Celtic Illumination, part 238, Opportunity knocks.
An opportunity arose at Wattisham where I could extend my secondary duties. We were always playing war games and going on exercise. One incident they loved to play out, time and time again, is what happens when air traffic control is destroyed? Will the squadrons be able to continue flying? The hard and fast answer is of course yes, the squadrons will continue flying. I think the best example of this, for me anyway, was when the red arrows came along once. As they came into the circuit they advised air traffic that they would sort themselves out and the controller took his headset off and, like the rest of us, watched.
There are lots of rules and regulations especially concerning how many aircraft can take off at one time. With the red arrows again, the rules are not ignored, but set aside, as all nine of them will take off together. So, the destruction of air traffic control was always an empty exercise to me. Should air traffic control be deemed destroyed then the secondary air traffic control would take over, which was the runway caravan. Again, totally ridiculous and unrealistic scenario, as no one seemed to be paying any attention to the big picture. The whole air traffic world was changing. Someone sitting in a control centre in London could flick a switch and have the live radar feed from Wattisham. If needed, they could talk an aircraft down, at Wattisham, while sitting one hundred miles away in London.
As a defensive unit the runway caravan was useless. The best thing you could hope for was that if you saw attackers coming at you, is to get in the cab and drive the thing away. So when I was told that we were to construct a standby air traffic control, that was heavily defended, I was glad of something different coming along. I was pleased that it was viewed as a secondary duty, but continually wondered why it would have been done in the first place. If my unit was under attack the last thing I would want is a bunch of air traffickers running around the airfield. These however were the days of the cold war, so stand-by control centres, inflatable tanks and cardboard aircraft were the norm. The Russians were using satellite technology to continually photograph bases, and military establishments, so old aircraft were constantly moved around the airfield, as if they were functional. Cardboard cut outs were placed out, painted to look like aircraft, while the army would set out row upon row of inflatable tanks to give a false impression of our actual strength and capabilities.
My building was known as ‘building 194.’ It was an old radio installation and was quite large, although it was only one single room and one toilet. Civilian contractors were busy at Wattisham constructing hardened aircraft shelters so they were asked to build a huge earth bunker around 194. Which they had done. All I had to do was construct the defences and design and build the inside of the building which should have a platform, capable of supporting two people, so that their head and shoulders were through the roof. And a seating area that could double as a bed space. Oh and by the way, there’s no money. This was right up my street and something I knew I would enjoy doing as it involved everything else I had going on around the camp.
There was a huge hangar in a remote area of the airfield. Aircraft didn’t use it; it was permanently locked and occasionally visited by police patrols. It certainly needed investigating. Luckily enough there was a loose panel which could be pulled far enough out to allow access to the hangar. Thinking I had seen a nasty terrorist gain entry to the hanger one day, I myself entered the hangar to give chase and apprehend the fellow. Well; that would have been the excuse had the coppers turned up. What I had found was indeed an Aladdin’s cave. For some reason a stack of stores that had been on its way to the Falklands had been diverted to this hanger and was just sat sitting there doing nothing.
There were all sorts of heavy duty foul weather clothing, sea boot socks, not to mention furniture, lockers and tables and chairs. Needless to say a lot of this stuff now made its way over to 194, for safe keeping I’ll have you know. If I had to work on a Saturday or Sunday then five minutes after arriving at work, I would be off on my travels, always contactable by radio but always working away. The most enjoyable part of it all was working outside in the good weather. I would borrow a large dumper truck from the civilian work site and take loads of stones, from the heaps dotted around the airfield for the rapid runway repair guys. I used these to create a parking area and access road to 194. One day the SATCO came over to help out. There was a small gang of us working away and he asked if he could drive the dumper truck. He was a little amazed when he asked for the key and I gave him a bent nail.
One Sunday I had been working away and really enjoying myself. As far as I was aware everything was ticking along nicely. The controller in air traffic was a young fellow, a junior officer. He was a total arse and always claimed that his parents, on the Isle of Man were millionaires and only drove Rolls Royce’s. I don’t think anyone had any time for him. I finished work on the Monday morning and drove home. When I was next back at work, which I think was the Tuesday afternoon, I was immediately called into the SACTO’s office and told that I had been reported for drinking on duty. The arse from the Isle of Man had claimed to have tried to contact me throughout Sunday and as he had got no reply, had assumed that I was in one of the messes drinking.
I demanded that he be brought into the office and accuse me face to face, but was told that he had gone off on leave for two weeks, so we would have to wait until his return so that the affair could be investigated properly. He was a typical air trafficker, gutless and useless, but really, really, posh. In order to keep 194 warm and serviceable the bird control unit established their base of operations there. These guys were normally air traffickers who couldn’t make the grade, and would spend their days drawing pictures of birds and writing notes on their nesting preferences, sort of like the special class at school. One day however the BCU guy came in with a shotgun. I had used shotguns before, mainly in Ireland but this was a pump action shotgun, which I had never used before.
Normally the BCU guys scared the birds away from the airfield, now they were going to murder them to death and hope that that would keep them away. When you think that just the other day a local council, in England, announced that the local seagull population would congregate on the bin collection day and cause mayhem, so to outwit the birds they changed the bin collection date. Seems that it only took the birds two weeks to work this out and adapt their behaviour. So with that information in mind how long do you think it would take the local bird population at Wattisham to figure out that the guy with the shotgun was an idiot?
I was being driven back to air traffic control one day, by the BCU guy, when air traffic called us on the radio. The local controller told us that there was a large flock of seagulls on the grass in front of the air traffic control tower, would we come over and disperse them. Disperse them, ha! We would slaughter them. We drove toward air traffic while I fed shell after shell into the shotgun. As we drew near, the gulls began to lift off. The land drover stopped and I stepped out. I took the shotgun to my shoulder, aimed at the birds and fired every shell in the gun. I think there were six shells. I then bowed to the small crowd who had gathered at air traffic to watch the massacre. There must have been upwards of fifty seagulls and I hadn’t hit one. Nearly as good as attacking sand bags, but not quite. And as I did say, the seagulls now knew that the fellow with the shotgun certainly was an idiot.