MISADVENTURES IN FEAF

By John ParkerInstruments

My first major posting, after Halton, was Singapore in 1959 where I spent four very happy years having managed to wangle the extra year to finish Chinese studies - don’t ask! As a newly-qualified Inst Fitter (Gen), and relatively "Street Wise" after three years as a "Brat", this posting was something again. Took some time getting there though - I think it was some three days in a Hastings with stop-overs, one of which was the Grand Hotel in Karachi where I learned never to trust local barbers; I had hair then, but not after he'd finished.

On arrival in Singapore, and upon leaving the aircraft, it was like being hit in the face with a hot wet sponge - the temperature and humidity being so high. I spent the first year or so at Changi in the old barracks, which had served as prison blocks during the Japanese occupation. Only a short distance from mangrove swamps, the mosquito population was happy to meet us, and still, after sixty years, I sleep with just my nose peeping out from the sheet. A “mossie-net” provided some protection, but it stopped air from the overhead fans circulating and, despite all the precautions, and contortions made entering it, there always seemed to be one little devil capable of getting inside. But it was happy times at work with so many different aircraft to work on; in those days we had instrument labs to fix many of the problems, whereas nowadays it seems to be just a matter of changing “boxes”.

The next few years of my FEAF tour were spent at Seletar, where the mosquito was rarer, I had my own billet, and detachments were more frequent; one such was to Vientiane, the capital of Laos:

Our ground crew was flown to Vientiane in a Twin Pioneer, with stop-overs en-route:

The first was at Phuket, in Thailand, which in those days was a sleepy farming community and the airport just a dusty strip with a small corrugated-roofed arrival hut; refuelling was by hand, into the wing tanks from above, via jerry-cans. As we landed there we saw the airport sign which read "Kaw Phuket" - Kaw being Thai for Island. As my engine fitter mate observed 'It about summed up the place!' Nowadays, of course, it's well known as a holiday destination with luxury hotels, night clubs, etc. etc. If only we had realized then that, for something like a fortnight's pay, we could have snagged a few acres of scrubland. Hey Ho!

The next stop was Bangkok where we were met by the local police, who would only let us loose in town if we wore "Civvies".

In 1959/60 Vientiane was relatively quiet with most of its French architecture nestling between Buddhist temples and ancient houses. Most major nations had embassies there and most evenings there were invitations to parties or receptions. Being new arrivals, we were on almost every such invitation and it was hard to remember the purpose for us being there. A Single Pioneer aircraft that had been flown in ahead of us was used to fly a "Commercial Attaché" from the Bangkok Embassy along Laos's northern border observing its Northern Neighbour - the "Sleeping Dragon", nudge! nudge! Our job as ground-crew – comprising all the main aircraft trades - was to keep the Single Pioneer flying. This involved some fairly basic pre-flight checks and servicing between flights. With such a light aircraft we were limited to the amount of spares taken with us and we were caught out once when the aircraft's engine rpm. indicator stopped working. The instrument worked with a direct tachometer attached to the engine and had a soft metal connector in line to prevent the instrument being damaged in case of malfunctions. Split pins, hair pins or any other helpful suggestions didn't work so, in desperation, I took the tachometer to a local garage and had it welded to the coaxial cable. On returning to Singapore I met the pilot who told me the tachometer was still working and the Sqn was awaiting new parts from the UK.

We stayed in a small guest house and were often woken in the early hours by a rusty squeaking noise going past. It seemed that one of our embassy staff, a frequent partaker of local brews, was married to a local girl and it was probably her collecting her hubby, from wherever, in a hand cart. The same man reportedly - and probably from a guilty conscience - saved all his empty beer cans and neatly placed them around all the flower beds and along the paths of the house. His wife was presumably impressed at first, but when the heavy rains came you could probably hear the noise a mile away. Anyway this same gentleman introduced me to "The ‘Invisible X"; at any reception, or party, there is a certain unseen spot where the waiters, with their loaded drink trays, have to pass on their way to other parts of the room. This meant that an occasional stretch of an arm could reliably produce a fresh glass from one of the frequently passing trays. Never did perfect the trick myself, but then, 60 years later, I'm still here!

We were lucky to be in Vientiane during the annual Buddhist Water Festival which comprised long parades, headed by figures dressed in long gowns each of whom, periodically, pulled on a shoulder string which then produced a large wooden phallus from a gap in the front of his robe. Hundreds of giggling girls, in national costume, would then run alongside and chuck buckets of water over them - and we only have Morris Dancers! Also they hauled enormous paper rockets to the side of the Mekong River and fired them over the water. Photo above shows the rockets and right a more conventional way of crossing the river.

We also found ourselves in the north of Laos at Luang Phabang; in those days this place put new meaning to the name "One Horse Town". My abiding memory is of local farmers sitting at the side of the street selling what looked like small Christmas puddings. Turned out it was opium and was being sold at the equivalent of £5. No! I wasn’t tempted and, anyway, I didn't have one of those folded white jobs with me.

Back in Vientiane, there always seemed to be a lot of spare time between flights. I was always interested in local culture and had heard of a Mao Tribe living up in the hills so I borrowed a Land Rover from the Embassy and made a couple of trips there. Children formed ranks behind each other in order to avoid my camera but I must have persuaded someone - possibly the water carrier - to take a photo of me with the kids who, by then, seemed to have settled down. However my trips were suddenly curtailed when the Embassy found out where I'd been. Apparently the Pathet Lao, who were in league with the Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge, were active in those hills. I just had no idea.