It was the 15th November 1975 and we were the embarked flight on the County Class Destroyer HMS Norfolk cruising north in the Red Sea heading for the Suez Canal, then home.

For operational reasons we had missed the 11th but we had arranged a Taranto Night dinner in the Wardroom four days later to show the ship’s officers a rousing Fleet Air Arm celebration and educate them in the glorious history of their Air Arm.

I arrived in the wardroom at 1830 having spent a considerable time showering, struggling into my mess undress and tying my bow tie and met up with Robin Gainsford, my observer and Flight Commander and waited for one of our colleagues to join us. He had been complaining of being unwell after our morning ASW exercise but expected to be up for the evening’s celebration.

He still hadn’t turned up when the tray of drinks started the round so horse’s neck in hand I prepared to enjoy the evening. I turned to greet The Commander as he entered but paused as I noticed the worried expression on his face. He walked briskly up to Robin and me and snatched the drinks out of our hand. “I think you can cancel your evening with us” he said, “I think you will be flying.”

It turned out that our colleague had reported to the Doctor with severe stomach pain earlier. Apparently he had developed serious appendicitis and the doc feared it might develop into peritonitis. His judgement was that he needed immediate surgery which could not be performed on board. We are in the middle of the Red Sea, where the blazes can we take him? I thought.

We quickly convened on the bridge to discuss options with the Captain, Commander, Navigator and Doctor, Surg Lt Cdr Ken Sugars. There were precious few alternatives with the top spot being taken by Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia. Not a feasible solution, I pointed out. The airport was at the extreme edge of our range without refuelling, we didn’t carry the correct VHF frequencies, we carried no aeronautical charts or approach plates for the airfield, we would need diplomatic clearance to take a warplane (Wessex 3!) into a foreign international airport, we would have no idea where to drop the patient off, …………..The whole idea was ludicrous!

While the Navigator arranged a course at flank speed to reduce the range to manageable levels, the flight ranged and prepared “Willie”, our Wessex HAS Mk 3 for this very important casevac. The Flight Commander and I busied ourselves scouring the collection of maps and charts held by the flight and the ship to plan a course of action and I checked the en-route supplement for the sparse information it contained about Jeddah International Airport. The doctor had the most important job of readying him for the uncomfortable and risky flight ashore. He was brought up to the flight deck in a stretcher which was secured in the cabin with the doctor seated next to him. My co-pilot was uneasy about us undertaking the task without him being in the cockpit keeping an eye on Robin and me. I had co-opted our Senior Maintenance Rating, Chief Elrick, to accompany me in the left-hand seat to give us another pair of eyes and assist with maps and radio. Robin was going to be very busy in the back doing the nav and operating the radar. During the final preparations we discovered that Saudi Arabia was in the middle of the Hajj and therefore the airport was going to be exceptionally busy with pilgrims flying in from all over the world. Unfortunate timing!

HMS Norfolk Ship’s Flight. Lt A. Thomas (author) second left

At 2045 the captain turned the ship onto the flying heading and we launched into the blackness which was the Red Sea at night. We set course for Jeddah and the first “how goes it” calculation showed that we had fuel to get there but only most of the way back. We would have to rely on the Navigator to bring the ship close enough to the coast to safely complete the round trip. How often had we returned to the forecast ship’s position after a gruelling ASW exercise to find an empty sea? I wasn’t full of confidence.

During our preparations The Captain had been busy on the diplomatic front and had obtained clearance for us to land at Jeddah, using the only UHF frequency they could manage, offload our patient and depart directly. We were fortunate in that a Royal Navy frigate was visiting the city and had undertaken to send her surgeon to the airport and supervise the transfer of Lt B. Leyshon R.N. to the King Fahad General Hospital. We were all set.

En route, once we were in radio range of the airport we began calling the Tower. I think we got a reply but the signal was very weak and unreadable. In the cabin, Robin had a brainwave and started calling on our HF SSB radio anyone in Jeddah who might be listening out on a “Ham” radio. He got a response in heavily accented English but clearly readable. While we, in the cockpit, continued to try to make sense of the tower radio, Robin managed to persuade the Ham radio operator to phone Jeddah Tower to try and get landing clearance that way.

As we approached the coast, the high level of air traffic due to the worldwide pilgrimage to Mecca became a bonus as we could see from miles out, a steady stream of airliners lined up to land, giving us an accurate picture of the runway and subsequently the taxiway layout of the field. We descended to low level and, having received a clearance to approach via our anonymous Ham Radio friend, continued towards the airfield boundary slowing to a hover taxi as we neared the fence. We could see all the airliners landing and taxiing to their stands and satisfied that we were well clear we stopped in a high hover over a taxiway and flashed our landing light towards the control tower. Imagine our relief when we received an answering green light!

Ahead of us, close to the tower, we could see a blue flashing light. An ambulance? We proceeded slowly along the taxiway in a high hover, blowing up a veritable storm of sand, keeping a careful lookout for any obstructions. Imagine my horror when I realised that we were passing a parking area full of expensive looking private jets which I was effectively sand blasting as I went! I rapidly descended into a running landing and reduced power to cut off the wind and continued rolling towards the blue light, hoping it wasn’t the police.

We stopped by the ambulance and were much relieved to see a Royal Naval Surgeon Lieutenant approaching the helicopter. It took about 10 minutes to transfer our colleague to the Saudi ambulance and complete the medical handover. Once they had departed we passed a message via HF to the tower that we were about to depart the way we had arrived. Our departure, minus the sand shower, was uneventful and after we had sent effusive thanks to our unknown radio friend, began calling Mother for her position. We were pleased to find that Norfolk had continued to close the coast and the return flight took just 35 minutes. We de-briefed in the wardroom dining room accompanied by reheated Taranto roast beef and cold beer.

That would have been the end of the story but his treatment added a further twist. The surgical procedure that he underwent, which happened immediately on his arrival, was excellent with a good prognosis, but the ward conditions were less so, he having been allocated a ward which was hot, smelly and overcrowded. He was dreading the days ahead for his recovery. That afternoon he was visited by the wife of the British Ambassador who, having viewed the conditions in the ward, declared her nursing qualifications and had him immediately transferred by private ambulance to the Embassy. Here he was cared for by the embassy staff in luxury until he was fit enough to return to UK. He made a full recovery and re-joined the Flight in March.

Fleet Air Arm Veteran (Lt Cdr RN retired) Adrian Thomas