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This edited article about aviation in WW2 originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 367 published on 25 January 1969.
Excitement mounted in the little knot of civilian airmen gathered in the airport’s control tower. It was a November evening in 1940 and outside in the damp winter darkness their seven Lockheed Hudsons were lined up.
The ground-crew of Newfoundland’s Gander airport were even now working on them, filling petrol tanks, checking and double-checking everything. They knew, as well as the air-crews waiting for their briefing session knew, just how vital their work was. Hudsons were not designed to attempt an Atlantic crossing at all, least of all in winter.
Ice rimed the runways and the air was dank and heavy with fog when the air-crews splashed their way through the slush at the edge of the runway. They were a motley collection: British, Canadian, Australian, even a few neutral Americans. All were ready to take part in the R.A.F.’s war-time Atlantic air ferry experiment.
Some of these men were stunt flyers, professional risk-takers. Others were backwoods bush pilots, used to flying by the seat of their pants. And they wore clothing as varied as their careers: check shirts and stetsons, sweaters and slacks contrasted with more prosaic jackets and ties.
Few of them had expected to be involved with the actual war in Europe. But then an emergency call had gone out for men of their calibre, and they had answered it.
Within ten minutes, all the Hudsons were airborne. Ahead lay the storms of the Atlantic, with the added danger of enemy patrols on the other side.
Among these aircraft, heavy with reserve petrol tanks, was one whose crew were to doubt, not once but many times, that they would ever get there.
As their plane nosed eastwards, climbing through the fogs which so frequently shroud the Newfoundland coast, pilot Ralph Adams and copilot Dana Gentry were merely relieved to have got under way at last. So far as they were concerned, there was no foreseeable danger till they got within range of the Irish coast, when the Luftwaffe’s farranging ocean patrols could be expected to take an unfriendly interest in them.
Normally the Hudson carried a useful armament, but Adams’s plane had none. It had been completely stripped of all inessentials, to save weight and also to make room for the two huge reserve petrol tanks which had been bolted into place in the bomb bay.
It was one of these tanks which raised the first alarm. An hour out from Gander, Adams made his first routine check. As he flashed his torch over the cold metal containers something glistened. His spotlight centred on the starboard tank and revealed a steady trickle of fuel. The precious stuff, highly inflammable, was leaking away – and saturating the floor of their aircraft as well.
There was no immediate cause for alarm. Gander airport was, after all, not too far behind, so Adams contented himself with throttling back to see if the leak would cure itself. The other planes, meanwhile, forged ahead and soon disappeared from sight.
Tripp, the navigator and wireless operator, kept a close watch on the leak. Gradually it decreased, leaving just enough in the tanks to allow them to make their landfall in Northern Ireland.
With engines roaring at full power once more, the Hudson started off in pursuit of the rest of the squadron, now a long way ahead. The crew settled down.
Then the wireless blew up. Sparks scattered in the fuel-laden air. At any second the petrol vapour could ignite and blast them into eternity!
Tripp was one jump ahead of sudden death. He leaped to the wireless panel and shut down the master-switch.
The Hudson was well out over the Atlantic now, lagging badly behind the other six. There was nothing for it but to climb in order to increase their speed. At over sixteen thousand feet the crew, despite their fleecelined jackets, shuddered and shivered in the unpressurised cabin. Each man now had to depend on a supply of oxygen sucked in through a tube held in the mouth. The air was too thin to breathe at that altitude.
For hours the plane droned eastwards, the hypnotic throb of its engines lulling all but the pilot.
Then, at two o’clock, the motors faltered and began to cut out!
A reserve tank had run dry and the fuel line from the second tank had blocked. Adams and Gentry threw themselves on the manual pump and valve and worked at them like maniacs. If the plane “ditched,” their chances of rescue were almost nil. With no wireless to radio their position, no one would even know where to begin searching if they crashed.
The motors coughed and stuttered, and the plane began the long slide that would end in the sea.
Desperately the two men slaved at the pump. Pressure mounted in the fuel lines; and then, as suddenly as it had begun, the trouble ended. The fuel-starved engines picked up and were soon running sweetly.
Even now the crew had not seen the last of their troubles. They had been overhauling the squadron for some time when the navigator tried to take a bearing on its position, to fix their own. In his own words he found they were “up the creek without a paddle.” The indicator on the radio compass was broken.
Tripp didn’t tell his companions, because, as he said afterwards, he didn’t have the heart.
The Hudson was now flying blind, with no wireless, no compass, and only just enough fuel to get it to Ireland – and then only if they were dead on course. . . .
Saying nothing, Tripp went to work on the wireless, disregarding the risk of sparking off a fuel explosion. The lives of everyone on board depended on radio contact now.
An hour later, he had traced a short circuit and repaired it. He could just pick up signals from the British Isles, but the static was so bad he could not make out a word.
On the plane droned, compassless, but with the crew feeling safer now that even a tenuous contact had been re-established by means of the wireless.
Thirteen hours after leaving Gander, Adams calculated that they should be closing on Ireland, and hopefully took his plane down in a shallow dive.
Gentry, squatting in the Hudson’s transparent nose, stared down in amazement.
“Say, captain,” he said, “there’s land down there!”
It was a toss-up as to who was the more surprised – the navigator, pilot, or Gentry himself.
Land it certainly was, but where? For one thing, there was water beyond it, which could only mean that they were flying over an island.
A few frantic minutes of map searching followed until Gentry triumphantly identified their landfall as Rathlin Island, five miles north of Ballycastle, in county Antrim, Ireland. They were, incredibly, only a few minutes away from their expected touch-down!
And there was another surprise in store for them when they landed. Far from being the lame duck of the flight, they were actually the third aircraft to arrive!