I particularly remember the airdrop to HMS Antelope as it was all a bit marginal. At the time we were accommodated at English Bay in standard tents with standard UK issue ‘green slug’ sleeping bags – no use at all in the heat of Ascension except for providing a smoothish surface to sleep on. Our briefing was to drop 13 boxes to the fleet down in the South Atlantic. The boxes were waterproof and floated. The drop position was given only as a fleet position at a time and a Mean Line of Advance i.e. a moving target.
Fuel was tight with so many runs to do – we filled every tank to the brim as we were allowed to operate at overload/war weights. Fortunately, at Hercules altitudes there was no Air Traffic Control so we were able to fly at the best height for economy. We were given the code tables of the day so that we could talk to the Navy and not get shot down by them. Once airborne there was not a lot for the pilots to do, it was the navigator who was beavering away refining the plot. As we approached top of drop to get down to sea level we called the ship but no response. Having tried a few times, we faced a dilemma. We could not afford to descend and try to find the ships at low level as the fuel burn would be too high. Fortunately, the Hercules Weather radar on a good day is actually quite good at ground mapping and picking up large objects. We spotted a number of returns on the sea which appeared to be in the classic ‘W’ formation. As they were where the navigator thought they should be, we set off down; calling all the time as we did not want to surprise the Navy who were no doubt a bit trigger happy by then. More or less at the time we could see that there were indeed ships on the sea, the Navy replied. We got the distinct impression they had been watching us, but were not going to reply until they could see us.
Dropping to ships was not something we had ever practised but there was a procedure in the book. Everything was ready in the back and HMS Antelope had launched her Lynx with a diver while there was also a Wessex from one of the other ships as well as a ship’s boat. Things were not exactly proceeding rapidly although we felt better when we were talking to Flyco who gave the impression he understood that we could not hang around. The procedure was to run in using the ship as a marker and drop short and in the ‘lee’. When the box and parachute landed the Lynx would rush in with the diver who jumped in to secure the load to the Wessex which was following close behind. The Wessex then took the load to another ship (not sure which one as Antelope was in charge). The Lynx recovered the diver and we went around again. The helo pilots were brilliant and did not hang around but each drop took time (and fuel!). The sea state was very much South Atlantic with a big swell which could not have been too comfortable.
Then the unexpected happened. A Killer Whale appeared which, according to the Lynx pilot, seemed to be enjoying the rotor downwash when they came in to drop the diver. This caused consternation on the bridge as divers look like seals which Killer Whales like to eat! So, everything stops while the bridge and Flyco have a chat and the Lynx pilot gives updates. At one point the Lynx pilot chipped in and told the ship to pull their finger out because we could not stay all day – that seemed to have some effect. I think they decided that the risk was acceptable and the Lynx had not told the diver! I believe the ship’s boat moved in closer as well – by then they had worked out that we could be relied upon not to ‘bomb’ them with the load. Anyway, we finished the drop and set off for the long haul back to Ascension. Not long after we started to climb we had an overheat on one of the air conditioning units which provides aircraft pressurisation. This prevented us climbing back to the height we needed to make Ascension. In theory we could fly unpressurised but would need to be on oxygen for the rest of the trip, but there was not enough oxygen to get us there. As we cruised along at about 15000 ft we flew at maximum range speed while considering the options. I cannot remember how long we were at that height. We eventually got to the point where we decided we would have to try the overheated air conditioning pack again. There was just a chance that there was not a leak but the pack had been working too hard at low level in the heat. Our luck was in as the pack came back online and behaved perfectly all the way back to Ascension.
On one of our drop sorties, before we left, the apron at Ascension was full of Victor Tankers and a couple of Vulcans. When we got back the apron was empty. That was when we found out that the first bombing raid had gone down South. The sky way above us had been full of aircraft and nobody had told us. With hindsight we should have been told and so should the other crews about us. At the time there was a tendency for each bit of the war plan to work in isolation. Reading about the Vulcan raid and the concerns about ditching, as there was no help available, rather proved the point – Hercules Crews were trained in SAR and dropping survival equipment.