The last flight of LOCUS 65

 

One Day in 2008 Mail from Mr. E Devender, requesting correction in the name of a pilot in our database.  The pilot in question was his maternal uncle,  Flt Lt Seerala Hari Kumar Naidu. Flt Lt  Naidu was killed during Canberra Conversion training in the United Kingdome on 25th July 1957. Mr. Devender had only a few details, passed down via family that mentioned that it was a night time flight and that the crash happened after a fire from a technical snag. 

Flt Lt Sreerala Hari Kumar Naidu

Known as Hari, Flt Lt Naidu was the second son of Seerala Ramaswamy Naidu of Bellary. He was born in 1930, and was commissioned in the Indian Air Force on 15th March 1952 at age 22. He was from the 58th Pilot's Course. Among his counterparts were later Air Chief Marshal N C Suri and Air Marshal P S George.

Not much is known about his early flying career, but in due course, Hari Naidu was one of the hand picked pilots sent for conversion training in UK on the English Electric Canberrra bomber. The Indian Government had reached an agreement to buy the Canberra bomber in April 1956, and by early 1957 had sent many Pilots and Navigators to undergo the training in UK. This was undertaken by No.231 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) tat RAF Bassingbourn airfield, near Cambridge. It was during this training that Flt Lt Naidu was killed in the crash.

The Hunt for Details

Mr Devender was looking for additional details of the accident, and with the help of inputs from the RAF Commands website, it was soon known that Flt Lt Naidu died in a crash that happened on 24th July 57 (Though it was already the 25th of July in India by that time.) The crash happened during an attempted overshoot while landing at Bassingbourn airfield. Along with him, his navigator Flight Lieutenant D P Pandey was also killed.  Contemporary publications indicated the cause of accident as "Overshot and crashed into ground" and "Dived into ground after overshooting night BABS approach.". (BABS = Blind Approach Beacon System)

Additional information that arrived soon pointed to a detailed inquiry being conducted by the RAF and a report being published. Normally Crash Investigation reports are highly classified , but in this case, since it involved a foreign air force crew, the report soon found itself preserved in the National Archives at Kew, London, and available for public reading to anyone who visited the Archives!

Ofcourse being in India, Mr. Devender had very few options. An email inquiry to National Archives generated a response. They would be glad to make a photocopy, but the cost ran into hundreds of pounds!. The price was ofcourse prohibitive and a better alternative had to be looked for.

Five years elapsed since the initial inquiries. The interest in the report was very much alive, and by a stroke of luck, Mr. Devender got the opportunity to visit the United Kingdom.  He duely made the trip to the National Archives, got himself a readers ticket and accessed the crash investigation report. He was also able to make copies of the report, the photographs, as well as another document that detailed the activities of RAF Bassingbourn during that period. This second document had several photographs of the funeral procession of the two deceased crew members.

He made copies of the documents and photographs and through these copies a poignant story about the two valuable lives lost emerges.

The Circumstances

In May 1957, Flt Lt Naidu was one of the eleven pilots undergoing conversion in the 116th Course at the 231 Operational Unit.  He was one of the three Indian pilots of the course, the others being Sqn Ldr A I K Suares (2773 GD(P)) and Flt Lt S K Mitra (3870 GD(P)) . Parallelly the Navigators were unergoing training as well, and they were represnted by Flt Lt S S Chawla  (4561 GD(N)) and Flt Lt D P Pandey (4558GD(N)) .  The training started on 9th May 1957. 

Naidu was an above average pilot. He had logged over 1600 hours of flying till then. He held an instrument rating WHITE and was of A1G1 Medical category. The report indicates that Naidu logged nearly 800 hours as a second pilot, indicating that he was either with a transport squadron or hailed from a Liberator Heavy bomber squadron.  During the training, Naidu logged nearly 46 hours on the Canberra. he had completed the Day flying syllabus and was about two thirds into the night flying syllabus. His Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Drury Bird of the RAF noted at that time: Flt Lt Naidu .. as a pilot I assessed as slightly better than average. I gained the impression he liked flying the Canberra and was neither nervous or aprehensive.  Naidus instrument  instructor, Flt Lt J D Purcell (RAF) rated him as a high Average. His instructor was Flt Lt  A P Trowbridge, agreed in his assessment.

The Conversion training entered its final phase . It was due to be completed on 31st July 1957.  The crews were now involved in night flying range exercises. Another fortnight and the Indian crews would be heading for their home country.

The last flight of LOCUS 65

On the night of 24th July 1957, Hari Naidu and Dwarka Prasad Pandey were slotted to fly a simulated blind bombing exercise. They were to fly a Canberra B2 bomber,  Tail No. WE114 , Call sign "LOCUS 65" . Locus 65  was built in 1952 and had flown for 1583 hours till the day.  Naidu and Pandey took off at 21:55 Hours and completed their exercise in the next half hour. At 23.35, Naidu called out to the GCA at Bassingbourn about his intention to land. It was a dark night, with little or no horizon. And the only way for the aircraft to land was to make use of the BABS - Blind Approach Beacon System. Aided by the GCA, the Canberra asked for clearance to land three miles out.  Shortly thereafter, Naidu announced that he was overshooting and decided to go around.  

The ground personnel noted the aircraft flying level over the runway and cross the length of it. As it turned upwind and gained speed, Naidu raised the flaps. At that time the tail was trimmed to the nose heavy position, and this pushed the aircraft into a steep dive. With no visual horizon to refer to, Naidu missed the cues of the aircraft going into the dive till it was almost too late.  During the final moments, the pilot in the Canberra seemed to have arrested its descent, but it could not recover and hit the ground less than a mile SW of the runway in an open field at Fen Road.

It struck an open field in a shallow angle at high speed, and the wreckage spread out in a linear fashion over 650 yards.  During this post impact line of flight, it severed through some high tension wires and caught fire. The entire fuselage disintegrated and both the crew members killed in the crash.  

Wreckage photographs show the wing and center section of the broken up Canberra.

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Mute witness to the crash -  this wrist watch belonging to one of the crew members

 

The Aftermath

A Board of Inquiry was constituted the very next day under Wg Cdr A C Blyth from RAF Binbrook, Sqn Ldr Dalgeish and Flt Lt C D Leedham. The investigation began almost immediately the next day at 10.00 am. They assembled at RAF Bassingbourn and were joined by Sqn Ldr R P Potgeiter (Command Accident Investigation Officer), Mr. B A Morris (Accident Investigation Branch) and Squadron Leader Randhir Singh (Indian Air Force). Over the next few days, the Board visited the site, looked at the evidence, conducted interviews and by the end of the fifth day concluded its investigation. One of the findings had been that the Tail trimmer switch had been faulty  The Board of Inquiry while putting the cause of the accident as Pilot Error, also insisted on communicating to all Canberra Pilots to double-check on the tail trim operation whenever they were raising the flaps during an overshoot. 

Both Naidu and Pande were cremated at the Cambridge Crematorium. The final send off was a ceremonial event led by the RAF with the Indian Officers being the Pall bearers. The families back home received only the ashes. A small newsreport from that era was the only piece of information that the family retained till the recovery of the Crash Investigation Report from the UK National Archives.

The Crash Investigation Report 

The deaths of Flt Lts Naidu and Pandey would have been relegated to the footnotes of history, but for Mr. Devender's dilligence in tracking down the report and making a copy.  The Report ran into about a 100 pages and dozens of photographs.  The electronic copy of the report is now available on this website at the following locations:

Accident Report of Canberra WE117 at Bassingbourn, UK -  24 July 1957 Investigation Photos Photos of the Funeral of Flt Lt Naidu and Pandey
Accident Report of Canberra WE117 at Bassingbourn, UK - 24 July 1957   Crash Site Investigation Photos 

Photos of the Funeral of Flt Lt Naidu and Pandey