Having worked for two major international air carriers, one US and one British, I consider myself a reasonably well-travelled person.
However, I am also a total aviation geek.
In the heady days before the world suffered its seismic shift, in the form of 9/11, the flight deck was not an impregnable citadel only occupied by the flight crew.
My partner was resigned to the fact that whenever we boarded an aircraft for a flight, I would always discretely pass my pilot licence to the senior cabin crew member, murmuring “Please pass my compliments to the Captain, and ask him if I may be permitted to visit the flight deck for the take-off”
This often raised an eyebrow and caused me to miss many welcome- aboard glasses of champagne, but I was always accepted into the “office” and would talk flying with the crew prior to departure.
I would be offered a headset and would sit on the jump seat, quietly, enjoying the takeoff and climb, only returning to my seat once we got into the cruise.
It was sometimes a bit bizarre, as the commander may have been one of my students only a few months prior, so an interesting juxtaposition of rôles.
Very often, I would be summoned to the flight deck just before the top of descent and would sit there happily until we parked at the gate, where I would eventually be reunited with the long-suffering girlfriend.
She is still a committed airfield widow, so she knows where to look for me if she hasn’t seen me for a few weeks…
Whenever we go away on holiday, I always do some research into the local flying clubs, so that I can commit aviation around the world.
So it was on this trip.
May 2008 saw me visiting the Republic of South Africa, for the second time.
I had already booked an aeroplane from the Cape Town Flying Club – a Cessna 172RG Cutlass, so I was looking forward to conducting an aerial reconnaissance of the local area.
On a particularly gloomy and rain swept Wednesday, I drove my Toyota hire care to the flying club, leaving the better half to check out the the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in downtown Cape Town.
The amount of time I had available for aviation when on vacation was limited, so rather than getting a complete check flight, and sitting written exams, I elected to engage one of the club instructors to sit next to me as a safety pilot.
The flight was a simple route. Depart from Cape Town’s D.F. Malan International Airport, heading south to cross the coast at Rocklands, then turn onto a south-westerly heading to Muizenburg, where we would turn south to parallel the coast.
Passing the military base at Simon’s Town, we continued on at about 1000 feet, to remain clear of the cloud base.
We were now descending constantly to remain in VFR conditions and eventually levelled out at about 500 feet above the sea as we rounded Cape Point.
The waters around Cape Point are treacherous, with very strong tides and localised currents giving rise to huge swells. I was thinking that I shouldn’t be thinking about having an engine failure at this moment.
So, having gone as far south as we could, we slid up the western side of the Cape, flying abeam of the Cape of Good Hope, and onwards, heading north.
The cloud was turning into water on the windscreen, the rivulets streaming backwards in the prop wash, and it felt as though King Neptune was reaching out of the deep to shake the aeroplane, as we bounced about in the turbulence.
We dog-legged back to the north-east at Pegrams Rock, and passed overhead the small town of Ocean View, then back to the east coast at Fishoek, then headed back to Fisantekraal, a small airfield north by north-east of Cape Town.
Fisantekraal Airfield is an ex-South African Air Force facility that was built towards the end of World War Two. During the war, it was the home for Lockheed Ventura bombers. A quick coffee in the ops room, and it was away back to Cape Town.
Having safely seceurd the aeroplane, and paid my bill, I sauntered out across the car park, whistling tunelessly. It had been a good flight, mixing it up on the taxi out with a SAA Boeing 737, and then having the challenge of flying marginal VFR/IFR in an unfamiliar aeroplane over some interesting terrain.
So, I left the airport, and headed up the eastern side of the Cape, to meet SWMBO, Mike and Carmen.
Mike, an old Africa hand, had spent many years in South Africa in the travel business, and as a result seemed to know all of the best places to eat.
He made sure that we weren’t disappointed. A short drive into Hout Bay saw us arriving at the Mariners Wharf restaurant – which served the most amazing food and the most excellent wines.
I retired to bed feeling very satisfied; I had flown, enjoyed superb company, ate a fantastic meal, and enjoyed some of the best wines from the Cape.
I was enjoying a cuppa in the baggage loaders rest room, catching my breath after working a busy departure in the gate room upstairs. I was working as a Passenger Security Agent for American AIrlines – my first airline job.
Security would’nt have been my first choice of job – I was already a qualified pilot, and had passed all of my Flight Operations and Despatch exams, but nobody gets hired into a blue chip airline in Flight Ops. The only way in is either as a Check In Agent, a Baggage Loader, or a Security Agent.
I chose Security Agent.
The decision was a simple one. After PanAm 103 was brought down at Lockerbie just two and a half years previously, security was uppermost in everyone’s mind. American Airlines were using the profiling system at the time, similar to that used by El-Al.
I learnt behavioural psychology, how to question, how to conduct a proper body search (NOT how Hollywood imagines that it is done) and how to use a security X-Ray machine.
I just thought at the time, that this would be more interesting than seeing a procession of faces, all demanding an upgrade, or doing my back in hefting overloaded bags.
Working in Ops is considered a plum job, as it is remote from the passengers, is conducted in the dry, and is intellectually demanding.
I found an empty space at one of the grubby tables, and sat down to enjoy my brew.
I saw a dark blue silhouette lurch to a stop outside the building, blanking the sunlight streaming through the window, plunging the restroom into a gloom that matched it’s decor.
The door slammed open, and a bearded bloke in his forties appeared. Walking over, he dropped an overstuffed clipboard onto the table, saying “Mind if I join you”
“Help Yourself” I replied, watching as he swiftly made a coffee at the small sink.
Returning to the table, he proffered his hand, saying “I’m Bev, I’m doing the Royal Mail”
I must have looked a bit blank, because he laughed, and said “Mail Sacks – You know, letters for air mail”
I shook his hand, telling him I was in security.
We spent about half an hour exchaning our histories, and it came up in the conversation that we both flew. He had a share in a De Havilland Chipmunk down at Shoreham, and I flew Piper Warriors and Cessnas at Popham.
We went our spearate ways, and it wasn’t until another three years had passed that I ran into Pookie again.
I was the new boy in Flight Operations. Having returned from eighteen months working as Special Services Manager at Stansted, I had finally obtained a position in Ops.
There, sitting at the main control desk was Bev, quietly and efficiently running the entire ground operation at London Heathrow for the 14 daily flights.
I worked with Bev closely for the next three years, and came to love his gentle humour and his ability to produce fantastic caricatures of his colleagues.
Once we had got to know each other, we flew together on many occassions, and in any number of different aircraft. I have shared the sky with him in the delightful Chipmunk, pulling gentle loops, rolls and stall turns over the timeless, grassy south downs.
We pottered up and down the south coast of England enjoying summer in a PZL Wilga (A delightful Polish cross between a combine harvester and an aircraft).
We celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight in a Piper Warrior, and did a low pass at the small grass strip in Sussex appropriately named Kittyhawk.
We have fooled about in the Citabria, and been school kids in the Stolp Starduster Too. And what can be better than flying in a Bücker Jungmann with a friend, whilst another friend formates on you in a Stampe?
Anyhow, getting back on track…
Pookie’s sense of fun has often been unleashed on his poor, unsuspecting colleagues.
Below is his account of an episode that amused us all back in Ops whilst he was on holiday one year..
Thanks for all the laughs over the years Bev…
And as for the flying?
Well – that’s been a blast!
Over to you.
The following was written by Bev Pook, Pilot, Humourist, Motorcyclist, Bon Vivant and Good Friend.
A Lightbulb On Vacation.
Back in the mid-nineties, I was working for American Airlines as a Flight Operations Agent, planning flights, briefing crews, and coordinating everything to ensure flights arrived and departed on time.
The flight operations room had few windows and was lit with harsh fluorescent lights, which are difficult to work with due to their flicker, The flicker isn’t normally discernible unless you concentrate on your peripheral vision and it can then be sensed.
These lights are very good for office work as they cast little or no shadow, but if using a computer screen (which also flickers) they can cause sight problems as your iris struggles to cope with the flickering.
Enough of the technical details then.
Being heartily fed up with the eye-ache, I ferreted around for a solution, and during one very uneventful night shift, I found a battered old Angle Poise lamp which had been discarded into a dark and cluttered corner of an unused office.
Further investigating led me to a new bulb in a cupboard, and once wiped off with a cloth, the old lamp worked perfectly.
I placed it on the main Ops desk in and I would use it whenever I was positioned in that area. I found it particularly useful on night shifts when I worked alone and could turn off the fluorescents and enjoy a softer light emitted by an incandescent light bulb.
However, I found nobody else seemed to appreciate my light as when I returned on shift after a few days off, the lamp had been pushed back out of the way.
Just before I went on vacation the bulb blew, so I threw it away and departed for a fortnights tranquillity. No sooner had I returned from holiday, I was accosted by my work companions who accused me of taking the bulb on holiday.
Because of this, I decided that my next vacation would see me having some fun at their expense. This time I took the bulb out of the fitting and locked it away in my cabinet, leaving the office with the Angle Poise containing no light source.
After a long and boring flight, I eventually arrived in Muskogee Oklahoma and was met by my good friends, with whom I would be spending my vacation.
Over breakfast the next morning, I asked Terry if I could borrow one of their light bulbs, which was greeted by a strange look but I did get the light bulb.
I then started taking photos of the bulb and me on holiday. Each picture got more and more elaborate and set up to highlight (excuse the pun) that I had indeed this time taken the bulb with me.
Here are a few of those pictures.
I hope you enjoy my rather schoolboy humour.
Sorry Bev, I would have published this as an “Illuminated” manuscript, but couldn’t find the correct keys.
Stuffing my ear plugs in securely, I peered out of the open jetbridge as the Boeing 767 slowly turned onto the ramp, following the centreline precisely as it slowly advanced onto the stand.
I waved to the captain as he majestically coasted past me, and he nodded in return, still focusing on steering the jet to the correct position so that the jetbridge could be aligned around the aircraft door.
The howl of the engines died, and I caught a lungful of burnt kerosene as the engines spooled down; a smell as familiar to me after fifteen years of aviation as my own aftershave.
The beacon stopped flashing, the jetbridge was attached and it was now safe for me to open the aircraft door.
Following the published procedure, I rapped hard on the door three times, and then checked through the porthole, waiting to see a thumbs up from the cabin attendant – the signal that the emergency evacualtion slide had been disarmed, and that there were no personnel standing near the door activation lever.
I saw Sherry-Ann one of the regulars smiling back through the porthole, giving me the signal, so I grasped the cold door release handle, pulling it upwards and away from the fuselage. The door moved gently inwards, and I then pushed the small switch inside the panel, and the door was electrically lifted up into a recess over the door aperture.
Pulling the PA Handset from its cradle by the cabin attendants jump seat, I smoothly announced
“Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to London’s Stansted Airport, where the local time is 1040. Please follow the yellow overhead signs to the arrivals hall. Will Mr. Dan Billings please make himself known to Special Services at the aircraft door.”
When I took on the role of Special Services Manager in Spring 1992, AA had just opened up the route and my job at the time was to look after Commercially Important Passengers, and VIPs. This included not only stars of screen and stage, but singers, politicans, religious leaders, sports personalities and senior executives in commerce or industry.
Dan Billings was one of the first passengers out. His hat arrived first, a simply huge white Stetson, curled at the brim. The rest of him followed a little later, looking all the world like a walking advert for Levi Strauss clothing. Peering out from a sea of blue denim was a leathery tanned face, a bootlace tie dangling from his throat.
So, this was the world famous Dan Billings.
Proffering my hand, to welcome him, he silently shoved his small valise at me, and started to move off up the jetbridge. Surprised, it took me a second or so to react.
Catching him up, I asked “So, welcome to London Mr. Billings, did you have a good flight?”
“Do you have checked baggage?” I persisted
Ah. So Mr. Billings conserved his affability to use it on stage, in front of his fans, rather than waste it on an airport flunkey.
I didn’t mind; after doing this job for a few years, I had swiftly realised that it was nothing personal. I am sure it must be exhausting to be your screen or stage persona constantly.
“Do you have a car waiting Mr. Billings?” I enquired, reaching for my mobile radio.
“Oh” I said, “Do you need a cab?”
We stopped at the baggage carousel, and I looked him in the eye, determined this time to get more than a monsyllabic response.
“How are you getting to London Mr. Billings?”
Heaving his bag off the carousel, He turned to me and shoved a gnarled hand at me.
“Thanks. Y’all have a nice day now”
With that, he abruptly turned, and walked swiftly out through customs, heading efficiently towards the coach and bus stops.
I sighed. I had enjoyed being the Special Services Manager for American Airlines at Stansted Airport in the UK. I had met a great number of influential people, and seen through a great deal of the Hollywood tinsel and glitter.
An internationally famous female singer spotted two children travelling unaccompanied on her flight, so she invited them up to first class, and looked after them all the way from Chicago. What a lovely lady.
A celebrated British songstress who wanted no fuss or recognition – and who gave up her seat in first class, unbidden, to an elderly lady who looked worn out. That never got reported in the media.
Members of a heavy rock band with a hell raising image, who were polite, helpful and courteous – nothing like how they are reported.
A famous comic who spoke to me as an equal, and was still, despite his age a true man of the people, yet so sadly misunderstood.
The all-male dancing group that cheered up the entire gate lounge by performing an impromptu routine, and then going round signing autographs for no reason other than they were trying to spread some happiness and maybe make a difference.
I had to deal with the mean and the downright nasty as well. I well remember the very senior British business man whom I upgraded to First Class who, once in his seat, was then incredibly rude and agressive to the young cabin crew member who was trying to offer him champagne.
Having witnessed this, I took my career in my hands, and confronted this arrogant bully. Leaning down close to him, I explained very bluntly that I could, and would have no hesitation in very quickly and efficiently putting him back in coach class, right next to the toilets where he belonged.
Having made the statement, I decided that if I were to go out, I would go out with a bang, so I added that I expected him to make a full apology to the young stewardess if he wanted to remain on board at all.
I stalked off the aircraft, telling the cabin attendant what I had done,
Just before pushback, I boarded again, and she told me that the passenger had offered her a sincere apology.
I closed the aircraft door, and the flight duly departed.
A few days later, I received a letter from the business man offering me a full apology for his boorish behaviour. Maybe a lesson learnt?
Despite the daily flight performing reasonably well, after just over a year of operating, the company had decided to cancel the Chicago – Stansted service.
I walked slowly back to my office and small special services lounge for the last time. I filed my reports, and then signed off the system, wishing my opposite numbers in Dallas and Chicago all the best.
I picked up my briefcase, and walked out slowly through arrivals, stopping on numerous occassions to say final goodbyes to my friends and colleagues; The girls who manned the small cafe just down from my office; The lads and lasses from the security checkpoints that littered my journey into and out of work.
They all wished me well, and told me they would miss us.
Once landside, I dropped by the general office, and said goodbye to the check in and gates staff, many of whom were in tears as their short careers had come to an end.
I walked out of Stansted, not looking back, wondering how things would be on Monday morning.
It was 0550. I sat across the desk from Jim Shortling. He smiled wanly at me, saying “I know its not much, but at least you keep your management pay and grade”
I knew that I had been offered a lifeline – but it didnt reduce the feeling of abandonment. Not one other single department had offered help. The other managers with whom I worked at Stansted had all been found alternative management roles in passenger services – either at Heathrow or at the corporate head office in Hounslow.
So here I was, sitting in the dismal office of the aircraft cleaning department. Oh, the irony.
On Friday last week, I was rubbing shoulders with the wealthy and influential, and on Monday, I was rubbing shoulders with the lowly paid, souls with no influence over their future.
I had two choices. I could either accept it, and get on with it, or leave.
So, in the words of one of my more camp US based colleagues, I would have to “Suck it up Cupcake!”
Having managed people before, I was told that I would run a cleaning team, which consisted of a a crew of ten. Additionally, I would be trained to drive a ten tonne truck, fitted with a high lift body.
I soon became adept at weaving my truck in and out of the congested stands and service roads around Terminal 3.
I came to know two things within a few days of completing my training.
I swiftly realised that my team were a truly ecclectic group. Sukhi was an educated young sikh, with a degree in mathematics. Well-read and urbane, I really used to enjoy my daily conversations with him.
Bizarre in its own way – working my way down the aisle with Sukhi, between the seats, cleaning up rubbish, and servicing seat pockets whilst discussing anti-matter drives and the paradox of time travel.
It was only my team that made life bearable – being confronted with the debris that passengers dump when they leave their aircraft sometimes made the bile rise in my throat – used syringes left in seatback pockets. Used condoms dumped in the same place. Rubbish of all kinds just thoughtlessly left for the invisible ones to pick up.
Suk became my right hand man. Once he discovered my love of Indian food, he invited me to his local gymkhana where I was the only non-indian present. I was made hugely welcome and met many members of his family, and sampled the wonderfully spicy home cooked foods provided. Thank you Suk!
Pete, an ex Warrant Officer in the UK Special Forces, came out of the military with PTSD, and fell by chance into working for an airline. Previously a passenger services agent, he frequently (and bluntly) defended the weaker members of staff against bullying from their supervisors. This made him unpopular with the junior management in the terminal, so he was redeployed to aircraft cleaning. A few months prior to this, he was totally responsible for the welfare of up to 120 soldiers.
I doubt that any of his managers knew this, or even bothered to find out.
Harri, a middle aged Indian lady, with a degree in sociology, had been unable to get into an airline in any other capacity, so despite the costs of childcare, and the hardship of her daily commute by bus and underground, she still pitched up every day, and worked hard for the duration of the shift.
Jill, who had been widowed a year previously, and wanted a job that involved no thinking. I was convinced that she was finishing off un-used spirits from discarded minature bottles, as by about 1200 she normally had a glassy look, and emanated a faint odour of polo mints. She toughed it out though. Sometimes she would shyly joke with me as we cleaned the galleys, or serviced the toilets.
Then there were Phil and Bugsy. Both late teenagers, they were only doing the job as it was easy money, and gave them time to work on their music careers.
What do all of these people have in common?
Well, despite their qualifications, experience, knowledge and skills, they had all, like me, unwittingly assumed a cloak of invisibility.
It was an interesting exercise for me, as I was only on temprary attachment in the department, awaiting a suitable vacancy elsewhere in the company.
Having served two years in the terminals before being promoted, I had worked with most of the ground staff at one time or another.
I learned about people. Many of those that professed they were my friends, and who would have sat with me in the canteen, and chatted during work, now looked through me when they saw me disembarking from an aircraft, carrying bags of rubbish, covered in sweat and dust.
To them , I had become invisible, sinking into the uderclass and detritus of forgotten people who perform more fundamental and mundane tasks,
Others still greeted me warmly, and shook my hand, regardless of my appearance. Some would find the time to sit with me, and share a cigarette. These were the people for whom I have great respect. Some of them I am still in touch with. You know who you are.
In due course, I was redeployed, and spent the rest of my aviation career working in various parts of Flight Operations.
Over the years, I have been promoted, and moved into several different organisations, and was shocked to see that despite their claimed intellectual or cultural work ethics their cleaners were still all invisible.
Some years ago, I was walking down a corridor at work with a senior manager. We passed several cleaners, all of whom I greeted by name, and all of whom greeted me in the same way.
My senior colleague asked me “Why do you keep talking to the cleaners?”
I was, in common parlance, gobsmacked. This was a senior and ostensibly well-educated man, who was questioning whether I should acknowledge a fellow human being.
I responded by saying that if he had to ask the question, then he wouldnt have understood the answer. I heard that he has happily retired now, and is probably being an ignorant git on his own time.
Subsequently I have always remembered the feelings of being invisible.
I still know the names of all of the cleaners with whom I work, and still greet them by name.
It doesn’t take much to stop people becoming invisible.