OLLECH & WAJS, UNOFFICIAL WATCH OF THE RED ARROWS 1967–70
The stricken SIAI-Marchetti SF.260 was now at the mercy of the storm clouds that enveloped it. Its 260-horsepower engine made a laboured whining sound as it fought the relentless windshear threatening to force it out of the sky and into the raging Indian ocean. Since leaving Macassar on the island of Celebes, the little red-and-white, Italian-made light aircraft had been bounced and battered by up and downdrafts so violent it’s wonder its wings had not been torn clean off.
The two men in the cockpit were now navigating by sight, scanning left and right for possible emergency landing sites. The only thing more dangerous than flying through a tropical monsoon is flying under one, but the poor visibility gave them no choice. There were a few small islands dotted around, but they rose steeply out of the ocean and were covered in dense jungle. The swell of the waves meant ditching was the least preferred option; the Marchetti would be smashed to pieces on impact, and even if they survived the landing, the pilots would likely be torn to bits by tiger sharks before they reached shore.
Suddenly, through the gloom, they spotted what they had been looking for: a break in the mountainous coastline and a slither of white sand. Fringed by the jungle on all sides, it was neither wide nor long. Even with the severity of the situation, few pilots would have considered it a viable landing strip. But these men were no ordinary pilots – they were members of Royal Air Force Aerobatics Team, the Red Arrows.
They circled then commenced their descent. The Marchetti’s propeller shaved the tops off several palm trees before dropping onto the beach and coming to an oblique halt in soft sand, rather more abruptly than anticipated. Not the most graceful landing of Flt Lt Terry Kingsley’s career, but one of his most skilful. He shut down the plane’s engine and methodically flicked off the various electrics as calmly as if he’d just grounded a Folland Gnat on the tarmac at RAF Little Rissington. Next to him, Flt Lt Peter Evans had already taken a reading from his dual-register Ollech & Wajs chronograph wristwatch and was studying a map, trying to calculate on which of the 17,508 Indonesian islands they had landed.
The story, of how two members of the Red Arrows came to be stranded on a remote island 8,000 miles from home on Christmas Day 1968, begins just over a year earlier …
The 1967 Red Arrows team had performed almost 100 displays to crowds all over the UK and Europe, and more than twice as many practice sorties. As the season was drawing to a close, six of its nine elite pilots were looking forward to a well-earned rest. Flight Lieutenants Terry Kingsley, Peter Evans and Derek Bell, however, had a very different plan. Formation flying at 500 mph, with wing tips often just inches apart, was not enough to satisfy their insatiable thirst for high-octane adventure. The trio had teamed up with British Motor Corporation (BMC) Racing and were planning to crew a modified Austin 1800 in the London – Sydney Marathon endurance rally – a gruelling 10,000-mile course covering 11 countries in 11 days. London, Paris, Turin, Belgrade, Istanbul, Sivas, Erzincan, Tehran, Kabul, Sarobi, Delhi, Bombay, Perth and Sydney.
The British racing-green BMC race-tuned Austin 1800 no. 64, crewed by Kingsley/Evans/Bell on the Perth leg of the 1968 London–Sydney Marathon rally (Courtesy ©Bruce Thomas)
Of the seven works cars BMC entered into the rally, only two finished ahead of their wildcard entry, which was driven by Kingsley/Evans/Bell, their British racing-green Austin 1800 coming in 19th out of the 56 finishers that made it to Sydney. It was also a matter of great personal pride that they finished well ahead of teams from both the Royal Navy and the British Army. Suffice to say, that achievement alone ensured them a hero’s welcome back at base as well as generating some very positive PR for the Red Arrows and the RAF. Six months later, when Kingsley and Evans proposed entering 1968 London – Sydney Air Race, the RAF gave them their full blessing. They even allowed the Red Arrows official photographer, Arthur Gibson, to go with them to document the event. Had the RAF realised quite how much jeopardy their prized assets were in during these end-of-season pursuits, they may have been less eager to sanction their involvement.
Kingsley and Evans had secured the use of a factory-fresh SIAI-Marchetti SF. 260, affectionately known as ‘the Ferrari of the sky’. However, they were about to discover that flying a light aircraft over the Indian Ocean in monsoon season is a far riskier business than performing synchronised loop-the-loops and barrel rolls at mach 1.5 in a Gnat.
Apart from some inclement winter flying conditions right at the start, the first half of the race went reasonably smoothly for the Red Arrows team. It was on the Singapore to Jakarta leg that the problems began. They received a telegram about a fellow Brit competitor, and the only female solo pilot in the race, Sheila Scott. She had experienced severe radio problems, which had forced an emergency landing in Macassar on Celebes. The request was to go Miss Scott’s aid and escort her off the island and safely on to Darwin. The Red Arrows team agreed without hesitation, even though it meant a detour of more than a thousand miles, which would cost them any chance of placing highly amongst the finishers. What they did not realise is that they would soon find themselves in far graver danger than Miss Scott.
Sheila Scott was a once well-known actress in Britain who, aged 36, gained her pilot licence and embarked on a dramatic change of career. At the time of the air race, she was one of the world’s pre-eminent female aviators, and over her career she broke more than 100 aviation records. She had also recently been awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE).
Kingsley and Evans found Miss Scott at the airport and were able to temporarily repair the communications issues on her Piper Comanche. They agreed to fly in convoy to Darwin, with Miss Scott tethered to the radio on the Marchetti, just to be safe. But as soon as they were airborne, the ominous dark clouds ahead told the Red Arrows they were in for a bumpy ride. Just how bumpy would soon become apparent. When they entered the storm, it was akin to flying into a waterfall. Visibility dropped to less than 50 yards, and they soon lost sight of Miss Scott’s plane. After a few minutes they also lost radio contact. They were now completely reliant on the cockpit instrumentation, but there was so much electrical activity around that even that could not be entirely trusted. For the next hour they engaged in futile battle with the forces of nature and were blown wildly off course. Eventually, they were forced to put down on the beach of an unidentified island, the fate fo Miss Scott’s plane unknown.
1970 Chronosport advertisements, featuring Ollech & Wajs Chronographe Precision. (Courtesy ©Aviation Ancestry)
After a brief examination of the map, Peter Evans felt certain they were on the south side of the Lesser Sunda Island of Flores. Whether anyone inhabited this part of the island and, if so, how friendly they’d be were questions that would quickly be answered. Almost as soon as the pilots began unbuckling their harnesses, several tribesmen cautiously emerged from the jungle. It was a tense moment as Kingsley and Evans prepared to greet their unsuspecting hosts with typical RAF diplomacy. Arthur Gibson, ever the professional photographer and mindful of his assignment, asked his colleagues to wait a moment so he could load a new roll of 35 mm film into his camera!
The tribesmen turned out to be quite genial, though undoubtedly bewildered. It’s unlikely any had ever seen a plane up close before, and few would have had contact with northern Europeans, and certainly not with northern Europeans dressed in cherry-red flight suits. None of the locals spoke English so Peter Evans volunteered to head inland with a guide in search of help. With help from the gathering crowd, Terry and Arthur set about digging out the landing gear, which had embedded itself deeply in the sand. Meanwhile, Peter had definitely chosen the more arduous task. The terrain was hard and progress slow; flying suits aren’t designed for the stifling humidity of the jungle. Unbeknown to Peter, as he traipsed conspicuously through the Jurassic landscape, heatstroke wasn’t the only threat. Despite being a good 15 miles away from Komodo island, home of the world largest and most dangerous carnivorous lizard, Flores also had a sizeable population of Komodo dragons. Evans and Kingsley’s meticulous pre-competition planning had extended to researching which shark species were prevalent in the waters they would be crossing, but not which reptilian, land-based creatures they might encounter. Fortunately, after trekking uphill for about three miles, Evans made it to a missionary base and met an English-speaking pastor before he met any hungry lizards.
Several hours later, Evans returned to the beach with a 200-strong work party eager to help. Aside from severely sandblasted propeller blades, the Marchetti looked to be in good serviceable condition. The only problem was how to take off again, as the beach was far too soft to provide a stable runway. As the team stood around in the midday sun considering the dilemma, Kingsley noticed several locals were using large banana tree leaves as parasols. He saw a discarded leaf on the sand, placed his heel on it and pushed. It did not tear, even when he applied his full weight. This gave him the idea of using the leaves to create a makeshift runway. To their credit, Evans and Gibson did not immediately dismiss the idea as ridiculous and, with the help of the pastor, they communicated the plan to the 500 or so islanders now gathered on the small beach. For the remainder of the day, men, women and children helped gather all the banana leaves and coconut palm fronds they could find, while the Red Arrows and their team of runway builders painstakingly laid them in an overlapping herringbone pattern. Eventually, a neat strip of green matting stretched approximately 230 feet over the sand. As it was still light and conditions were favourable, Kingsley decided to attempt a take-off right away. They stripped the Marchetti of all non-essential equipment to reduce its weight, including Evans and Gibson, who would remain on the beach to give Kingsley the best chance of getting airborne. They also had to try and keep the ever-expanding crowd clear of the runway. As the Marchetti tentatively creeped forward, the propeller tore through the top layer of leaves, creating a green mist. The plane then picked up speed, lurching and lolloping over the uneven surface. Kingsley throttled up, and to everyone’s delight and relief, he managed to leave the beach at more or less the same point they had touched down, giving the palm trees another trim on his way out into the sunset.
Having picked up Evans and Gibson on the small airfield on the other side of the island, the Red Arrows team went on to Darwin via Kupang, then to Adelaide via Alice springs, before the completing the final leg of the race. A crowd of 4,000 spectators saw them cross the finish line at Sydney’s Bankstown Airport on January 4th 1969, some 12,000 miles from where they had started on December 17th. A flying time of 77 hours 59 minutes, and a total elapsed time of 240 hours 30 minutes. Out of the 81 starters, the Red Arrows placed 57th.
After the appalling winter weather conditions across Europe, some competitors took risky shortcuts through forbidden middle eastern airspace. Two Australian pilots eluded air traffic surveillance across Iraq, and another was buzzed for five minutes by MIGs over Syria. 19 craft failed to complete the race, and one plane crashed in the French Alps, killing Australian pilot Kandar Dodd and US co-pilot Bernard Perner – the only fatal accident in the race. Sheila Scott’s Piper Comanche made it safely to Sydney in 61st and final position.
Kingsley, Evans and Gibson reported back to duty in time for the start of the 1969 Red Arrows season, with an account of events as impressive as their suntans.
Kingsley and Evans at the start of the London–Mexico World Cup Rally, Wembley Stadium, April 19th, 1970. Still considered the toughest rally of all time, with only 23 of the 96 starters finishing (Courtesy ©Guido Devreker)
Over the next two years, Kingsley and Evans alternated between endurance car rallies and air races. In 1970 they took on the brutal London – Mexico World Cup Rally, coined ‘the toughest rally of all time’. Of almost 100 cars, only 23 cars made it to the finish. The Red Arrows, still relative novices of motor racing, came an impressive 22nd! In 1971 they crewed a Britten-Norman Islander in the London – Victoria British Columbia Air Race, completing the 6,000 mile sprint in 56 hours 40 minutes – a respectable 12th place out of 54 finishers. Kingsley and Evans continued to compete together in round-the-world rallies and air races over the next three decades, the last of which was the Panama – Alaska Rally in 1997.
Almost 50 years on, Peter Evans regrets not being able to recall what happened to the Ollech & Wajs Precision Chronographe he wore during the 1968 London – Sydney Air Race. It was most likely amongst the personal items and equipment the pilots gifted to locals on Flores as gratitude for their help on that very strange Christmas Day.
It was no doubt an even stranger day for the lucky tribesman who ended up with a fancy new chronograph on his wrist
Commemorative postage covers celebrating Flt Lts Kingsley and Evans participation in the London–Sydney and London–Victoria Air races.