle section, followed by a daylight sighting of the West African Coast, and an appropriate time of departure was notified to all concerned.

On the day of departure I was completing the necessary paperwork and briefings when the Varig rep said that I was required immediately at the aircraft. To my horror I was met by the flight engineer wielding one of the aircraft's fire axes threatening to use it on the loaders. There was a large box which they had succeeded in jamming, half in and half out of one of the holds. It became apparent that some of the passengers had bribed security guards at the airfield perimeter during the previous night to accept freight for the flight, without it being checked and weighed. In the circumstances I demanded that the aircraft be offloaded, all freight and baggage weighed and manifested. Unfortunately this delayed departure by some three hours which meant that our flight plan was considerably altered, which did not please Reg, as it cut down accurate plotting.

After we had been airborne several hours I said to Reg, unusually for me, that I needed to have a sleep for a while and please do not wake me up unless it was urgent. Much to my surprise he did, to tell me that his latest astro fix showed a headwind of twenty five knots and that within the next fifteen minutes he would require a decision either to divert to Ascension Island, some one thousand miles to the NNW or to proceed as planned. I decided to go with Sutcliffe and after approximately eleven hours and having climbed to 29,000 feet, several pairs of tired eyes on the flight deck picked out the South West Coast of Africa, on a beautiful sunny morning. Needless to say the NDB at Walvis Bay was not working, but we passed over the coast some twenty miles north of Windhoek with flight plan fuel remaining.

On arrival there was a welcoming committee for the first ever flight direct from Rio and festivities laid on. Unfortunately, we could not participate in these celebrations as we had passengers for Jo'burg. (Flt. Time 12 hours) Just under 4000 miles.

Sector Windhoek - Johannesburg. Sector uneventful except for some interesting thunderstorm activity in the Jo'burg area.
(Flt. Time 2 hours 30 minutes).

In retrospect, this was an epic flight and the South Africans certainly thought it was something special. Shortly after returning home I received a tape recording of our departure from Jo'burg to Luanda of our VHF messages from and to Jan Smutts Airport until our transfer to HF frequencies. This was made by one of the Air Traffic Control operators on duty at the time. I also later received five copies of the Travel and Trade Magazine, an excerpt of which I have already sent you.

Sectors - Jo'burg - Leopoldville - Idris - Basle were carried out in the normal way with no unusual events occurring other than storm avoidance. On arrival at Basle (airfield in France although considered Switzerland!), there was a message from Eagle operations that the aircraft was required back at base A.S.A.P. We took the minimum legal rest period and arrived back at L.A.P. at 04.50 hours on the 29th January 1966.
Total Flt Time 71.05 (27.05 day 44 night)

I would like to say that I would have flown anywhere with Reg and I think the feeling was reciprocated. He was a great Navigator and a great guy.

As explained in my previous letter, Reg and I visited Head Office to discuss the flights, particularly the Rio-Winhoek leg. No contact was made with us regarding any changes to the route although it was rumoured that the return from Rio was Recife and Luanda. After a few days rest we resumed normal operations.

Unfortunately I did not record the names of the rest of the crew, except Pam Leavey who was the No. 1 Stewardess. I would, however, like to record that they all worked very hard, sometimes under rather unpleasant conditions with everyone acting as a professional team. This team spirit prevailed throughout British Eagle personnel and is one of the reasons so many continue to support the reunion even after 37 years!

When Eagle ceased trading I desperately wanted to break away from flying as I knew I would not be as happy with another airline, but the same financial restraints that had caused Eagle to collapse applied to my attempt to purchase a business, and I then flew as an "Executive" pilot for the next 10 years.

John S. Gerrish