Celtic Illumination, part 157, Bono and the boys.
I have many wonderful memories of Cyprus, and there are some instances that I can’t remember either, but I would say that when I think of Cyprus I tend to think of the rhyme ‘Antigonish’ by the American poet, William Hughes Mearns. It begins, “Yesterday upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today. Oh how I wish he’d go away.” Every morning on the way to work at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus everyone, for a five mile radius, was aware of an aircraft getting airborne. It was a USAF U2 spy plane. If you were with anyone you would smile and nod at the fact that it wasn’t there, while feeling quite stupid.
It wasn’t there in the evenings either when it would come back to land. Sitting at the end of the runway would be a couple of good ol boys in a pick-up truck or high performance vehicle. I can just imagine Bo and Luke sitting there probably with Willie Nelson on the eight track. As the aircraft approached the runway the truck would accelerate. The aircraft would come over the truck and it would desperately try to keep up. I was told that because the pilot had been as such a high altitude, for so long, he would be disorientated. The good ol boys would be zooming along behind him calling out his diminishing height, in feet, to the pilot as the aircraft came closer to the ground.
Once down, ground crew would leap out, collect the wheels from the rear of the truck and race forward to attach them under the wings of the U2, as a gust of wind could flip the aircraft and cause it some severe damage. The aircraft would then be taken away to the huge hangar where the other, spare, U2 sat. Most of the time the USAF guys would stay out of the way, it sort of helped the illusion that they were not there, but occasionally you would bump in to some. Normally this would be at the gymnasium where they seemed to have a penchant for weight lifting.
One evening, at one of the clubs on base, a group of our chaps found themselves sitting next to a group of people who spoke with American accents and presented themselves as smart young service people. Of course our guys must have been drunk, or dreaming, for there were no Americans at Akrotiri. You will probably find this very hard to believe but hard drink was taken, and when I say drink, I mean gallons. Certain boasts were made, probably by both sides, but the one that stuck out was the USAF guys who claimed that the hanger where the two U2 aircraft sat was impregnable.
They explained that the hangar was guarded with armed dog handlers. Personally I could never understand how a dog can fire a gun, but that’s just me. They claimed that armed guards inside the hanger were under orders to ‘shoot to kill’ should anyone approach the U2 aircraft. Now the USAF guys probably thought they were doing quite well in what could be called a bragging contest, mine’s bigger than yours, and all that sort of stuff. However what they were actually doing, and what they probably didn’t understand, was that they were laying down a challenge.
It was the sort of mentality we had on 92. So a few mornings later, actually it was about lunch time because I remember the NAAFI van had pulled up outside ops and the usual crowd of vagabonds had crowded round it, buying teas and coffees and hot pasties. I noticed Chris Baily, who wasn’t at the rear of the van, where the fellow served the food and drink, but was at the front of the van with a pot of paint and a brush. Now we would always leave a calling card, which normally were small plastic stickers with the squadron crest on. These were circular and about four inches across.
We called them ‘Zaps’, so to attach a ‘Zap’ to somewhere or something would be to ‘zap it.’ You would say that somewhere or something had been ‘Zapped’ and of course the more extreme and outrageous the location the better. I wandered out to see what Chris was up to and discovered that he was actually painting the head lights of the van black. Now, with the amount of sunshine in Cyprus you would wonder why on earth he would do such a thing but the poor Cypriot who drove the vehicle used it to get to and from camp and of course would travel in darkness at the end of his working day.
He actually hadn’t noticed that his headlights were not working when the military police pulled him over, which was quite lucky, for armed guards tend to shoot at vehicles moving towards them with no lights on. Chris did apologise and reparations were made to the driver. But this day the van had moved on, the troops had been fed and watered. It was a very pleasant afternoon. If you can imagine sitting in our own dispersal, feet up, nice and quiet and every window filled with a beautiful clear blue sky it was perfect.
Next thing you know is an angry American came in to the ops room and was demanding to see the boss. You may wonder how I was able to know it was an American and how I knew he was angry. That was actually quite easy to pick up as he was shouting, was very red in the face, and had an American accent. One of my duties was to intercept calls from angry members of the public and other service personnel. Many people thought that if they complained to the squadron commander then their complaint would be dealt with and retribution would be appropriate and swift.
What they didn’t count on was me. I, having spent so much time listening to Welsh sheep farmers in North Welsh Wales complain about how frightened their sheep were, was pretty expert at handling pissed off people. I would listen and empathise with them then assure them that I would pass the details on to the boss, who was very busy at the moment, but who would take the situation very seriously indeed and would take drastic disciplinary steps to ensure it would never happen again. If I could get away with it I would never say anything to the boss, but, if caught out, would be prepared to say how sorry I was that I had forgotten to pass the complaint on to him.
Don’t get me wrong if it was serious then it would go through the normal channels but if someone rang up to complain that ten drunken squadron members were singing far too loudly the previous evening, it’s not the sort of thing the boss of a squadron wants to bother himself with. This day was a little different as the complainant had actually pitched up at squadron headquarters. I began my spiel but unfortunately the boss actually walked in to the ops room.
The American chap turned to the boss, as I indicated and stated that this was our squadron commander. The poor fellow was livid. He held out his hand to the boss offering strips of red and yellow plastic, the evidence. Seems that someone had broken in to their double top secret hanger and zapped the altimeters on the U2 aircraft. It had taken them hours to scrape the stickers off and of course the days flying had been delayed because of the vandalism. There was a good half dozen of us in the ops room and every one of us was trying not to smile, for we realised what had happened. The security around the U2 aircraft was legendary.
Unfortunately the USAF guy saw that we were trying to hide the fact that we were all highly amused and stormed out of the ops room before his head exploded. The boss now had a dilemma. As the USAF guy sped away in his car we saw the senior engineering officer coming toward ops. He came in and saw the pieces of the squadron zap in the boss’s hands. “I’ve just heard,” said the engineering officer. “Was that the USAF CO?” “Who?” said the boss, as he came over and dropped the pieces of the zap in the waste paper bin. “That fellow who just left. Was that the CO from the U2’s?” “Don’t know what you’re talking,” about said the boss. “Americans? U2’s? There’s none of that in Cyprus.”