Venoms of the East

Malcolm Payne remembers his days flying with 28 Squadron in Hong Kong...

I was looking forward to spending 2½ years in the ‘Mystical East’. It was mid 1957 and my first operational unit – 28 Squadron – awaited me. I’d been flown via the USAF base at Clark Field, the Philippines and was strapped into a Vickers Valetta shuttle from Singapore. The mountainous terrain looked very close as it passed the wingtips on approach to Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport. Arrival formalities over, I went in search of squadron pilots – and aircraft for that matter. I found that we were based at Sek Kong, not Kai Tak. Onward transportation to my new base was by Land Rover over spectacular mountain landscapes before descending to the airfield past Army camps. Administration and accommodation was in a group of standard Nissen huts. Off-duty time was filled with walks or the occasional visits to Kowloon where bright lights and the United Services Club offered relaxation facilities for officers of all services. 

Shoehorned in

In spite of a degree of air traffic control freedom, there were also a number of drawbacks to operation from this airfield. There were space limitations due to the lack of open ground which allowed for just one narrow runway – 11/29 – about 6,200ft (1,889m) long. Width limitations also meant that our DH Venom FB.1s departing in pairs had their wings overlapping so that the No.2 might be unable to avoid his leader if there was a problem.  The local terrain comprised high ground that rose in a continuous curve from northeast through southeast to southwest, which restricted manoeuvring space. Soon after departure to the northwest, a turn had to be made to avoid attracting the attention of the Chinese anti-aircraft artillery. Within 4 miles (6.4km) to the southeast was Tai Mo Shan Mountain, reaching nearly 3,000ft. As for approach facilities, Sek Kong had a suitably modified gunlaying radar from the Army and it was mainly used in the training mode.

Every Saturday morning there was a squadron ‘Balbo’ when all available aircraft, often 12, were put into the air for a ‘showing the flag’ flypast over Kowloon. With only the RAF, the Army Air Corps, the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force and the Hong Kong Flying Club having any need for detailed flying charts of the area the production of flight maps for such a small market was uneconomical. We had to use 1936 Ordnance Survey edition charts, updated in 1946, to a scale of 3/4in to a mile, each sheet measuring 42 by 28in (106 by 71cm) – not the easiest thing to use in a cockpit with limited space. For most of the time the weather caused few problems, but on one occasion early in June 1957 flooding due to a tropical rainstorm forced a Vickers Viscount of Hong Kong Airways to divert to Sek Kong from Kai Tak. Rumour had it that an airman swam from Kai Tak’s guardroom to the station admin block!

On June 14, 1957, because of limited facilities, we moved from Sek Kong to Kai Tak. No.28 Squadron took up residence there for the rest of the unit’s stay in Hong Kong while operating fixed-wing types. The Venom FB.1s were traded in for FB.4s in late 1959 and Hawker Hunter FGA.9s took over in May 1962, retiring in January 1967. [It converted to Westland Whirlwind HAR.10s in 1968 at Sek Kong and to Westland Wessex HC.2s in 1972. With these venerable machines, 28 disbanded in June 1997 with the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong. In January 2001 the unit was re-formed at Benson in Oxfordshire, flying EHI Merlin HC.3 helicopters - .]

Weapons training

Although the primary role on station was to provide support for the Army, there were occasional mock training attacks on Royal Navy ships, giving both the pilots and naval gunners valuable practice. For a newly-joined wing man the briefing for this exercise included emphasis on keeping his No.1 below the horizon, as the leader would often be leaving his jet wake on the sea’s surface. Strict compliance with the briefing was essential as with one aircraft breaking away from its attack, another would be commencing its run from another quarter. Weapons training consisted of air-to-air gunnery following the usual pattern of firing at a flag towed over the sea behind a Gloster Meteor T.7 from Kai Tak’s Station Flight. The Army fired at drogues towed by a pair of venerable Bristol Beaufighter TT.10s, also operated by Station Flight.  For ground attack training, there was a range at Port Shelter Bay, less than five minutes’ flying time east of Kai Tak. This was carried out with four 25lb (11.3kg) bombs or rockets mounted on racks below the wings. The high explosive heads of the rockets were replaced with concrete of the same weight and were fired in a dive. The target in each case was a diamond on a cliff face about 50ft above sea level and all firing runs were carried out from north to south.


Comet lessons


One of our Venoms was written off in a spectacular fashion when 
the Station Commander chose to refresh his weapon delivery skills [This was FB.1 WE371 on July 22, 1957]. As his aircraft accelerated, it seemed reluctant to get airborne and as the end of the runway loomed, it was obviously not going to fly, or be able to stop. He was faced with two options; to continue into the murky waters of Kowloon Bay, or to turn slightly to the left through the RAF Marine Craft section. Closing the throttle, he chose the latter and successfully avoided a beached marine craft on trestles, but hit a number of heavy lorries and trailers in the MT Section. The Venom eventually came to rest with the tail booms wrapped around the nose and a large hole in the port side of the cockpit, fortunately without any injury to the occupant.  The only casualty was to an airman working on the marine craft who, seeing the aircraft approaching, jumped for his life and suffered a broken leg. To understand the CO’s predicament it is necessary to refer to March 3, 1953 and the fatal crash of DH Comet 1 CF-CUN at Karachi in India. In this case the pilot raised the nose too high on the departure roll and with the high drag due to the angle of attack there was not enough thrust to overcome this. The same effect could happen to the Venom. 

Typhoon power

Apart from the rainstorm mentioned earlier, there was also a typhoon, during which the squadron ‘ops’ room was manned on a 24-hour rota basis. A constant visual check of the restraints on our aircraft was required. At the height of the storm, it was necessary to lean at nearly 45-degrees when walking into the wind and to beware of the occasional flying corrugated iron sheet. Where possible, aircraft were moved to hangars usually reserved for maintenance and those that could not be taken in were tied down firmly. Daylight and the passing of the typhoon showed that our precautions were successful, but a different picture was evident on the other side of the airfield. A number of USAF and Vietnam Air Force aircraft under maintenance were caught with nowhere to go and several Douglas DC-3s and Curtiss C-46s had been lifted into the air and blown into buildings or other aircraft; while a Douglas C-54 had been blown sideways into one of the hangars. One USAF crew on a C-54 spent more that 24 hours sitting at the controls with all engines running. They successfully kept the transport heading into wind and it survived undamaged.

A large screwdriver

Of course, at this time the RAF was a much larger organisation than it is now, with units in West Germany, North Africa, Cyprus, Aden, Malaya and Borneo, among others. As an aircraft aged, it was moved down the line and that meant out of the UK and off to the provinces. One of our Venom FB.1s was reputed to have figured in the original acceptance trials of the type and its log showed service in West Germany before moving on to Cyprus and then Malaya before arriving at Kai Tak. The result was that it was getting tired, and serviceability was a significant factor in spite of all the hard work put in by the groundcrew. Every morning, ‘Chiefy’ could be seen working along the flight line with a massive screwdriver checking the wing attachment bolts before first flight. A particular phenomenon was the frequency with which, the cockpit capsule – and sometimes the wingtip fuel tanks – would vibrate with just a small loss of tension on the attachment bolts. To be flying at 
low level and high speed and have the shape of a tip-tank or your instrument panel become almost indistinguishable due to vibration concentrates the mind.

On one training sortie the leader briefed for a four-ship formation, but only expected three aircraft. One went unserviceable on start-up, I had brake failure while taxying out, while the leader got airborne, only to return with radio failure. Otherwise, life continued at a steady pace. Off-duty visits included Aberdeen Harbour, Macau and, as guests of the USAF, a visit to Clark Field. However, all was to change. Word came that the Defence Minister, Duncan Sandys, was arriving in the Colony on a tour of inspection and we were all lined up in the crew room to shake hands. Rumours started to fly and it was soon confirmed that the government had decided the future of our national defence lay with missiles, and pilots would become surplus.

The squadron was not to close, but it was to run down to three aircraft and five pilots. Bang went my plans for ageing gently in the Far East. Over the next few weeks, posting notices came in and dining-out evenings became a routine. Several went onto flying posts while others became missile controllers. So it was that on a day late in December 1957 I climbed into the cabin of an HP Hastings to take me to Singapore and then on another Hastings to arrive at Lyneham just in time for Christmas. From the nimble Venom, I now faced a supernumerary ground job at RAF Worksop in the tropics of Nottinghamshire!