A Milestone on the Voyage of Experience

Location : Blackpool, Swansea, Aberdeen, Norwich, At Sea

It all started, I suppose in July 1951 when I left school. I had had a very very good education, Higher School Certificate, done rather well and in those days unlike now “gap years” were unheard of. There was one thing which every man in the country had to do, and that was his National Service, to serve King and Country, or Queen and Country as it ultimately became. I decided instead of going straight to university from school, I would do my army service first. You had a choice, you’d either go to university first or do your army service. I decided I’d go into the army. Eventually I got my papers to go and it was to Lanark in Scotland. Winston Barracks was the name of the barracks. For me it was a long long journey. I had to go up to Edinburgh and across from Edinburgh to Glasgow and from Glasgow to Lanark. I eventually arrived at Lanark station and then phoned the military base up and they could pick you up and take you. So I spent my first day in the army in civvies, obviously. And I always remember my first meal, funnily enough, it was something I had never eaten before. It looked rather inviting but very strange. Believe it or not, it was scotch mutton pie with beans and chips. I think the pudding was spotty dick with custard. But the secret was, you kept your hand under the plate. If you had your thumb on top the cook would drop hot gravy on your thumb. So that was my first meal in the army, I’ll never forget it.

I had reported to the barrack room where I was assigned – it would be about half past nine in the morning – and sat at the desk was a sergeant alongside a corporal. The corporal’s name was Laverick and the sergeant’s name was Murray. I went to say “Good morning gentlemen.” Which was the wrong thing to say! “Good morning sergeant,” or “Good morning corporal.” So I didn’t get off to a very good start as you can well imagine. He said “You’re extremely early.” I said, “I’ve come an awfully long way.” And I had! So he assigned me a bed and off I went to get sheets, blankets and what have you. When I came back, he stood up, this sergeant. I in those days was six foot. (I’ve shrunk a little bit since then.) And he stood five foot one. So when he spoke to me he was speaking to my chest. (Laughs) But funnily enough we hit it off. Because he was a very keen boxer, this sergeant. I’d done quite a bit of boxing at school, so I was part of his team, so I got on very well indeed.

I’ll not tell you the story about the RSM because that might embarrass him. That’s another story which I am keeping to myself. I always said to the RSM, your secret is safe with me. I’ll leave it at that!

So I did my initial training at Lanark, obviously. And then, it was the first time I had ever met people who couldn’t read and write. Which was a hell of a shock. You used to have to read the chaps’ letters from home and write the letters home for them and things like that. They’d give you a manual about how a gun works and things like that and you had to explain it all to them. It is quite strange. There was 36 of us in our particular unit and I would say about ten of them couldn’t read or write. Which was a high percentage, a very high percentage. One of them didn’t even speak English, would you believe. He spoke Gaelic … he didn’t understand English. So everything had to be done by signs. We soon got him understanding but it was a bit of a struggle.

And then of course after our service it came to posting. We were going to be posted. We had all been selected for overseas operations. At this time there was Korea, the Korean War, the Mau Mau in Kenya; there was trouble in Aden, in the Yemen; Egypt was virtually on a riot basis because they were going to get rid of Farouk and we were guarding the Suez Canal. There were stirrings of trouble in Cyprus, though it did not have Eoka as in later years. There were trouble spots in Malaya as well. So wherever you went you were going to a bundle of trouble.

I finished up in Suez in a place called Tel el-Kebir, which was in the middle of the desert. It was the last place God made and forgot to finish. And it was a 26 mile perimeter which we had to guard. We lived under canvas in tents and to this day I cannot walk into a tent or a marquee without the hairs on the back of my head rising. I can’t walk on the sand – I do do, but not very often. When the grandchildren were younger we used to taken them down to the beach. Grandpa would sit on the promenade while they played on the sand. It was just one of those strange things.

The Purser for Cunard

So I say, after I came out of the army, I obviously thought about what I was going to do. I was out east for, what, twenty odd months. Then I came back to the UK, we were demobbed, and I thought, “I think I’ll be a geologist.” For some unknown reason I fancied geology. So I applied for university, Liverpool, and went to the interview, was accepted and had about five or six hours to spare before my train back home. I wandered down to Pier Head, which was radically different to what it is now. it was dirty, there was the Cunard Building, the Liver Building and I think the RAC Building on the front. I wandered down there and anchored in the river, alongside the docks, were six ocean-going liners. This was the days of real ocean going. I thought to myself, “This looks interesting.” I thought, I’ll just be cheeky. And I walked into the Cunard Building along the sea-front there and virtually said, “Give us a job.” That’s true.

I walked in there and they asked me my qualifications and one thing and another and they directed me into the path of a man called Wardman. He’d been the senior Purser on the Queen Elizabeth, the first Queen Elizabeth. He’d had to retire because of ill health, but he was in command of all the purser’s staff of the Cunard company. Which was rather large in those days, because they had a lot of ships. Most people think of the Cunard think of the Queens, but can go through, the Ascania, the Parthia, the Carmania, the Scythia, the Carinthia, the Coronia, Ibernia, Saxonia, I could go on … they were a tremendous fleet. Long before the days of jet flying obviously. Because the way to go across the Atlantic was to go by sea.

Mr Wardman very very kindly gave me an interview. It went rather well, we hit it off. But it wasn’t much later that I got a letter from him saying, could I go in for an interview. So I did the second interview and he said, “There are two criteria you have got to fill, Mr H.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “(a) you’ve got to be able to type and (b) you’ve got to be able to speak a foreign language.” Now, I hadn’t spoken French for two years, so I had a friend of mine who was a French teacher, he sort of brushed me up on that. So I went to a secretarial college to learn typing. I was the only man there, it was quite comical actually. They didn’t only do typing, shorthand, book-keeping, deportment they did – dress they did! It was like a finishing school for secretaries. Only I just went for the typing courses. So I got up to the correct speed and I went back, what would it be, about a fortnight later. I took this typing test, then a chap came in and he started talking to me like I am talking to you now. And suddenly he lapsed into French. No warning at all. Bang, he was into it. I was able to answer him and made all the right noises. I got accepted. So then there was the question of I had to move to Liverpool. I was living at home at the time, in Cleethorpes. I had to get my uniform and get my merchant seaman’s papers. My discharge book, you had a discharge book for every ship you had been on. Mine’s full of “VG, VG”, which means very good. If you got a “DR”, it was “declined to report”. I’m saying nothing about him but don’t want him back!

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Rose Room, Queen Mary, 1955

I did this for ten years. I did several cruises, world cruises, the Mediterranean, North Cape. I know now, when my wife says “Where shall we go for our holiday, shall be go to so and so?” “I’ve been there.” It’s ridiculous really …

What was the job that you did?

I was a purser, an assistant purser. I worked mostly in first-class offices. I did a couple of trips on the Queen Mary in cabin class and I also was also a crew purser as well, looking after the crew’s wages and all that sort of thing. It was quite a variety of jobs you did. You were a jack of all trades. The purser’s office not only did banking, but they ran the ship’s entertainment, all the internal things. And they also looked after all the paperwork, which was enormous. Ship’s clearances and all that sort of nonsense.

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On board the Carinthia

I’ll tell you one story about it. I sailed with one Captain, no names again, no pack drill. I always had to make an appointment to see him. My boss had been over to see him and had said, “The skipper will see you at two o’clock.” So at two o’clock I duly arrived at the captain’s cabin. He sat at his desk. I said, “Time to sign the forms, sir.” He signed one and he signed two … there was a wodge of things he had to sign. He said “Are you good at forgery, H?” I said, “Never tried my hand, sir.” “Can you forge my name”. I said, “I’ll try.” And I wrote it a couple of times. He said, “That’s better than me. You can do the rest!” (Laughter) and every time I sailed with him – he was a lovely chap in actual fact. Most captains I sailed with were first class. They were thorough gentlemen. All the bosses I worked with too were very good indeed.

And the passengers?

Good, bad and indifferent! I won’t say what happened to some of them but there you go. You can use your imagination on that one. I’ll tell you off record actually.

Back on shore

I’d met my wife by this time and we lived in a flat in Wallasey, Cheshire. Like all marriages, my wife got pregnant and we bought a little house in Wallasey. I got to the stage where I thought, “I’m not going to be like a lot of them at sea and be an absent father. A lot of them were. They went home and the kids didn’t know who they were, really. So I decided then that it was time for a change of career.

A job came up in Blackpool in the catering business and I thought I’d give it a try. So we moved to Blackpool from Wallasey. The catering job didn’t pan out, I didn’t get on with it at all. So I thought, I’ll go back to university. I know it will be a bit of a struggle being a student, but there you go.

When you were looking for a job, did you look in newspapers, or was there a sort of a job centre place?

There was the labour exchange, it was called in those days. I said, I’ll go down to the Labour Exchange and get my card stamped, national insurance card, because you had to keep it up. Didn’t want any dole money or anything like that, just wanted my card stamped. So I went down there – Labour Exchanges in those days were rather formidable places. They were run by a special breed that I will not enlarge on … God knows where they got some of them from, the rudest people I have ever met in my life. I can’t stand people being rude.

They said, “Oh, you’ll have to have a job and sign on” and all this nonsense. I said, “all right, I’m thinking about going back to university.” So I got home and they contacted me. We didn’t have a telephone in those days. They contacted me, they’d found me a job at the airport at Blackpool. Temporary, holiday relief job. I said, “What was it?” They said, “To work in the signals division at the airport.” So I go down there, had this interview and I accepted. I was taken under the wing of a young lady who showed me the ropes. About the second or third day there, we had the control tower and the next floor was all the radio equipment and downstairs was the kitchen, the met office and the signals division. I’d been there about three or four days and I wandered up to the tower. Because id never been in one in my life. And it was a bit like the Pier Head experience. This looks interesting! I thought, how does one get into being an air traffic controller?

Training as an air traffic controller

Well, I’m going back now, 40-odd years. And in those days it was very much a closed shop. But you could, if you wanted, instead of going to college to become an air traffic controller you could do on the job training yourself. So I approached the SATCO and a man called D.J. H. – he was quite an old chap, well, I suppose now he’d be a contemporary, but there you go! He’d been a pilot in the first world war, in The Air Flying Corps. And he was always known as D.J. He didn’t answer to anything but D.J. So I buttonholed him after I’d been up to the tower and I said, “Excuse me, D.J., but how does one get into being an air traffic controller?”

Sharp intake of breath.

He said, “You’ll never do it, son.” I said, “Why?”

He said, “It’s a closed shop.”

“Oh,” I said, “That’s sad. But if the chance comes up, will you give me first refusal?”

“All right,” he said, “I’ll bear it in mind.”

Well, about three or four days later the phone rang. Picked it up. “D.J. here. Can you come and see me, H.”

So I said, “Certainly”. And went up to his office.

He said, “Are you still interested in being an air traffic controller?”

I said, “I wouldn’t have asked you in the first place if I wasn’t.”

He said, “Well, you’ll be transferring to the air traffic control section the day after tomorrow.”

I said to him, “I thought it was a closed shop!”

He said, “Do you want the job or not?”


“You’ll start as an assistant and you’ll train yourself and work your way up.”

So two days later, there I was, under the wing of somebody else, showing me the ropes what you do. Because as an assistant you do all the strip marking and flight planning and the meteorological side of it. all sorts of bits and pieces. Ancillary jobs you have to do.

I couldn’t understand how I’d got this job so goddam quickly. Believe it or not, it was through theft! (You look surprised at that … most people are.) What had happened was, they had I think it was seven controllers and three assistants. The chaps used to hang their coats up … as you went up the staircase there was a welldeck staircase to hang their coats up. What had happened, some of them were losing money. They didn’t know who was doing it, no suspicion at all. So they laid a trap. D.J.H.went to the bank and he drew I think about thirty pound out, brand new notes, all numbered. And he distributed it among the controllers. None of the assistants had lost money, just the controllers from their wallets. And they brought them to work and he come up one day to the tower one or two days after he’d done this distribution jangling a load of coins in his pocket. And he said, “Can anyone relieve me of these coins?” And this bloke said yes. He said, “I’ll give you a couple of quid for them.” And he gave him two pound notes that had been marked. They didn’t pursue it through the court, this assistant went, and that is how I got into air traffic control through theft!

Well, it took me two years to get qualified. It was a long process and there was an awful lot to learn. There was aviation law, there was aerodrome operations. There was meteorology, there was navigation, and then there was an oral board afterwards on the four papers. They could ask you any question on all these four papers. So it was quite a big exercise. M. and I used to sit for hours going through the book, I won’t say learning it like a parrot, but especially with the law side you had to know where to dot the “i’s”, cross the “t’s” and put the commas. Which was absolutely essential otherwise you could easily lose the thread, interpret it differently. And I passed my aerodrome examination and was very pleased about that. It took me two years. It was a bit of a struggle because the pay wasn’t very good. I was only on £27 a month and by this time we’d a son and a daughter, a mortgage …

That was in the fifties?

No, 1960 – early sixties.

It wasn’t a lot of money. Times were very hard. In fact I used to have 10 shillings a week pocket money and I smoked in those days. (I don’t now, I’m a good boy now.) I used to buy half an ounce of Golden Virginia and the rest of the money was for my bus-fare. And sometimes I didn’t have enough money to pay my bus fare to and from work. Used to have to walk to work sometimes and catch the bus home. It depended on the weather. If it was raining I’d catch the bus to work. I didn’t mind getting wet when I got home, but getting wet at work I didn’t particularly appreciate.

As I say, I was two years an assistant controller and I got my aerodrome ticket. The next qualification I had to get was approach control. This was a different kettle of fish altogether. I did my approach control and had to study a set of rules, regulations and what have you. Radically different. I eventually got my approach control ticket. It was difficult. You had to pay exam fees and hotels when you went away to take your examination which were at Christchurch, Bournemouth, would you believe. Of course the actual school was at Bournemouth. It has moved now but it was at Bournemouth. I did my approach exams and managed to successfully passed them. Then I applied to become a full-blown controller at Blackpool and they wouldn’t pay the money. One of the things I think that upset them a little bit. If the company sponsored somebody they would pay them at a lower wage to cover the sponsorship. Well I had done it independently, totally independently, it hadn’t cost anybody a penny to do it. because I am fiercely independent and always was. I got my Approach and they wouldn’t pay the money. So I said to M., “We’re going to be on the move again.”

Moving to Swansea

An opportunity came down at Swansea in South Wales. So I went down there for an interview and again I was successful. They paid the right money so off we went to Swansea. Rather comical actually, because the corporation down there, bless their hearts, had said they would lend me accommodation while we bought a house down there. well, the day came for us to move down, the pantechnicon rolls up and they fill it up, shut the doors and the driver said, “Where are we going, sir?” I said, “Swansea”. “I know that”, he said, “But what address?” I said, “I haven’t got one.” He said, “If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have filled this wagon.”

So I said, “I tell you what to do. When we get down to Swansea,” We were staying with a girl who M. had worked with long before we were married. Funnily enough her and her husband and M. and I got married on the same day. And they lived in Swansea.. He was the transport manager for Total Oil in South Wales. So we went down there and stayed with them. This driver phoned me up and said, “Have you got an address?” As luck would have it I’d got the address five minutes before he rang. (Laughs.) This was seven o’clock at night. So we went off to this address and it was the coldest, bleakest house I ever lived in. We got outside the back door, there was a pavement and a drop of about 700 foot. No fence! Straight across the valley. We moved in, he said, “Where do you want the stuff?” “Just take three beds upstairs,” I said, “the table and four chairs in the lounge, two armchairs and two ordinary chairs, and the rest you can put in the front room.” Which he was delighted about because there was no carrying about upstairs. So bless his heart he did the business and it was right on top of a hill. We’d lived in Blackpool, which is like here, flat as a flute. All this hill climbing, oh dear oh dear. And of course I didn’t have a car and I started work at Swansea airport. This friend of ours we had lodged with the first time we were there, he took us round house hunting. He took us to a place called Killay, which is on the Gower peninsular. A superb place to live, the Gower peninsular, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. We loved living there, we really did.

The prices in those days would have been a lot different?

Oh yes, the house cost us, I think, about three grand!

And your salary?

My salary was very much improved. I was on about £70 a week, which was a lot of money. We were millionaires then. Especially with what we had been through the previous years getting myself qualified.

As I say, we settled down in Swansea.

I did forget to mention that we acquired a dog while we were in Blackpool. It used to come and play with our son in the garden. It was a welsh border collie, lovely temperament. We had it for 17 years. He was a fully grown, fully established dog when we first got him.

Swansea was a lovely place to live, very nice friendly people. The house we bought was on a new estate and it had been on the market for six months. A brand new house. The people who were going to buy it couldn’t get a mortgage. We were very fortunate we got this house and we were the only ones on the estate who didn’t suffer with cracks, with drying out. The house had dried out naturally and had not had fires in at all.

Was it far from your work?

Not terribly far. The airport was actually on the Gower. So it was about three and a half miles. It wasn’t terribly far. Bought a car when I got down there, obviously. Because there were no buses, or buses were very rare. I decided when I was at Swansea I would progress further in the profession and I decided to take my radar examinations, which was another set of exams. What you had to do for that, when you were doing it on your own you had to do 150 approaches talking down aircraft before you could actually sit the examination. But the examination was an area examination. It was a totally different world. I’d learnt all the things … one thing I did have to do, I will confess, I am not very good when it comes to electronics. A 13 amp fuse is about my heavy. But the radar examination involved the technicalities of an actual radar. How it works, electromagnetic energy, frequencies. It was a different world to me. I will hold my hand up and say I virtually had to learn it like a parrot. I went down and sat the exam. There was the practical, there was the theory, and there was the operation. And also again an oral examination.

I went to Birmingham in actual fact. I took my exams there and sadly, I passed all the written papers and I passed the oral, but I failed the practical. Mainly because I was working with something I had never seen before in my life. They allow you one resit. If you fail the resit you’ve got to take the whole thing again. The three you’ve got are wiped out completely. Well, never having worked with this equipment, I went and sat in at Cardiff, because they had the same equipment there. And the SATCO very kindly let me sit in there. Not do anything, but just sit and observe. I went back to Birmingham and took my exams and lo and behold I passed. I got my rating. So I had got all my three ratings, I had got my aerodrome, the approach, and my radar rating. The same thing happened again. They wouldn’t pay me the going rate for the qualification. I had paid for it myself, they hadn’t paid a penny at all.

A new job in Norwich and activity in the Guild of Air Traffic Controllers

Then out of the blue I got a phone call from the Controller here at Norwich. I’d known him for years. He says, “There’s a job going here, H., are you interested?” I said, “Damn right I am.”

So he arranged with the SATCO for me to come and have an interview. We came over to Norfolk. My wife’s parents were still alive then and they lived at Wighton on the North Coast here. Came up for the interview and it was in late December … because I’d got the message that I had got the job, would you believe, at 8 o’clock New Years Eve. My in-laws didn’t have a telephone. The message had gone to a friend of theirs up the road. And they came down to see me and I went up to phone. And as I walked in their house there was this pop. They’d opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate, these friends of my mother- and father-in-law! And that was my introduction to Norwich.

When I came here I decided I’d join the Guild of Air Traffic Controllers. Which is very well known and had been going since it first started in I think 1948 at Gatwick. When Gatwick was a collection of huts. I can remember Aberdeen being a collection of huts, but that’s another story, I’ll come onto this later.

Out of the blue I was appointed … the Guild of Air Traffic Controllers had sections all over the country, they were known as lodges, and this was the East Anglian lodge. I became vice president.

What year was this?

Oh, it would be 1971, 1972. The president was a flight lieutenant in the RAF. The lodges were a little bit like Masonic lodges, there was the Master, the wardens, the deacons. It was based on a Masonic form but it was changed about two or three years later. I was assistant to the president, or Master, and I eventually became Master of the Lodge. We used to hold a meeting every month and have a guest speaker. The area stretched from Clacton in the south up to Lincolnshire. It was an enormous area, enormous! It was the first year we started off in the Guild, in the early ‘70s.

We used to once every year a thing called the pilot controllers’ forum. Any pilot, private, military, or commercial, and any controller again military or commercial, could come along and have their two penn’orth. Let fly about anything under the umbrella of the guild. So there was no redress by the companies we were working for. This particular day we decided we would have this meeting at RAF Watton, which was still operational in those days – in the officers’ mess there. In a room appropriately named the Norfolk Room. I‘ll never forget it. The place was packed. There’d have been about 60 or 70 people there. The Master, or President as he became, said, “Right, who’s going to set the ball rolling?” A chap stood up and introduced himself. He was a helicopter captain with British Airways as it was in those days. And he used to fly from Ellough near Beccles out to the gas rigs, servicing the gas rigs. And that particular day he had had something like about 10 or 11 air misses – military aircraft. Which is a hell of a lot. It’s uncontrolled airspace out there. it’s not controlled airspace – I wouldn’t say every man for himself but it is see and be seen. He’d had all these air misses and he’d managed to get the airframe number of two of the military aircraft he had had an air miss with. Well, you’ll never guess what happened … the two pilots of those aircraft were in the room. As luck would have it British Airways was one side of the room and RAF pilots on the other side of the room. And this row started! Honest to god, it would have been fisticuffs if they’d been closer. You’d not believe it!

The president and myself settled them down and said. We’d obviously got a problem here. I said to the President, “The best way is, if we meet over at the bar and discuss this relatively sensibly over a pint we might get some success. Or get it resolved.” So we did and we decided to form a committee under the umbrella of the Guild – there was an RAF controller, who was the President, myself a civvy, another civvy (who’s no longer with us), and RAF pilot and this pilot from British Airways. We decided we’d meet up one night and have a powwow and see what we could come out with. The nearest place we could all meet together without any trouble was the old Pig and Whistle pub opposite Bonds as was in those days. It’s no longer there, apparently; it’s years since I’ve been in that part of the world. We met there, the five of us and we thrashed it out, very sensibly, very calmly and decided that we would write a paper about this problem and put in solutions. Which we did.

The authorities were not best pleased to see it. They went ballistic about us interfering in matters which were directly for them. We were sticking our noses in where our nose … Well, we were a tenacious bunch, myself one of the leading lights of tenacity, I can assure you! Eventually they produced a thing called a Notice for Airmen, a NOTAM, about this operation out to the rigs from North Denes out to Beccles. They were going to do it on a trial basis. I think there was a three month trial, was it, to see if it would work. It turned out to be the biggest load of nonsense I’d ever read in my life. The trial collapsed after about 48 hours. Totally unworkable. So a little later, I had made myself known, I was a bit more robust than I am these days … I’d got myself noticed by some people. They brought out another one, which was about 99 percent of what we had suggested and is still operational today. Actually it’s been amended since because of the advances in technology with radar. They take off from here now and they contact Stansted and Stansted guides them through. It is a separate operation completely.

Senior air traffic controller in the northern North Sea

As I say, I’d got myself noticed in the oil business because of this. In 1978 I got seriously looked at by a company down in London called IAL, International Air Radio. They were part of the British Airways set up. They’d been asked by UKOOA (The United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association) who were the UK equivalent of OPEC. They had been asked to set up an air traffic control system up in the northern North Sea. It had never been done before anywhere in the world. They took this on board in 1977, late ’77, and set up a very small operation. One of the many problems was we were not in British airspace. We were in Norwegian airspace. So we had to have the agreement with the Norwegians. This had never been done anywhere in the world before, it was a one-off. They were a little bit, shall we say, jaundiced about the whole thing. It started in ’77. In ’78 they asked me to go down for an interview and I went down there and had this interview and they said, “Will you accept the job as senior air traffic controller?” I said, “Yes.” Full of confidence, I didn’t know what I was doing! And at the end of the interview I said, “Right, now, what are my terms of reference?” and the chairman of the interview committee took out his pad, tore a sheet of paper out of it, threw it across the desk and said, “Write your own.” (Laughs) He said, “But make it work.”

Very shortly afterwards I was leaving Norwich airport, booked for Aberdeen and then from Aberdeen to Sumburgh, and out to the platform. The thing sort of took off from there. When we first went out there we could only fly up to 1,500 feet. We couldn’t fly above that. The helicopter pilots couldn’t fly under instruments, they could only fly visually. So there were a lot of changes had to be made. The pilots were all brought up to speed to instrument flying and we devised an operational system. I wrote the operational manual which is still used today in actual fact. So I must have got something right. I was there for, what, sixteen years, as SATCO. We had one or two moments up there, one or two incidents, usually caused through the weather. It was lousy weather. We used to suffer an awful lot with fog. A tremendous amount of fog, there really was. There’d be five days of fog and nothing moves.

How many were there?

Rigs? Good heavens above … the Thistle, the Magnus, North Cormorant, Cormorant Alpha, Heather, two Huttons, the Dunlin, Brent Delta, Brent Charlie, Brent Bravo, Brent Alpha … the Spar, Ninian North, Ninian Central, Ninian South … And not only that, we had all the support vessels as well which had landing decks – helicopter decks. Also you had pipe-laying barges, your tankers coming out – it was a very busy piece of airspace. The most we ever did in one day was 1,486 movements in one day. And we weren’t open 24 hours. People look at you absolutely astounded …

How many people were there in the office?

In air traffic control? Two at a time. We had it even split. There was the Brent controller and the Viking controller. They used to alternate the job. there were three of us on board at the time. We worked a shift pattern. When I was there we were working sort of eight on/eight off. But I thought, this is not on. I won’t say it’s a boring life offshore, but it’s restrictive. I said I am going to change all this, so I did. One day we did a split shift, the next day did an afternoon and the next day did a day. On the split shift you’d start at about 5 in the morning and work till 11, in the afternoon shift you’d work 11 till 5 and in the evening shift you’d work 5 until close of play, which was normally about 10 or 11 o’clock. And he would be on standby. So it meant – you were sharing cabins – at least you got some time to yourself. Time to yourself is vitally important. You’ve got to have a certain attitude to work offshore and when you did the interviews with the chaps, you know, you still got to know whether they would fit in. One of the questions I used to ask them when I was interviewing … I used to ask them two questions. Are you claustrophobic? Do you suffer with vertigo? If the answer was yes to either of those they didn’t get the job. Because it was so claustrophobic.

The first accommodation we had out there, we were on a Norwegian barge which was an accommodation barge called the NORDRAG. The crew were all Norwegian and everyone who lived on it was working on the platforms. There were four of us to a room on there and it was the most austere room I’ve ever been in in my life. I know the accommodation when I was out East was not very clever but this … everything was metal. The lockers were metal; the beds were metal; the sink was metal; the chairs were metal and the table was metal. It was next door to the anchor-chain room.

It must have been cold …

Oh it was. And one porthole about yeh big – about six inches across. The legs were anchored and they were governed by a computer by movement, so that if the thing started rolling, they’d roll some of those chains out to stabilise it. and you used to get this clank-clank. It was as if we were somewhere ghostly – the clanking of chains at night! (Laughs) And one night the thing went berserk and it ran the whole lot out. I’ve never heard a racket like it. I was nearly on ceiling with the noise – it was tremendous! We weren’t in this accommodation long, thank goodness, because once we got ourselves established with the people offshore … because we weren’t anything to do with producing oil. We were a different breed. Once we got established they accepted us. Didn’t take long. It was decided we’d move to a fixed platform, instead of being afloat. We went to a platform called Cormorant Alpha. On there the accommodation was excellent. And the food – I must admit the food offshore was brilliant! What it is like today I’ve no idea. When I was out there it was first-class.

It had to be prepared meals?

Oh yes. We had a chef onboard and a galley and chefs and all that sort of thing on board.

So there wasn’t just the three of you?

No there was a whole platform full. On the Cormorant Alpha they were feeding about 180 chaps. So there was a complete galley. We had our own baker, there was a patissier there, there was a roux chef, the head chef, the soup chef, there was all sorts of people. The food was actually first class.

I remember when I was on the NORDRAG it was mainly Norwegian food. A lot of fish. It was either fish or steak. They served four cooked meals a day – because they had to cater for the night-shifts as well. So I put on a bit of weight, I must admit! It was actually first-class the food. I never had a duff meal, ever.

Exercise and entertainment?

Of course, there was entertainment. On the NORDRAG it was quite comical. If you went to the pictures, you took your own chair. They had this room – it was just a room – and you took your own chair. They used to get films out, and the projectionist – there’d be three reels of the film and if he got them in the right order it was lucky! It was quite comical actually. There wasn’t much connection with the beach. Anyone who came out without a newspaper was castigated. We used to get newspapers delivered, they were usually about three days late. One of the few papers you could get in that part of the world was the P and J – the Aberdeen Press and Journal. Which was famous for one of its headlines – how true this is, I don’t know, but I was told this about the P and J. Apparently when the Titanic sank the headlines in the Aberdeen Press and Journal was “Aberdeen man drowns.” …That was what I was told, I never did follow it up.

We got transferred then to the Cormorant Alpha – this photograph, that’s where we were working on the Cormorant Alpha. (Shows photo.)

TRN/005/ HHQueen Mary, air traffic, offshore - Hockney photo 2.jpg (2265px x 1535px)

Then they decided to put some new accommodation on and build us a separate entity unit. Which, bless their hearts, they did. And it was very very nice. All the cabins’ interiors had been designed … at long last they had cottoned onto the fact of using the space correctly. They had all been designed by people who designed caravans. So in our room, I was in a double room – there were two double bunks, four lockers, a desk, a chair, an armchair, a table, a television (by this time we had gone mad and got Sky television), a washbasin and a locker underneath the washbasin. All in a room about as big as that. Very compact. So everyone had to be extremely tidy, you couldn’t leave things lying about. Not that it bothered me, because I always am a bit tidy. We were on there and we had this special room built to accommodate us, both us and the marine controllers. We had marine controllers out there was well, who looked after all the shipping, moving freight and all the rest.

Then they decided they’d upgrade our equipment. There was a piece of equipment come out … we put the thing out to tender, obviously, and the one the operators decided on was a firm called STL, Standard Telephones Limited, in Basingstoke. So we organised the spec for this equipment – it had to be a certain size to get through some of the doors, and then rebuilt. We had to have a computerised floor. It was a – I won’t say trying, time – looking back on it it was quite fun but it was a worrying time meeting deadlines. Dovetailing everything that had to be done, the wiring, the floor, the electrics, the electronics, and the building of the equipment. We managed to get it all up and running and it worked extremely well. Two or three days before they were due to ship it out, the phone rang here. It was a Friday afternoon about half past four. It was the managing director of this company, STL. He said to me, “We’ve got a problem Mr H,” he said. “Don’t tell me you can’t ship it out.” Oh no,” he said, “It is your direct telephone?” I said, “Yes.” “We’ve run everything through the computer and we’ve tested it all out, but nobody can telephone you. You can’t accept telephone calls.” I said, “Yes, I know. That’s the way I wanted it.” He said, “I’ve been plucking up courage for three or four days to phone you …” We were talking megabucks for the cost of this thing, it didn’t come cheap. Half to three quarters of a million it was – a million we were spending. So I said, “Yeah, that’s what I want. If it is important they’ll get off their butt and come and see me. I can dial out, but they can’t dial in. Wonderful system.”

How long did you spend on these?

You mean working period? When we first started we had fourteen days on and fourteen days off. Twice a year you had six weeks off. It worked extremely well, but later on towards the end of my career, about four years before I retired, they had brought in new regulations about controllers’ hours. Because you could work for ever if you couldn’t get a relief or anything – it was a ridiculous situation -and I had fought for many years from within the Guild to get this regulation. It took a long time, but it came eventually. And when they sorted out what they could do on the beach they did not know – nobody on this committee … I forgot to mention, there was a committee for the offshore situation, it was a little bit like a quango, but an operational quango. We made decisions and did them. I was on two in actual fact. I was on one for the air traffic control side and the other one was for a thing called ORFLAG (offshore radio liaison group). The man who was in charge of it was quite a character as a matter of fact. Great talker. If you ever went to a meeting with him, you did it before lunch. If you did it after lunch and he’d had a couple of gargles, he went on for ever more (Bit like me!) I sat on those committees all the time I was offshore as a matter of fact. We dealt a lot with the political side of things. I fell out several times with the political people.

I have a little saying. I was telling you earlier on about doing my examinations and I had to do navigation … one of the chaps who wrote a book. I’ll mention his name, because he is a very famous man called Donald Bennett (Air Vice Marshall Donald Bennett) who was the leader of the Pathfinders. He wrote a book on dead reckoning navigation, which to me was the definitive document. It was written in a language you could understand. Every chapter was a different facet to do with navigation. There was one there on weather. He always started off the chapters with a little anecdote or saying. The one about weather I always remember. When I used to go to these meetings I used to quote it to myself, this mantra, to get me into the right frame of mind. And it was “The wind is like a government department. It only starts to work when pressure is applied and when it does it tends to go round in circles.” (Laughter). I’ve never forgotten this, it was fifty years ago. I used to quote this to myself two or three times. Shall I put it this way, it had a hypnotic calming effect on me … (Laughs) I knew I wouldn’t explode!

Offshore legislation

They brought in this legislation and this committee they had, this quango, had no idea what to do with the offshore. So I was summoned to the presence of this quango. I knew what I was going for, it was “How can we fit you into this pattern?” I had a marvellous chat with them, my Number One in actual fact, a lovely chap, he is sadly no longer with us. He had quite an administrative brain on him, he was quite a clever chap. He did all the watch lists and things like that, the leave lists, etc. he’d got that type of mind. I said to him, “We’ve got to come up with three ways of getting round this problem.” So bless his heart, he came up with three. Two were outrageous, they really were. The third one, I thought, right, that’s it. so I went to this meeting and they said, “I hope you’re in good voice, because you’ll be the only one speaking.” I thought, “Oh dear, goodness me. That’s going to put the kybosh on it” I had to give them this presentation and eventually they settled, without increasing the staff – because beds were at an absolute premium offshore. I couldn’t increase my staff but it had to fit in with new regulations. Well, I could increase my staff by one, but it was still three people offshore. What we worked out was, you worked eleven days offshore and fifteen days at home. It was quite a good system in actual fact and as far as I am aware it carried on after I left, because the system was there from 1987 right up to about fourteen years ago. In those days, when we started there was no such thing as satellites and all that sort of nonsense. So it had to be done as you were working offshore.

We had to do safety courses as well, survival courses. I don’t swim and the first one I went on was down at Lowestoft. They took us out in this boat into the North Sea – it was November. The youngest of the lads who worked with me came along to look after the old fellow – they called me granddad because I was the oldest one amongst them. The rest were quite young lads actually. He came with me and we went to Lowestoft. We got out in the North Sea and they said “Jump!” Oh…. dear. Anyway, we all eventually got in the North Sea with these lifejackets on and he said, “Anybody in trouble, put your right arm up.” So we’d been in the water I don’t know how long. I wasn’t wearing a watch at the time – there wasn’t a safe place to wear a watch. And I did something to my elbow. I couldn’t move my arm, it was dead. So I raised my left arm … (Laughs) Took no notice of me. Eventually I managed to get him in earshot (they had these swimmers in scuba gear). He said, “What’s that?” “My arm’s gone, it’s dead, completely dead, I can’t use it .” He said, “Well get you back on the lifeboat.” So they had these rubber inflatable dinghies where you sit across. They are used for inshore work. So they brought one of these alongside, dropped me in and wedged me between the seat and the stanchion on my right arm! Coo, I was in agony! Agony! So they went alongside to the lifeboat and the entrance to the lifeboat was about yeh big. And it was going up and down about eight or nine foot. I had to get from this dinghy into the lifeboat. All I did was dive in head first. I was wearing a helmet. I dived in head first, sat in this thing, got back on board eventually and we went back to Lowestoft. First thing you’d do when you got back there, you walked into this shower room – you had a survival suit on. Very primitive thing it was – they improved enormously towards the end. It was a rubber wet suit, but flabby, arms and so on. You’d walk in this room and there is water cascading down, fresh water, cold icy fresh water to wash all the salt off you. Then you’d take this suit off and go through into the warm shower and get showered. I still couldn’t use the shower. The lad who was with me practically had to dress me and dry me down. I was driving, in a driver-only car. He couldn’t drive, so we sat there for about an hour and a half until life came back and I could move the steering wheel and we drove home. I was quite a while getting over that. That dead arm business. I eventually had to have it seen to. I had it operated on and got it fixed up.

When satellites were introduced. This was after I retired, actually. I retired in 1994. I had done then, would you believe, 586 round trips from Norwich airport to Aberdeen. When I retired, I decided I would have a bit of a thrash up in Aberdeen, have all my chums up there. because I’d made a lot of friends, obviously. The Aberdeen Airport Skean Dhu was the hotel. I’d arranged for M. to fly up to Aberdeen to join us. I’d also arranged before I left for her to be presented with a bouquet when we got back here to Norwich. Because she’d done an awful lot of work. She was my longstop, really. All the mail that came in, when I went offshore, she used to filter it through and I’d phone her up and say, “What’s in the post?” And either send it or keep it, or deal with it this way. She was a longstop unpaid secretary actually. Very good PA! And a good cook as well.

I’d arranged for this party, and we had a very very good night. An excellent night. And we were flying back the next day on the evening flight. I said, while we’re up here we’ll have a look round Aberdeen and what have you. I wanted to see the Piper memorial up in Aberdeen. The chaps who got killed on the Piper. Because I knew quite a few of them. I had a lot of friends killed as well, while I was offshore, unfortunately. But that’s another story which I won’t go into, it would upset me.

We came back here to Norwich. I’d had a few jars on the aircraft, as one does. I said to M., we’ll sit here a time and be last off, milk the last minute. And we did and we got to the entrance of the aircraft, the doorway there, and at the bottom of the staircase was this delegation! There was a ground stewardess with a bunch of flowers. There was the Air UK manager with a jeroboam of champagne and two or three others I’d known when I was working up here – the friendships had carried on. And as I came down the steps – he presented M. with her bouquet – he said, “Oh by the way, Mr H, we’ve laid on a press conference.” I thought, “Goodness me, whatever next!” so, they had this press conference, photos and all that sort of nonsense and it all got in the paper. I always used to go for a haircut when I came home. I don’t like looking scruffy.

I’d gone out for a haircut two or three days after we got home, the phone rang. “BBC here” [posh BBC voice] as they do. “Mr H.?” “No, he’s out. May I take a message?” He said, “We’d like to do an interview with him, about his life and times.” Very similar to what you’re doing now, in actual fact. “… about his work offshore. Do you think he’d mind? “Mind?!” she said, “Loves talking about himself!” I went down to the old Surrey Street place where they were in those days, not the Forum where they are now. and I went down there and had this interview. It was quite interesting actually. Quite interesting . it was a little bit different from the press conference. The press conference I found a little bit pushy, but the interview was very very good indeed. It was one of these phone-in programmes and I did this interview, about half an hour, about how we’d set up the operation and one thing and another. Trials and tribulations. Nobody phoned in. After we finished I was talking to the interviewer and said, “I thought I a bit strange nobody phoned in.” He said, “No, it’s not strange, you were possibly so articulate and so informative that nobody had a question to ask you.” Whether he was bullshitting me or not, I don’t know, but I accepted it with good grace.

Retirement and the Airforce Museum

And then, of course, I retired. I didn’t retire completely. The company asked me would I do the occasional day at North Denes. They ran North Denes airport at the time. I went there and did one, possibly two days a week, for a couple of years and then I totally retired. And then of course looking round for something to do. I was all of a millisecond settling into retirement – I thoroughly enjoyed it.

We went up to Blickling, oh ten years ago now. and we walked into the main car-park. They’ve got a barn there. And we walked in there and there was this RAF exhibition on the interface between the RAF and Oulton – Blickling Hall and the Buckinghamshire Arms. I got interested and got talking and the lady who was there, a lady called Beryl, said would I be interested in joining her team of volunteers. So I thought I’d give it a whirl and I did. This year I got my ten year badge. It’s wonderful, it really is. It’s this exhibition of all these photographs and bits and pieces of things and it’s nice to keep it going because the number of people you get in who had relations who had served at Oulton and things, it’s very good. I was telling you about the 214 squadron sign. But my wife helps me now, because I had ticker trouble about four years ago and finished up in hospital – not for long, only about 24 hours – my wife comes with me now just to keep an eye on me basically. But otherwise, I’m as fit as a butcher’s dog. And that as they say, is that!

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