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Recovering the Meteor

by Richard A. Gilham A24184, Leading Aircraftman, No.77 (Fighter) Squadron

After finishing my basic airframe mechanics training, on 4 April 1952,1 was posted to the 2nd Operational Training Unit at Williamtown (NSW) to maintain Vampire jet fighter aircraft being used to train operational pilots. During the next twelve months I passed my exams, upgraded to airframe fitter and then was promoted to leading aircraftsman. On 20 March 1953, I was posted to 491 Maintenance Squadron at Iwakuni, Japan.

We had been working on Meteor jet fighters for about five weeks in preparation for being posted to Korea when the WO Engineer emerged from his office and told us one of our aircraft [A77-415] was down on a beach on the island of Pangyong-do, off the west coast of Korea at about the 38th parallel. The location was known as "K53". I remember him saying, "I want three volunteers - you, you and you," so the rescue crew consisted of LAC Don Brown (Airframes), LAC Stubberfieid (Engines) and myself (Airframes), to accompany the warrant officer. We were told to pack our personal gear, plus rifles and ammunition, and report to 36 Transport Squadron to help load a complete spare Derwent jet engine and tools into a DC3 aircraft.

We took off from Iwakuni and made our way across to the west coast of Korea. The pilots informed us that to avoid detection by enemy radar we would be flying at about 100 feet above the water and that they would have to negotiate nature's monoliths rising out of the sea. The timing of the flight was crucial, to allow a landing on the 60 foot width of hard sand exposed at low tide. After the pilots landed safely on the beach, we unloaded all our equipment, plus the jet engine. The DC3 then took off to return to Iwakuni.

Checking the Meteor for damage, we located a gaping hole in the starboard engine and started work immediately to exchange engines. We were then joined by our island hosts, the American service men operat- ing a forward radar station on the hill, who supplied a crane to lift the engines. During our stay on the island we camped with them but the trouble was they had no beer, only bourbon, so we were forced to relieve them of a couple of bottles.

The pilot of the downed aircraft had used his emergency system to inject air pressure into the hydraulic system to enable the undercarriage to come down. This air had to be removed completely from the system for the hydraulics to operate correctly, so after the new engine was in place we jacked up the aircraft and bled the hydraulics. We conducted several retraction tests on the undercarriage and checked the hydraulic air brakes on the main planes. One time, while catching a lift in an American weapon carrier to the radar base, I noticed some 44-gallon drums washed up on the beach. I asked the driver, "What's in those drums?" and he replied, "I don't know, man, let's find out."

To my amazement, he then drove straight into one, gouging a hole in it with the bumper bar. With that, he got out of the vehicle, touched the liquid with his finger, smelt it, and said, "Yep, that's fuel oil guy."

I was wondering what would have happened if it had been high-octane fuel! With no wharf available, the only way they could bring fuel in was to dump the barrels at sea and let them wash in onto the beach.


Aircrew working on A77-415 on the beach.

On arrival at the radar base on the hill, we watched a New Zealand frigate off the east coast of the island, bombarding targets on the mainland, changing position frequently to prevent the enemy getting a fix on her. Later that night, after unidentified aircraft were detected in the area, the air raid alarm sounded. We headed for the dugout, where one of the American servicemen had set up a .5 machine gun on a tripod, saying, "I'll give this son of a bitch something to write home about." Luckily for us he didn't get to fire it, because I think the lot would have finished upon top of us!

The next day the Meteor was ready to be flown out. A signal was sent to Kimpo for a DC3 to return to collect us, with a jet pilot to fly the repaired aircraft out. A DC3 arrived the following morning with Pilot D.J. Monaghan on board. We informed him of the work we had carried out on the aircraft, adding that we had run the new engine which checked out okay. The pilot was concerned about the length of the beach for take-off We watched apprehensively as the aircraft slowly lifted off and headed for two high mountains. Just as the pilot approached the mountains, he turned sharply and flew up the valley between them. Shortly afterwards, he flew back over the beach and wagged his wings, signaling that everything was okay and he was heading back to Kimpo. To make use of the low tide, we quickly loaded the DC3, said goodbye to our American friends and took off to return to lwakuni.

Unfortunately, according to a pilot's report, after going back into combat, A77- 415 was lost on 22 June 1953 when a RAF exchange pilot was carrying out a rocket strike on some troop and supply shelters in North Korea. There was some flak in the area and the pilot experienced a loud explosion at the rear of the aircraft. Most of the controls were jammed causing the aircraft to climb to 15,000 feet. The pilot dispatched a MAY- DAY signal and nursed the aircraft back to friendly airspace and ejected. A Helicopter picked him up and took him back to base.

The armistice was signed on 27 July 1953, with 77 Squadron maintaining a presence in Kimpo for some time afterwards.

First published in the NSW RSL publication Reveille April/May 2001 edition under the title Incident in Korea.
Reprinted (with permission) The Voice, December 2001.