In my efforts to improve my communication with readers, I shall be posting various anecdotes at around one per month in addition to a brief update on the progress of my latest book towards publication. All these memories are true, but as they took place a long time ago the truth may be elastic. You have been warned. Sometimes I might even tell you about the story itself.
Back in the ’60s, I was a helicopter pilot in the British Army. I and the others in our little air platoon were flying for the 10th Gurkha Rifles in Hong Kong and Malaysia. A few memories of those times have stuck with me.
Hong Kong 1967: Mao Zedong, or Chairman Mao, was ruling the roost in China and his Cultural Revolution was well under way, purging capitalists and traditionalists and starving millions of people to death; even some of the bigwigs in the communist party succumbed. Conditions were harsh. The result was that tens of thousands tried to flee China and the best place to escape to was Hong Kong, then under British rule. But Hong Kong was already crammed full of people, it could not absorb the vast numbers that were trying to flee the Red Guards, who were Mao’s enforcers, nor did the authorities want more communists coming in to cause trouble. The army, meaning the Gurkhas and others, were told to erect a fence (named Snake) along the natural barrier between China and the New Territories (the land on the mainland leased by China to Hong Kong and where we were stationed).
A portion of this barrier was a range of hills that overlooked the border, which was heavily patrolled by the Chinese Army. In our helicopters we delivered coils of concertina or dannert barbed wire, which the soldiers stretched out along the ridge line like a gigantic snake. We dropped these coils using the cargo hook under the aircraft belly. Our helicopters were small with skid tube landing gear instead of wheels. Because it was hot we removed the doors. This gave the pilot greater visibility and lots of fresh air. We also had panniers on either side of the fuselage into which more wire, tools and other supplies were put.
The hillside was too steep to land on, so we would drop the coils then move into the side of the hill and put one skid on the ground to help hold the helicopter still while the troops unloaded the panniers. In case that’s not clear, picture a helicopter side on to the slope with the uphill skid on the ground and the downhill skid in the air. The pilot is holding the machine in this position in a sort of stabilised hover.
Gurkhas are little guys (but don’t let that mislead you about their courage, strength and determination), some are only 5ft 2 inches or 1.58m. They are also very athletic. This chap on the downhill side of my helicopter couldn’t reach up into the pannier to unload it. To him, the solution was simple and obvious: jump up into the basket and throw the stuff out.
Now I was in fierce concentration in holding the machine still against the slope in the rising wind. I glanced around to make sure no one was approaching from the uphill side of the helicopter, because the rotor blades, being closer to the ground, would remove a head, or chop a chap in two. The next thing I knew was that the machine was pulled away from the mountain by this soldier who has leaped up onto the downhill skid. It was too much of a lateral load and all I could do was peel away from the hill to avoid a crash. This meant that the Gurkha was suddenly hundreds of feet up clinging onto the skid, James Bond style. I’m assuming this, as I had no idea what had caused the sideways lurch, and he was out of my view until – surprise – he suddenly appeared in the open doorway.
When people get a fright the blood drains from their faces leaving so-called white people even whiter. I learned that day that when a brown person gets a fright, it’s different.
I only realised what had happened when this sickly grey coloured face gave me an embarrassed glance and immediately dropped his eyes to the floor. I don’t know if he had ever been in a helicopter before, but he slid into the seat easily enough. My hands were on the controls, so I couldn’t help him with the safety harness. He sat there, gripping the seat cushion and staring down at his boots, probably feeling too guilty to look at me. To take him back to the hilltop wasn’t possible, because I couldn’t land, so I took him down to the supply base and landed amongst the coils of wire waiting to be lifted up. As soon as we touched down, he again gave me a guilty glance and escaped to a safe distance. I waved at the poor chap to show there was no ill feeling, but he was too shocked or embarrassed to respond. By sheer good luck I had avoided an accident on the hillside, which would probably have resulted in the deaths of other soldiers nearby, and one pretty scared young man had used his gymnastic ability to avoid falling hundreds of feet to his death. It was an incident neither of us are ever likely to forget.
Next time, I’ll tell you how I came to fly a helicopter in a well spiced state.
Publishing news is that Thirty-Four, my latest novel, has come back from the development editor with some suggestions, which I have noted and will make some changes accordingly. The book will then go to a copy editor to scrutinise the absence of commas and other like stuff. I’ve also asked a cover designer to put his ideas into practice.
Bye for now. Talk again next month.