Harry talks about how his life choices, and how being in the right place at the right time, led to a life of travel around the world with Cunard and the role of Senior Air Traffic Controller in the North Sea.
It all started in July 1951. I had had a very, very good education, a Higher School Certificate, and done rather well. In those days gap years were unheard of. Every man in the country had to do National Service, to serve King and Country, or Queen and Country as it ultimately became. You could choose which to do first, and I decided that instead of going straight to university from school I would do my army service first.
Eventually I received my papers to go to Winston Barracks, Lanark in Scotland. It was a long, long journey. I had to go up to Edinburgh, across from Edinburgh to Glasgow, and from Glasgow to Lanark. I eventually arrived at Lanark station where I phoned the military base and they came to pick me up.
I spent my first day in the army in civvies and I will always remember my first meal. It was something I had never eaten before, it looked inviting but very strange. It was scotch mutton pie with beans and chips. I think the pudding was spotted dick with custard. The secret was that you kept your hand under the plate as the cook would drop hot gravy on your thumb if it was on top of the plate. I’ll never forget my first meal.
It was about half past nine in the morning when I reported to the assigned barrack room. At the desk was a sergeant alongside a corporal. I didn’t get off to a very good start as I went to say ‘Good morning Gentlemen’. This was the wrong thing to say, it should have been ‘Good morning Sergeant’, or, ‘Good morning Corporal’. The sergeant told me that I was extremely early to which I replied that I had come an awfully long way. He assigned me a bed and I went to get sheets, blankets, and what have you. In those days I was six foot tall. The sergeant was five foot one. When I returned he stood to speak to me, and was speaking to my chest! But we hit it off. He was a very keen boxer and as I’d done quite a bit of boxing at school I became part of his team. We got on very well indeed.
My initial training was at Lanark. It was the first time I had met people who couldn’t read and write. You used to have to read the chaps’ letters from home and write the letters home for them. They’d give you a manual about how a gun works and you had to explain it all to them. It was quite strange. There were 36 of us in our particular unit and about ten couldn’t read or write, a very high percentage. One of them only spoke Gaelic and didn’t understand English. Everything had to be done by signs, we soon got him understanding us but it was a bit of a struggle.
We had all been selected for overseas operations after training. At this time there was the Korean War; the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya; trouble in Aden in the Yemen; the Suez Canal needed protection from the uprising against Farouk in Egypt. There were stirrings of trouble in Cyprus, although it did not yet have EOKA (Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston – National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters) as in later years, and there were also trouble spots in Malaya. 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 had 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 and when the grandchildren were younger Grandpa would sit on the promenade while they played on the sand. It was just one of those strange things.
Purser for Cunard
After being away for roughly 20 months I came back to the UK. We were demobbed and I had to think about what I was going to do. For some unknown reason I thought I would like to be a geologist. I applied to Liverpool University and was accepted. After the interview I had five or six hours to spare before my train home so I wandered down to Pier Head. There was the Cunard Building, the Liver Building and the RAC Building on the front and anchored in the river, alongside the docks, were six ocean-going liners. These were the days of real ocean going. I thought it looked interesting and decided that I would be cheeky. I walked into the Cunard Building and said, ‘Give us a job’.
They asked for my qualifications before directing me to the man who was in command of all of the Cunard company purser staff. He’d been the Senior Purser on the Queen Elizabeth I but had to retire due to ill health. The Cunard company was large in those days. When people think of Cunard they think of the ‘Queens’ but there were many more – the Ascania, the Parthia, the Carmania, the Scythia, the Carinthia, the Coronia, Ibernia, Saxonia, I could go on. They were a tremendous fleet. This was long before the days of jet flying, when the way to cross the Atlantic was to go by sea.
On board the Carinthia
I was given an interview which went rather well and I was invited to a second interview. At the second interview I was told that I had to meet two criteria; I had to be able to type and I had to be able to speak another language. I hadn’t spoken French for two years but I had a friend who was a French teacher and he brushed me up on that. I went to a secretarial college to learn to type, and was the only man there. They didn’t only teach typing, shorthand and book-keeping, there was also deportment and dress! It was like a finishing school for secretaries only I just went for the typing courses. After two weeks I was up to the correct typing speed and I took the typing test. A chap came in and started talking to me when, with no warning at all, he suddenly lapsed into French. Bang, he was into it. I was able to answer him and make all the right noises. I was accepted for the job. So then there was the question of moving to Liverpool as I was living in Cleethorpes at the time. I also had to get my uniform and my merchant seaman’s papers.
Rose Room, Queen Mary, 1955
My job was as an Assistant Purser. I worked mostly in first-class offices, although I did a couple of trips on the Queen Mary in cabin class. I was also a Crew Purser, looking after the crew’s wages and all that sort of thing. The purser’s office also ran the ship’s entertainment and looked after all of the paperwork, which was an enormous amount.
I sailed with one Captain who I always had to make an appointment to see. One day I duly arrived at two o’clock for him to sign forms. After signing a few he asked me if I was any good at forgery, to which I replied that I had never tried. He asked me to try. After I had written his name a couple of times he told me that I had written it better than him and that I could sign the rest! He was a lovely chap. Most captains I sailed with were thorough gentlemen and the bosses I worked with were very good indeed.
I worked on world cruises, the Mediterranean, the North Cape, for ten years and now when my wife makes holiday suggestions I say ‘I’ve been there’. You had a discharge book for every ship you had been on. Mine’s full of VG, which means ‘very good’. If you got a DR, which means ‘declined to report’ it meant you wouldn’t be wanted back.
Back on shore
I’d met my wife by this time and we lived in a flat in Wallasey, Cheshire. My wife became pregnant and we bought a little house in Wallasey. I didn’t want to be an absent father with children who didn’t know me and I decided that it was time for a change of career.
A job in the catering business came up in Blackpool and I thought I’d give it a try. We moved to Blackpool from Wallasey. Unfortunately the catering job didn’t pan out, I didn’t get on with it at all, so I decided I’d go back to university. I knew it would be a bit of a struggle being a student but I would go to the Labour Exchange to get my National Insurance card stamped. Labour Exchanges in those days were formidable places, they were some of the rudest people I have ever met in my life. I can’t stand people being rude. I told them I was thinking of going to university but they said I would have to have a job and sign on. They sent details of a temporary, holiday relief job at Blackpool airport, working in the signals division.
I went for the interview and was offered the job to work in the signals division. There was the control tower, the radio equipment floor, and downstairs was the kitchen, the met office and the signals division. I’d been there about three or four days when I wandered up to the tower. I’d never been in one in my life and it was a bit like the Pier Head experience, I thought it looked interesting! I wondered how does one get into being an air traffic controller?
Training as an Air Traffic Controller
I’m going back 40-odd years when it was very much a closed shop. Instead of going to college, you could do on-the-job training yourself to become an air traffic controller. I approached the Senior Air Traffic Control (SATCO) and spoke to an elderly chap who had been a pilot in the First World War, the Air Flying Corps, and asked him how does one become an air traffic controller. After a sharp intake of breath he told me that I would never succeed as it was a closed shop. However, he agreed that if the chance came up he would bear me in mind.
Three or four days later the phone rang, it was the man I had met previously inviting me to his office. At the meeting he asked if I was still interested in becoming an air traffic controller and told me I would be transferring to the air traffic control section the day after tomorrow. I was to start as an assistant and train myself while working my way up. Two days after I was being shown the ropes. An Assistant did all the strip marking and flight planning, the meteorological side of it, and ancillary jobs.
I couldn’t understand how I’d got this job so quickly. What had happened was, there was a thief among the seven controllers and three assistants. Money was going missing from coat pockets. A trap was set for the thief by putting brand new marked bank notes in the wallets in the coat pockets belonging to the controllers. A few days later the chap who interviewed me had asked if anybody could relieve him of his loose change by swapping it for notes. One man said he could and handed over two of the marked pound notes. They didn’t pursue the theft through the court but the assistant lost his job and that is how I got into air traffic control.
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, aerodrome operations, meteorology, navigation. Then there was an oral board afterwards on the four papers. They could ask you any question on all these four papers. It was quite a big exercise. My wife and I would sit for hours going through the book. I won’t say learning it like a parrot but, especially with law, you had to know where to dot the ‘i’s’, cross the ‘t’s’, and put the commas. This was absolutely essential otherwise you could easily lose the thread or interpret it differently. I was very pleased to pass the aerodrome examination. The two years were a bit of a struggle, this was the early 1960’s and I was only on £27 a month. By this time we had a son and a daughter, plus a mortgage. Times were very hard. I used to have 10 shillings a week pocket money so I would buy half an ounce of Golden Virginia and the rest of the money was for my bus fare. Sometimes I didn’t have enough money to pay my bus fare to and from work so would have to walk to work and catch the bus home. It depended on the weather. If it was raining I’d catch the bus to work and walk home. I didn’t mind getting wet when I went home, but getting wet going to work I didn’t particularly appreciate.
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 had to study a set of rules and regulations. Radically different. It was difficult. I had to pay exam and hotels fees when I went away to take examinations, which were at Christchurch, Bournemouth. I managed to successfully pass them.
I applied to become a full-blown controller at Blackpool. If the company sponsored somebody they paid them a lower wage to cover the sponsorship. I had done it independently, totally independently, and it hadn’t cost them a penny. On getting my Approach Control certificate I expected a full wage but they they wouldn’t pay the money. I told my wife that we were going to be on the move again.
Moving to Swansea
A better paid opportunity came up at the airport in Swansea, South Wales where, after an interview, I was offered the job. The corporation said that they would lend us a house while we found a house to buy. When the day came for us to move the pantechnicon rolls up and they load it up before asking for the address of where we were going. Rather comically I could only say ‘Swansea’ as I hadn’t yet been given an address.
The house was the coldest, bleakest house I ever lived in. It was right at the top of the hill. Outside the back door there was a pavement and then a drop of about 700 foot. No fence! The removal man was delighted that we only wanted the three beds taking upstairs. We’d lived in Blackpool, which is flat as a flute. All this hill climbing, oh dear, oh dear! It was a shock. I didn’t have a car and I was starting work at Swansea airport.
A friend took us house hunting to Killay, on the Gower peninsular. It is a superb place to live, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and we loved living there, we really did. I think the house cost us about three grand. I was on £70 a week, which was a lot of money. We were millionaires compared to what we had been through during the previous years while getting qualified.
We settled down in Swansea. We had acquired a dog while we were in Blackpool, a Welsh border collie, who lived for 17 years with us. It 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 as we were the only ones on the estate who didn’t suffer with cracks as the houses dried out. Our house had dried out naturally. It wasn’t far from work, the airport was about about three and a half miles away on the Gower. I bought a car as buses were very rare.
I decided when I was at Swansea I would progress further in the profession and I would take the Radar examinations. For that I had to talk down aircraft on 150 approaches before I could actually sit the examination. The examination was an area examination. It involved the technicalities of an actual radar, how it works, electromagnetic energy, and frequencies. It was a different world to me and I had to learn it like a parrot. There was the practical exam, the theory, and the operation. There was also an oral examination.
I went to Birmingham to take the exams. I passed all the written papers and the oral, but I failed the practical. This was mainly because I was working with something I had never seen before in my life. I was allowed one re-sit but if I failed that then I would have to take the whole thing again. SATCO at Cardiff allowed me to sit in as they had the same equipment as Birmingham. I didn’t do anything, just sat and observed. I went back to Birmingham, took the exams and passed. I had all three ratings, Aerodrome, Approach and Radar rating. As in Blackpool, I had paid for all of the training myself. They hadn’t paid a penny yet they wouldn’t pay me the going rate for the qualification.
The Guild of Air Traffic Controllers
Out of the blue I got a phone call from the Controller in Norwich. I’d known him for years. He asked if I was interested in a job that was available there. Damn right I was!
He arranged with the SATCO for me have an interview and we came over to Norfolk in late December. My wife’s parents lived in Wighton on the North Norfolk Coast. They didn’t have a telephone and at 8 o’clock on New Year’s Eve the message came through to a friend of theirs up the road that I was to call back. As I walked into their house there was this pop. These friends of my mother- and father-in-law had opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate. That was my introduction to Norwich.
In 1971/1972 I decided that I’d join the Guild of Air Traffic Controllers. It is very well known and had been going since it started in 1948, I think, at Gatwick. Gatwick was a collection of huts then. Out of the blue I was appointed to the East Anglian lodge. The Guild of Air Traffic Controllers had lodges all over the country. The President was a flight lieutenant in the RAF. I was assistant to the president, or Master, and I eventually became Master of the Lodge. We held a meeting every month and would have a guest speaker. The area stretched from Clacton in the south up to Lincolnshire. It was an enormous area, enormous!
Once every year we held a Pilot Controllers’ forum. Any private, military, or commercial pilot and any military or commercial controller could come along and let fly about anything under the umbrella of the Guild. There was no redress from the companies we were working for. This particular year we decided we would have the meeting in the officer’s mess, the Norfolk Room, at RAF Watton. I‘ll never forget it, the place was packed with 60 to 70 people.
The President asked for someone to set the ball rolling and a helicopter captain with British Airways introduced himself. He was flying from Ellough, near Beccles, out to the gas rigs, servicing the gas rigs. He had had ten or 11 air misses with military aircraft. He’d managed to get the airframe number of two of the military aircraft he had had an air miss with. Unbelievably, two pilots of those aircraft were in the room! Luckily, British Airways were one side of the room and the RAF pilots on the other. A row started and it would have been fisticuffs if they’d been closer!
The President and I quietened them down but realised we had a problem. I suggested that we all meet in the bar to discuss the problem sensibly over a pint. I thought we would maybe have some success, or resolve the problem. We decided to form a committee under the umbrella of the Guild made up of the RAF controller, myself and another civvy, an RAF and a British Airways pilot. We arranged to meet at the Pig and Whistle pub opposite Bonds where we very sensibly and calmly agreed that we would write a paper about the problem and offer solutions to it.
The authorities went ballistic about us interfering in matters which were directly for them but we were a tenacious bunch. Eventually they produced a Notice for Airmen, a NOTAM, about the operation of going out to the rigs from North Denes to Beccles. There was a three month trial 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, it was totally unworkable. So, I made myself known and they brought out another NOTAM which was 99 percent of what we had suggested. It is still operational today, although it has been amended to allow for the advances in technology with radar. When the pilots take off for the rigs they contact Stansted to guide them through. It is a separate operation completely.
Senior Air Traffic Controller in the northern North Sea
I’d got myself noticed in the oil business because of this. International Air Radio (IAL) were part of the British Airways set up and they’d been asked by The United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association (UKOOA), who were the UK equivalent of OPEC, to set up an air traffic control system in the northern North Sea. It had never been done before anywhere in the world. They took this on board in late 1977 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 and 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.
In 1978 they asked me to go down for an interview where I was offered, and accepted, the job as Senior Air Traffic Controller. Full of confidence, I didn’t know what I was doing! At the end of the interview I asked what were my terms of reference. 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, 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. When we first went out there we could only fly up to 1,500 feet. The helicopter pilots 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. I must have got something right. I was there for 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.
We had rigs: 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. Not only that, we had all the support vessels which had helicopter landing decks. Also you had pipe-laying barges, 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 …
There were two at a time in air traffic control. 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 and we worked a shift pattern. When I was there we were working sort of eight on/eight off. I won’t say it’s a boring life offshore, but it’s restrictive. I said I am going to change all this, and I did. One day we did a split shift, the next day an afternoon and the day after we did a day. On the split shift you’d start at about five in the morning and work till 11, in the afternoon shift you’d work 11 until five and in the evening shift you’d work 5 until close of play, which was normally about ten or 11 o’clock. Sharing cabins means 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 have to know whether they would fit in. Two questions I used to ask them when I was interviewing were ‘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 was on a Norwegian 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 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, the beds, the sink, the chairs and the table were metal. It was cold and the one porthole was about six inches across.
The room was next door to the anchor-chain room. The legs were anchored and they were governed by a computer by movement. 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! 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. We weren’t anything to do with producing oil but once we got ourselves established with the people offshore they accepted us. 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 offshore was brilliant! What it is like today I’ve no idea but when I was out there it was first-class. We had chefs onboard and a complete galley. We had our own baker, there was a patissier, a roux chef, the head chef, the soup chef, there was all sorts of people. The food was actually first class. They were feeding about 180 chaps on the Cormorant Alpha
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.
We had entertainment. On the NORDRAG it was quite comical because if you went to the pictures you took your own chair and if the projectionist got the three reels of film in the right order it was lucky! There wasn’t much connection with the beach and 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 Aberdeen Press and Journal (the P&J) which was famous for one of its headlines. How true this is I don’t know but I was told that when the Titanic sank the headline in the Aberdeen Press and Journal was ‘Aberdeen man drowns’. That was what I was told, I never did follow it up.
Then they decided to put some new accommodation on and build us a separate entity unit. It was very, very nice. All the cabins’ interiors had been designed by people who designed caravans, at long last they had cottoned onto the fact of using the space correctly. I was in a double room which had 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 with a locker underneath. All in a room about as big as that. Very compact. 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 and the marine controllers. The marine controllers looked after all the shipping, moving freight and all the rest.
They decided they’d then upgrade our equipment and the job was put out to tender. One of the operators decided on was a firm called Standard Telephones Limited (STL), in Basingstoke. We organised the spec. for the new equipment which had to be a certain size to get through some of the doors, and then rebuilt. We had to have a computerised floor.
Two or three days before they were due to ship it out, the phone rang. It was a Friday afternoon about half past four. It was the managing director of STL. He said we had a problem. I thought he was going to say he couldn’t ship the equipment but he had rung to say they had run everything through the computer and tested it all out but nobody could telephone me. I knew that because that was the way I wanted it. 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 my response was ‘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.
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.
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. You could work forever if you couldn’t get a relief or anything, it was a ridiculous situation. I had fought for many years from within the Guild to get this regulation. It took a long time, but it came eventually. 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 the Offshore Radio Liaison Group (ORFLAG). The man who was in charge of it was quite a character, a 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. A bit like me! I sat on those committees all the time I was offshore. 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 about doing my examinations and I had to do navigation. One of the chaps, a very famous man called Air Vice Marshall Donald Bennett, who was the leader of the Pathfinders, 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’. 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 and I knew I wouldn’t explode!
They brought in this legislation and the quango had no idea what to do with the offshore. I was summoned to the presence of the 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, a lovely chap who is sadly no longer with us, 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. He came up with three ways of getting round the problem. Two were outrageous, they really were. The third one was the one. I was told I would be the one speaking and I thought that would 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. We were told to put our right arm up if we were in trouble. We’d been in the water I don’t know how long, I wasn’t wearing a watch at the time, and I did something to my elbow. I couldn’t move my arm, it was dead. So I raised my left arm and they took no notice of me! Eventually I managed to get within earshot of one of the swimmers in scuba gear and I was able to tell him my arm was completely dead. They had these rubber inflatable dinghies where you sit across which 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 it was going up and down about eight or nine foot. I had to get from this dinghy into the lifeboat. I was wearing a helmet. All I did was dive in head first, sat in this thing, got back on board eventually. We went back to Lowestoft. First thing you’d do when you got back there is walk into this shower room. You had a survival suit on, very primitive thing it was but 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, 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 to my arm. When I could move the steering wheel we drove home. I was quite a while getting over that dead arm business. I eventually had to have it seen to. I had it operated on and got it fixed up.
I retired in 1994. I had done 586 round trips from Norwich airport to Aberdeen. When I retired I decided I would have a bit of a thrash at the Dyce Skean Dhu hotel at Aberdeen Airport. I’d have all my chums up there. I’d made a lot of friends. I’d arranged for my wife to fly up to Aberdeen to join us. Before I left I’d also arranged for her to be presented with a bouquet when we got back here to Norwich. She’d done an awful lot of work, she was my longstop really. She’d filter all the mail that came in when I went offshore. I’d phone her up and say to either send it on, 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. 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 because I knew quite a few of the chaps who got killed on the Piper. 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 my wife, we’ll sit here a time and be last off, milk the last minute. We got to the entrance of the aircraft 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. As we came down the steps my wife was presented with her bouquet. The manager said they had laid on a press conference. Whatever next! 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, and I’d gone out for a haircut two or three days after we got home. The phone rang and a posh voice said, ‘BBC here’, as they do. My wife asked if she could take a message. They wanted to know if I would mind doing an interview about my life and times, about work offshore – very similar to what you’re doing now, in actual fact. My wife said ‘Mind? He 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 had this interview. It was quite interesting actually. Quite interesting . It was a little bit different from the press conference, which I found a little bit pushy. The interview was very, very good indeed. It was one of these phone-in programmes. 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 it a bit strange nobody phoned in. He said it wasn’t strange but possible I was so articulate and so informative that nobody had a question to ask. Whether he was bullshitting me or not, I don’t know, but I accepted it with good grace.
Retirement and the Air Force Museum
I didn’t retire completely. The company ran North Denes airport at the time and asked would I do the occasional day. I went there and did one, possibly two, days a week for a couple of years before I totally retired. I was all of a millisecond settling into retirement, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
We went up to Blickling, oh ten years ago now. We walked into the main car park where they have a barn. In the barn was this RAF exhibition on the interface between the RAF and Oulton, Blickling Hall and the Buckinghamshire Arms. I got interested and got talking. The lady who was there said would I be interested in joining her team of volunteers. So I thought I’d give it a whirl. 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. 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. My wife helps me now, because I had ticker trouble about four years ago and finished up in hospital for 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!
Harry (b.1933) talking to WISEArchive in Norwich on 26th July 2011.
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