Celtic Illumination, part 74, Goosie, goosie, gander
I arrived at Holyhead train station and was pleased to find transport waiting. It wasn’t waiting for me, but I was allowed to jump on board and was taken to Valley. Valley was a huge station with two primary functions. One, it was a training base for pilots and two; it was a search and rescue base. I quite liked what I could see, not just at Valley but the surrounding countryside, and the only plan in my head was to find out when and where the next eisteddfod was to be held.
So; having been trained in hand to hand combat, various small weapons, standing still, guarding stuff, pick axe handles, advanced button and lace removal and now air traffic control, I was told that I was working for the SWO for two weeks. The theory behind this was, that as a new arrival you would go around the camp emptying bins, washing windows, painting hanger floors, hold on we’ve been here before, I was back to being a TAG!
But no, it was to familiarise the new arrival with most departments on the unit. You might not know exactly what each department did, or was responsible for, but at least you would know where their bins were. Most departments, or squadrons, would fight for their new arrivals and demand that they be released from the SWO’s working party so that they could begin their real work. Air traffic control however understood the importance of the SWO’s party and didn’t intervene on my behalf. I should have read the warning signals.
This working party was based at, and operated from, the guardroom which meant that you constantly ran across the guard and all the orderly staff, including the orderly officer. The worst thing about this was that all the orderly officers were baby pilots, so they were still finding their feet and actually thought that they were something special. They would try to emulate the media versions of officers and would always fail. They thought they had power and wanted to use it. One young fellow actually told me that I was so scruffy I should go and buy a new uniform and report to him in the guardroom the next day. He’s probably still in the guard room at Valley waiting for me to turn up.
Eventually I was allowed to join my unit, which from my time on the SWO’s working party, I had learned was known as Queens’s flight. The reason for this was that many people on camp felt that the air traffic people were more concerned with how they looked, than how well they could do their job. It didn’t take me long to find out that this was in fact true.
The job was humiliating. I couldn’t believe that I had been allocated two weeks during which time I was to be trained in how to answer a telephone. If I could complete the training in less than two weeks I would be doing well. Answering a telephone was of course quite different from standing still, but I knew that if I could stand still, without supervision, I could probably answer a telephone. It got very tricky when they introduced writing stuff down that you were told on the telephone, but nonetheless I made very good progress and became fully qualified on the telephone. My father who wanted me to be an airline pilot for Aer Lingus or a dentist would have been so proud.
There were half a dozen different positions around the air traffic tower that I had to be trained in, most of which involved answering telephones and writing stuff down. Unfortunately as I had spent a lot of time, and effort, in formalising my dishevelled look, I sort of stood out amongst the others with their shiny toe caps and brilliant belt buckles, something I was often reminded of. They would happily show me how to iron trousers using brown paper, or soap, to get a knife edged crease but I preferred the age old method of putting your trousers under your mattress and sleeping on top of them. Much less strenuous than attacking them with a red hot iron. You got a sort of crease but you also got a diamond pattern from the metal net that your mattress rested on.
There was a rumour that the material our working uniforms were made from was old blankets that had been relieved from the Russians during the Second World War. It was a very rough material and the uniform was known as a ‘Hairy Mary’. Most Hairy Mary’s sported nice brown patches where the owner had ironed them too vigorously. It’s a tricky life this military stuff. As for the highly polished toe caps, some mechanic friends showed me that high gloss, black, paint could usually pass inspection and required much less effort. As dear old George Bernard Shaw said “You can always tell an old soldier by the inside of his holsters and cartridge boxes. The young ones carry pistols and cartridges; the old ones, grub.”
I was going crazy and needed to find a camera club where I could hide, but unfortunately Valley didn’t have one, so I found the next best thing. The night flying shed. Stop, sheds cannot fly I hear you cry, although if they could, many men would be extremely happy. This is, or was, a building where all the air traffic equipment for night flying was kept. There was an awful lot of it and it constantly had to be maintained, repaired and cleaned, something the other fellows didn’t want to do as their perfect little uniforms might get dirty.
I however loved it; I was away from the tower and the pressure of answering telephones and writing stuff down. In the night flying shed I was on my own. There were gooseneck flares to be filled and have wicks replaced. These were like huge watering cans but were filled with paraffin, with a huge wick that was lit for night flying, or for use in heavy fog, just in case the electricity supply failed and the airfield lights wouldn’t work. As with the change over from imperial to metric, the air force was modernising and we now had glim lamps which were little, bucket sized, metal lamps that replaced the gooseneck flares. So we were forever replacing batteries, or the coloured filters on the lamps, taking the old batteries away to be re-charged. With care, you could stretch some of these jobs out for weeks.
And then there were the snow flags. Little sticks of wood, about an inch square and twelve inches long. These would be delivered from the carpentry shop and would now have to have one half painted fluorescent orange or red. So beside each taxiway light and runway light would be a snow flag and a gooseneck flare or glim lamp. The other job the guys hated was actually putting the lamps or flares, out on the taxiways and runways, and don’t get me started on their attitude to putting snow flags in. This involved lots of walking, a bag of properly painted sticks and a two pound lump hammer. Far too close to manual work for an air trafficker to accept. And then you had to remember which end of the stick to hammer into the ground. Talk about pressure.