Celtic Illumination, part 219, Winter – The days of shovelry.
From the way I’ve been talking you probably think that Joe Pearson was the only idiot in air traffic control, but no, there were others. Take the senior air traffic controller for example, the SATCO, he was a bit of a dick, and that’s being kind to him. Like most of the rest of the UK when it snows, the air force grinds to a standstill and then panics. Being the military there was always a station action plan and even a dedicated team on standby to put that dastardly plan into action. Unfortunately one of my new duties would be to take my turn on the snow clearing detail. Probably the only time in your life you would hold your breath for a week and pray that it didn’t snow.
You wouldn’t know any of the other people in the team and had to report for a briefing on the day your period of duty started. Some of us didn’t bother turning up for the briefing, not because we had been there, seen the movie, read the book and ate the stew, but because it was boring. I mean just how difficult is it to use a shovel? I took my chances and stayed away. As luck would have it, it started to snow and we were propelled into action. I arrived at the hangar and gave the engineering officer a damn good listening to, for not being at the briefing. I was then told to dress up warm and fire up the beast.
There is a sort of lovely eccentricity when people put aircraft engines into vehicles. The most notorious was a fellow called John Dodd who had a Rolls Royce motor car with a Merlin aircraft engine in it. It was road legal and although it could hit speeds of one hundred and eighty miles per hour the twenty seven litre engine only gave a return of two miles to the gallon. Dodd’s roller would fade in comparison to the toy I had been given to play with, the beast. Two jet engines strapped to a fuel bowser, so you didn’t have to worry about running out of petrol. From a distance it looked quite impressive, but once you got up close and personal with it you could see that it looked as if it had been made in someone’s garden shed.
I doubt very much if the health and safety bods these days would let these machines loose as ‘dangerous’ is the first word that springs to mind when you consider one of these beasts. However as a boy, the next word that springs to mind is ‘great bit of fun.’ Someone would drive the fuel bowser you ‘the operator’ would sit between the two jet engines and manoeuvre the nozzle. It was very like defrosting a fridge with a hairdryer, except on a massive scale. As you may expect it was quite noisy and very unsafe. Someone had cobbled together a makeshift cabin from wood and Perspex to protect the operator from the elements, a three inch thick steel box might have been more appropriate to provide some protection from the jet engine either side of your head. I said, to provide some protection from the jet engine either side of your head! Yeah, fecking noisy.
It was great fun and took some time to master because you could lift slabs of ice and propel them twenty yards away and if you pushed the nozzles down too far you could melt the runway, destroy runway lights and anything else that got in the way. They were known as MRD’s, Machine Runway De-icer although in our hands they were known as Machine Runway Destroyers. The best way to clear snow is an airman and a shovel. It’s fine melting snow with jet engines, but every year people are amazed that the melted snow, turns in to water, which freezes and turns into ice! Who would have expected that? So, it’s snowing quite heavily in fact. The Senior Air Traffic Controller, the SATCO, comes in and asks who is in charge of the shift. Ce moi!
He then tells me to take everyone outside and clear the snow from the car park. No one is allowed to drive onto the airfield because not only is it dangerous, but it compacts the snow, so I don’t see the point of clearing the car park, one, as no one can use it and two, it was still snowing. Why not wait until it stops snowing and then we can clear it. The SATCO wasn’t in the mood for an honest and sensible discussion, I was to do as I was told, get my men outside and clear the bloody car park. I would say that there was a certain amount of hyper fecundity in his behaviour so I took my men outside before the situation got out of hand. As I came onto the car park I noticed that the SATCO had ignored station standing orders and had driven his car to air traffic and it was now parked in the area I had been ordered to clear.
I took the same approach as one would when painting a floor, except my exit point was the SATCO’s car. We had a laugh clearing the snow but I had the team pile it around the SATCO’s car, making sure that he was stuck and that the next time he wanted to put his girly head on when talking to me he might think twice. It was quite a ridiculous exercise, known to us as ‘make work.’ To have men sitting around idle was considered dangerous as they might realise that their bosses were idiots and revolt, so jobs were invented to keep people busy. The only time I ever heard of this going wrong was in the Falklands when one team were detailed to empty a tent, take the tent down and then put it up across the road and put the equipment back in.
It was a young army officer who was in charge of this lot and on the third day, very biblical, but on the third day they stabbed him. I often came quite close to stabbing the SATCO, metaphorically of course, I wouldn’t hurt a fly. Usually the cause of this would be the marching idiot Joe Pearson. It was assessment time. I had already caused a storm as a wee girl had come in asking for me. She asked me to come to an office where she could give me my assessments. There were a lot of young pretty girls in air traffic control and some of them were female. I went straight to the SATCO who explained that this young female girl officer needed to get some experience so she was giving me my assessment.
I carefully explained to the SATCO that I was on a mission to get promoted and would only accept my assessment from a Warrant Officer. The assessment had been completed so it really didn’t matter who read it out to me, but I felt that my career was important and the assessments should be treated as such. I got my wish and had my assessments presented to me by a Warrant Officer who told me he thought I would go far, shame that wasn’t written in the assessment. It was like exam result day at school with everyone asking what did you get, what did you get, referring to your numerical assessment. One being the lowest, five average, and eight the top grade, with nines being a special recommendation for promotion.
I don’t think anyone was really interested in your performance but more in gauging their performance by comparing their numerical assessment against yours. Joe, I’m a fecking idiot, Pearson came bumbling out of the SATCO’s office after his assessment interview and seemed to be pretty pleased with himself. “How did it go?” I asked. “What did you get?” “Nines,” said Joe. “I got a spec rec.” I think the SATCO was used to me bursting into his office. It was all very calm. I asked in a very simple and straightforward way how on Gods earth did Joe Pearson get nines, a special recommendation for promotion. I added that not only was the man an idiot, although in his defence I have to admit that he was an idiot of the highest calibre, but everyone on camp, even the Station Commanders dog knew that Joe Pearson was an idiot.
Everyone knew the man was useless and to award him a higher grade than I had got, I think I was batting around sevens, was an insult and made a mockery of the assessment system. The SACTO explained that his predecessor had given Joe eights and nines. So he had no option but to award the same grades. If he awarded Joe what he deserved, which we both agreed should be around two, and that’s being generous, but if the SATCO had actually awarded Joe what he deserved then he would be calling into question the decision of his predecessor, a brother officer, and that just wasn’t done. So as you can see, the quest I had set for myself wasn’t a plain and simple road that I could gently travel along. I wasn’t going to have a Rolls Royce with a Merlin engine to power me from one end to the other; instead I was going to be moving tents from one side to the other for some time to come and try not to stab the idiots who were springing up all around me.