Short Belfast XR368 Theseus. [Photo: Jock Manson]


In the weeks leading up to Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Day 1974, a Royal Air Force Short Belfast had been tasked to recover Rapier missile test equipment from the Woomera rocket range for return to the UK. The return flight only got as far as Darwin where the aeroplane went unserviceable, requiring an engine change. The event is described in Molly O'Loughlin White's book Belfast - The Story of Short's Big Lifter (Midlands Counties Publications, England 1984):


"While the Belfasts were flying in RAF colours, 150 engines were changed. The Tyne change team, formed to assist in the rapid recovery of the Belfast from far-away places when an engine failed, was also provided from the line. One of its most memorable exploits was getting a Belfast airborne before the path of the Darwin cyclone of 1974. The aircraft, delayed ten days in Darwin after recovering Rapier test equipment from Woomera, got away, but because of the devastation the unserviceable engine was not brought home until the following May, over five months later.

"John Rhodes, a former crew chief on the Tyne team recalled: The engine's waterproof cover was in shreds and it was covered in red Darwin dust - but the biggest surprise was its lodger - a small Australian tree frog which although it had an injured leg, was still alive. The frog recovered and was presented to the Cotswold Wild Life Park at Burford."

Although the book does not record the identity of the Belfast, the chance discovery of a discarded file of signals from RAAF Darwin identifies the aeroplane as "XL368". There was no Belfast with this serial but there was a Belfast XR368 Theseus. That XR368 was indeed the aeroplane involved has been confirmed by Jock Manson, then a Flight Lieutenant on No. 53 Squadron, who was the co-pilot on XR368 when it departed from its base at Brize Norton on 5 December 1974 under the command of Flight Lieutenant Geoff Fentum. The aircraft routed via Akrotiri, Masirah, Gan and Tengah where the crew changed. At Tengah, XR368 was taken over by Flight Lieutenant "Bird" Peacock and his crew who were to take the aeroplane to Woomera and back to Tengah.

Presumably the Rapier support equipment was loaded successfully at Woomera and XR368 departed on its return flight to the UK. The aircraft arrived at Darwin sometime around 10 December. During the take-off from Darwin, one of the Rolls Royce Tyne engines failed and the take-off was abandoned. With only two engines available for the application of symmetrical reverse thrust, Standard Operating Procedures demanded full brakes. This resulted in four mainwheels deflating when their fusible plugs operated as designed.

Meanwhile, Flt Lt Fentum and his crew were waiting in Singapore to take the aircraft on to the UK. It is not known exactly when XR368 finally departed Darwin but Jock Manson's log book confirms that the aircraft departed Tengah for Gan, Masirah and Akrotiri on the night of 20 December (GMT) which suggests that the aircraft departed Darwin on or about this date. So it seems that XR368 was not exactly snatched out of the path of Cyclone Tracy as some published accounts may suggest. Nevertheless, as will be shown, parts of XR368 did remain in Darwin to weather Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Day 1974.

The first mention of a Belfast in the RAAF file mentioned previously is a signal dated 25 February 1975 from the UK MInistry of Defence enquiring when would be a convenient time to send a small survey team to Darwin to inspect unidentified RAF support equipment. The RAAF responded that after mid-March would be suitable as the Darwin accommodation situation should be stabilised. Subsequent signals identify the "RAF support equipment" as:

1 x Tyne aero engine serial number 7527
2 x Engine stands
4 x Belfast main wheels
8 x Belfast main wheel covers
1 x Brake aligning spider

Another signal dated 20 March 1975 states that the engine "has been kept covered and is being moved into Air Movements hangar today. Appears to be intact with no visible damage." This is the last mention in the file.

The reason why this equipment was left behind is not known but it would be reasonable to assume that it was due to a take-off weight limitation. It is not known how the replacement engine was positioned to Darwin nor is it known how the long-lost, unserviceable engine was eventually repatriated to the UK.

The compiler is going to resist the temptation to draw a very long bow by adding Belfast XR368 to the list as having indirectly facilitated the evacuation of one frog!

Thanks to Jock Manson (Source: 53) for advice on Belfast operations
and for access to extracts from his log book.



Footnote: XR368 later became the first civil Belfast after the type was withdrawn by the RAF. Trevor Newton and Jock Manson flew the aeroplane at Manston on 14 February 1978 at which time the registration G-BEPS was stuck on with black tape. The aircraft was then owned by Eurolatin Aviation Ltd. but ownership subsequently passed to HeavyLift. The aeroplane was eventually withdrawn from service by HeavyLift and parked at Southend, UK where she was gradually parted out. Remarkably, the aircraft was later prepared to re-enter service to join the former XR365 Hector which was then operating in Australia as G-HLFT. After the expenditure of much time and effort, G-BEPS was virtually ready to fly but she was destined never to leave Southend. In September 2008, the essentially serviceable G-BEPS was broken up for scrap.


Short Belfast XR368 Theseus in a later civilian life as G-BEPS at Brisbane in August 1992. Sadly she was broken up at Southend, UK as recently as September 2008. [Photo: Ron Cuskelly]





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Added an image of XR368 in service. Thanks to Jock Manson.