Burma, etc. - Britannias, by Alan Douglas

Image: Brit 102 at JNB

Bristol Britannia 102 G-ANBA at Johannesburg

I flew out to Rangoon for my first overseas posting on a British-built turbo-prop aircraft, a Bristol Britannia 102. I was very impressed: the vibration was so little that you could balance a 12-sided threepenny bit on its side and we arrived a few minutes early. What was this I had heard about Britannia unreliability?

The next day I went to the airport in my new ‘midshipman’s’ uniform and saw the next Britannia arrive. Later I was asked to see if the aircraft was ready and found the engineer looking at a drip coming out of the wing – fuel leak. The Britannia kept its fuel in bags in the wing; so the only answer was a new fuel bag from London, so a QX ‘top priority’ telex signal was sent to ask for one. 14 hours later the reply came: ‘WE ARE VERY SHORT OF FUEL BAGS STOP WHICH WING PORT OR STARBOARD’. 105 hours after arrival the aircraft finally left. We got to know the crew pretty well!

How many people did it take to start a Britannia with the wind blowing from behind? Answer - one on the flight deck, ground engineer, fire guard and one to hold each propeller. The propeller lock was off or on for all four propellers and with the wind blowing from behind they would rotate backwards when the lock was released. This made the motor drive likely to shear. So you held a propeller until you felt it tugging gently and then let go...

It was in Karachi, I think, that there were problems with early morning fog. Sometimes the captain would taxi up and down the runway to clear the fog with the turbine exhaust!

Karachi was the main crew slip point, using the famous Rest House. This was a long, low building close to the airport with rooms so small there was only just room for a single bed. But the walls were enormously thick and the air conditioning was very powerful. The facilities were minimal but generations of crews and ground staff were grateful for the respite from the fierce Karachi sun. The swimming pool water was as warm as bath water, and kite hawks circled ceaselessly overhead, watching for somebody to drop a morsel of food. There was also a resident ‘chiropodist’ – an ancient Pakistani with a few very basic tools of his trade, but who used to perform wonders on the crews’ corns!

Sometimes there might be four or five Britannias on the ground at once – most of them serviceable. It is said that on one occasion while taxiing out the cabin announcement was made – “Welcome aboard this BOAC flight. Our flight time to Calcutta will be…” …Whereupon there was uproar in the passenger cabin as passengers claimed they were going to Beirut, Frankfurt and London. It turned out that the crew had got on the wrong aircraft...

In 1961 British West Indian Airways (BWIA) chartered a Britannia from BOAC for a daily service Kingston, Montego Bay, Miami and back. Every morning at Montego Bay the manager had a meeting to discuss the previous day’s activities. At one meeting it was reported that the Britannia the previous day had left Kingston 90 minutes late due to difficulty starting number three engine. Then 60 minutes delay out of Montego Bay, 60 minutes out of Miami and 20 minutes delay out of Montego Bay on the return flight, all due to difficulty starting number three engine. The manager asked why it had only taken 20 minutes on the return flight through Montego Bay. The engineer replied, “By then we knew exactly which relay to hit with a hammer!”

Bristol Britannia 312 G-AOVK

Image: Britannia in flight

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