It was a cold Saturday morning in January. The weather was clear and there had been a very sharp frost. Binbrook was on QRA (Quick Reaction Alert, often simply abbreviated to 'Q'), with two Lightning aircraft and crews standing by in the QRA shed on the far side of the airfield. The runway had been treated with urea to melt the ice and the run up to the QRA hangar was clear.
That morning, five of us, four tanker drivers and a crane driver from the MT pool, were on duty, doing cleaning and servicing work. We had a tea break at 1000, and at 1030 we decided one of us should take the sweeper across to the other side of the airfield to the de-tuner area and 'collect' a bag of swedes from the adjoining field. I decided that I would go and took the airfield sweeper.
By this time the morning sun was shining and the snow was melting. I parked the sweeper behind the de-tuner sheds so that ATC couldn't see me from the tower, climbed over the fence into the field with my bag and duly filled it with swedes. I then jumped back into the sweeper and, letting the clutch out a bit sharp, spun the wheels. In less time than it takes to tell, the sweeper bed was on the ground. The vehicle was well and truly bogged down!
Two telephone engineers had arrived in the de-tuner shed to do some work, so I went to call the tanker pool, telling them what had happened (howls of laughter from the other end of the phone - they wouldn't have laughed so much if they had known what was about to happen!). They sent out a 3000 gallon refueller to pull me out, but decided that the ground surface was too sticky for that particular vehicle. One of the men who came across with the tanker stayed with me and the vehicle was returned to the pool. We then decided to try digging it out with shovels, but that turned out to be a complete waste of time.
It was now 1200 midday. The telephone engineers had left (after disconnecting the phone - thanks guys!) and we had to walk the mile and a half back to the pool by the long way round, as we weren't allowed to cross the operational runway. The tanker drivers had by now gone off duty and the MT section let us have a four wheel drive Bedford RL to try our luck. However, the Bedford just spun on the by now very slippery grass and we returned the lorry to MT.
At the time I was a crane driver and I decided to try to extricate the sweeper by using a medium size crane, which weighed around twenty tons. Again no joy, so I returned the crane. Had I known at this stage what the end result was to be I would have gone home and had a good night's sleep! However, not being able to see into the future, I made up my mind that it was time for drastic action.
I decided to have a go with a very large Smiths crane which was locked in Hangar 4. It was an all wheel drive vehicle and weighed around fifty tons, which I thought should do the trick. I had to call the orderly Sergeant, relate the story to him, and ask him to get the keys for the hangar from the guardroom.
By now ATC had their binoculars on us and I'm sure were wondering what was going on. I drove the crane over to where the sweeper was stuck and reversed it so that the rear eight wheels were on the grass. It looked good, so I attached the tow rope and took the strain. There was no forward movement, so I got out of the cab of the crane to have a look. You can imagine what went through my mind when I saw that the rear eight wheels had just gone down and were buried in the ground. The sweeper was now very much second in my thoughts! We went back to the MT section, this time in the duty NCO's Land Rover.
It was no time for half measures. This time, we came back with a
Leyland Hippo DP tanker - a very large and solid vehicle. We fastened
the tow bar to the front of the crane and onto the front bumper of the
tanker, put it into reverse and again took the strain. With a loud
crash, the grille on the tanker (which was attached to the bumper)
together with the large front bumper just ripped off the Hippo and fell
to the ground. By now I wasn't feeling too well! We took the tanker back
and got in touch with Cpl Clark, NCO at the MT section. He thought that
the only thing left was the crash tractor - a David Brown tractor with a
Cpl Clark came over with the tractor and reversed it ten yards in front of the crane, dug the corner spades into the ground and played out the winch wire. THIS HAD TO BE IT. He took in the wire until it had just got the strain and we looked at it - it looked good. There were now five men at the scene! I got into the crane cabin, and with Cpl Clark on the tractor we attempted to ease the crane out. As Cpl Clark engaged the winch, there was a sudden loud bang at the front of the crane. The winch wire had snapped and, as it whipped back, smashed the n/s headlight and badly damaged the front wing. Luckily, no one was hurt.
At this stage (1630-ish) it suddenly dawned on us that we could no longer provide crash cover for the 'Q' aircraft. We reluctantly had to report to ATC, and Wing Commander Engineering had also to be informed (he was off duty at home!). I went home feeling pretty sick and didn't sleep very much that night. Next morning (Sunday), a working party was organised with Warrant Officer MT in charge. The vehicles were dug out and jacked up, and Somerfeld PSP steel track was laid down. Tea urns and sandwiches were delivered from the mess - it was still very cold. It was a big exercise which took around six hours to complete. When the vehicles were free, the Fire Section came over and washed them down. Sergeant Dennis Smalley was i/c Fire Section. I was asked to make out a report on the incident for the subsequent investigation, but that is another story!
ABOUT TWO YEARS LATER. I was on duty with Mr. Ron Hunt and again it was a Saturday morning, though the weather was good. He mentioned that there were some swedes growing in a field on the other side of the airfield and should we go and get some. Despite all the previous trouble, I said we would if he drove and as long as he stayed on the hard standing and didn't go on any grass areas!
I hopped over the fence as before, went into the field and pulled up a swede. However, whilst chopping the top off with my penknife, I managed to chop into my left index finger and had to get back to the medical centre for attention with blood pouring from my hand and obviously minus swedes. The SMO was called out and as he was putting seven stitches in my finger I remember thinking what a lot of rubbish people talked about vegetables being good for you!
Story by Ron Leeman, cartoon by John Denton