Another Day at Changi
Sometime in 1969 on yet another boiling hot sunny day at Changi, Singapore I was nominated to accompany Cpl Johnny Brown by helicopter to a jungle clearing deep in Malaya to prepare a DZ (Drop Zone). This was an early start for the two of us, with our equipment, machetes and rations for two days in the event that the helicopter could not return later that day. Both of us laden with our equipment reported to the helicopter squadron, received a quick briefing before taking our places in the Wessex helicopter for our journey up north into Malaya. The journey was uneventful giving us a chance to double check our equipment and have the customary kip.
We were woken up as the helicopter prepared to descend into the jungle clearing, the long grass blowing in all directions due to the downdraft from the rotor blades. We leaped out, then dragged out our equipment, thumbs up to the crewman and pilot and waited for the helicopter to depart. The noise of the departing helicopter began to decrease, until there was silence, just the usual jungle noises echoing all around.
The DZ was in a valley, the clearing approximately 30 metres in each direction, long grass and surrounded by trees and no local habitation to be seen. We used the customary orange jungle DZ balloon, which on a good day would rise up to about 40-60 feet. This balloon was inflated using water added to chemicals; I think the mixture produced hydrogen, which filled the balloon causing it to rise. To back this up we would lay out the DZ panels – usually on top of the high grass – in some places this was 4-5 feet high.
We had our timings for the aircraft, a Hercules C130 was visiting us a couple of times, then a Bristol Freighter from the New Zealand Air Force, which would just give us time to finish off before the helicopter would come and pick us and take us back to civilisation.
The aircraft would usually drop a SEAC pack or small harness pack on a 180 foot long jungle line which was designed to drop down through the tall trees in the jungle. Our job was to search for these packs when dropped, roll up the parachutes, strip the packs, and sort them into manageable loads ready to put in the returning helicopter. (Later on when the squadron was to be disbanded in the Far East we used to throw away the empty ammo boxes into the jungle to save taking them back – but when you went back the next time the boxes had always disappeared!!).
The only danger on these DZs was the wildlife and you very rarely came across these, but you knew they were there. I saw the occasional snake before both of us would depart in opposite directions. I once saw a swarm of hornets and quickly became religious as I prayed that they wouldn't come in our direction. Our main problem was that the loads occasionally landed in the trees – these weren’t the huge trees of the virgin jungle. Red ants (approx. 15mm) used to build nests of leaves in the trees and if you were to disturb these nests, suddenly they would be everywhere, millions of the things. They had a powerful sting/bite, though not poisonous they would cause great discomfort and you had to make every effort to get these ‘things’ off you, even to the stage of ripping off your clothes!
On this day nothing out of the ordinary happened, the aircraft came and dropped their loads and we recovered the equipment. (On another occasion MAD Nick came with me to this DZ. He was aware that the OC Major Murray was on board the Bristol Freighter, so he got us two to line up and as the aircraft flew over to drop its load he brought us to attention and saluted!! – that was our MAD Nick.)
This day the helicopter was on time and we could hear it approaching in the distance. The airdropped equipment was sorted and ready to be loaded in the helicopter. Our thoughts were of getting back to civilisation, cold drinks and a lovely refreshing shower. Suddenly the helicopter was there, drowning out any conversations and sending loose items disappearing into the trees. We put the equipment into the helicopter and then clambered in ourselves, sat down, fastened in and gave the customary thumbs up to the Loadmaster. The helicopter’s engines grew louder, it shuddered as it left the ground and moved forward in the air as we started our journey back to RAF Changi.
We hadn’t even had time to relax; I remember seeing us clear the tops of the trees, when suddenly without any warning we were going down, fast! We hit the ground hard, bounced a few of times and came to a halt. The helicopter had crash landed in a nearby clearing and fortunately for us stayed upright. We looked at each other, the rotors had stopped, everything was quiet and then we were out. The aircrew were still onboard shutting things down and then they were with us. They explained that the main rotor gearbox had failed and that we were very lucky that it had occurred then, just after take-off and not on our return journey as we would be flying at approximately 1000 feet over jungle.
Then survival training was severely tested. The radio on the aircraft did not work as we were now further down the valley and we couldn't raise anyone. So the pilot activated his SARBE that was on his life jacket. We saw lots of aircraft fly overhead and we thought they must be picking up the distress signal and someone will be with us shortly. We laid out the DZ panels, hoping their bright colours may attract someone flying overhead. After a while it was discussed that a couple of us should attempt to walk out find a road and try to raise the alarm. But with my knowledge of the jungle I advised them against this and we remained with the helicopter.
Approximately 2 hours later we heard the sound of another helicopter in the distance, and as it got closer we could see it was the yellow rescue helicopter. A great cheer went up as it landed close to our stricken aircraft. With the usual banter between aircrew it was discovered no one had picked up our distress beacon and that the rescue helicopter had been despatched as our helicopter which had been sent to pick us up had not returned and was well overdue. The crew of the rescue helicopter stated had they were looking for wreckage and had expected the worst.
We were then flow back to Changi, taken to the medical centre, checked over and then it was back to work as usual. It was a good story that had to be told and exaggerated that night in the Malcolm Club.