Dr John Hughes’ article about Ascension Island reminded me of my time there when it was one of the world’s busiest airports in terms of aircraft movements in 1982.
Just before Christmas 1981, I was serving in the Royal Air Force as a navigator on 57 Squadron at RAF Marham in Norfolk flying Victor tanker aircraft. The CO phoned me with news of my posting to HQ 1 Group at RAF Bawtry in Yorkshire as a member of the team responsible for planning and controlling tanker operations involving in-flight refuelling. I was given the date for my posting as 2nd April 1982. On that date I drove from Marham to Bawtry early in the morning and went to my new office to find everyone there and very busy. “Is there an exercise on ?” I asked in all innocence. “No. Haven’t you heard ? The Argentinians have invaded the Falkland Islands and we are at war.” Unfortunately, my car radio had blown a fuse and I hadn’t heard the news.
I asked what I should be doing and I was despatched to the map store to get some charts of the South Atlantic for the team to plan tanker operations. The map store was run by Willie Clamp and I had known him since the day I joined the RAF for initial training. “There’s the map catalogue. Tell me what you want and it will be here in a week or so.” said Willie.
“No, Willie, we need it now.” I replied.
We searched his stock of maps but there was nothing suitable. “There’s a couple of boxes of old stuff outside I was about to throw away.” said Willie. Oh what treasure! I found a couple of very old Mercator plotting charts of the North Atlantic. We turned them upside down and on the lines of latitude we crossed out “N” for “North” and wrote “S” for “South”. At least we had a latitude and longitude graticule to work on and that is why the air war in the South Atlantic was planned on a chart of the North Atlantic turned upside down.
We found ourselves planning in-flight refuelling operations we could never have imagined. I was soon asked to provide a tanker on one of our refuelling training areas to train Nimrod aircraft crews how to take fuel from a tanker. When I pointed out that Nimrods didn’t have refuelling probes to take the fuel from tankers I was told that they had been fitted to the Nimrods the previous night. In fact, the probes had been taken from Mark 1 Vulcan Bombers which had been retired to museums when they were replaced with the Mark 2 version.
Our planning team was reinforced with extra members and we found ourselves shuttling between our HQ where we planned tanker operations and Ascension Island where we briefed crews and controlled tanker operations. The airfield at Ascension Island, known as Wideawake Field, was crowded and busy. It was so crowded that we had to send aircraft a thousand miles North to park at an airport in West Africa until we needed them. Wideawake was one of the busiest airports in the world in terms of daily aircraft movements which was amazing when you realise that Air Traffic Control was a wooden hut with a couple of radios.
Years later I left the RAF and found myself with a RAF compatriot, Alex, running a training school for pilots taking examinations for their commercial licences. One Monday morning we were opening a couple of new courses; I was doing the introduction briefing in one classroom and Alex, was briefing the other course in another classroom. At the mid-morning coffee break Alex came to me an quoted the classic Fawlty Towers line “Don’t mention the war. I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it.”
“What are you talking about” I asked in all innocence.
“Well,” said Alex, “I got to the part of the intro where the pictures of the instructors came up. Your picture came up so I said ‘This is Baz and he will be covering navigation, meteorology and human performance and limitations. Baz’s background in aviation is flying as a navigator in the RAF and one of his claims to fame is that he prepared the in-flight refuelling plans for the Vulcan bomber raids in the South Atlantic’.”
“What’s wrong with that ?” I asked. “It’s all correct.”
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong.” said Alex. “Nobody told me we had an Argentinian Air Force officer in the front row doing his civilian licences.”
This article was written by Baz Hamblin, a navigator for the RAF for 25 years who then found himself running a training company for airline pilots for 25 years after doing a favour for a friend. Now the tractor driver of his wife’s lavender business, he also sells antiques and gives talks on a variety of historical subjects.
Baz’s talk ‘Time Gentleman, Please: the history of the measurement of time’ is in the catalogue under General Interest.