Aviation is fixated, quite correctly, on in-flight safety. From the humblest sailplane or microlight to the mightiest 747, safety procedures have to be completed, to ensure that aircraft don’t drop out of the skies like confetti.
Before any aircraft takes flight, it’s crew must conduct a thorough inspection to make sure that it is in a fit state to fly. Cabin attendants will check every door and overhead locker, and ensure that all of their required safety equipment is in place.
Their pilot colleagues will also be checking all flight systems thoroughly. There are two elements to this – the internal cockpit checks, and what is known in the trade, as the “walk-around” or the exterior preflight inspection.
Each item to be inspected is laid out in the Flight Crew Operating Manual, or FCOM, and follows a carefully planned and logical sequence so that no item is left unchecked.
As an instructor, strict adherence to procedures is part of my everyday working life.
Here is my lighthearted look at the external walk-around procedure for the Boeing B747-400.
I think it’s a little better than writing about the procedure I follow on my own, much smaller aeroplane.
Whilst our Jumbo’s on the ground, Before each flight, we must walk round, And carefully check so many things, Are engines fixed, likewise the wings, Are panels shut, are windows clean, Do nav lights work, do lenses gleam, And as a safety-conscious fellow, Be sure to wear your vest of yellow, To help you check before night flight, Be sure to use your bright flashlight, Do just what the FCOM says, Check the tyres, and gear door bays, Check the cowls, and drain mast pipes, Inspect the engine pylon stripes, Look at the fin, and check the slats, The lightning wicks, and Fowler flaps, For safety’s sake – what could be worse? Than looking forwards whilst in reverse! Check the brakes and steering too, The vacuum outlet for the loo, The outflow valve, the pitot head, Oh boy – you should have stayed in bed, Cos whilst you check in pouring rain, The captains in the warm – AGAIN!
The following is a modified extract from my forthcoming hitherto unpublished autobiographical novel “Making Connections”
It was my fourth week at work, and my first day working with the phone installation team.
It was early October in 1975, and I was enjoying my new life as a Trainee Telecommunications Apprentice with Post Office Telecommunications, now metamorphosed into BT.
Based out of my home town of East Grinstead in West Sussex, I had an easy commute and was enjoying the mid-October weather, which was mainly dry and warm.
As I was only sixteen, I was still living at home and enjoying all of the comforts that Mum and Dad provided.
Getting up on this particular sunny morning, I showered and pulled on my Levis, a check shirt, and my jacket, and rushed downstairs to greet the world.
My dear old Mum, bless her, had prepared me a bowl of cereals, and gulping this down, I gave her a perfunctory peck on the cheek, grabbing my packed lunch as I rushed for the door.
Dragging my bike up the drive, I pushed and jumped astride it, nearly knocking down the neighbour’s nineteen-year-old daughter.
“Sorry!” I yelled over my shoulder, still accelerating down the cul-de-sac. Nice looking woman. Not interested in a kid of sixteen though, which was a shame as she was really hot.
The Telephone Engineering Centre was only just down the hill, right opposite my old school, and I zoomed down, eyes watering in the slipstream, arriving there within a few short minutes.
Swooping in through the open gates of the yard, I narrowly missed becoming a bonnet ornament for a bright yellow panel van which was just pulling out. Swerving, I dodged the truck, blasting through its sooty exhaust with inches to spare.
I carelessly rammed the front wheel of the bike into the rack, and snapped the chain around the wheel, locking it to the metal.
I noticed a door was ajar at the far end of the single-storey building, so, with a little trepidation, I walked down, and cautiously pushed the door open, and walked into the dimly lit interior.
“Ah…..you must be my new Youth in Training!”
I looked over to the corner, where the owner of the voice was seated – a slender man, in his mid-forties, whose mop of black unruly hair had been mercilessly bullied into a 1950s Tony Curtis style. On his lap, he was clutching a piece of equipment, whilst tightening something within it with a large, yellow handled screwdriver.
His rumpled tweed sports jacket was distorted by objects that had been rammed carelessly into the pockets, and his grey flannel trousers hadn’t seen a proper crease since 1953.
“Hello” I ventured, “I need to report to Mr Hudson”
“You’ve come to the right place then lad, as I’m Ben Hudson”
I shook his proffered hand, “nice to meet you Mister Hudson”
“It’s Ben” he chuckled, “no formality around here…..now, would you like some tea and toast?”
“Ben” I echoed. Bloody hell, a few short weeks ago, men of his age – my teachers at school, would have gone into meltdown had I addressed them in this way.
“Come on lad”, he said, placing the grey cased equipment onto the work bench, “Let’s go and grab some breakfast, and then we’ll head out.”
The restroom was full of sound – laughter, conversations, and odours of toast, coffee and cigarette smoke.
I followed Ben as he pushed his way to the kitchen counter, whereupon he dropped two slices of bread into the toaster.
Two minutes later, he passed me a plate with 2 slices of toast. “Butter is in the dish. We operate a tea swindle here which is 25p a week to cover tea, milk, bread and butter. Anything else you want, you buy yourself. You want to join, go and see Mitch, and he’ll put you on the list. Now, eat up because we have to get going.” So saying, he sluiced his plate under the tap and wandered out with his hands jammed into his pockets.
I hurriedly wolfed down the toast, and drunk the tea, (which I had to do really quickly to prevent the tannin from stripping the enamel from my teeth), then scurried after Ben, who was by now loading the back of his bright yellow Morris Ital van with plastic-wrapped phones, and cardboard boxes containing mysterious bits of equipment.
We got in, slamming the doors shut, and Ben drove us sedately out of the yard.
We meandered serenely through the sun-dappled lanes of West Sussex, the sleepy villages etching their historic lanes into my mind; Sharpthorne, West Hoathly, Danehill, Horsted Keynes, finally arriving in the small village of Scaynes Hill.
We parked up outside an elegant 17th century Manor House, with timber beams, and a patina of age on the whitewashed walls.
Grabbing a shrunk-wrapped telephone, a reel of cream cable and his leather tool bag from the back of the van, I followed Ben as we crunched our way up the gravel drive, with me clutching my small, virginal zip-up tool bag.
Knocking on the door, we stood in the porch, admiring the Elizabethan garden, resplendent in its autumnal colours. I idly wondered if they had a gardener.
At that moment the door was opened, revealing an elegant and stunningly attractive woman in her early thirties.
My eyes were immediately drawn to her magnificent breasts, snugly contained in a tight angora wool jumper.
My interest in her vaporised instantly as she spoke, haughtily, and with the arrogance that only the nouveau riche seems to have.
“I suppose you’re here to fit the phone….”
Ben glanced at me and agreed. “Maybe you can show us where you want it fitted? He asked.
She about turned, and strode off down the wood-panelled hall, nonchalantly indicating an open door on the left. “In there, on the window cill” she called without even giving us a further glance. I furtively watched her neat backside, as she sashayed off down the corridor.
We walked into the indicated room, which was bright, empty and airy, with a wood parquet floor. Ben smiled at me, and dumped his battered Gladstone bag on the floor, and tore open the cellophane packaging from the phone. Reaching into his bag, he tossed me the reel of cable and a small box of cleats.
Selecting a pin hammer from his bag, he explained to me “Secure the cable to the skirting board, using one cleat every pin hammer length. Put one cleat two inches from every corner you need to go around. Don’t nail through the cable. Got that?” I nodded. He continued “I’ll start in the hall. You do the room here. Leave me three foot of cable to hook the connector block to”
I gingerly unrolled a length of the cable, and commenced banging cleats in at the required spacing, managing to belt my thumb at least twice. I could hear the rhythmic thumping as Ben was cleating the cable to the skirting of the hall. He was moving at about three times my speed, so it wasn’t long before he appeared in the room with me.
He knelt down and started cleating as well. “Bit of a dry visit, this one” he murmured. “Snooty cow didn’t even offer us a tea” I grunted my response, and turned to see a small child, emptying the box of cleats over the floor.
Ben called through the open doorway to the boy’s mother, asking her to take him out of the room, as he was in danger of hurting himself.
She strode in, sweeping the child into her arms, and glared at us both as if it were our fault, before strutting out.
We turned back to our work, and I started hammering again. As I reached out to get another cleat, my hand struck something warm and wet. I looked around, and saw a Pekingese dog, snouting around in the cleat box.
I pushed it away, and it immediately nosed forwards and recommenced its snuffling. Ben also pushed it away, with the same result. He pushed it away – more firmly this time, but it was to no avail.
“Excuse me lady” he shouted down the corridor “Could you come and get your dog, it’s in the way”
There was no response from within the bowels of the house, so he called out again. Silence.
Heaving a sigh, he knelt back down, and once again started pushing the dog out of the way.
Each time it happened, he pushed the animal away more forcefully. I could see him beginning to lose his placid sense of humour. I smirked. It seemed that the dog wasn’t interested in me, so I knelt back down, and carried on bashing my thumb with the pin hammer.
I could hear Ben swearing at the dog, as once more it was interfering with his work. “Will you sod off!” I heard him exclaim. The dog didn’t sod off though, and it continued to push its nose just where Ben wanted to hammer.
I watched as this happened once more, and laughed as Ben finally lost control. He pushed the dog back, and as it advanced again, he tapped it smartly on the forehead, between the eyes, “for the last time, WILL YOU SOD OFF!”
The dog stopped in its tracks, froze, and rolled onto its back, quivered once, and then flopped over, immobile.
I looked at the dog. It’s chest wasn’t moving. “Christ Ben!” I exclaimed. “You’ve killed it!”
Ben looked shocked. “Nah. I probably stunned it. It’ll be ok in a minute”. I wasn’t sharing his optimism. The dog was dead. To make sure, I cocked my ear over its snout, and could detect no breathing.
“Ben……it’s definitely dead! Christ. What shall we do?”
My brain was already playing a film clip, featuring me getting the sack from an incandescently enraged manager.
“Don’t worry lad” said Ben, perking up. “I’ve got an idea”
He picked up the dead dog, slung it unceremoniously into his Gladstone bag, secured it closed, and said “follow me, and keep your mouth shut”
He yelled into the kitchen “Sorry love, we have to go back to the yard to get a tool. We will be back shortly”
A garbled response from the kitchen confirmed that she heartily disliked The GPO in general, and the Telecommunications division in particular, and bemoaning the quality of British working practices.
If only she knew.
We chucked Ben’s bag into the van, and we hurtled back to the yard in silence.
As we pulled into the yard. I asked “what tools do we need?”
Ben grinned, and said “A shovel lad”
Opening the back of his van, he passed me a large spade, and indicating the scrubby patch of woodland at the rear of the offices, he said. “Bury it”
“Bury it. Over there. Dig down two feet. Come on, hurry up. We need to get back. Consider it part of your training. Thinking on your feet!”
I miserably picked up the dog, which had already started stiffening up. I pushed my way into the bushes, and dug a hole, into which I placed it’s little corpse. I quickly shoveled the earth over it, and replaced the spade in the van.
Having completed my funereal task. We drove back to the customer’s house, and went back to wiring up the phone.
As we were finishing up, the woman came in, and cast her eye over our handiwork. “Does it work?” She asked, as if already convinced that it would be a major achievement if it did.
“Of course” replied Ben, as he nonchalantly started loading his tools back into his bag.
“Have you seen Lionel?” She asked
“Lionel?” We obviously both looked like drooling morons, as she explained to us slowly, enunciating each word slowly and precisely, as if to a six year old, that Lionel was her dog.
Ben furtively glanced at me, but we both shook our heads, as Ben innocently said “No, Madam, we haven’t seen a dog”
“Oh dear. I expected he got out when you went back to the yard. He’s probably in the woods by now”
“Without a doubt” I said, straight faced, looking at Ben. I could see he was trying very hard not to laugh.
“Yes, he likes to dig…..probably burrowing for rabbits”
“Oh yes…..I imagine He’s up to his neck in the mud” I said.
Ben had gone a strange colour, and was emitting constricted noises. I shuffled my feet, and said “Well…..cheerio then”
“Yes” she said, icily. “Goodbye”
She ushered us to the door, and with one final appreciative look at her wonderful chest, we were striding back down the drive to the van.
As we got into the van, Ben finally collapsed against the steering wheel, great guffaws of laughter filling the van.
“Oh my lord…..that was funny in an awful sort of way. Well done lad”. He wiped a tear from his cheek, and started the van, and we made our way back to the telephone exchange at Nutley for a cuppa and a bun.
And so ended my first day as an apprentice installing telephones in Sussex.
A long time ago, in a work environment far, far away….
The year was 1976. It was autumn, and I was in the second year of my apprenticeship with Post Office Telecommunications – or BT as it has now become.
The beginning of that September saw me transferred from Exchange Maintenance to the Overhead and Underground unit, or Poles and Holes as we called them. Apprentices were rotated through every specialist section of BT telecommunications, so that they are exposed to all aspects of the business.
So far, I had enjoyed working with Subsciber Installations, Planning, Exchange Construction and Exchange Mintenance. I really wasn’t looking forward to working at the industrial end of the business -especially not during the onset of winter!
On my first day of training with them, I strolled into the Telephone Engineering Centre in the sleepy West Sussex town of East Grinsead,
Opening my locker, I pulled my tool kit out, and whistling tunelessly, made my way into the restroom to grab some breakfast, and meet my mentors, before we set off into my next adventure.
I barged into the brightly lit rest room, which was noisy with laughter, and hazy with cigarette smoke. Damn – I just loved the smell of Old Holborn.
I poured myself a cup of tea from the enormous aluminium tea pot, gulping some down as I waited for my two slices of toast to pop. I had to quaff it reasonably quickly as it would have stripped the enamel from my teeth otherwise.
I used the opportunity to discretely assess my new team mates and trainers. In the far corner, sat a small and wizened man, whose leathery skin contrasted starkly with his silver-grey hair, which had been buzz cut to within 2 millimetres of his scalp.
He was chatting loudly with a man of simply enormous proportions, whose bulk leaked like decomposing blancmange into every crevice of the chair he was sitting in.
They were known to all as Laurel and Hardy. The smaller of the two was Jim Smith, and Mr. Blancmange was Bert Handy. I had heard through the grapevine, and from other apprentices, that they were both real characters, but Bert was also “A bit of a Perv.” Whether or not this would prove to be true remained to be seen.
I glanced again at the pair, and was rewarded to see Bert insert one large and grimy finger into his nostril, and enthusiastically start what looked like major excavation work. He didn’t even stop talking to Jim, who seemed oblivious of the fact that Bert was so avidly picking his nose.
So it was that I started this new and somewhat uninspiring part of my training.
My days consisted of driving out to some country lane, somewhere in the wilds of Sussex, looking for faults, or renewing spans of cable.
I had developed a simple routine to avoid the discomfort of wearing my armoured wellies all the time. I left my boots in the box section of the lorry, and simply sat on the bench, placing a foot into each wellie in turn.
The box section of the van contained all that a crew needed to perform its duties, from cables, joints, s calor gas burner, a bench with a vice and a whole spectrum of tools on racks on the inner walls.
The job was frequently a messy one, as the cables were filled with a vaseline type grease to prevent water penetrating the cable. When this was cut, or we were crimping joints together, this messy stuff would get everywhere.
The company had thoughtfully provided hand cleaner, and a couple of large pans for cleaning purposes. They were large and had a long wooden handle – for all the world like a Wok on steroids.
I had been soundly berated a few days after joining the section for preparing hot water for hand washing in the red handled pan. To be fair, I hadn’t been told otherwise.
It seems that the pan with red insulating tape wound round the handle was NOT used for hand washing, but for relieving oneself when working away from public lavatories. such as residential roads, and parts of town centres that had no public conveniences.
Everytime one of the lads needed to go, they would simply discretely climb into the back of the truck, use the red handled pan, and then empty this into the gutter, sluicing it away with water from the jerry cans on board.
So, cutting a long story short…
Once Laurel and Hardy got to know me, they used to fool around and joke.
On this particular morning, they were both very quiet, and I picked up an air of supressed anticipation.
I found out about this, when I sat dowm, popped my size nines into my wellies, stood up, and then face planted myself on the floor.
The rotten sods had screwed my wellies to the floor of the truck!
Oh, how I laughed.
Now, I am not a venegful person by any means, but my nose took a bit of damage in the incident, which caused much mirth and hilarity back at the yard. However, every dog has his day, and I planned my retaliatory mission with care.
The next day, we bumped and groaned our way into the back lanes around Hartfield, eventiually parking up not far from the place where A.A. Milne wrote the Winnie The Pooh stories.
Without delay, we set about locating the fault, and preparing the new piece of cable.
Bert straightened up, and slowly made his way back to the van, whilst Jim and I carried on crimping connectors onto the cable.
I watched as Bert climbed the steps and disappeared into the van, closing the door behind him.
I mentally counted…
“One, two three…” I reckoned it would take about six seconds. “four, five, six, seven….. ARGGGHHHH – You bastards!”
He came rocketing out of the van with the pan in his hand, slopping liquid everywhere. He bent and emptied it into the gutter, and advanced up the road in a very threatening manner.
His overalls had a horizontal wet line running across his upper thighs – in fact he appeared to be soaked in a broad stripe about two inches wide.
It’s amazing what a 1/16th drill can do if applied to a red-handled pan in a circular fashion.
Jim just looked at me. “You nutty bugger!”
Bert was still fuming by lunchtime, but I think he forgave me later, when his overalls had dried out.
There is a further episode to this ongoing battle of wits (or should I say half-wits) but that willl have to wait for another time.
Technical authorship isn’t all about writing the prose that is needed in a document.
Regardless of the type of document being produced, a good technical author will work alongside the client to ensure that they fully understand the exact process or policy before even putting pen to paper, or more correctly, finger to keyboard.
This may involve the writer in accurately observing a process, and then encapsulating the required steps in a simply-worded procedure.
In some cases, it may be quite challenging to articulate a process, particularly if it is a particularly complex operation, but that is where a skilled writer can help.
Your technical author must be highly observant, inquisitive, and have the ability to write a document in the language of the intended reader.
The instruction manual for a domestic internet CCTV must be written in an uncomplicated fashion, bearing in mind that the user will not necessarily have any technical ability.
I have read some astonishingly awful documents supplied with various pieces of equipment that I have bought in the past. Some could be excused, as they were supporting items made in China and the far east, and the English used was so woefully inadequate that simple procedures were full of ambiguities.
However, some were for UK manufactured items, where it seems that a well built and nicely designed item was compromised by asking Betty in the sales department and Dominic in engineering to write the instruction manual.
A qualified technical and commercial writer can work with you to ensure that your process for making Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches is right first time!
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.
This is another modified extract from my forthcoming book, “A Salesman’s Story (Or Don’t Spend the Commission)
In the early 1980s, the cutting edge of office printing machines was an electric typewriter, and I sold many different models, from a simple “sit up and beg” typewriter, right up through the range to the latest electronic machines that offered a single line LED display, a 4,000 character memory and a Daisywheel printer.
Even in the early 1980s, standard electric typewriters still had a market, particularly with solicitors, as the weight of paper used for legal documents presented a problem to the electronic machines, mainly due to the hammer not striking the character hard enough against the paper to place a successful image on the underlying copies.
Now, I should explain here, that the Eagle 800 was built like a tank, and normally printed via fabric ribbons, which were bi-colour, with one half of the ribbon being impregnated with red ink, and the other half with black.
When powered up, a motor would run, which would spin a powered rubber roller. If a key were pressed, the associated type hammer (bearing a cast image of the appropriate character) would press against the spinning roller, and be flung upwards at great speed.
A simple mechanical link would lift the ribbon carrier to coincide with the type hammer striking the platen, upon which the paper sheet was clamped. The type hammer would then fall back to its rest position.
Now, some of the keys were fitted with a repeat function. For example, the letter “X” key could be held down, and the letter x would be repeatedly typed onto the page, enabling lines of incorrect text to be obliterated from the page.
So, now you know the basics…
As salesmen, we not only had to know the basics, but also had to know every feature, advantage and benefit that each machine in the range was able to offer. To ensure that I had the necessary tools in my sales kit, I was sent to the manufacturers premises in Leicester to attend a product course.
Our instructor, a portly little chap called Richard Scratcher, was explaining the features, advantages and benefits of the Eagle 800 machine. He was extolling its virtues as a very tough and well-built piece of equipment.
“Now, I’m going to show you a very powerful sales technique, guaranteed to help you get the sale”. We all gathered close as he fumbled in his trouser pockets, finally producing a penny coin. He held it aloft like some kind of Devine talisman.
“To show how tough the mechanism is, simply hold the penny against the ribbon guide, and hold down the repeat “X” key, thusly”. So saying and with a very flamboyant flourish, he proffered the penny into the top aperture whilst holding the aforementioned key.
With a noise like a juvenile machine gun, the X type-hammer blurred against the ribbon guide, the carriage advancing at high speed with each impact, stuttering from right to left with a mechanical clatter.
The demonstration complete, the silence was deafening. He passed the coin amongst us; I was surprised. It was deformed, and deeply embossed with a capital X.
The theatrical impact of this would be impressive, and I determined to use this approach when I next went to demo an Eagle 800.
I didn’t have long to wait, and it was two weeks later that I received a call from Mr Rayne of Babbage de Chelwode solicitors in Crowborough. I had met Mr Rayne before when I sold a dictation system to the practice.
He was a curious individual, a cross between John Lennon, with his long, lank, greasy hair, and Marty Feldman, with his bulging eyes lurking behind large, round glasses.
He also had a bad habit of suddenly stopping speaking in mid-sentence, and after a variable amount of time would suddenly recommence. It was like his brain worked slower than his mouth, which had to stop until it had received the next packet of data. It was most disconcerting.
Anyhow, he was looking to upgrade a manual typewriter and had received my letter offering good prices on the Eagle 800.
So here I was, sitting across the desk from him, in the wonderful old Jacobean room that served as his office.
“Now, you see, we have legal engrossment paper here, Judi………………”
I waited. And waited. He was still staring at me through his glasses, like a scene from a Wild West poker game.
I leaned forwards. “Judy?” I ventured, hoping to re-activate his speech system.
“Yes. Judy. You know. Judicial paper for wills and stuff. It’s thick and that’s why we need a manual typewriter as it needs to cut a carbon copy underneath”
I nodded, explaining that there was no typing job the 800 couldn’t do, said with a confidence that was belying my uncertainty.
Paper is graded on its strength in terms of the weight it will bear, expressed in grams per square metre. To assess the standard weight of paper, a square metre of it is clamped into a frame, and weight is applied to it until it bursts or tears.
General-purpose paper is anywhere between 70gsm and 90gsm. Luxury and specialist paper is over 100gsm, with legal paper at the top end of the spectrum at 120gsm.
Naturally, a copy would be needed, so the carbon paper would be beneath the Judicial paper and the copy paper beneath that. My guess was that the total paper weight would be almost 200gsm.
I seriously wondered whether the Eagle electric 800 would be man enough.
I really shouldn’t have worried.
I had set the machine up in his secretary’s office, which was gloriously untidy, with files everywhere, flowing as if a waterfall from her desk, over the carpet.
Now was my moment!
I walked over to the machine and pulled a penny piece from my pocket. I could see they were both regarding me in confused silence.
“To demonstrate the power of the 800, I would like you to watch this”
With a flourish, I placed the penny inside the machine, locating it against the ribbon guide. Whilst looking them in the eyes, I confidently pressed the “X” key and was rewarded with the high-speed clatter of the type hammer reverberating against the coin.
I lifted my finger from the key and passed the coin across to Mr Rayne. He took the proffered penny, and held it up, examining its distorted shape and the deep impression cut into it by the machine.
“Wow!” He exclaimed. “Take a look at that Mary”, passing it to her.
She looked at it – a bit dubiously, I thought.
“So, now let’s have a crack at your heaviest legal paper. By the way, if it does what you want it to do, will you be in a position to place an order today?”
“Oh, I think so….we really need to……………………”
Mary and I both watched him in silent anticipation, waiting for him to finish
“……..bring ourselves up to date”
I inwardly smirked. The 800 was superseded a couple of years ago by the golf ball typewriter, and the golfball was now being superseded by the daisy wheel. Up to date indeed!
I watched as Mary pulled the bail bar forwards, and wound the unwieldy paper onto the carriage.
She started pecking away at the keys, suddenly exclaiming “Oh…it’s not working”
I smiled as I reached forwards, switching the machine on “You now have the luxury of electric power. You don’t need to hammer these keys as heavily as on your previous machine”
The machine was quietly humming, and she hesitantly started typing, speeding up as she became used to the feel of the keyboard. At the end of the line, I saw her left hand reaching for the carriage return lever, which would have been used on a manual typewriter to push the carriage back to the right-hand stop, and advance the roller by one line.
“It’s a common event” I laughed, showing her the key marked RETURN. She pressed it, and the carriage smoothly moved. “Oh My,” she remarked.
Now she was up to speed, and we allowed her to type a few paragraphs.
She pulled the document from the carriage, and we all inspected the output. The print was crisp, dark black, and perfectly aligned. The carbon copy was just as good.
I dramatically passed the carbon copy to Mr Rayne, and he was suitably impressed.
Twenty minutes later, I was happily sitting in my car in the car park, filling out the rest of the rental agreement. Tapping away at my calculator I worked out that a thirty-minute meeting had netted me a cool £60* commission. Snapping my case shut, I started the car, wound down the window a crack, and stoked up a Bensons. I idly watched the tendrils of smoke being slowly and gracefully sucked out.
Twirling the key in the ignition, I decided to head back to the office.
I swung into the office car park in what I considered to be my exuberant fashion. The Managing Director referred to it as “You arsehole” fashion. I know this, as he indicated his feelings by bellowing into the car park from his office like a fairground barker, calling into question both my driving ability and my parentage.
I smiled, and waved cheerily up at him, which, judging by the further incoherent ratings, merely proved to enrage him further. I strode briskly into the office, charging up the stairwell two at a time, running into the Sales department, and plonked myself down at my desk. I bashed away at the calculator, which confirmed that so far, I was having a very good month, and would hit target without breaking a sweat.
I checked my diary for the next day and saw that I had a fairly relaxed day, starting with a local farmer, a simple drop off on the industrial estate, and then a visit to an author to sell a binding machine.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny, as I made my way to the rambling old farm in Turners Hill.
This was going to be a simple drop off, and a demonstration of how to set the machine up. I knew that he was pretty switched on, and would pick it up in no time. I was confident that this would be a mere formality prior to me raising an invoice for £400!
My assessment proved to be accurate, and I was finished with him by eleven o’clock. I drove sedately down passed the fruit farms and into the industrial estate, cutting through the side roads of Three Bridges.
Parking up at Worldwide Injection Moulding’s Goods Inwards, I hefted their new typewriter – still in its box – into the bay, and got the warehouse foreman to sign for it, and then I was off again, heading back south and cross country for the pretty village of Horsted Keynes.
The Author was an elderly American chap, called Cyrus J Whittaker. He was the archetypal hippie, with his long grey hair pulled back in a ponytail, secured with a bandana, and wearing a battered old straw hat which I think was actually an integral part of his head – I had never seen him without it.
He was always friendly, and frequently offered me some of his homegrown pot. Today was no different, and on this occasion, I decided to accept his offer. He passed me his tobacco tin, some papers, and a plastic bag full of leaves. I duly rolled a respectable reefer, and we both lit up.
I ambled back to the car, and pulled out the thermal binding system, which I was to demonstrate.
Once the machine was plugged into the mains, and up to temperature, I showed him how quickly he could bind a book. The folders all had pre-glued spines, and the required pages were simply laid into the spine in the correct order, and the whole book placed spine down into the mouth of the machine.
A simple timer would indicate when the process was complete, and the thermal glue had melted and stuck the pages securely to the book.
In his chemically-induced pliant state of mind, he readily agreed to sign the paperwork, which I happily secreted away into my briefcase – just in case he had second thoughts.
It was well gone one o’clock when I walked slightly unsteadily back to my car. I drove very carefully over to the next village and parked up at the Coach and Horses. I was a little disappointed, as none of my friends were about, so I ordered Ham Egg and Chips, and a pint of Harveys.
As usual, the food was excellent, but the combined effects of one large organically grown reefer, and a pint of Harvey’s Best made me very sleepy. I knew that I would have to sleep this one off, so I drove a mile or so up the road to Ghylls Lap car park on the Ashdown Forest, rolled back the seat, and took a restorative doze for a couple of hours.
I woke up refreshed and decided to finish off the promised deliveries. I would need to get a hustle on…
I finally arrived at Babbage de Chelwode’s at a quarter to five, so it would be a quick dash. Happy Jack the town’s parking warden would be on his way back to the Town Hall to sign off duty, so unless I was very unlucky, I could park on the double yellows for the duration of my call.
I switched the hazard lights on, and trotted up the steps, and into the cool reception area.
I was swiftly shown in, and Mr Rayne stood to greet me. I walked forward, extending my hand to shake hands, but he recoiled away. I soon saw why. He held his hand aloft, the thumb was thickly bandaged.
“Ohh – that looks nasty” I exclaimed “What did you do?”
He looked at me very sheepishly. “Well, I had a colleague from Bennisters here yesterday……”
He stopped. I waited. He was still looking at me, and I nudged him “Yes….”
“Well, I decided to show him how tough my typewriter was, so I tried your trick with the penny”
“Yes…” I said, encouragingly.
“Well, it must have slipped, and I engraved a letter X through my thumbnail, and about a third of my way through my thumb”
I visualized this, and immediately had to suppress the desire to laugh out loud.
“Oh dear” I sympathised “That must be really painful”
He grunted his agreement, and I carried on “Does he want a machine as well?
“He didn’t say – as I had to go to the Village Hospital to get the bleeding to stop”.
Flipping my notebook open, I swiftly jotted down that Bennsiters could be in the market for a new machine.
“So” I said, snapping my notebook shut, “I’ll be getting on then. I hope that the machine continues to perform well. I will get the engineers to pop over sometime within the next week or two just to check the adjustments.”
He continued to gaze at me through his glasses, not saying anything, so I picked up my case, and quietly left him alone, contemplating his butchered thumb.
Yesterday, I had started work at 0430, and it had been pretty much full on all day. I was lucky that I managed to slip out at 0830 and grab a late breakfast from the “Roach Coach” burger van, as the crews used to refer to it. The Roach Coach, or Botulism Bus was an old Citroen van fitted out as a kitchen.
Breakfast was usually good and reasonably cheap – I had a simply huge egg and bacon French stick and a mug of tea so strong that it stripped the plating off the spoon. Despite its nickname, in all of the eight years that I used it, I never got any form of food poisoning!
By the end of my shift, I had handled one inbound emergency diversion, two gate delays, and a flight returning to gate due to a technical problem.
My throat was tingling with the tell-tale signs of an oncoming cold, and my nasal passages felt strangely dry and cold, and I was feeling distinctly under the weather as I returned home.
In an effort to clear my head, I dripped some Olbas Oil into a Pyrex bowl filled with hot water, and then draped a towel over my head and around the bowl, so that I could breathe the vapours. My dear old Mum used to swear by this stuff when I was a kid.
I think after about half an hour under the towel, my head felt marginally clearer, so I took full advantage of this, and went straight to bed.
The next day, I was on an 0500 start, and would be co-ordinating the whole of the flight operation at Heathrow for the Mighty American Airlines.
Waking up well before dawn, the hot shower did little to improve either my mood or my well-being, and my throat felt like I had swallowed a cheese grater. Overnight, someone had slipped into my room, and stuffed both of my nostrils with glue, and my head had been packed with cotton wool.
Once I was booted and suited, so to speak, I drove mostly on auto-pilot to the Northside staff car park, and waited in the cold pre-dawn air for the staff shuttle bus to ferry us to the Central Area of London Heathrow’s Airport.
The bus soon filled with security-screened zombies, bright in their High Vis jackets, and the uniforms of many different airlines. The conservative navy blue of my Flight Operations uniform was overshadowed with the bright crimson red of the Virgin Atlantic hostie who plonked herself next to me.
Muted desultory conversations murmured around the bus, but in the main, we all slumped in silence each still longing for bed.
Arriving at the central staff bus stop, I briskly strode the five-minute walk to Terminal Three, the home of American Airlines. The check in hall was almost deserted as I walked through, but some of my colleagues from security were already at work, checking and calibrating the X-Ray equipment and testing the baggage belts and check in computers.
Pushing the large, heavy-duty vinyl doors open, I walked down the gloomy corridor towards the baggage make up area, and waited in line to have my ID card inspected, and walk through the arch scanner.
On this morning I was feeling too miserable to engage in my normal banter with the Indian lady who normally manned this isolated post.
I arrived in the Ops room, snotty and grotty and made myself a hot Lemsip, and then went to look at the movements board, which had been updated by Mick on the night shift. It looked like the system was running normally, with all of the birds departed, and heading east, and no obvious delays or cancellations.
The first arrival from JFK would be hitting the tarmac at about 0615, so I had time to check in with all of the other parts of the operation, doing radio checks with check-in, arrivals, gates, security, catering, special services, ground movements and engineering.
I then sat back sipping mournfully at the Lemsip, in the vain hope that it would clear my head and ease my throat.
It did neither, and by 1300 I was feeling really rough. Thank goodness the shift had run smoothly, with no problems or incidents.
When I got home I was feeling hot and sweaty and my skin had become super-sensitive.
I decided to have a good soak in a hot bath to try and warm up, and feel a little more comfortable.
My nose was still blocked, and my sinuses were still jammed, and I felt totally congested.
As the bath was running, I spotted the small brown bottle of Olbas Oil, still sitting on the shelf over the hand basin, where I had left it after using it the previous evening.
It was then that I had my brainwave.
I could save time if I were to mix the Olbas Oil into the bath water, and gain the benefits of a relaxing tub of hot water whilst the vapour gently penetrated and cleared by nasal passages.
Unscrewing the cap, I looked at the bottle top. There was a small nozzle similar to the shaker top on a bottle of vinegar, so I could apply it easily.
According to the instructions, all I had to do was drip a few drops into a bowl of hot water to clean my passages.
I considered this, and decided that if I needed a few drops in a bowl, I would probably need to shake a considerable number of drops into a bath that probably held 100 litres.
I upended the bottle, and vigorously shook the bottle, watching as the droplets scattered over the water.
I stirred the water around briskly, and was satisfied to smell the pungent odour wafting from the water. I could see that the drops had each formed a miniature puddle that floated on the surface, some refracting the light in a myriad of rainbow hues.
Satisfied that all was well, I climbed gingerly into the bath, the water coming up to the middle of my calves.
Crouching down, I slowly eased myself into a sitting position, sighing deeply as I relaxed back into the water, leaning back into the wonderfully warm water.
I had just shut my eyes, when the burning began.
It started gently initially. A slight tingling in my crotch, and a faint burning in my armpits.
My eyes snapped fully open as suddenly, it felt as if someone had taken a welding torch to my family jewels, the heat searing and eye-watering. I clambered up out of the water as fast as I could, but getting out of the water did nothing to ease my immediate predicament.
The logical side of my mind was telling me that the oil-based product was clinging to my skin, but the other side of my brain was demanding that I use the abrasive cleaning sponge to rid my skin of the intense fire caused by the herbal napalm that was soaking the most delicate bits of my anatomy.
I hauled the shower head from behind the taps, turning the water on full, and attempted to douse the areas that were blazing with the intensity of a bush fire, but it was to no avail, the Olbas Oil was diligently refusing to release my soft tissues from its inferno grip.
Hopping out of the bath, I literally ran down the stairs, and grabbed an ice pack from the freezer, and jammed it lovingly between my legs, praying that Olbas Oil wouldn’t leave chemical burns that would need treatment at Ashford General’s A & E department. That would take too much explaining away.
The ice pack made little difference, but eventually, after what seemed like three days, (but was in fact about twenty minutes) the pain subsided a little, and I was able to face returning to the bathroom.
I spent a good half hour cleaning the bath, wiping the walls and base with a cloth, and rinsing and re-rinsing the entire structure to ensure that there was no Olbas Oil left to interfere with future bathing enjoyment.
I dried off, and eventually conceded defeat to my cold, and went to bed, tired, damp, feverish and very delicate.
So, folks – whatever you do, DON’T climb into a bath laced with nasal decongestant -Stick with bubble bath or foam bath.
This is a modified extract from a chapter of my forthcoming book – A Salesman’s Story (or Don’t Spend the Commission)
It was a rainy day in mid-April. The year was 1980, and I was approaching my 21st Birthday. Despite the overcast day, I was feeling happy, contended and confident. I was sitting in a queue of traffic, which, as was normal for the small West Sussex market town of East Grinstead, was at a standstill. Light drizzle was spattering the windscreen, distorting the outline of the cars ahead.
I idly flicked the wipers, and they stammered their way across the window in a reluctant arc, redistributing the greasy water around the glass. Out of boredom, I turned on the radio. Martha and the Muffins were extolling the virtues of Echo Beach. I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel, and checked out my image, which was faintly reflected in the window of Baldwin’s, the local Hardware store.
I congratulated myself on my obviously cool look. Despite the gloom and the rain, red framed mirror-finished sunglasses, and a snappy beige three-piece suit can’t fail to impress. You can’t be too under dressed working as an Office Equipment Field Sales Executive can you?
My first appointment was to see the Chief Purchasing Officer of the local Borough Council, who was interested in buying a small photocopier for the planning office.
I do not trust copiers, they are fickle and I am sure they are fitted at the time of manufacture with a malevolent force.
In the early 1980s, the choice for copiers at the low volume end of the market were limited. For very low users, 3M manufactured a small machine that used specially treated paper and a thermal imaging system, and copies were performed individually.
For medium users, there were compact copiers from a variety of manufacturers, but whilst they all operated on a photographic process, some required liquid toner to produce the image, rather than the dry black powder toner used today.
Arriving at the Town Hall, I informed the receptionist that I was there to see Mr Maskell, the Town Clerk to demonstrate a copier.
A few minutes later Mr Maskell arrived, looking a little like a flustered Secretary Bird. He showed me to a large open plan office, which had been freshly decorated, and still smelled of adhesives and paint.
The floor had been laid in black and white carpet tiles, and I felt as if I were a pawn in a forthcoming chess match.
I realised that all was not well when Mr Maskell started getting an odd look in his eyes. He was desperate to interrupt, but I was in full flow, and he was a courteous man, so the first inkling that I had that there was a problem, was when toner fluid suddenly gushed from the machine, vomiting out in a greenish stream, soaking my hand, trouser leg, and flooding onto the carpet tiles below.
“Oh God!” he shrieked, “It’s a brand new carpet –tell me it won’t damage or stain the carpet!”
I decided to play it cool and unflappable. “Of course it won’t Sir” I replied, hoping fervently that I was right. “It’s completely inert, and won’t hurt the carpet.”
He calmed down visibly, and remaining in position, I completed my demonstration. Having seen the quality of the copies, he seemed impressed, so I moved in for the kill.
“Will you be purchasing or leasing the copier?” I asked.
“Oh, outright purchase” he replied airily “We never rent anything at the Council”
“Come this way, and I’ll see that Doreen raises the requisition and the necessary paperwork” He strode off towards the stairwell, and I moved to follow him – and almost fell over.
With sickening realisation, and a sense of impending doom, I looked down, and realised with horror, that I appeared to have a black carpet tile stuck to my left shoe, and a white tile struck to my right.
I furtively tugged at it, but it seemed that the fluid was in fact a solvent, which had bonded the plastic sole of my shoe to the acrylic surface of the tile. Looking round anxiously, I slipped out of my shoes, and attempted to rip them free, but all I succeeded in doing was pulling both tiles from the floor.
At that moment, Mr Maskell reappeared, concerned that I wasn’t following him.
He immediately assessed the situation and was evidently not happy to see a red-faced suited bloke apparently wrenching his floor up. He escorted me to his office, where Doreen kindly cut round the shoes with scissors, leaving each one with a new sole, one white, one black.
With profuse apologies, I withdrew from the Town Hall, embarrassed and sweating, assuring Mr Maskell that the company would pay for the damage.
He did eventually forgive me, and ultimately I did get the order but lost most of the commission in repair bills.
My second brush with copiers came about two weeks later when Geoff Brown asked me to help him demonstrate a Mita Copystar DC-161 copier to a firm of solicitors in Horsham.
I was always keen to help my colleagues, as I learned a lot at these sessions.
“The Mita DC-161 is a beast” I looked at Geoff and wondered quite what he meant.
“It’s VERY heavy, and you need to keep a straight back to lift it. You must lift with your knees. It’s very definitely a two man lift, and it’s not very maneuverable, particularly up and down stairs, so we always take the lift”
I eyed the pink and white monster with a degree of trepidation. It was large, measuring about 4 feet long, by 2 feet tall, and about 3 feet deep. It had a state of the art control panel on the right hand side, and a large plastic cover over the copying bed. It also cost a whopping £3000, so would attract commission in the region of £600.00!
Geoff continued, explaining that in order to carry it, we would need to use his car, a Ford Cortina Mk III Estate, and use the Demtruck, which was a small trolley that could be swiftly dismantled to enable the copier to be slid in and out of the vehicle without breaking the backs of the staff.
So, having loaded the beast, we cruised over to Horsham, and parked up outside the solicitor’s office. It was an old building, so there would be no lift to assist us, and worse still it was a three-storey building.
We wheeled the trolley into reception, and were instructed to carry the machine up to the third floor.
Geoff motioned me to one end of the machine, and I pulled the carry handles from their concealed recesses within the copiers body, and keeping a straight back, and a rigid posture, we hobbled our way to the foot of the stairwell.
Geoff then manoeuvred me so that I would have to ascend the steep flight of stairs in reverse – and, to my chagrin, I realised that he had also slyly ensured that I had the heavy end of the machine containing the bonding rollers.
I began to dot and carry myself up the stairs, puffing with the exertion. Each step was an act of faith, in that my foot would land squarely onto the stair tread. I couldn’t see down, as the copier impeded my view; I couldn’t look behind me, as I was rigid, and my arms were locked straight down
“Am I at the top yet Geoff?” I grunted.
“Couple more mate” He panted
I shuffled a further two agonising steps, and asked again “Am I there yet Geoff?”
“Yep!” came his wheezing response.
Instead of then lifting my foot, I moved it straight back, and immediately discovered that Geoff had lied to me…
There was another step.
At this moment the twin laws of gravity and impetus conspired against me, and I gracefully and inevitably toppled backwards, still holding the copier, which now slowly settled upon my chest.
I was now trapped, lying flat on my back, pinned to the flight of stairs by what felt like half a ton of copier.
“Gerrritoffme!” I shouted to Geoff.
“I can’t mate, he replied, I can’t let go of this end, or the whole sodding lot lands on you or carts us both off down the stairs.!”
The situation got worse, as I suddenly saw the funny side of my predicament, and I started laughing which was a bad move as the copier now lovingly wriggled and pressed harder into my chest.
“HELP!” bellowed Geoff, “Help”
After a couple of minutes, the partners appeared at the top of the stairs. My heart sank, as all of them, appeared to be somewhere between eighty and death – how could they help?
With much huffing and puffing, and the help from an amply bosomed matronly secretary, we got the copier into the office where Geoff proceeded to demonstrate its capabilities.
An hour later, and we were happily wandering back to the car.
“So what finally persuaded them to take it?” I asked. Shooting me a big grin, he replied “I told them that if they didn’t order it, then they would have to help me carry it back down the stairs to the car!”
A few days later, I received a call from Neville Fuller, who asked me to supply him with a copier. Having discussed the various models and price options with him, we decided that a re-conditioned Sharp machine would do the trick, and I made an appointment to see him that Tuesday.
Now, I should explain here, that Neville Fuller was a courtly “Old School” gentleman, a retired accountant who now ran a small consultancy from his home. His wife was a very elegant, house-proud woman, somewhat reminiscent of Miss Marple – even down to her fondness for wearing tweed two-piece outfits and pearls. They lived in a beautiful custom-built bungalow at the end of a very quiet cul-de-sac on the outskirts of East Grinstead.
Before going further, I should tell a little about my company car. I was given a 1978 blue Vauxhall Chevette estate car. It was, to put it bluntly, an amazingly, stupendously awful car. It was a true bitch to start, especially in the wet, handled like a trifle, and leaked water. Its only redeeming feature was a radio-cassette player, and even that was highly temperamental. Unreliable, despite the best efforts of Whites in Redhill, it broke down regularly, and was referred to as the Vauxhall Shove-it.
The latest fault to afflict this self-propelled scrap heap was that the parking brake could not be fully applied, despite the handbrake lever being applied so much that the handle pointed vertically at the roof. I was therefore quite cautious as to where I parked.
On the day of the appointment, I swung the car into the cul de sac, and executed a precision three-point turn, smoothly reversing down the drive. I stabbed the radio switch, rendering Sad Cafe silent.
I threw open the door, and grabbed my jacket from the hanger behind the driver’s seat. Patting my hair down, I strode to the front door, and pressed the doorbell.
Neville Fuller opened the door, and I proffered my business card, and introduced myself, whilst stifling a degree of incredulity.
For a second I was totally nonplussed – he was wearing what I can only describe as a Victorian Gentleman’s smoking gown, complete with a cravat in a lurid paisley design. Regaining my composure, I put my briefcase down, and stood patiently in the small porch.
Neville took my card, and peered at it, “Ahhh, the copier man. You’d better come in” he said, standing aside and indicating the chintzy hall beyond.
At that moment a loud, dull, echoing, thud interrupted the birdsong.
As if in slow motion, we both turned to see what had caused the noise, and I was astounded to see that my car had decided to make its way down the remaining 6 feet of the drive, and had now come to rest with its rear bumper lovingly contained in the warped embrace of the once pristine up and over door.
“Ohmigod I’m sorry Mr. Fuller” I blurted, I will move it….”
I jumped into the car, started it up, and gently eased forwards, amidst the sound of rending plastic and distorting mild steel.
Resetting the hand brake, I took the precaution of engaging first gear, to prevent my car further raping my customer’s garage.
Neville was busy inspecting his door, so I joined him to review the damage.
“Is it bad?” I enquired.
“No – don’t worry, its popped back into shape, and the paint is just a bit scuffed, but it needed re-painting anyway”
This was very generous of him, as the glossy almost mirror finish clearly indicated that the door was virtually brand new.
“Would you like a coffee?” he asked as we walked into his smart bungalow.
“If that’s not too much trouble, that would be good. White with two please”
“I say Daphne, bring a coffee, white with two” he bellowed into the inner sanctum of his home.
He ushered me into his office, which was quite compact, and quite dwarfed by a huge desk, literally strewn with papers
“Where would you like me to demonstrate the copier?” I asked.
“Oh, just on the desk there will be fine” he said, swiftly gathering up stacks of paper, thus clearing a space on the desk.
Luckily the model of copier that I was about to demonstrate was a refurbished Sharp machine, one that used a black carbon powder to create the copies. It also had a bed that moved left and right upon which the original document was placed.
Being a fairly current model, it was light enough to be carried by a single person, and it had a reasonably low profile, but as a result, it was also quite wide – certainly not wide enough to be carried in a flat level upright manner through a standard UK internal doorway.
I discovered this as I was attempting to carry the machine into the office.
Approaching the doorway, I found that the copier was too wide by about 6 inches, taking my arms into account. I smoothly turned my body through ninety degrees, and tilted the copier towards my chest, thus giving ample room for me to shuffle in sideways through the door.
And that is where the plan came unstuck. Tilting the copier so far from its normal horizontal caused the black carbon toner to spill from the machine.
I heard a loud dull thud as about a kilo of toner hit the pristine white carpet at my feet, and I was temporarily enveloped in a cloud of cloying black dust. Mr. Fuller made a small squeaking sound, and through the stygian haze, I could see that his eyes were bulging, and he had a stricken look on his face.
I was frozen to the spot, not wanting to move, for fear of further contaminating the snowy white floor.
“Darling!” he croaked, “Would you please fetch the vacuum cleaner – quickly please”
I was impressed with his sang-froid. I had just obliterated about two square metres of luxury Persian carpet with fine black dust – carpet-bombing in its purest form.
I gingerly placed the sooty copier on the desk, and looked at the devastation.
Mrs. Fuller arrived with the vacuum cleaner, and took in the scene with one glance. “Ohh! She exclaimed – I’ll go and get the Shake and Vac!”
“No!” I yelped. You mustn’t rub it or it will bond to the fibres of the carpet”
I plugged the vacuum in, and gingerly sucked up the vast majority of the toner, leaving only a small patch of carpet with dark black staining, – the original point of impact.
Completing my task, I looked up to see Mr. Fuller looking at me in a bemused way over the top of his half-moon glasses.
“Err…. I don’t suppose you will still want to see the copier after this” I said, gesturing to the mess on the floor.
“Well – you’re here now” he said, “So you might as well show it to me”
Generous gesture, that.
So, I plugged in the machine, and eventually had it producing crystal clear copies of ledgers, letters and forms.
I plucked up the courage to ask if I could “fill in the paperwork”, and to my amazement, he happily filled in the Rental Agreement, thus committing himself to a three year contract, and earning me just over eighty pounds in commission.
I left a darn sight happier than his insurance company would be, having to shell out for a repair to a garage door, and the cleaning of most of the downstairs fitted carpets – all of which had been contaminated to a lesser extent, despite our care in not walking in the insidious powder.
And this is how I know that copiers are most definitely the work of the devil…