Santa Cruze Airport
Ferry Command No 23 was based at the old commercial airport and the crated aircraft were assembled in the vicinity. The general idea was that we would give them a flight test on the day before we ferried them to various destinations across India. Like most servicemen I soon learned the ropes. As soon as he learned that I was posted to Bombay, Abbas insisted that we went to stay with him until we found something more permanent. However I was still bound to Ferry Command with ties of authority and although many an eye was closed, my duties demanded attendance at the station and the mess for which I had to pay as I was deemed to be present! Needless to say I was never there if it could be avoided.
My 'Flight Test', accepting the aircraft from the assembly point was made by making an extra circuit or two at the beginning of my outward flight. Admittedly, this was bending regulations to the limit but our time together was too precious to waste on anything that could be construed as unnecessary. The ground crew were not always the most efficient so one had to watch for any problems. On one occasion I noticed soon after takeoff that the buttons that held the top engine cowling were jumping up and down, indicating that they had not been pushed down and turned. There was nothing for it but to abort the flight and come in to land. Turning in with full flaps and wheels down the wind suddenly got under the cowling and it whipped back, hitting the top of the bullet proof windshield with an almighty crack and just missing the tail fin. We were almost down but I had no idea if there was further damage so I immediately set the propeller to fine pitch, pushed the throttle through the gate and staggered along just off the ground to climb clumsily away. One must avoid putting up the flaps too soon as the aircraft will lose height and could have sunk back into the ground. Climbing to about 5,000ft and trying a few manoeuvres indicated that she was lacking nothing more than the engine cowling and I set her down to get another one, make a visual check and get under way again.
There was one great peculiarity about Santa Cruze. The city abattoir was on the outskirts with the result that a swirling funnel of vultures rose to at least 1,200ft almost in the circuit and meant that it was advisable to keep one's eyes well peeled. On my first flight for No 23 F.C. I flew a Hurricane to Allahabad via Bhopal, spent the night there and then picked up another one and flew to it Dum Dum (Calcutta) which meant another overnight stop before flying as passenger in a Hudson back to Santa Cruze. Sneh greeted me as though we had been parted for months instead of three days and two nights.
Unfortunately it was here that I had my first taste of recurrent tropical fevers and together with sick leave, flying was out for about a month. We went back to Poona and Shantarams Bungalow on my sick leave. There was much weeping and wailing among the ladies of the house when I had to return. "They will kill you if they treat you like that.' 'What do they know of fevers?" Baiji supervised my convalescence (Sneh's mother was always so addressed.) Any name with a 'ji' on the end signifies an affectionate diminutive. Thus Gandhi, among other names, was referred to as Gandhiji.
"You look well Sparkes" was the greeting from the M.O. (Medical Officer) on my return. "Glad to hear it but there was another attack of fever during my leave." He could hardly believe it. As almost anyone with experience of these fevers will know, they are most enervating. He questioned me minutely as to how I had been treated. As far as I can remember the only foods allowed were Coffee made with milk, then strained and a good supply of mangoes. What the treatment is outside the mango season remains a mystery. The medical services in the forces were well acquainted with tropical ailments and were generally very good indeed but they were always interested in how the locals dealt with indigenous diseases.
There was only one unpleasant memory of 'sick bay' at Santa Cruze. A young doctor latched on to me by sitting on the end of my bed or cornering me in the mess. He seemed to be obsessed with my relationship with Sneh and grilled me constantly. He was married to a nurse who remained in England and constantly using an expression that would revolve around 'You know what nurses are like etc." He alternately quizzed me and offered sleazy remarks that left me quite nauseated.
We flew mostly Hurricanes, Tiger Moths and Proctors. One fascinating aspect of flying different aircraft is the different 'character' of each one. Even the Spitfire which was, perhaps the most 'factory assembled' of those days could vary enormously in handling characteristics. In spite of all of them having been made on jigs, each one had it's own personality and like mariners we were all in one mind when it came to gender. They are all 'She!'
The trips were, at times, incredibly boring and in one letter to my parents I mentioned this and wrote that such flying "Sucked the nerves limp." Each one of us in his tiny 'office', droning down the hours, aching for excitement. We made our own by beating up our destinations in frustration. On one occasion we had to take three DH82Cs (Tiger Moths which are, of course biplanes) from Santa Cruze to Jodhpur. One was flown by an old friend who was an excellent pilot and the third by a decent enough chap but was, dyed in the wool boring. My friend and I suggested that we flew in vic formation with 'Stuffy' as leader. After about half an hour flying in very wide formation we closed in until our top wingtips were between his wings and no more than a foot or so from the wing struts. We then increased throttle a dottle and flew past him by a couple of feet, rose about three feet and then gently throttled back until our bottom wingtips passed between his wings. To his credit he gave not the slightest indication that he had seen us at all, staring straight ahead without moving a muscle. Neither did he mention anything when we landed after a rather tame 'beatup' in ordinary 'Vic' formation. Please note that this was in early morning flying when the air is reasonably still.
I cannot remember flying in formation when ferrying Hurricanes. Possibly these trips were the most boring and I usually tied a bunch of bananas to the side of the cockpit and marked the map with the places on the journey that one should be pulled off and eaten, the skin to be wrenched away by the slipstream as it was chucked overboard. India is a country of many bananas, my favourite being red, fairly large and fat with an incredibly thin skin. It is not surprising that it does not travel well so is not seen far away from it's grove.
Flying over the desert areas of India can sometimes be an interesting experience. On one occasion we were flying in very loose formation and I noticed that I seemed to be climbing so naturally corrected by putting the nose down. This only meant that the airspeed increased and on looking to right and left saw my fellow pilots were all flying in a nose down attitude so they must be experiencing the same circumstances. We were about 400yds apart and all flying through a considerable updraft that was rising from the parched ground beneath. On another occasion I was flying a Hurricane over a desert when I found myself flying through a heavy rainstorm. As soon as it cleared I flew in a wide arc and saw that the torrential downpour was evaporating before it reached the arid desert several thousand feet below.
Clouds at sunset
Some of our fellows seemed to be quite happy ferrying aircraft about but I was still making every effort to get to an operational squadron. We only carried the barest essentials with us on these trips. It was nothing to leave base with a heavy sweat and to arrive at the destination shivering with everyone else in blue uniforms. The following is a direct quote from a letter to my parents dated 15/3/44:-
"The other morning I had to go on a trip and as Sneh was particularly unhappy I let her come with me in a taxi. She was clad only in pyjamas but that is not uncommon here. Her trousers and a shirt that she had borrowed from the friend we were staying with. **
We had to cross
the ærodrome and as luck would have it the taxi ran out of
petrol crossing the runway. The Indian workers were goggle eyed to
see their idol walking across a military airfield in the very early
morning. When we got to the entrance she rushed through the duty
sergeant's office like a frightened kitten. I shall never forget the
look on his face. I hastily tried to explain to him but he merely
looked at me as though I was the second ghost. Anyway she had the
doubtful honour of seeing me take off."
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Edward Sparkes ©1999