Singapore Sunrise 0
It is five-thirty a.m. and the sun’s not yet risen. It’s uncomfortably warm and the air I breathe, so still, so heavy and damp I’d like to wring it dry, smells of the surrounding jungle. My shirt and shorts stick to me like khaki cling-film. And it will be even warmer when the sun’s up. To my left, pale green at the horizon, the eastern sky prepares for its arrival.
Through the dispersal hut window I look out onto concrete where, fifty yards away, a Handley Page Victor SR2 is being prepared for take-off. Her crew-chief, not much more than a silhouette against the yellow glare of the sodium lamps, gives me the thumbs-up confirming her readiness to fly. I dial the Ops Centre to inform her crew but they’ve already left. It’s been a long detachment and they too are eager to be home. Walking out to the aircraft, I seek out my corporal to take his place on the seeing-off crew. He tries to dissuade me but I insist. ‘You did the pre-flight checks, Mike, go get yourself a drink.’
It’s Dawn Patrol time and two of RAF Tengah’s resident Lightnings taxi past. Both pilots wave, gloved hands green in the glow of their illuminated instrument panels. The paraffin smell of half-burnt Avtag hangs in the air. A twilight take-off by two Lightnings is the nearest thing to a space-launch, so along with the rest of the team, I climb on to the diesel generator for a better view. We’re not disappointed. The early morning peace is shattered as four after-burners are ignited simultaneously. An explosion of thunderous sound. Blue flaming daggers crackling and snarling from glowing jet-pipes. Seconds later, sitting on their plumes of fire, they’re vertical and disappearing fast into the apple-green, rapidly lightening sky. Our young engine mechanic laughs out loud. ‘Wake up, Singapore,’ he yells, ‘it’s reveille!’
The sun must have heard him. Like a soft pink balloon, it rears up over the distant trees and we’re suffused with roseate light. Hushed into awed silence, we watch its progress.
It’s fifteen minutes later and the captain, strapped in with the rest of the crew, runs through his check-list. The servicing chief, connected via intercomm, talks to him from outside. Electrics, instruments, avionics, all systems are go. Engine start is imminent. Armed with a fire-extinguisher, I move in closer.
But something’s amiss. Situated directly below the pressurised crew-compartment, the streamlined radome accommodates the radar scanner for the Navigation and Bombing System plus its transmitter and associated black boxes. I hear the familiar whine of the big rectangular dish as it rotates, but along with it, there’s another sound, a faint rhythmic clunk which shouldn’t be there. Something must be hanging loose. The crew-chief agrees.
‘Tell Nav Radar to switch off,’ I say.
He nods, speaks into his throat-mike and gives me the thumbs-up for the second time this morning. I take a torch and screwdriver from the tool board, open the access-panel and within seconds I’m in the radome. I was right: one of the four wire straps used to restrain the gimbals-mounted scanner platform during black box changes has snapped and is dangling within the orbit of the radar dish. The curved aluminium rectangle has been slapping against it twice each revolution.
But there’s something else. In the light from my torch I see a fine trickle of powder spilling down from the scanner mounting spider and when I direct the beam on to the grey radome floor, find it dusted with the same white substance. With four years on the Victor behind me, this is something new. Number one engine starts up, its howl bouncing from the concrete and in through the open hatch to reverberate around the radome. I curse the fact that I’ve left my ear-defenders on the tool-board but I need to examine this powder. Now the dish has stopped rotating, a small pile of it is growing on the radome floor. I take a pinch. It looks and feels like talcum-powder, but as number two engine is winding up and my nostrils are permeated by the perfume of unburnt Avtag, I can detect no smell. Numbers three and four light up now and, within these curved walls, the jet noise is beginning to hurt.
But my discomfort is suddenly forgotten. I know what the powder is. I’ve never seen it before, never had dealings with people who have, yet I just know! I slide under the scanner, directing the beam upwards as I do so and find a cardboard box taped to its frame. As though pierced by a knife, its underside is punctured. The cascading powder clings to the lens of my torch, softening its light. The hole puzzles me but on noting the jagged end of the broken restraining cable dangling under it, I can guess what’s happened. Still hooked up when the scanner was switched on, the thin cable had been snapped by the powerful, gyro-controlled pitch and roll motors and ten inches of sharp steel wire had been catapulted upwards to rip into the cardboard, puncturing the polythene bag inside.
On a squadron which operates overseas as much as ours does, with aircraft as big as the Victor, smuggling is deemed acceptable. We turn a blind eye to it, even the officers. It’s one of the perks. And with a box of King Edwards for my father stashed inside a piece of test equipment, a watch for my wife stowed in with the spares, I’m as guilty as the next man. But nobody touches drugs. It may be the swinging sixties but the RAF don’t do drugs. Nobody in the British military does, not yet, anyway. Especially heroin.
There are only two radar technicians on this detachment: Mike and me. This radome is our domain. No one else would know to strap up the scanner platform. But Mike is not just my subordinate, he’s a friend. Our wives are friends. They live in married-quarters not far from our own. So how’s my wife going to react if I turn him in? I think of the consequences: the investigation by RAF Police, the inevitable court-martial followed by years in a military prison, a dishonourable discharge at the end of his sentence. I don’t know whether jet noise is affecting my thought processes or if it’s the enormity of the decision I have to make, but right now I’m incapable of reaching it. Never have I been in such a quandary. Suddenly I’m angry. What the hell was he thinking about? How dare he put me into this position?
But the decision may not be mine to make. The noise level drops slightly and the radome darkens as the bulky figure of the crew-chief shuts out the concrete-reflected sun. He leans in through the hatch to shout over the whine of four Rolls Royce Conways. ‘What’s the problem?’ he yells, ‘The skipper’s getting impatient.’
But my mind is racing now. It would be so easy to tie up the broken strap, to pretend I haven’t seen the powder. It’s not as if any of it will be left by the time they get home. I could widen the hole to make sure. And the police won’t stop at the radome, they’ll open every panel on the aircraft, search it from nose to tail. Dad will lose his cigars, Sheila her watch.
But who are Mike’s suppliers? Drug dealers don’t play around. Will they believe it just blew away in the slipstream, was lost in the ether somewhere over the Indian Ocean? No, of course they won’t. I feel a sudden chill, even in this heat. I turn Mike in: he loses a career; I don’t: it could be his life. I now know what I have to do. There is no choice after all.
I turn to face the crew-chief. He lifts one of his head-phones and I shout into his exposed ear. ‘It’s worse than I thought,’ I say, ‘much worse.’ I make the cut engines sign: straightened fingers chopping across my throat. ‘Tell him to shut down.’