20 May 2017

Mildenhall to Whenuapai

RNZAF DC6 - NZ3632 (ex ZK-BGB ‘Arawhata’)- Mildenhall to Whenuapai in 21 days 1963


This wonderful account of a family’s adventure on NZ3632 when they travelled from Mildenhall, England to New Zealand in Jan-Feb 1963  was written by the late Colonel Rob Dickie (OBE RNZE) and passed on by his son, Blair Dickie of Hamilton.

The RNZAF's DC6 NZ3632 taken at Canton Island, Kiribati

“On the 22 January 1963, still in cold and icy weather, we were taken by coach to Mildenhall air base in Suffolk North East of London for the flight to NZ on one of the RNZAF Douglas DC6 aircraft still in the cabin layout as used by Tasman Empire Airways Ltd. We passed immigration and custom formalities and along with a number of recruits for RNZAF from former RAF servicemen, boarded our aircraft. The Dickie family were allocated seats in what was formerly the first class cabin of the aircraft. Mildenhall was one of the RAF air bases then under the control of the USAF and in 1962 it was being used as the MATS terminal in the United Kingdom.   We taxied out to the holding area beside the runway in light snow, but as a piston engine aircraft had a lower priority than larger jet aircraft that were both landing and taking off, and we remained on the ground for some time awaiting clearance. Eventually we departed and rose into bright sunlight on our way to our first overnight stop at Lajes, a USAF base in the Azores.   The following morning, we left for Kindley in Bermuda, another USAF base built early in WWII on the only available location at the eastern end of the Island, by infilling the sea between three islands. Although used as a MATs facility, it was also used by the US Naval Air Service flying Neptune and Orion aircraft on submarine patrols. During the night, we were awakened by the ear shattering roar of a RB36 aircraft with six pusher props and four jets taking off on a weather patrol. The flight from the Azores had been a short one and we had the opportunity to go into Hamilton and sample a touristy trip around the small town in a horse drawn carriage. Also, whilst at Kindley the aircraft had a thorough wash down and clean to rid it of the sooty residues of the smog and snow it encountered in England and after that we could see out of the windows more clearly. 

The next day was also a short flight and we were destined for a two night stopover at Charleston Airbase in South Carolina for crew rest. This was a time of great tension between the United States and Soviet Union over the placing of missiles in Cuba. The US Navy had established a sea blockade and the South Eastern United States was almost on a war footing. Whilst en route from Bermuda our aircraft captain advised that we should not be alarmed if USAF interceptor aircraft appeared close to us as a practice interception.    Sure enough shortly afterwards, two armed Voodoo F101 fighter jets were flying close beside us with the pilots peering at us through the windows.  Equally suddenly they peeled off and disappeared.   Our arrival at Charleston was fraught with concern on the aircraft. The aircraft had been on a glide path for landing for several minutes when the pilot realised that his intended landing was blocked by an armada of parked C130 Hercules and C124 Globemaster transport aircraft. We were aligned over a taxiway parallel to the runway and with a roar from the engines of our plane the pilot aborted our landing and flew off climbing quickly on a circuit of the airbase. One of the crew was injured in the sudden change and required attention from our flight crew nurse.

Two nights in Charleston allowed us to take a tourist agency tour of the city and become aware of its history and places associated with the slave trade and the American Civil War. Fort Sumter was a significant battle site. Our family also independently hired a taxi to take us on a tour including crossing the long Cooper River Bridge (since replaced). We were awoken early for the flight across USA to Travis Air base located about 50 miles north of San Francisco in California. We took off shortly after dawn for Tinker Air base near Oklahoma City where the aircraft was refueled and we noted the myriads of oil pumps as we descended for the landing. On the flight westward the head wind increased considerably and after flying above the main road into and out of Albuquerque where Blair and Ian were entranced watching vehicles like dinky toys on the main highway, we were told that the aircraft was going to land at Nellis Air base in Las Vegas for an unscheduled refueling. Nellis is very much within the city and I believe there was some reluctance to a New Zealand aircraft with a load of passengers dropping in at dinner time on a Friday evening. Did they think we had come to enjoy the night spots for the week end?  Having refueled the aircraft, and most of the personnel with a pie to eat and coffee to drink - we left Nellis after dark, rising off the runway and looking down at the glittering array of neon signs in a major city street parallel with the runway. It had been a long day by the time we touched down at Travis, and at or close to midnight we were shown to the apartment allocated to us for two nights.

There were major storms in the Pacific and the crew advised us after landing  that we would have to remain at Travis  longer than the two nights on our flight schedule. In fact it was not until 13 days later that the adverse westerly wind had dropped sufficiently that it was considered safe for our DC6 aircraft to depart for Hawaii. As a family we had our meals in the very large and well appointed officers club, and also had access to the many other recreation and eating facilities on the base. Travis was not only the largest Military Air Transport Base in the United States and the main departure port for military aircraft to Pacific destinations, but it was also home to a heavy bomber wing of B52 Strato Fortress bombers and KC135 refueling tankers of Strategic Air Command patrolling far to the north with nuclear weapons and a fighter interceptor sqn equipped with the incredibly noisy F102 Delta Dagger aircraft. There was a large military hospital on base and a number of C54 Skymaster, DC7 and C131 Samaritan aircraft specifically designated for casualty evacuation. The aircraft ramp and dispersal areas were very extensive and filled with more than a hundred parked aircraft ready to fly.  They including B52 bombers, KC135 tankers, F102 air defence fighters, C124 Globemasters, C133 Cargomasters, KC135 (Boeing 707) jets, the medical casualty transfer aircraft and visitors like the RNZAF DC6 held up by the weather. Blair and l sat on a low hill near the runway watching aircraft movements on several occasions.

Whilst there was much of interest for us on base, our crew and passengers also had lots of opportunity to make day visits from Travis as tourists, providing all were back on base at 9pm each day to receive instructions from the RNZAF aircraft captain Sqn Leader Trolove. There were three other passengers on our aircraft who joined Dale and I on several occasions to hire an eight seater Chevrolet V8 from a base rental car firm with myself the designated driver. On three occasions we had expeditions to San Francisco, to the Muir Woods and Napa Valley and to Sacramento in a rental car but did not have the time available to visit Reno or Lake Tahoe.

Such excursions cost money, and we were able to make them because whilst marooned at Travis we were paid a subsistence allowance by the New Zealand Government. By judiciously spending a day or two with low costs on base pursuits and careful food budgeting we saved money to pool resources, meet transport costs, and enjoy off base tourist forays.   The junior of the five RNZAF pilots on our aircraft was Pilot Officer Rogers who was also the imprestee on our flight and it fell upon him to request, and receive funds from the NZ Consul in San Francisco and to dispense the allowances to crew and passengers about every three days.  I recall that one evening after the usual captain’s meeting I was invited to join and accompanied the RNZAF crew to a celebration party at the home of one of the crew of a B52 at the beginning of their stand down period after a series of Arctic patrols. Needless to say I received a frosty reception from Dale when I returned to our apartment as dawn was about to break the next morning.

The reason for our enforced stay at Travis was the adverse westerly wind situation and the inability of the DC6 to meet alternative landing field requirements.  The aircraft could not carry sufficient fuel required for the head winds involved.  The possibility of transiting through Baja California in Mexico was checked but had to be discounted for technical reasons. Whilst all west bound aircraft at Travis were grounded initially, jets and larger piston engine aircraft were progressively released to fly the route westwards.  We were almost the last aircraft cleared to leave.  On the thirteenth day after arrival at Travis we took off for Hickham Field in Honolulu, a USAF base which shares the same runways as Honolulu International Airport and is connected to it by taxi ways over 3 miles long.  Hickham is also contiguous with the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbour.

It was another long day to be followed by a two night stop over in Hawaii.   We visited Pearl Harbour, went to the Services Club at Fort DeRussy on Waikiki Beach including a swim and then visited Schofield Army Barracks in central Oahu as guests of Major McConkie, who two years previously had attended the same course as I attended at Waiouru.   We dined in the officers club at Schofield and after a late evening were driven back across the island to our accommodation at Hickham where we had a short sleep before being awakened at 3am for the flight to Fiji.

Unlike the earlier refueling stops on our journey from England, our Pacific stop was on the near deserted Canton Island just south of the Equator in the Phoenix Group of Islands. (Picture) The day was fine, the sky was blue and almost cloudless and to say it was hot would be an understatement.   There was blinding white coral everywhere and of course coconut palms as well.  From memory the only people we encountered were those who arrived in a vehicle to operate the refueling equipment adjacent to the single runway on this low and very flat atoll.  We did not tarry longer than necessary before re-boarding the aircraft for the next leg to Nadi and an overnight stop at the Mocambo Hotel.  We remember our stopover in Nadi because when Ian was walking alongside the swimming pool where many of the crew and passengers were enjoying a swim he suddenly decided to jump into the pool and was promptly rescued by one of the aircrew.

Next day the aircraft completed the journey on landing at RNZAF Whenuapai having taken 21 days for the journey from Mildenhall, but without having any aircraft unserviceability delays.  I then went on a short leave before taking up my new appointment in Papakura Military Camp.”

From unpublished journal of Robert McLeod Dickie (1930 – 2013)

1 comment:

  1. Fabulous insight into another era. Thanks for posting this.

    ReplyDelete