A CRASH AT DELHI

The leg from Delhi to Calcutta was 800 miles or so and, as such, considered to be a mere stroll along the route. They had arrived at Delhi yesterday and were preparing for an early departure for Calcutta the following day. It is difficult to describe  what an airport was like in those post war days of the 1940’s; the arrival of one plane a day would qualify it as being busy. When a plane did arrive it was to bring into brief activity through the little burst of movement occasioned by the transient passengers and crew, in an otherwise almost permanently slumbering organisation. When the plane had been serviced, the crew and passengers fed and billeted, the service personnel would drift off to either ‘crash down’ on their charpoys, or go to the bar for a talk and a drink. The simple rudimentary hangers that served for all embarking or disembarking activities were abandoned and settled back into their normal deserted, dimly lit silence.

Another brief surge of activity the next morning saw the crew busy at their allotted tasks on checking preparations to ensure that all their, and the aircraft’s, needs had been fully met by the station staff. Having finished his own work B moved to where the flight engineer, Jameson was reporting some matter to the Captain, Mackay. A detail of engine servicing, shown, at yesterday’s testing, as being required, had not been carried out. The part to be replaced was considered to be OK but the replacement would only become available later. Mackay studied the servicing report. ‘We can get that done at Dum Dum,’ was his verdict. The vehicles moved out to the Stirling and take off procedures began. The solitary plane on the apron received clearance, the engines were revved up and she began rolling forward to the take off position on the runway.

As the Stirling gained speed, With the engine boost at full throttle and flaps down, the wheels lifted from the ground as they became airborne. ‘Starboard outer engine  losing power,’ yelled Jameson. Time froze for them at this point; all flyers know that the critical times are at take off and landing. A misjudgement or an error at such times can be immediately irreversible, even as it happens. At full throttle and boost, there is no more power to give the engines. If one of the four engines fail or only lose power in normal flight, the plane will lose height, but will then be capable of maintaining flying altitude, after re-trimming. At take off, there can be no re-trimming, there is not sufficient space beneath the aircraft for it to drop before levelling out on a new re-trim. The amount of fall depends on the degree of power failure; the greatest fall results from a complete engine cut, and it is to the side of the faulty engine.

Mackay was a veteran and a survivor, tough and pugnacious; he hadn’t got through the years of aerial warfare to perish in a peace time operation, (although, surprisingly, many war veteran pilots were killed in Transport Command crashes with their crews). There were really only two feasible choices of action, and Mackay knew the risks in both. One course of action would be to carry on, hoping that the loss of power would not get worse and the dropping starboard wing would clear the ground. If it didn’t clear the ground, there would be a crash and, with the increasing velocity of the plane, possibly a fire, followed by an explosion as the fuel went up. When this happened there was usually insufficient time for the occupants of the plane to get out. The alternative option was to abort the take-off; cut all engines and let the plane fall without power back on to the runway; if there was still enough runway to fall back on to, and the falling plane lands on its two front wheels. An added danger was in running into a tree or a building beyond the runway.

‘Cut all engines,’ was Mackay’s response. It was like being in a silent lift for an instance. Going down. The crew members froze into immobility. The Stirling dropped and bucked. The nose dipped as the wheels of the plane hit the ground. The crew and passengers were pitched forwards from their seats. The initial impact was followed by the nose rising and the tail smashing into the ground. B could see the perimeter fence racing towards them as the slithering, bucking plane slewed its way unimpeded to the end of the runway. There was no time to feel scared. The mass of the powerless, inutilised Stirling bounced one more final time and came to rest, lying over the flimsy boundary fence partly in and partly over the arid scrubland outside. It was tipped at an angle, but intact. The expected reaction was not allowed to develop and evacuation was carried out rapidly.

Outside they could see that the tail wheel had been stoved back into the rear part of the fuselage. The huge front undercarriage, which was so much a feature of the Stirling bombers had not stood the force of the massive impact and, although the plane was in surprisingly sound condition, there was no more flying to be got from her until repairs were carried out on the major damage to the rear and the starboard wing. This was likely to be a scrap job as there were rumours of a supply of new York aircraft coming through for Transport Command. There were no injuries, apart from bruises and shock, Vehicles came out to pick them up and take them back to a reception room in the airport block.

The ongoing passengers flew out with the next crew that arrived the following day which Mackay’s crew would have relieved in Calcutta, but now B and the crew were to remain in Delhi, kicking their heels, until the crashed plane’s fate could be sorted out.

1946