Journey Through Turbulence: A Dakota's Flight in 1958

IT WAS 1958. The elderly-looking Dakota of Aden Airways took off promptly. We were a varied group that had boarded; I was the only European passenger. There were immaculately robed gentlemen, prayer beads passing busily through somewhat nervous hands as their owners doubtless called on Allah for a smooth takeoff and an even smoother landing.

Neatly swathed green-topped headpieces indicated their owners were Sada (descendants of the Prophet Muhammad), with at least one visit to Mecca to their credit. There were their wives, or someone's wives, shapeless bundles of black robes, with just the occasional glimpse of a hennaed palm of a hand and sometimes the flash of an eye.

There were babies being held everywhere. At the rear of the aircraft, just aft of the strapped bags, bales and suitcases and tin trunks, were two goats tightly wrapped in sacks; their lustrous eyes perhaps revealed just a hint of their concern at being separated from their free-roaming kin on the Aden streets.

I sat back in the narrow seat, gazing through the square window at the broken brown landscape, clearly visible below. There were two hours or so of flight over some of the most inhospitable terrain I was yet to encounter on the ground. For the first time I began to feel I was heading out of my depth. At last I sensed the real isolation of being among strangers truly indifferent to my presence. Over the roar of the two engines came the shrill cries of infants dandled by their mothers. The Aden Airways steward offered me a warm orange drink and a biscuit. The aircraft bucketed suddenly in an up-draft and my stomach lurched. I focused my eves sternly on Harold Ingrams' Arabia and the Isles. The aircraft droned on and on.

I must have dozed off at this point. I opened my eyes as the Dakota began to lose height. Now there were signs of habitation. The plane banked and I could see the airstrips ahead, alongside a cluster of small buildings that gleamed blindingly white in the afternoon sun. This was Riyan, a Royal Air Force station manned by just a few expatriate personnel, a remnant of the old imperial flying-boat route to India, and now the main gateway to Mukalla, capital of the Qu’aiti sultanate and headquarters of the Resident Adviser and British Agent of the Eastern Aden Protectorate.

It was about 3.00 p.m. and on the ground the dusty scene was bathed in a mellow yellowness of slanting light. It was still hot, but the stickiness of that afternoon by the Arabian Sea had nothing in common with the miasmic blanket-stifling heat of Crater-clogged Aden. There was a light breeze blowing; it enhanced a definite feeling of escape from all the hurly-burly of the last few days.

Our long-wheel-based Land Rover had been backed with some difficulty, up to the Dakota. A harassed local official was engaged in heated altercation with passengers over the contents of their shiny tin trunks. Two depressed-looking local policemen in ill-fitting khaki pushed owners away from their possessions. Torrents of unintelligible speech passed back and forth; babies cried and were shrilly consoled by their shrouded mothers. The packaged goats eyed the scene with resignation: the Adeni steward loftily surveyed the jumble of packages and bundles from the vantage of the aircraft's steps. The two British pilots busied themselves inspecting various protuberances on the wings and tail of the machine, which I saw had a towing hook, denoting it had probably been used to manoeuvre gliders over Arnhem. Three or four RAF aircraftsmen, stripped to the waist and burnt dark brown, chatted among themselves as the Dakota was being refuelled.

There was a 'flash' message on my desk to say that an Aden Airways Dakota was missing on a flight from the EAP (which worried my mother in London). In fact the aircraft had been on a flight from Maifa’ah in Wahidi and it had been sabotaged by an explosive device placed in a holdall under someone's seat. On board was old bin Sa’id, the state secretary, and Tim Goschen the Assistant Adviser (Wahidi), who had only been coming to Aden for a break to attend a social gathering. Eye witnesses on the ground described a violent explosion: the tail came off and then the nose, and the remains went into a spin from 6,000 feet. It crashed not far from Ahwar. Bodies (in bits) and luggage were scattered over a wide area. Robin had the ghastly job of identifying what remained of Tim.

I turned my attention to the next problem, which was how to fly people and materials to Mukalla for the coronation ceremony for the new Qu’aiti Sultan, HH Ghalib bin Awadh bin Salih, a pleasant 19 year-old who had succeeded to the sultanate on the death of his unlamented father. Ghalib was a sophisticated British-educated youth who faced every sort of worry for the future. I wished him well, but how to manage the air transport to Mukalla? Understandably, the Aden Airways flight crew was refusing to fly until security had been improved. They had every reason to worry. Not only was the Aden Airways booking office under Abdullah al Asnaj, and therefore a hotbed of FLOSY supporters, but there was nothing to stop another bomb being placed on board any flight - it had, after all, been done once with impunity. I left Aden Airways to sort out when they would fly: the RAF once again turned up trumps.

Extracts from the Michael Crouch book, 'AN ELEMENT OF LUCK' with permission from Michael.