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.
The Texas skies were cerulean blue, and the sun was already blazing in the sky, despite it being only 0830. I was sitting in Dobbs Restaurant in the airport terminal at Fort Worth (Meacham) Airport.
Breakfast was two cheesy hot dogs, with a side of fries and limitless coffees – all served by Jolene. Yes, I really have known a Jolene, but this lady did not have flaming locks of auburn hair, but a well kept blonde bob cut. Always cheerful, she mothered her “boys” as she referred to us student pilots – whether we were 30 or 70!
I nodded a good morning to Ralph, the helicopter instructor, and was rewarded with a grin.
Ralph was not overly talkative. His tanned face, silver crew cut and the numerous scars on his arms and throat bore mute testament to his previous career in the US military.
He brought his coffee and waffles to the next table, and sat down.
“Morning Ralph” I said, “How’s things?”
“I’m here” was his reply.
Situation normal then.
I had lost ten dollars to Ralph the previous Friday during his regular “Helo Challenge”
Each Friday at about three in the afternoon, Ralph would place four standard road cones on a 30-metre square area of the ramp. He would then invite anyone present to take the challenge. His challenge was that you had to hold the helicopter within the four cones for 60 seconds. He even made it “easy” by controlling the power and height. All the challenger had to do was use one control.
If you won the challenge, he would give a one hour lesson in the helicopter for free.
If you lost, then he kept the ten dollars, and you enjoyed yourself.
So last Friday, I was finished with lessons by noon, and so I had a leisurely lunch at Dobbs, and then sought out Ralph so that I could do the challenge.
A small crowd of students and instructors had gathered to watch, leaning on the chain-link fence. We slowly walked out to the Bell 47 helicopter – Ralph in his old olive drab flight suit, and me in tee shirt and shorts.
Climbing aboard, he explained the controls to me. I was to look after the cyclic. This is the main control column, and is used to steer the helicopter in its lateral sense. Basically, push forward to go forwards, push left to turn left, and pull back to go in reverse.
The collective control and throttle were located between the seats. Pulling the lever up, and twisting the throttle causes the power to increase, and the helicopter to climb.
Ralph would control the rudder pedals – so all I had to do as the helicopter climbed was keep it in between the four cones.
Having been briefed, I knew that I could nail this.
The power came on, and the cabin shook slightly as the surly bonds with earth were cut, and the helicopter rose majestically to about twenty feet.
Looking across at me, he grinned.
“Okay Son”, he said, “You Have it”
“I have it” I responded.
I gripped the cyclic and felt his hold relax. We started drifting left, so I eased the control right.
The infernal machine then leapt to the right like a cricket, and I almost went outside the boundary. I immediately moved the control to the left, and we lurched sickeningly to port, at a rapid rate.
I felt, rather than saw Ralph pull up on the collective, adding power as he did so. The helicopter darted upwards to a safe height.
“Easy son”, he murmured, “Treat her like a woman – Y’all gotta be gentle…”
I continued to wrestle with the machine, but in due course, we skittered out of the defined area, and I had lost the challenge.
“Ah have control,” he said, and he swiftly recentred us in the area. Just for good measure, he made that damn aircraft pirouette, dip and bow.
After we landed, we walked back to Dobbs, and I slapped a ten-dollar bill into his hand.
Folding it swiftly, he tucked it into a breast pocket of his flying suit.
He gave me a penetrating look, jammed a cigar in his mouth and lit up. “Thanks, Son. Now Y’all go and have a nice day”
I had then proceeded to have a very enjoyable weekend with my room-mate, Tomas.
Tomas was Portuguese, and had rented a condo locally, and had bought a car. He was in the middle of a full airline transport pilot course, and he would be living in the US for another few months.
He had advertised for an English roommate as he wanted to practice English as the English speak it, and we hit it off immediately falling into a happy and relaxed friendship.
Having been here for a while, Tomas knew the best places for good beers and good food, and we hit the local bars in downtown Fort Worth, around the Stockyards.
Our late evening visit to Billy Bob’s and my slightly inebriated (well – fully inebriated) state resulted in me being thrown off the indoor bucking bronco and consuming a great number of beers.
Filthy McNasty’s was also a bar we frequented when we visited the Stockyards and is it was at these venues where I probably developed my love of country music.
However, the weekend was now history, and I was looking forward to getting some air under my arse again, so here I was…
I finished eating and concentrated on the task at hand. On the table in front of me was a sectional chart of the Dallas Fort Worth area, upon which was my planned route. This was the biggie. I had completed my qualifying cross country a few days before, and this was a consolidation flight.
There on the chart was the simple black pencil line describing my route to Midland Odessa Airport in West Texas, routing via Mineral Wells, Stephens County, Abilene and Big Spring. About 250 nautical miles, and about two and a half hours flying time.
A fairly simple straight line flight? Maybe…
A considerable portion of the flight would be flying over the Texas badlands – desert with no real navigational features. The landscape littered by “nodding donkey” oil rigs, and tumbleweed.
A bit of a hostile environment for a student pilot with a total of only 30.8 hours in his logbook.
It was June 19th 1991, and I had been here for 26 days, fulfilling my life ambition of learning to fly.
After almost a month of living in the USA, I was now virtually a native and could shop in the local mall without adult supervision, and order beers without help in the local saloons.
Now, not many people would consider taking a six-week break in Texas, as there are not a lot of attractions to pull in the average tourist. Lots of research had revealed that this was a very cost-effective place to learn to fly.
The Dollar – Pound Exchange rate was two to one, and aircraft rental was insanely cheap. Combined with the consistently good weather in Texas during the spring and early summer, I could probably come home with a pilot licence.
I was making good solid progress and my instructor had built steadily on my previous gliding experience, and as a result, I had soloed in just 8 hours.
My first solo was a bit of an event in itself. Fort Worth Alliance Field has two parallel runways, each 3353 metres long, and 46 metres wide. I had flown there under supervision that morning and did a reasonable join, flew a standard circuit, and landed without either bending the aeroplane or compressing my spine.
Bill appeared happy with my performance, as he asked me to park the aircraft but not shut it down.
I did as he said, and as soon as we had come to a stop, he was out of the cockpit like a jackrabbit, yelling to me that I should do three circuits, land, take off and then come and pick him up.
I didn’t have time to be nervous; With a dry mouth and only slightly trembling hands and sweaty palms, I taxied back to the holding point.
Air Traffic laconically cleared me to “Take the Active” and I swung out, over the numbers and the piano keys, and gently came to a stop on the centreline.
The runway disappeared into the heat shimmer, and my heart was pounding in my chest.
“Cessna 714 Hotel November, Clear Take Off, Runway 34 Right, wind is 320 at 5 knots”
“714 Hotel November rolling” I croaked, pushing the throttle fully forward.
The little Cessna 150 leapt forwards – alarmingly quickly without Bill’s six foot two frame in it.
I eased back on the yoke, and the ground fell rapidly away, and I settled the aircraft into a gentle climb. Why was my mouth so goddam dry?
I turned gently into the pattern, The view was simply marvellous without Bills not unsubstantial bulk in the way.
The crazy thing was that as I was levelling off and turning into the circuit, I could still see the runway stretching away in front of me. Looking down, I could see an American Airlines 767 taxing out to the other runway – a weird omen, as I was to start working for the mighty American from Heathrow once I returned from Texas to the UK.
I duly completed my three circuits, and Bill appeared to be happy with my airmanship. My cheeks were aching, and it took me a second to realise that I had been smiling solidly for a whole half hour!
Not many student pilots get to share the pattern with heavy commercial jets, and the local area was packed with B-52 bombers operating out of Carswell Air Force base, so a good learning environment.
On my return to Meacham Field, I underwent the obligatory ceremony following my announcement that I had soloed. Instructors, fellow students, and the salesgirl form the Longhorn Pilot Shop all helped to cut the back out of my tee-shirt, and write the date and my name on it whereupon it was pinned to the ceiling with countless others.
So here I was about to launch off on another epic voyage of discovery.
My aircraft was booked for 1100, so I kicked back for a while with some of the other students and watched the shool aircraft plod dutifully around the circuit.
Eventually, the time came, and I wandered to the operations desk to book out my aeroplane.
By a strange quirk of fate, the aeroplane allocated to me was N714HH, the identical sister to the aeroplane in which I soloed. Good Omen!
Or so I thought…
I signed for the aircraft and walked out to do my preflight. Bill had already checked and authorised my flight plan and was happy that my calculations and headings and my fuel planning were all correct, so it was just a simple matter of flying the route.
Swiftly completing the external inspection, I jumped aboard and rapidly conducted the pre-start checklist. The engine started at the first turn of the key, and I called Meacham ground for taxi permission.
It wasn’t long until I was sitting on the end of Meacham’s Runway 34, its 2287 metres of concrete baking in the sunshine.
Cleared for take-off, I opened the throttle and a few seconds later I was climbing out with a gentle left turn to pick up the westerly heading that would take me to Mineral Wells, and then onwards to Abilene.
The aircraft bucked about in the low air turbulence, but once I climbed above 3000 feet things settled down a bit, and I began to enjoy the flight.
Just over twenty minutes later, Mineral Wells appeared out of the scrub, and I checked off the waypoint on my flight log.
An hour and six minutes later, I landed safely at Abilene and taxied up to the parking. I needed a pee and to check the fuel levels.
After servicing the aircraft and attending to my bladder overfull warning light, I called Air Traffic and requested permission to taxi. The response from the tower was very scratchy and almost inaudible. I had to repeat my request and readback several times before I was happy that I was authorised to move.
I should have recognised the early indications that all was not well. Nowadays, with the benefit of hundreds of hours of flying experience behind me, I would have checked and resolved the problem before getting airborne.
Not back then with so few hours.
So, I happily launched into the bright blue yonder, climbing up to a comfortable altitude. The sky was bright blue, and hurt my eyes, despite wearing my green aviator sunglasses. The desert scrub below was a myriad of browns and ochres, with washed-out looking vegetation.
The radio was quiet, but not unexpectedly so, as this was a bit of a remote area. Basically, there was no one out here to talk to.
Eventually, I could see Midland Air Park just ahead, so I selected their VHF radio frequency and gave them a call.
“Midland this is Cessna November Seven One Four Hotel Hotel inbound to you with information Golf, request altimeter and airfield traffic”
Static filled my headphones, but I gave them two minutes, then tried again, repeating the call.
Again, no answer. I began to have misgivings. I would have to land without a radio.
My God! I had read about this, but never done it.
I dialled 7600 into my transponder so that ground radar would know I had no radio and then flew cautiously into the pattern. I made blind calls but received no response.
I scanned the sky for other aircraft, but the circuit pattern was empty. Peering down at the ground, I could see no aircraft moving around, I decided that it was safe, so I continued with my approach, and landed safely.
I taxied up to the deserted Terminal, and shut the engine down,
Climbing out, I could see the place was deserted. Being a Wednesday afternoon, I could understand the lack of aircraft.
I wandered around and eventually spotted a guy in overalls working on a car outside a semi-derelict hangar.
I explained that I had a problem with my radio, but he was unable to help; there were no engineers around, and he was only there to work on his car.
I considered my predicament. I had tried repeatedly to get the radio to work. I had re-set the circuit breakers, and checked the security of the antenna. Nothing seemed to solve the problem.
The trouble was that without obtaining a radio clearance, I would be unable to enter the controlled airspace surrounding Abilene. This meant that my pre-planned and direct routing back to Meacham would not be available.
Under FAA regulations, as a student pilot, my instructor has to authorise each solo flight.
I called Bill at Meacham from the payphone in the pilot lounge. I explained what had happened, and he told me to plan a new flight and submit it to him over the fax.
I had already replanned, and I would follow the Santa Fe Railroad Northeast as far as Sweetwater, and then dog leg further North to avoid Abilene’s airspace. I would then continue east via Mineral Wells, and recover back to Meacham Field.
It was late afternoon as I departed Midland Air Park, and from 3,000 feet I soon spotted the railroad track, and dutifully followed it, watching the lengthening shadows as they crawled across the landscape below.
I slowly passed a freight train, which seemed to be a mile long. It took me a good few minutes to overtake it.
I was getting mentally tired by now, and the gloom was now chasing me. I had not undergone any training for flying at night, and whilst it was crystal clear, I had read that perception during landing can be distorted considerably.
I was now starting to wish fervently that I was on the ground, as it was now dusk.
I could see Mineral Wells coming up, and I made the decision that I was not prepared to fly onwards to Meacham, a further 35 miles away. The decision made, I felt much better, and re-focused on the task at hand, to land without breaking the aeroplane.
I made my landing safely, still making the required blind radio calls.
I shut down and using the payphone, I called Bill to let him know where I was. He agreed with my decision to divert, and arranged for another instructor to fly out to pick me up.
About 40 minutes later, I saw the lights of an approaching aircraft, which landed and swiftly taxied over to where I was parked.
Teri, one of the instructors got out, and came over to me, as the other aircraft backtracked and took off heading east.
“What’s the problem dude?” She asked me.
I explained the scratchy radio at Abilene and the actions that I had taken to resolve the issue.
She thoughtfully chewed her gum, then blew an expert bubble, which expanded to an obscene size and then popped.
Leaning into the cockpit, she turned the master switch on and switched the radio master on. Sure enough, there was nothing but static.
Reaching under the instrument panel, she pulled both of jack plugs connecting my headset and microphone out, and then pushed them back into the sockets.
Trying the radio again resulted in clear sounds.
I felt hugely foolish.
“I’m sorry to have dragged you out here – I could have done that”
“Uh-huh” she replied. “At least you can log another 30 minutes dual night flying – look on the bright side”
I flew us back in near silence, still feeling that I had been a bit of an idiot.
Teri obviously sensed this, as she slapped my right thigh, saying “Dude, Y’alls instructor should have suggested this, as it’s happened before!”
The lights of Meacham were now sliding under the nose towards us. Happily, I didn’t make too bad a landing for my first one at night. Maybe a little harder than I would have liked, but hey, you can’t have everything.
So, What did I learn?
I learnt that when a problem occurs, you should check every part of the system, and not assume that pulling circuit breakers, or recycling equipment on and off will be sufficient to resolve the problem.
I also learnt that more experienced people may not always offer the correct advice, as they too may make assumptions that checks that are obvious to them may not be so obvious to anyone else, and therefore won’t have necessarily have been conducted.
Lastly, I learnt that pink bubblegum bubbles that burst can stick long blonde hair very effectively to Dave Clark headsets.
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.