Celtic Illumination, part 119, You scratch my back….
I know that I have often said that the local control position was the best place to work in air traffic control. However another fantastic position was to be duty driver. This allowed you a certain amount of freedom and flexibility. That is of course once you had got past all the NATO standard bullshit. Every morning the mileage had to be recorded on each vehicle in use, and then you had to complete a daily inspection. This involved checking the oil, and water and engine coolant. The weekly inspection included counting the tyres. I know almost as difficult as answering a telephone and writing stuff down.
Most people would pull in to the Mechanical Transport flight (MT) park up and go to the office to collect the paperwork. Old hands, or hairy arses as we were known, would park somewhere that was hidden from the view of the MT controllers. We would collect the paperwork and return to the vehicle to complete the required checks. When I say that you had to count the tyres, you also had to check that all the wheel nuts were present and correct and each was tightened sufficiently to do its job. If the MT controller was in a foul mood you could be told to wash the vehicle before you could leave the MT yard.
One air traffic fellow, John McBride, sauntered in to MT control, one wet Welsh morning, collected the paperwork and was about to return to his vehicle when he was engaged in conversation. I know, engaged in conversation is not how many people would describe talking to a driver. How would you describe single syllable utterances delivered at maximum volume? John was detained for a number of minutes, John by the way was a very pleasant fellow, and afterwards he did say that he thought the conversation, or at least the premise for the conversation, to be a little strange. John returned to the vehicle and completed the paperwork. He took his time, like any decent hairy arse would. He then returned the paperwork and went back to the vehicle.
I understand that MT control were apoplectic. The fellow in charge had a feeling in his water that the air traffic lads were not completing the inspection properly, so the reason that John was delayed in MT control was to enable the fellow in charge to run out and take all the wheel nuts off the land rover. John of course hadn’t noticed. Well come on, would you? However he had signed the paperwork, to say that he had checked the vehicle, and that all the required wheel nuts were in place and in working order.
Unfortunately MT control spent too long celebrating and were quite dismayed to see John drive the land rover out of the yard and then stop, well; when the wheels fell off he didn’t have much of a choice. Who would you blame for that?
Having a land rover also helped you return favours, like giving people lifts or moving stuff about. The SWO would often use me for little errands. Once he sent me off to collect a fifty gallon drum of Racasan. Racasan is a chemical used in portable toilets. It’s a blue, foul smelling, liquid. I know this because it was leaking and by the time I got to the SWO with his Racasan I could hardly see, as the tears were running down my face. I was glad that they all thought it very funny but I did receive some smartie points for my effort.
One of the ruses we used to employ needed you to be the duty driver. It required cunning, bravado and timing. Timing would perhaps be the most important element for this. Let me explain. As with most jobs each person, depending on their rank and time served, were entitled to a certain number of days off, or holidays, each year Luckily the system was geared for abuse, as it ran from the date you joined up, or in my case my eighteenth birthday. So no two people would have the same annual renewable date.
The process for applying for leave was simple. You filled out a leave application form with the dates and days you wanted off. This was then presented to the admin sergeant who would check on his wall planner that no more than three people were away at the same time. If he approved then your name and the appropriate days would be marked on his year planner. Of course if something went wrong, or the dates had to be changed, so did the year planner, which is why only non-permanent pens were used. Next the form went in to the SATCO who, knowing it has been sanctioned by the admin sergeant, approves your leave. Now the form comes back to the admin sergeant who places it in the ‘mail out’ tray.
Can you guess what one of the duties of the duty driver was? Well done, yes, it was to take the ‘mail out’ over to SHQ and collect any incoming mail for air traffic. Of course your leave pass would now disappear between air traffic and station headquarters. A week or two after you had taken your leave you would nip in to the admin sergeant’s office and remove your leave from his planning board. This only went wrong for me once, when my sister sent me a registered parcel that I had to go to SHQ and sign for. Everyone involved was terrified that it may have been their department responsible for losing my leave application so a new one was produced, which I signed, on my return, and everyone went back to being as they were.
But perhaps the best reward I got for being duty driver was when my helicopter instructor friend rang me up. He told me that a Wessex was coming in from Odiham and he asked if I could collect the aircrew and bring them over to 22 squadron. No problem. I waited for the helicopter then drove over to the chopper, collected the crew and headed off to 22 squadron. This was back scratching to the extreme. The crew said that they couldn’t stay long as they had to get over to air traffic and operations and submit their flight plans. I suggested that they remain at 22 squadron and enjoy themselves. “Give me the details for your flight, and I will submit the flight plans.”
I was paying my friend back for the lessons he had given me over the previous months. When I returned to 22 squadron the aircrew were preparing to leave when my friend said, “They’re on their way to Aldergrove, should have asked them for a lift home.” I smiled but the pilot turned and said, “Sure why not?” A map was produced and I was asked to point out where I lived. Initially there was a sharp intake of breath as Warrenpoint was very much in a republican area. “Sod it!” says the pilot. “I’ll drop you in the field next to your house and pick you up in two days’ time, on our way back. How’s about that?”