The Indispensable Air Despatchers of Aden: A Story of Skill and Commitment

As the watchers on the ground wait in tense expectation, the Twin Pioneer circles lazily overhead. Then it swoops, and from the small opening in the fuselage a speck falls. As it blossoms out it takes the shape of a parachute supporting a package, the waiting men give a cheer, and seconds later it hits the ground with a gentle thud.

In the package they might find a variety of items. Urgently needed supplies; mail from home; a new film for the camp cinema; or even a package of eggs. But whatever it contains, the garrison know they owe a vote of thanks to the RAF — then to the men of the Army's Air Supply Organisation.

Operating from the significant RAF station of Khormaksar, the platoon maintains a close relationship with the RAF personnel who provide, fly, and maintain the aircraft essential for supplying the Protectorate garrisons. This cooperation underscores a camaraderie and unity crucial for the success of their missions. This highly skilled and vital cog in the Services’ air provisioning machinery can be found in many parts of the world. In Cyprus, Kenya, Malaya and the Arabian Peninsula. This feature deals with the Air Despatchers of Arabia— the officers and men of ‘A’ Air Supply Platoon RASC, stationed in Aden.

Parachute drops described in the opening paragraph form only a small part of their duties, and serve as but an introduction into the life of a little unit with a big responsibility. ‘A’ Air Supply Platoon has only two officers, two sergeants, and 50 odd, junior ranks (employed as Despatchers, Drivers, Clerks etc.), yet it carries out its important role with all the efficiency and enthusiasm of a larger organisation.

Scottish Aviation Twin Pioneer aka Twin Pin

The platoon is responsible for the loading and despatching of all equipment, stores, and provisions, which are lifted by air from Aden to the remote garrisons of the Western Aden Protectorate, and also handles emplanement of personnel to these outposts. With Headquarters at the important RAF station of Khormaksar, it works in close comradeship and unity with the men of the RAF — who, of course, provide, fly and maintain the aircraft used to supply the Protectorate garrisons. Aden’s Air Despatchers deal with three types of aircraft — Beverleys, Valettas and Twin Pioneers. The Beverley is, of course, the RAF’s mammoth flying furniture van and plays a big part in the life of the Protectorate, but smaller aircraft are of equal value in the stark and rugged mountain terrain over which they operate.

Air Despatchers are early birds indeed, for their working day begins at 3:30 a.m. with the loading of the first aircraft. In a normal week the Platoon will deal with between six to eight Beverley flights and up to 20 Twin Pioneer flights. A tremendous weight of stores is dealt with during the year, and between June and December of 1960, the figure was over 2,000 tons. The men work in teams of eight for the larger aircraft and four for the smaller. They fly with the RAF crew to help with the loading and unloading at the desert airstrips which form their ports of call.

The Air Despatchers’ most spectacular job concerns para-dropping. This is the exception rather than the rule, however, and is only carried out in special circumstances. Perhaps and airfield is out of action temporarily due to the weather, or an exercise in a remote area necessitates the dropping of equipment or food. When this happens the Air Despatcher is really put to the test. This is team work in its most highly specialised form, for after the pilot and his crew have located the dropping zone only scant seconds are allowed to ensure that the drop is “on target”. Strapped into the aircraft, only inches from a gaping chasm, the Despatchers must work swiftly and accurately if the drop is to succeed.

This is the reason that the Air Despatcher has to be thoroughly and painstakingly trained for the job. The Drivers — there are no Privates — of ‘A’ Air Supply Platoon all complete an intensive course at 22 Company RASC, the training unit in the United Kingdom, before being posted to Aden. This includes instruction in the packing and rigging of stores and parachutes; and hints on the packing and handling of the special containers used in para-drops. Fitted with percussion heads, these containers are so well constructed that packages of eggs can be dropped from a great height without a shell being cracked. Other subjects covered in the course include instruction on driving procedures on airfields, and on the correct procedure for laying out a dropping and landing zone.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Air Despatcher considers himself a specialist. There is a great pride in everything he does, and an obvious abundance of esprit de corps. This stems in no little measure from the distinctive shoulder flash worn by all Air Despatchers. This takes the form of a yellow Dakota on a blue background and is, in fact, a Battle Honour.

During the Battle of Arnhem in World War II, 169 Air Despatchers lost their lives. The shoulder flash is the RASC’s way of remembering — and honouring — their fallen comrades. In addition, the Air Despatcher can put up a pair of wings, surmounted by a crown, after completing 40 training sorties or 20 operational sorties. Only flights on which para-drops are made count towards this award, and at the present about a third of the Platoon's members have won their wings.

Some rather odd and troublesome items appear on the load manifests. Recently, for example, a grader weighing 22,000 lbs was flown from Aden by Beverley to the outpost of Beihan. The outward journey presented no problems, but when the grader broke down and had to be sent back to Aden for repairs it was a very different story. Owing to the nature of the runway at Beihan, a Beverley can only take off with a maximum load of about 12,000 lbs, and thus the Air Despatch crew had to strip the grader down into two almost equal parts, and ship it back to Aden in a two stage journey. Other interesting items despatched by the Platoon have included gleaming red fire appliances and crash trucks, tractors, 1 ton lorries, Ferret scout cars and an estate car.

For their work the men of Air Despatch receive an extra 2/3d a day (79p per week), which no one can deny that they earn to the full. Operating in difficult conditions, over some of the most inhospitable and challenging country in the world, they help to bring the necessities — and some of the luxuries— to the men serving their country in isolated places.

In every branch of sport in Aden, ‘A’ Air Supply Platoon is a name to be reckoned with. During the last athletics season the Platoon formed part of the RAF Khormaksar Flying Wing Team which competed with great success in the Station Sports. The Platoon's Commanding Officer, Captain Colin Carrington, won the 100 yards and the Long Jump, and Lance Corporal John McGowan was first in the 880 yards and second in the 440 yards. As a result both were picked for the Army team in the Inter-Services Championships — Captain Carrington winning the Long Jump with a record performance, and Lance Corporal McGowan winning the 880 yards and finishing second in the 440 yards. Both these athletes have been selected for the Middle East Command athletics team which is touring Cyprus in June.

In the soccer world, the Platoon provided three members of the successful Khormaksar Flying wing team last season and Driver Michael Bennett represented the Army at right-half in the Inter-service matches. He is to be a member of the Command soccer team that will tour Kenya next month. On the cricket field, the Platoon is no less formidable. At the time of writing they head the Khormaksar League, and show every sign of staying there. Swimming is another specialty of Platoon members, and three of them are in the Flying Wing team. Driver William Patey is shortly to compete for his silver medallion in life-saving. The Platoon’s sporting enthusiasm stems in great measure from the drive and ability of Captain Carrington. An all-round sportsman, he captained the RASC Corps team at rugby last season, and in 1958, while serving in Germany, represented BAOR at cricket and athletics.

This article was issued by the Joint Public Relations Staff, Headquarters, Middle East Command (Aden).