Sri Lanka (Ceylon) - The Day my Number (almost) Came up, by Gerry Catling (1960)

Sitting in my armchair in a cottage in North Yorkshire, with the thunder and lightning crashing and flashing overhead and the rain pouring down in bucketfuls, I was reminded of a similar night when I was on duty at Katunayika Airport, Colombo in Ceylon, as it was then called. I was waiting for the westbound Comet flight to arrive from Singapore on its way to London. This was the night when my airline career almost came to a spectacular and messy end.

It was monsoon time, and after a hot humid day, the towering cumulo-nimbus clouds would start to roll in from the Indian Ocean, and the rain would rapidly become a wall of falling warm water, accompanied by a spectacular display of thunder and lightning. The airport was still very primitive by today’s standards and we worked from old wartime huts, dimly lit, as the passenger terminal was rationed by the airport authorities to three electric light bulbs per month.

Our main job, apart from looking after the passengers and baggage, was operational flight planning for the aircraft transiting the airport en route between London and Singapore, and providing weather forecasts of winds and types of weather to be expected both in flight and for the landing and take off at Colombo. The airport forecasts provided by the local meteorological office were not particularly reliable and were provided in code, which we had to decipher and pass to the aircraft captain via a small radio set of doubtful quality. If you were lucky you managed to make contact when the aircraft was half an hour out, just as it was starting its descent.

On this day the airport forecast was not particularly helpful, as the code was garbled and when eventually decoded indicated that ice spicules in suspension were to be expected, although if you walked out of the door you were soaked to the skin within a few seconds, the humidity was about 100% and the temperature over 30 degrees Centigrade.

The Comet IV was the latest state of the art aircraft flying at this time, excellent in so many ways, but unlike modern aircraft it had no reverse thrust on its engines and had to rely entirely on its brakes to slow it on the runway before it could taxi in to the terminal. In wet weather the runway was slippery and there was the danger of aquaplaning and skidding. In addition the Colombo runway was only about 2000 metres long. On some nights the Comet would taxi in with its brake drums glowing brilliant white with the heat of maximum braking, the water on the wheels turning to instant steam with some danger of a burst tyre.

One of our main responsibilities was to drive out on to the runway about 45 minutes before arrival to check the depth of water on the runway. If it was over about 10 cm. we would hurry back to the radio in the office to advise the captain of the situation so that he could divert either to Jaffna, about half an hour away, or to Madras if he had enough fuel, which usually he had not. Jaffna Airport was primitive, and had no runway lights, so whenever a Comet went through Colombo (every night), they lit an old RAF kerosene gooseneck flare path, which took them over an hour.

This was just in case of a diversion which happened only once or twice a year, but if the Comet was diverted it did not have enough fuel to wait around while the flare path was lit! So our job of measuring the depth of water on the Colombo runway, although not requiring a high degree of expertise (sticking a ruler in the water from the car door) was vital for the safety of the aircraft.

On one particularly dark night I drove out on to the runway, 45 minutes before the flight was expected, and measured the depth of water. It was well over 10 centimetres, and as I started to drive off the runway, the car engine gave a cough and died – flooded. I tried to restart it for two or three minutes without success, got out of the car and was immediately soaked to the skin. There were no portable radios in those days, and no way to contact anyone to tow me off. The torrent of rain was easing slightly and visibility had improved a little, although the cloud base could not have been more than 150 metres above.

I glanced down the runway in the direction of the approach and thought I saw two small winks of light. I looked again and the penny dropped – it could only be the landing lights of the Comet on its approach. The aircraft must have picked up time and be arriving early, and here I was, standing in the middle of the runway with a car immobile, a dead weight, and the crew of the aircraft could not see me.

There was only one thing to do. I turned the steering wheel towards the side of the runway, got behind the car and pushed as I had never pushed anything in my life before. The aircraft lights were growing brighter and now I could hear the roar of the jet engines. The car started to move and luckily the slope was downhill and it picked up speed in the right direction. Gasping for breath, I heaved the car off the hard surface onto the grass and seconds later the Comet landed behind me, engines shrieking, in a cloud of flying spray and water, which totally engulfed me, and disappeared on down the runway.

More than a little shocked, I staggered the 500 metres to the operations office, as I had to give the captain his onward flight plan to Bombay and tell the engineer how much fuel to put in the tanks, as well as supervise the ground arrangements for the passengers. This had to be completed within 45 minutes so that the flight could depart on time, otherwise questions would be asked by the route managers sitting in their dry offices in London.

As I entered my office, I saw that the Comet had arrived at the terminal and was just in time to meet the captain. “Nasty night, couldn’t get you on the radio” was all he said – he could not have seen me as he landed. I was still too shocked to reply more than “Good evening captain, here is the flight plan and forecast for Bombay.” Then routine took over and deadened the mind.

The aircraft was so wet that water had got into the firewire from the engines, which warned of an engine fire and set off red warning lights on the flight deck. These were all showing red on arrival, but there was no fire. This was a fairly common occurrence and air conditioners were positioned under the leading edges of the wings and dry air blown on them until one by one the lights went out. The aircraft was declared serviceable and the passengers embarked, no doubt looking forward to their gin and tonics and first class dinner – nothing so common as economy class in those days. Luckily, too, they were oblivious of the drama that had taken place under an hour before.

The Comet roared off into the murky skies on time, I changed my sodden clothes, drove slowly home, and treated myself to a couple of whiskies. I had learned my lesson – I never took the car on the runway again. I left it by the side, got out and paddled. I could not get any wetter anyway, and consoled myself with the hope that on such nights the Russell’s Vipers, scorpions and giant lizards that infested the place would be smart enough to stay in the their holes and not bother anyone stupid enough to be paddling about with a foot long ruler.

De Havilland Comet 4 G-APDA

Image: comet 4pda

Other pages:

This is the text-only version of this page. Click here to see this page with graphics.
Edit this page | Manage website
Make Your Own Website: 2-Minute-Website.com