Canberra’s total electrical failure at night

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Wing Commander Chandrakant Nijanand Bal, a former Canberra pilot writes about a night time sortie that went wrong – which earned him the Vayu Sena Medal (Gallantry) in 1970)

Wing Commander Chandrakant Nijanand Bal, a former Canberra pilot writes about a night time sortie that went wrong – which earned him the Vayu Sena Medal (Gallantry) in 1970)

The night of 22 January 1969 was cold and dark. The stars were bright in the sky and a wintery haze hugged the ground. I was detailed to pilot Canberra BP 746 on a F97 low-level live tactical mission by night. Flt Lt JV Singh (later Air Cmde) was my navigator. BP 746 was a PR7 version of the Canberra bomber. The flight involved a high-low-high profile. The photographic task using the F97 camera was a demanding job, especially for the navigator. This involved a high speed pass at night over the target area at altitudes up to 2000 ft. For the pilot it meant accuracy of height, speed, and direction of a high order.

The F-97 camera system used by the Canberra PR Mk57

F97 needs a little explanation for the uninitiated. The F97 was a photographic piece of equipment using special cameras for taking photographs from an aircraft flying at low altitudes and at high speeds by night. They were designed for photography at altitudes between 400 and 2,000 feet. The system was virtually two cameras in one. The illumination for the exposures was provided by 1.5 or 1.75 inch photoflash cartridges, which were ejected automatically from a discharger at regular intervals, giving an effective exposure time of 1/50 second. The speed of the moving film depended on the height of the aircraft above the target as well as the ground speed of the aircraft. These adjustments were controlled by the navigator. A low height and high ground speed called for a higher film speed. In this way image movement was accounted for and this greatly improved the clarity of the photographic images.

We took off and climbed to 36000 ft and set course on the first leg of the journey. Half way through I noticed the voltmeter register 29 volts. This was beyond the 28 volt limit and I elected to switch OFF the battery. Electrical power was now being supplied by the two engine driven generators only. The flight to target was uneventful. Soon the mission was accomplished and then return journey began, initially at low level and later at 40000 ft.

We were comfortably cruising back when a flash occurred. In that spit second I saw the voltmeter needle deflected fully to the right (maximum indication). Then we were engulfed in darkness. For a moment I was stunned. I called JV back to help me see the instruments with his emergency torch. Then a realisation dawned on me that we were in serious trouble. What I saw was indeed frightening. No electrically driven instruments were functioning. We had no radio and no navigation lights and had indeed become a ghost aircraft. The only instruments available were the pressure instrument i.e. airspeed indicator, altimeter, and rate of climb/descent. A bobbing magnetic compass helped give the approximate direction of flight. My first concern however was to keep level flight. There were more stars in the sky than lights on the ground; a condition in which even experienced pilot occasionally fall prey to and get confused as to which side is UP. I was fully aware that if disorientation set in, all would be lost. My first concern was therefore to avoid disorientation. There was also every possibility at 40000 ft for the engines flaming out due to fuel starvation. I told JV my intension to descend to 25000 ft to avoid engine flameout. And then the worst happened; both the engines flamed out. The silence was very eerie. Remembering the battery was OFF. I quickly switched it ON and pressed the port engine relight button. The engine came to life. I repeated the procedure with the starboard engine. Relieved greatly I place the battery switch OFF. I might need it again!

We levelled off at 25000 ft. It was time to take stock of the situation. Initially, we were keen to get back to Base but the port engine flamed out at 25000 feet, and after relighting it we descended further to 20000 ft. The port engine flamed out once again and was relit with the help of the battery. The possibility of more flameouts was a very disturbing thought. We were by now equidistant from Ahmedabad and Jaipur and opted to fly eastward to Jaipur as it was closest in terms of time. A rising moon was a great help in maintaining direction.

We had no radio to help communicate to anyone; we were alone in the night sky and literally left to our own wits. We soon spotted the revolving beacon of Jaipur airport. It was time to descend and we descended to 5000 ft. It was close to midnight by now, and I wondered what we would do if the airport was closed for operations but quickly dismissed that thought. Coming closer to the airport we saw the runway lights. I descended further to 500 ft circled the airport twice to draw the attention of the Air Traffic Controller, before positioning the aircraft on downwind. The possibility of a flameout would not leave my mind. I was all along mentally reviewing what I should do in case an engine flameout.

Flying around without any electrical power meant a flapless approach and landing. No doubt there was tension in the air, and I had to concentrate on the present. On downwind lowered the undercarriage. The wheels came down and I hoped they had locked down. On final approach I put the battery ON. JV saw the fuel warning light ON and cautioned me of a shortage of fuel. I decided we make one approach and landing and conveyed. Suddenly, we noticed an aircraft ahead of us also on short finals. We continued the approach in the hope that it would clear the runway at the end and we would be able to land. But the aircraft turned around and started to back track on the runway. There was no option but to open power and go around!

It was then the port engine flamed out! It seemed that luck was indeed running out. I managed to relight the port engine and bring it back to life. It was at this point in time that we decided that if we are not able to put the aircraft on ground on the second attempt we would eject as there may not be enough fuel for another go around and battery may well be dying out. JV tried to signal by firing green flare by the Very Pistol. Unfortunately, the cartridge he loaded turned out to be a dud.

JV moved back to strap up in his ejection seat as the decision taken was to land at all cost, and if there was any obstruction on the runway, we would skid off to one side to avoid it. The airspeed was taking its own time to wash off due to the reduced drag. I reduced the throttle further. The airspeed is still high for my liking but was determined to land, and throttled back to idle. On landing, to my utter surprise, the aircraft was at taxiing speed with hardly any of the runway used. I opened throttle and taxied to the dispersal. I noticed an Indian Airlines aircraft disembarking passengers. I give it a safe berth and swung around into a vacant bay, and switched the engines OFF. We noticed that fuel was dripping from the engines and airport ground staff running to collect it in buckets.

Although relieved to be safe of ground we were still rather shaken up by the whole experience. The Indian Airline flight apparently was heading to our Base and Capt Mishra, its Commander, on hearing our story agreed to give us a lift home; in spite of there being no seats available and we having adequate cash. We travelled with him in cockpit on ‘credit tickets’ issued on instructions of Capt Mishra!! We cleared for the tickets the next day when our ground crew went to determine the cause of the electrical failure and assess the damage to the aircraft.

On our return I reported the event to my Boss that very night, Wg Cdr RS Benegal (later Air Cmde) was awaiting my arrival, and listened to my story with keen interest. He then wished I go home and have a good rest. The next day the recovery crew was despatched to Jaipur. The engineering officer found the aircraft had little fuel in the tanks, most of which having leaked out during the flight. This explained the rapid deceleration experienced during the landing roll. It turned out that the decision to land on the first attempt had been the right one. It would not be out of place to acknowledge the help rendered by JV throughout the emergency. I am indeed indebted to him for giving sound advice whenever I needed it.

Wing Commander C N Bal 7401 F(P) was awarded the Vayu Sena Medal (Gallantry) in January 1971 for recovering the Canberra succesfully. He was a Flight Lieutenant at that time.

One thought on “Canberra’s total electrical failure at night

  1. An incredible turn of events after a successful mission. I have known CN Bal Sir and am not surprised at his cool and level head handling of a serious emergency. He is indeed a cool person.
    Have know JV Sir too. Another cool cat. Both complimented each other in this dire emergency.
    Hats off to this exceptional crew.

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