Bangladesh - Days in the life of a new Station Manager, by Jim Mackison (1976 - 1980)



New country, tough job, difficult conditions for the rotating temporary Station Officer and me. Trying to establish and maintain our worldwide standards in Dhaka was challenging. We had VC-10 turnrounds and a 707 freighter. The VC-10 departure processes were like an obstacle course. If we managed an on-time departure, it felt like a real achievement. In those days Dhaka was a single person’s posting.


The 707F arrived at 06:30 from Dubai and went on to Bangkok and Hong Kong. Airport comms were slow, with movement and load messages sometimes arriving after the transit had finished. A roar through the café window would declare the arrival. Our load change was usually 3 or 4 pallets plus lower holds. We’d hurtle down the stairs, and zoom out to the aircraft. In the heat and dust I’d scribble down the offload, and run a finger down the balance chart to check if our outgoing load would trim. The Biman Cargomatic was unreliable, and struggled to lift 4-tonnes. We didn’t want to offload or load anything unnecessarily. Activity had to be ‘right first time’. Occasionally we called up a forklift to help the elevator to lift, causing the pallet to jam against the sill guard. The completed loadsheet was always decorated with beads of sweat.


The Cheshire Homes Ball was a highlight of the social calendar. My date was Lois from the World Bank. It was the monsoon season. Buckets of rain lashed down. Halfway to the Intercon Hotel I heard a bang. The temperature gauge shot into the red. ‘Fanbelt.’ I turned off into an open-air market area. In the rain I found and paid someone to guard the car till midnight. Cinderella and I continued by scooter rickshaw, arriving at the ball late and damp. Hours later a scooter rickshaw approached the rear gate of Tejgaon Airport. As I entered the Bangladesh Biman transport equipment office, the snoozing staff jumped to attention at the sight of me in my DJ. Seated next to a Biman driver, I headed back to the market area. Using a pallet strap I was towed to our regular garage. The incident was a metaphor for the job. Misfortune can strike. Survival depends on ingenuity, relationships and being phlegmatic.


We sometimes shipped coffins. On one occasion, I had known the deceased lady, who had fallen from a 19th floor window. The flight was sub-chartered to a Tradewinds 707, whose loadmaster didn’t trust the embalming certificate. Ah, Traffic Manual, General Regs, Section K, Miscellaneous. I convinced him all was in order. A week later the same aircraft and loadmaster returned. He talked about the strange smell their aircraft had acquired and kept. ‘I think you’ll find that smell comes from the live turtles we shipped last week, not the coffin. We have more turtles today.’  Hong Kong turned them into soup and tortoiseshell ornaments.


We once arrived at 6am to find a wide red carpet and dais laid out on the only stand available for the 707F to park and to manoeuvre the equipment. The band was unpacking brass instruments. It turned out that the President of North Korea was arriving. Nobody had warned us. I climbed the outside steps to the Tower just in time to hear our 707F making contact 30 minutes out. ‘Airport closed, Speedbird 924,’ (pause, then calm reply) ‘Any particular reason, Dhaka?’ The Captain decided to hold, and land after the re-opening. ‘Get your retaliation in first’ was a trusted principle. I was usually on good terms with the Civil Aviation Airport Manager. This time I berated him about not telling us, declaring that the cost of wasted fuel would be offset from the next set of landing fees. Accepted. Crew mollified.


In 1977 a JAL DC-8 was hijacked, and landed at Dhaka. Our VC-10 had just left. JAL was normally offline. I phoned the British High Commission. No knowledge. If they didn’t know, maybe nobody else did. I sent a QX to LHRWWBA, other online carriers’ local and head offices, and JAL’s Tokyo Control Centre, telling them what had happened, and what I could see of the situation on the ground. There followed a deluge of requests for sitreps. For 2 days arms-length negotiations went on at the airport, which was closed. There was a 5am knock at my gate. Our BA driver. I was woken. ‘My mother is sick in Jessore, Sir.’ ‘OK, you can go. Leave the van at the hotel.’ I went back to bed. Next, the phone rang. ‘Are you alright?’ asked the Sales Manager, away in Chittagong. ‘Of course. Why?’ ‘There’s been a coup.’ Disaffected Army and Air Force units had risen up overnight, trying to unseat the martial law government. 11 senior Air Force officers and many other ranks had been shot dead at the airport. The radio station was taken over. Fortunately, the coup failed in a few hours, but the hijackers were still sitting on the tarmac with 100 hostages on board. They thought the shooting was a diversionary trick. Japan eventually released some Japanese Red Army terrorists, who were flown to Dhaka on another DC-8. With the hijack over, we persuaded London to reinstate the Delhi/Dhaka extension to clear our backlog of passengers. The tech crew flew empty. We asked the Intercon Hotel to lay on milk, juice, bread rolls, hard-boiled eggs and fruit, as we weren’t a catering station. With no time for an engineer to come from Calcutta, there was an amateur on the departure headphones.


The hijack/coup was one of many stand-out ‘events’ during my 4 years – some were good, some more difficult. Occasions of difficulty have over time turned into treasured memories of those wonderful years. Head Office took away the ‘single staff only’ label.


Sales Offfice, Dhaka

Manager's House




Image: sales counter in bangladesh

Image: jim mackison home

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