Celtic Illumination, part 215, Age is not just a number.
So; all I had to do was stay out of trouble for nine weeks, concentrate on my fitness and weight and of course endure the sad world of air traffic control. The admin sergeant was a fellow called Joe Pearson and I promise you he was utterly useless. The only thing he was interested in was participating in the annual Nijmegen marches in Holland. Every lunch time he would march himself around camp, sometimes being joined by other marching enthusiasts. The Nijmegen Marches started off as a military event about one hundred years or so ago but these days is a mostly civilian event. You have to complete one march every day for four days. There are three categories, thirty, forty or fifty kilometres. So; it can be quite a demanding event, especially if you choose to march for fifty kilometres every day for four days.
Joe was responsible for producing the shift rosters for air traffic control but I noticed that he had another fellow, Bob Campbell, complete them for him. He was hanging on waiting for his retirement date and I tried my hardest to stay out of his way. Bob Campbell was the only air trafficker who played rugby and Bob encouraged me to join the station team. It was so different from Germany. My first game was against an American side. It felt amateurish and I had no enthusiasm as we slid about in the mud. The social side was rubbish too. Admittedly there were two phantom squadrons at Wattisham but as I wasn’t connected to either squadron I was not invited in to any of those cliques. I didn’t mind. I was quite happy. I had a shed at home where I could do man type things. I fired up my home brew equipment and knowing there was a chance that Irene might have to stay in our wee house, because as a trainee I might not be entitled to a married quarter at Finningley.
I set about the garden and had decided to cultivate it. I came out one day with a digging fork and was about to start digging when the guy who lived behind us came over to me and suggested that I might not be able to get anything to grow in the garden as the previous tenant had buried all his rubbish before leaving. I do remember one evening I took the motor off an old washing machine and decided to use it to make a wood lathe. It kept me busy for a couple of hours and I clearly remember that it was also the night I met our civilian neighbours for the first time. He hadn’t popped around to introduce himself but had come out, as most people had along our row of houses, to see if anyone knew why all the electrical power in the row had gone. As long as nobody noticed the smouldering washing machine motor in my shed, my secret was safe.
Christmas came and went and I was getting frustrated that my joining instructions hadn’t come through. I had gone to see the chief clerk who agreed that Finningley was cutting it fine but he said that he knew these people and I should not annoy them. Just give him some time and he would sort it all out for me. I had no choice but to leave it with him. At air traffic I had found a position which was almost as good as working in the night flying shed. It was being the runway controller. Here I had to sit at the end of the runway, in a little caravan and watch aircraft. You would report to air traffic control for duty and within five minutes you would be on your own, at the end of the runway, perfection.
It was an important job, visually inspecting aircraft before take-off and landing. As an aircraft would taxi out you would check it over, through binoculars, to make sure that safety pins had been removed from the ejector seats and missiles. You would also have a quick shufty to make sure everything looked okay with the aircraft. You would monitor the airfield frequencies and when an aircraft would declare that they were coming in to land you would check it and make sure the wheels actually were down. Sometimes aircraft would have electronic glitches and although the pilot may have selected ‘wheels down,’ and have a light indicating that the landing gear was down and locked sometimes this didn’t happen. You had red and green lamps, similar to road traffic signals, green for go and red for no. We also had flare pistols, again firing red or green flares.
You had a kettle, sometimes a television set, always a radio and an extensive selection of gentlemen’s reading material. The hardest thing about being a runway controller was staying awake. The runway caravan was basically a converted truck with a glass topped room on the rear. I loved it, especially during foul weather as you could just relax and enjoy the soothing sounding of the rain lash the roof and windows. Occasionally an aircraft would return with a problem. Sometimes the gun would jam or continue to fire even if not selected, this was known as ‘a runaway gun.’ Quite an appropriate name as that’s what you wanted to do when the aircraft was coming in to land for the gun could start up again at any time and especially with the huge jolt from landing.
I know I would always have the door open and be prepared to sprint away when instances like that would happen. Sometime the release pins, that held missiles to their firing rack, would not function and you would have an aircraft come in to land with a missile limply hanging off and hope that the jolt of landing would not make the remaining pin activate. The only other scary experience I ever had was when I became a target for some American Apache helicopters. I heard them call up on our approach frequency and ask permission to attack some imaginary targets on the airfield. There were four Apache’s and as they came into view they chose me as a target. Well; not me but the fecking big red and white checked van at the end of the runaway.
They were quite new on the scene at that time so I watched them through the binoculars. The machine gun that hung underneath their nose was quite prominent. The four helicopters then manoeuvred into their attack posture and came in low and hard toward me. The machine guns on their noses were sweeping left and right and even though I knew they were not firing bullets at me it was a most uncomfortable experience. Thankfully they didn’t hang around too long and flew off attacking anything else they came across. We did have a telephone in the caravan and it was possible to call any other unit in the country, so it was nice to be able to check up on old friends and have a chat. So when the telephone rang you never knew if it was the idiot admin sergeant or a friend stationed in bonny Scotland ringing up to shoot the breeze.
I answered the telephone one day to find that it was neither the idiot admin sergeant nor any of my friends but instead it was my new bestest friend, the chief clerk. He explained that he had been talking to Finningley about my course and my joining instructions. My heart leapt with excitement as I knew I was about to get away from air traffic control and go and throw stones at submarines. However, this was me and the double top secret cabal who were steering my life so that I would become the greatest King of Ireland, ever, had other ideas for me. I think by this point I had been trying to get back to aircrew for seven years. Seven years of idiotic air traffickers telling me that I had to prove myself to them, seven years of six month blocks acting like a gentleman should, seven years of humiliation, seven years of being reminded that I was Irish and therefore stupid, about to end. “I’m very sorry,” said the chief clerk. “But they say that at twenty five and a half years of age you are too old to start aircrew training.”