Coachlines - August 2023

28.08.23 Liveryman John Blauth

Day at the museum

Helicopters, described by the nervous as a collection of rivets flying in close formation, retain a fascination for many and may have inspired the saying ‘better stay on the ground wishing you were up there than be up there, wishing you were on the ground.’
Bear that in mind as we go back a few years to May 1982.

Imagine now that you are a young Royal Navy Officer with a number of specific roles in your ship, one of which is that you are the person in charge of demolitions and clearance of explosive ordnance, mostly while underwater.

In front of you, HMS ANTELOPE is on fire, having taken a bomb hit earlier in the day which exploded at anchor while attempts were being made to defuse it. Because of what warships carry in their magazines, it is a clear risk to other vessels in the vicinity of the anchorage. HMS PLYMOUTH, your ship, is closest. Your Captain and others decide that the best course of action is send a specialist to cross over to the burning ANTELOPE to cut the anchor chain with an explosive charge and hopefully allow the ship to drift on to the lee shore, away from the main anchorage. The specialist and his colleagues then hopefully return to the PLYMOUTH in one piece.

Our young RN Officer, carrying a canvas satchel filled with blocks of TNT and det cord, aka detonation cord which when ignited burns at 21,000/ft sec (for context it would take 13 minutes to burn from London to New York) was all set to go when a Stentorian bellow from above cancelled the mission. Just as well really, as a few minutes later upperdeck ordnance on the ANTELOPE exploded, showering the anchor cable in burning debris. The following morning she broke in two and slipped beneath the waves.

Unsurprising in some ways that our hero, who happens to be our own gallant Clerk, Mark, swiftly changed role on his return to Blighty and trained to be a helicopter pilot instead. A safer option one could say, though he will tell you that the main reason was because he thought he would get his weekends off, as pilots tend to do.

Mark the Clerk and I met recently at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovil where he had an arranged meeting, the fruits of which will be made public at a later date and relate to the 2024 Banquet. While there we took a turn around the Museum which, it has to be said, is a model of excellence in the world of military exhibitions and much recommended. Best bring your own sandwiches though, as the provender on offer is execrable to the refined palate.

For reasons that are mostly obscure, Concorde 002 is on display in the Museum and there, neatly under its port wing, is a smart-looking Lynx helicopter in the cockpit of which Mark had spent many hours; clearly a safer option than boarding a burning vessel in war to cut its anchor chain.

Mark sent me a note the next day:

“I found my flying log this morning and it notes that I flew a total of 350 hours in XZ720. My last recorded sortie was a return flight from Bergen in Norway to Portland around the western rim of Europe on 4th December 1995. I had led a two-ship detachment to Norway where we’d spent a week working with a Norwegian Fast Patrol Boat Squadron. The return flight took a total of eight hours 50 minutes, of which two hours 15 was night flying, because the Lynx didn’t have the legs to do a straight line dash and we had to refuel every two hours or so.

“That was my last flight in a Lynx as pilot in command because the following February I went back to Culdrose to do a Sea King Refresher Course before taking over as the Senior Pilot of 819 ASW Sea King Squadron based at Prestwick on the Clyde. Happy days.”