The Bristol Ugly Years - South East Asia

I wrote this personal view of Bristol Freighters on an Internet Forum - Aircraft Accidents, in response to the great sadness expressed at the demise of the last flying Bristol Freighter in England on 18 July 1996. At the time, I was on a long layover at Kansai airport in Japan and accessed the forum to find early information on the loss of TWA 800, the 747-100 that disintegrated south of Long Island NY. My interest was urgent because we at UPS were operating 2-3 sister aircraft that had originated from TWA. I fully expected these 747-100's of ours would be grounded awaiting the results of the NTSB's initial report on what happened to TWA 800. In the event, nothing happened, except the FBI took control of the investigation. The mystery of why our 747-100's weren't grounded is another story to be told! Anyway, on the same Forum, I saw an entry about the crash of Freighter NZ5912 and placed a message online, my personal take on its loss. So here it is: the way I really felt about the Bristol Ugly at that time.


The Bristol Ugly Affair  1996 - the last one crashes, Hurrah!!!

Your information on the final demise of NZ5912 - as I knew this aircraft, brings memories flooding back but no nostalgia for the Bristol Ugly.  We had a saying in the RNZAF transport squadrons to the effect that:  "the Freighter might be rubbish, but at least it's British rubbish".  Of course it came with Lucas Electrics ... The Prince of Darkness - guaranteed to keep you in the dark. This sad excuse for an airplane was the quintessential British Piece of Rubbish, or BPR for short.  In the late 40's and early 50's the Brits did a brisk trade in BPR’s, flogging them off to their ex-colonial lackeys in exchange for lamb, butter, wool, tea, gold, diamonds, rubber etc.  Even their own air force, the RAF, suffered the indignity of using these pieces of shite airplanes.  The Blackburn Beverly comes to mind ... it even upstaged the Bristol Freighter in ugliness and uselessness.

In 1958 I had the dubious pleasure of training on the Freighter and soloed first in NZ5912. It was one of the two dual equipped aircraft we had in the fleet of 12.  I flew the Freighter off and on until 1968, mostly with No 41 Squadron RNZAF, based at RAF Changi in Singapore.  We bumbled around Asia in this sad excuse for an airplane from Kathmandu to Tokyo, including airdrop operations in Malaya, Sarawak and short range transport support for our troops in Vietnam. 

I find it incomprehensible that there are pilots out there who can devote so much time, enthusiasm and money to "vintage" aircraft such as the Bristol Freighter.  I remember the Freighter as a difficult aircraft to fly well … lacking pressurization, air conditioning, weather radar, retractable undercarriage or state of the art avionics.  We cruised at 135 knots TAS, below 10,000 feet, sweating like pigs on the ground and freezing at cruise altitude.  I'm sure I flew through every thunderstorm that built up in South East Asia in the 1960's, and while the torrential rain spilled on my feet, oozing through the instrument panel, the passengers unfurled their brollies and prayed for deliverance. The truth is that I never really mastered the art of flying the Freighter to its full potential, despite 4,500 hours of trying.  The tail wheel configuration and obscure aerodynamic mysteries that Mr Bristol built into this aircraft, provided a challenge that was well beyond the abilities of average pilots like me.  For example: when rounding out for a three point landing in this overgrown Tiger Moth, an error of just a few inches could result in a bounce like a spring healed rat [Qantas has them on the tail].  Recovery from this rather alarming maneuver was generally a missed approach, or a teeth shattering, barely controlled crash.

When transiting the US military bases of Vietnam, the Philippines, Okinawa and Japan, we would get comments such as:  "Is that an airplane, or the box it came in?"  and  "That's 40,000 rivets in loose formation" or "That airplane can't really fly, it's just so ugly that the earth immediately repels it".  Fortunately, the Americans reserved their most cutting remarks for that other heap of British junk, the Blackburn Beverly.  Even we, who flew the Bristol Freighter, considered the Beverly a joke, but it did have one advantage:  On a flight plan ahead of us, we could follow the oil slick on the South China Sea that had been left behind by a Beverly.  It would rarely arrive at it's destination with all four engines operating.

Another problem with the Freighter was the crew compliment.  Most of the aircraft cockpits were equipped for a single pilot, a navigator and a radio operator [signaller].  The navigator sat in the right seat, the signaller one pace to the rear and one behind [like a good adjutant].  The signaller kept to himself:  busy changing frequency crystals in his steam driven Marconi VHF/HF radios - probably first tested on the RMS Titanic.  The navigator was something else.  Fortunately, they've been successfully replaced by INS's, GPS’s and other dumb, voiceless robots. Since those days, struggling with the Bristol Freighter, I've flown C-130's, various corporate jets, the Boeing 727, and for the last six years, the 747.  I'm still hauling freight but the sweetest sound is the APU starting, the flow of conditioned air, the illumination of the Weather Radar scope, the triple INS nav system great-circling us around the world, and the Mach number registering 0.86.

No illusions. I was there and did that,  ©Peter Tremayne, July 1996


Video also at


Bristol Freighters: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

  • 1958 Cloncurry - refuel stop between RAAF Amberly and Darwin
  • 1958 Arrival over RAF Changi - first time for me.
  • 1958 Tuban airport at Bali - the Customs and Immigration team
  • 1960 Gong Kedah, Malaya - British Army manoeuvres
  • Dec 17, 1960:  Udorn, Thailand - Evacuation of British Emabassy Staff from Vientiane, Laos.
  • 1960 Gong Kedah, Malaya - British Army manoeuvres
  • 1965 RAF Kuching - loading up for an operational supply drop over Sarawak. G. Thompson on the right.
  • 1965 Kuching: John Cotton in the pilot's seat on an airdrop mission over Sarawak
  • 1965 RAF Kuching - me, about to go somewhere in a Freighter!
  • 1965 Mick Keene over the Sarawak jungles during supply drop operations

In my opinion, the only good thing about operating the Bristol Freighter for the RNZAF was the job itself. Flight crews and maintenance personal, accompanied by their families were posted to Singapore for two year assignments with No 41 Squadron, based at RAF Changi from 1955 through to the early 1970’s.  I had the good fortune to be with the Squadron for two tours:  1960 to 1961 and 1965 to 1968.  During those years we travelled, albeit it slowly - and in great discomfort, from the Maldives, Gan Atoll, Ceylon and Nepal on our northwestern side, to Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Philippines, Vietnam and Borneo on the northeastern side.  Furthermore, during my time in Singapore, we were involved in three SE Asian wars: Two British and one American.

Operationally, we did  amazing things with the Freighter, flying in and out of very short airstrips either sealed or grass/dirt/gravel, with temperatures of 95°F or higher and often at the max take-off weight of 44,000 pounds ... and it very rarely broke!  During the first British war - the Malayan Emergency 1948-1960, the Squadron flew airdrop missions over the jungles of the Malayan Peninsula, using RAF Kuala Lumpur as a base.  During the second British war - Indonesian Confrontation 1964-1966, the Squadron flew airdrop missions over the Sarawak  jungles, using RAF Kuching as a forward base.

For the American war – Vietnam 1965-1975, our Bristol Freighter operations were from out-of-country, that is, from Singapore bases, Changi and later Tengah.  We also used South Vietnam airfields for transit between Singapore and Hong Kong.  In the early 60’s, Hong Kong FEAF passenger flights were flown northbound via RAF Labuan in North Borneo and Clark USAF Base in the northern Philippines.  Southbound from Hong Kong, we flew back to Singapore with a refueling stop at Saigon.  From the mid 60’s, northbound from Singapore to Hong Kong was through Danang or Qui Nhon and southbound through Saigon.

Avionics Maketh the Plane - or how to turn a Pig's Ear into a Silk Purse

The word “Avionics”, a linguistic blend of “aviation electronics”  didn't come into common use until the late 1960’s.  Avionic systems include communications, navigation, and the display and management of multiple systems.  All those so called “black boxes” that are fitted into airplanes. When Mr Bristol built the RNZAF Freighters, he knew nothing of avionics and from 1955 through to 1967, we bumbled around Asia making do with two fixed card ADF's, one 20 channel VHF comm set and two steam driven HF sets. During the late 50's into the early 60's we'd arrive at US miliary bases in the Philippines, Okinawa and Japan, like a horse and buggy showing up at a modern US Interstate truck-stop - needing hay for the horses and communicating with semaphore flags! The Base Ops folks shook their heads and laughed a lot, not believing that we lacked IFF/Transponders, UHF comm radios or TACAN radio nav receivers. So we got by with the hand we'd been dealt, but that was to change with the advent of the Vietnam war.

From mid 1965 until the end of days - in April 1975, the sky above South Vietnam was a dangerous place if you couldn't locate your position accurately [with TACAN], or squawk a transponder code for friendly radar to locate you [using IFF], or communicate with the right people [using UHF]. The military air traffic at all altitudes consisted of slow movers [choppers] in large numbers; fast movers [fighters and strike bombers]; gunships [AC47's and AC-130's]; Army recce and FAC aircraft - and don't forget the artillery fire zones!

One reality about the South Vietnam aviation world, was the presence of many WW2 sky-trash airplanes, operated by the US military, the CIA's Air America and others. These airplanes: C-47's, C-46's, C-123's, Caribous, Otters etc, were distant cousins of the Bristol Freighter, but had been upgraded with the latest state of the art avionics - capable of surviving in this American war zone environment - turning pig's ears into silk purses! The irony for us at 41 Squadron in our Bristol Freighters, was by mid 1966, the RNZAF had experienced its biggest and best fleet upgrade since WW2: C-130H's, P3B's and UH1D helicopters - all equipped with the very latest American military avionics. So what about us, risking our necks on a regular basis over Vietnam?

Hello to the "Stretcher Case"

Help was at hand, but not from the RNZAF's HQ back in New Zealand. It arrived in a most unusual way, and from a most unlikely source. A Royal Navy Scimitar strike fighter crashed on landing at RAF Changi, the pilot ejected before it hit the ground, and survived. During the Navy's salvage operation of the wreck, our enterprising Squadron Commander, Hutch Hutchins, and clever maintenance team somehow "acquired" the black boxes that we needed to survive over Vietnam. So was born the myth of the "Stretcher Case" that turned the Bristol Freighter into a modern military airplane.

©Peter Tremayne. February, 2023

  • 1965 RAF Kuching - Frank Roach on completion of a supply drop mission
  • 1965 Sarawak on supply drop mission.  Believe this to be Red 21 (Stass)
  • The inspiring, modern cockpit of a Bristol Freighter.  Note the colour coded control levers!
  • 1967 Bangkok airport - Hugh Francis acting the goat!
  • 1975 Saigon - 3 Freighters under the TSN Control Tower.         Photo by Bob Davidson
  • April 1975 Saigon: The NZ Ambassador takes his leave.                         Photo by Bob Davidson
  • 1975 An Toi Island, Vietnam - An Air America (CIA) C-46 Commando.                                     Photo by Bob Davidson
  • April 1975 Saigon - hiding out at the Rice Redoubt wearing tin hats.                          Photo by Bob Davidson
  • April 1975 An Toi Island, Vietnam - with Dennis Monti, Roger Barson, Bob Brumfit &  Pete White
  • 1975 Saigon:  I recall that the black box unit on the lefthand door was the approved "Stretcher Case"

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