Libya, Sudan and Iraq - The Personal and Confidential File, by Roddy Wilson (1955-1960)
Image: comet 1 with camels
Comet 1 at Khartoum
Forty years are too large a chunk of ones life to be easily forgotten the way I now forget where I put my glasses. But just thinking about them can never solve all the mysteries of ones career.
That can only be revealed by access to our confidential files, presumably thoroughly shredded by now. In their absence, retirement offers plenty of opportunity for unstructured speculation about why it was we who were recruited in the first place, why anybody on earth should think fit to make us managers or why some of our most brilliant achievements made so little impression on history and our bosses.
For me, the omens of our country house selection process could not have been more depressing. It involved an interview with a group of BOAC directors, followed by lunch with them. During my interview one of them never came out from behind the Times he was reading. The managing director whom I had the honour of sitting next to during lunch said nothing until the sweet, when he informed me that he knew my father. Then he lapsed into silence again. I, of course, was far too shy to interrupt his, no doubt, very important thoughts.
The mystery remains why they recruited me, one of a thousand applicants, when the first thought that I was too boring for him to interrupt his reading and the other felt that a conversation with me was unlikely to be mutually beneficial. Amazing, and mystery number one.
For trainee station officers, practical experience alternated with formal classroom work. However, too many late nights, utter boredom with the subject and the prettiness of the girls in the postal section working next to us all played their part in my failing the airmail exam.
This was by far the easiest topic we were to encounter and failing it verged on the criminal. But no one sacked me. Instead I got four weeks off to study the mail manual again, when only a couple of days would have been sufficient. Another mystery.
Other problems emerged during my attachment to reservations control. This activity is today, thank heavens, left to almost infallible computers, but then suffered from a system that simply invited human error. Since I was human, disaster was inevitable.
All flights were multi-sector journeys with passengers getting off as well as on and the arithmetic, while not requiring a genius, did require absolute attention to detail, which was not my strongest point. Luckily, most of my errors were not discovered until after I had left for new pastures.
My next posting was to Tripoli where I was sent to handle the regular night stopping Avro York freighter aircraft. They carried large numbers of monkeys from India to London. It seemed a cushy and undemanding job. This encompassed getting the monkeys off the aircraft and into a room in the hangar, checking the temperature of the little darlings during the night and feeding them dinner and breakfast before putting them back on board.
As my role was supervisory only, it seemed unlikely that the job would wear me out physically or mentally. Since they were transported in cages, it seemed impossible for them to escape. But a few did during almost every transit and I never found out how they did it. Luckily, London never seemed to check on the numbers.
When I visited Tripoli years later some of these monkeys were still in the roof of the hangar, which was also used as the airport terminal. From there they would descend on the check-in desks and create havoc with the paperwork.
Whilst I sympathised with the staff more than they knew, my greatest sympathy was reserved for the guy who once managed to let the whole load of monkeys escape at Delhi airport. I knew you could not hide a planeload of monkeys in the top of a hangar!
By the time I was beginning to smell like a monkey, another crisis in the Middle East resulted in a posting to Basra with no monkeys but plenty of camels and not much else. This small station became overnight the most vital and busiest airport for BOAC and QANTAS on the only available route between India, the Far East and London.
The station was staffed to handle about two or three flights a week, so I was suddenly extremely busy. As a now fully qualified, even if not fully paid, duty officer, one of my concerns was the very low standard of the air navigational services, particularly over the sector between Basra and Istanbul.
Before the days of satellite navigation, the beacon near Lake Van in Turkey, for example, was a vital indicator of a sharp turn in the direction of the airway and was often out of order. Other crucial reporting points on the aircrafts flight path were equally unreliable.
On top of that, across this same flight path, Russian MiG fighter aircraft were being ferried during the night to Syria and Egypt. One night I was unable to contact the aircraft on its way to Istanbul, in spite of having contacted every possible source in the area.
As the minutes to the deadline ticked away, I read and re-read our emergency procedures and then, when the deadline was reached, I reported the aircraft as missing.
Apart from triggering frantic activity, such a message also gets the chairman out of bed and is therefore not sent lightly. After some time the aircraft was found to have landed safely in Istanbul, and the chairman had been got out of bed for nothing.
However, I had done everything by the book and was therefore confidently looking forward to the appropriate plaudits, although perhaps not expecting a personal thank you from the chairman. Instead I was gently advised, with suitable sympathy for my dilemma, that someone with more experience would have extended the deadline on his own responsibility.
A few days later, unbeknown to my manager, I played rugby for Basra against Baghdad. When he heard about it, he was beside himself with fury because, as he explained, if I had broken a leg, our routes to the Far East and India would have had to be closed down.
I was suddenly made to feel that I was valuable after all, indeed irreplaceable, and thought BA and I were about quits. In fact, it was to be my last game of rugby ever, and, being played on oiled sand, was not the greatest fun.
By now, for me, the writing was obviously on the wall, having failed an exam (mail), failed in reservations control, failed in traffic handling (Tripoli) and failed in operations (Basra). So I was not surprised when, at the end of our training period, I was given a job in sales, a safe distance away from all the more technical aspects of aviation.
With my career prospects thus considerably narrowed, an unblemished performance in the one area still open to me was now vital.
As Sales Officer, Sudan and Red Sea Territories, I not only handled the promotion and advertising for the area, but also stood in for the district sales manager in Aden during his summer leave. I had always enjoyed doing that until one day in July the phone suddenly rang all day long with the callers wishing me a very Happy New Year! By the end of the day this was beginning to get on my nerves, so I asked a friend of mine whether the whole of Aden had gone off its collective rocker. He told me to look at the centre page of the local paper and there it was: BOAC wishes all its passengers a very happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year. This was the middle of July, outside the temperature was above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and I felt like jumping out of the office window.
In fact the public were delighted to find that BA and I had such a great sense of humour. But they were wrong about BA, as I was to discover when the billing copies reached London.
Whilst this episode was clearly an accident, the next one was planned by me from start to finish. During a somewhat lengthy evening in Khartoums famous Gordons Cabaret, my good friend, the sales manager from the local brewery, and I sketched out a joint outdoor hoarding near the airport. His company was prepared to pay for most of it, a great plus from my point of view.
They were a British company, with their head office in London, whose beer in the Sudan was called Camel Beer. Our joint hoarding was to feature our aircraft and their beer bottle, with its picture of the camel.
Underneath all that we had the slogan Travel Better On A Camel with the capital letters of BOAC picked out in blue. Of course, everyone at that time knew this slogan as a frequently used reference to our airlines performance, as well as an affectionate tease.
The Sudanese had a great sense of humour, but that BOAC could have one as well had never occurred to them until then. The impact of this hoarding exceeded our wildest dreams. Never had we been so popular.
However, whilst I was basking in this success, our route general manager transited Khartoum and saw the hoarding. A few days later, my manager received a furious telex to tell him that BOAC proposed to sue the brewerys parent company in London for defamation. In this crisis I was sent to London on the next aircraft to explain why they could not do so, basically, of course, because I, not the brewery, was to blame.
Our general manager, naturally, was far from being a happy bunny, but how can you explain that humour can generate so much friendship to someone who does not have it?
Anyway, I knew that this time I had really blown it. But (and this is mystery number three) I was promoted instead into a job that had both sales and manager in the title, in other words, a job where the connection between input and output was so opaque as to make a mockery of performance management. I had finally found my niche! So I settled happily into a long career with BA, without ever understanding why I was recruited, why I was not sacked immediately thereafter and, finally, why I was promoted not because of my performance but in spite of it. My personal file might have cleared up a lot of that, but even without being able to solve these mysteries, I feel that I have a lot to be grateful for.
BETTER ON A CAMEL
BOAC and BEA reminiscences, memorabilia and history
About the charity 'Practical Action'
Foreword by Sir Ross Stainton, former Chairman of BOAC
Review of background to airline experiences and recollections
CHAPTER ONE - THE FAR EAST AND INDIAN OCEAN
airport and airline memoirs about the far east - from India and the Seychelles to Japan
Bangladesh - All Together Now! by John Anderson (1973)
Bangladesh - Memories of Dhaka, by Simon Watts (1981-1985)
Life and Work in Bangladesh
Burma - Lighting Up Time, by Gerry Catling (1954)
an airport story - cigars as insect repellent
Burma - The Day of the Dear Departed (1954), by Gerry Catling
memories of a delicate diplomatic exercise with BOAC in Burma
Burma, etc. - Britannias, by Alan Douglas
recollections of the Bristol Britannia in service with BOAC
Burma -The Sound Barrier, by Tony Russell (1972)
Dealings with the civil aviation authorities in Rangoon
Burma - The Fertiliser Factory, by David McCormack (1972)
memoirs of an airline manager - going the extra mile in customer service...
Burma - Cigars, Religion and Superstition, by Peter Jones (1975)
Meeting the Burmese People
Burma - Special Adviser to the Manager, by Peter Jones (1975)
attending a funeral in Rangoon
Burma - Burmese Days, by Peter Jones (1975)
a visit to Mandalay and the temples of Pagan
China - Learning Chinese by Ralph Glazer (1983)
China - Scotland the Brave by Ralph Glazer (1985)
India - Holy Cow, by Ralph Glazer (1964)
Obstruction on the runway...
India - Delhi (Not) Singing in the Rain, by Ralph Glazer (1964)
Monsoon (and its Cargo) Close airport
India - The Morning Commuter, by Peter Fieldhouse (1970)
Getting to the office in Calcutta
Japan - The Mount Fuji Disaster, by James Wilson (1966)
a retrospective view of the management of the aftermath of a major air crash
Pakistan - Yaqoob and Musaleem, by Peter Liver (1987)
fond memories of two aged retainers
Philippines - Cutting it Fine, by David Hogg (1970)
memoir of the chaos to civil aviation caused by a typhoon in Manila
Philippines - Being British, by David Hogg (1969)
reactions to an earthquake
Sri Lanka (Ceylon) - The Day my Number (almost) Came up, by Gerry Catling (1960)
memories of a BOAC Comet 4 landing on a wet runway..
Seychelles Days, by Mike McDonald (1974-1977)
An island idyll..civil aviation (and British Airways) arrive in the Seychelles
CHAPTER TWO - THE MIDDLE EAST
airport and airline reminiscences and memorabilia in the Middle East
Abu Dhabi - Ice Cold in Abu Dhabi, by Graham Moss (1970)
keeping VC-10 passengers cool on the ground
Abu Dhabi - Sand Trap, by David Hogg (1972)
hazards of driving in the desert
Dubai - a Training Posting, by Peter Liver (1970)
Bahrain - The Traffic Manual Expert, by David Meyrick (1962)
an air cargo problem - loading a BOAC DC7F
Bahrain - The Thunderstorm, by Ron Colnbrook (1968)
a scary flying story
Iran - The Nosewheel Incident, by Alan Hillman (1965)
a problem on the runway in Tehran
Iran - Hold Five, by Brian Cannadine (1972)
Teheran Airport - animal alert!
Israel - Cultural Differences, Mike McDonald (1972)
airline tales from Tel Aviv
Kuwait in the Fifties by Jamil Wafa (1955)
Kuwait - a 'Fifth Pod' Operation, by Jack Wesson (1965)
a BOAC flight planner's nightmare
Kuwait - the Oil Drillers, by John Cogger (1970)
a BOAC Sales Manager at work - life in the fast lane
Kuwait - Out of the Fog, by Peter Richards (1991)
Return to Kuwait after the Gulf War
Yemen - Sana'a Memories, by David Hogg (1973)
a testimony of everyday life in the Yemen
Saudi Arabia - Abdul and the Bacon, by David Hogg (1973)
a treat goes missing
Dhahran, Saudi Arabia - Rats! An Unwelcome Customer, by John Anderson (1978)
An Unwelcome Passenger
CHAPTER THREE - AFRICA
recollections and tales of life with BOAC and British Airways in Africa
Ghana - the Watchman, by Anthony Farnfield (1966)
a letter in the files
Kano, Nigeria - Willie on the Rampage, by Pat Noujaim (1959)
The randiest dachshund in Northern Nigeria nearly causes a delay
Nigeria - Bush Telegraph, by David Hogg (1965)
bad news travels fast in West Africa
Nigeria - Things Other than the World Cup, by Don Ford (1966)
BOAC involved in events in Lagos before the Biafran War
Nigeria - Boom Times, by Peter Jones (1975-1979)
the oil boom in Nigeria in the seventies
Nigeria - an Attempted Coup, by Peter Jones (1976)
violent regime change in Nigeria
Nigeria - Living and Working in Lagos, by Peter Jones (1975-1979)
stories of expatriate life in Nigeria
Nigeria and Concorde, by Peter Jones (1976-1979)
How Nigerians took to Concorde
Nigeria - Never Knowingly Undersold, by Peter Jones (1979)
Travails with the Lagos Telephone Company
Nigeria - Student Travel, by Peter Jones (1981)
a student goes to the wrong destination
Nigeria - Lagos Airport Again! by Nick Robertson (1989-90)
Wild West (Africa)
Ethiopia - Petrol Rationing, by Doug Tester (1975)
Michael to the rescue
Uganda - The Road to Kampala, by Peter Liver (1972)
a moment in history - BOAC in Uganda in the days of Idi Amin
Uganda - Exodus of the Ugandan Asians, by Mike Wickings (1972)
Organising the departure of Asians from Uganda
Uganda - Kenneth's Mortars, by John Anderson (1972)
Diplomatic Incident in East Africa
Zambia - Jottings from the Copperbelt, by Peter Jones (1969-1972)
Malawi - The President's Plane, by Peter Woodrow (1977)
VIP Travel to the Commonwealth Conference...
Kenya - Nairobi 1956 etc., By Maurice Flanagan
early memories of BOAC in Nairobi
Kenya - The Frustrations of the Comet 4, by Don Ford (circa 1962)
recollections of ingenious improvisation to make best use of space in the BOAC Comet 4
Kenya - Customer Recovery, Kenya Style, By Simon Watts (1988)
Going the extra mile...
Kenya - Concorde and other big beasts, by Simon Watts (1986-90)
Concorde and other big beasts
Kenya - Nanyuki Wedding, by Steve Sturton-Davies (1992)
a wedding in the bush
Egypt - The Six Day War, By Ron Colnbrook (1967)
memories of a war zone
Libya, Sudan and Iraq - The Personal and Confidential File, by Roddy Wilson (1955-1960)
more camel stories...
Libya - Monkeys in a Hangar, by Ralph Glazer (1954)
Wildlife in Tripoli
Libya - The spirit of Christmas Past, by Gerry Catling (1958)
hijinks in the Tripoli transit lounge
Libya (and Ceylon) Unaccompanied Minors by Gerry Catling (1959)
The difficulties that younger passengers sometime cause...
CHAPTER FOUR - THE CARIBBEAN, AMERICAS AND ATLANTIC OCEAN
Jamaica - Dr No by Mike McDonald (1964/1974)
a James Bond memory
St. Lucia - Hurricane Allen, by Peter Jones (1980)
surviving a major hurricane
St.Lucia - The Wrong Taxiway, by Peter Jones (1983)
consequences of miscommunication
St. Lucia - The Red Lady, by Peter Jones (1983)
voodoo and the Boeing 747 - an unsolved mystery
St. Lucia - The Collector, by Peter Jones (1983)
An Illegal 'Collector' of Rare Species is seen off
St. Lucia - There's a Hole in the Runway, by Peter Jones (1984)
suspension of operations in St Lucia
Trinidad - Management Skills, by Bill Smith (1965)
learning the ropes, the hard way
Bahamas - Cabin bags and Elephants, by Tony Russell (1966)
Canada - Gander, Crossroads of the World, by Gerry Catling (1956)
Transatlantic travel as it used to be
Mexico - A Day in Mexico City, by Ralph Glazer (1975)
Concorde, a Road Accident and the Mexican Police
Panama - Don't Stop! by David Hogg (1975-1980)
what about the snakes?
Panama - Flying Positive, by David Hogg (1975-1980)
BAC-111 pilots in Central America
Chile - Chile-Chile-Bang-Bang, by Howell Green (1994)
Frustrations in the queue for take-off
Uruguay - Jet Flight Arrives in South America, by Alan Douglas (1959)
introducing the Comet 4 in South America
USA - I Was There That Day, by Jonathan Martin (1963)
Dallas 1963, the day of President Kennedy's assassination
USA - The Cricket Team, by Peter Jones (1964)
cricket in New York with BOAC?
USA - The New World, by Don Ford (1967-1969)
An expatriate airport manager comes to Chicago
Ascension and Falkland Islands - Encounters of the Third Kind, by Bruce Fry (1985-1987)
a BOAC station engineer goes on secondment to the RAF in the Falklands
CHAPTER FIVE - EUROPE
UK - A Shetland Story, by Anthony McLauchlan (1972)
Bulgaria - Fog in London, by Mike Lewin (1976)
BEA schedules affected by fog in London
Cyprus - Suez and the Rocky path of True Love, by Gerry Catling (1956-57)
effect of Suez on BA schedules and social life..
Cyprus - the Hijack, by Bruce Fry (1970)
when a hijacked BOAC VC-10 diverted all flights to Nicosia
Cyprus - The Turkish Invasion, by Taff Lark (1974)
Evacuation of tourists when Cyprus invaded by Turkish forces
Germany - from BSAA to the Berlin Airlift, by Charlie Item Smith (1948-49)
Following the BSAA disasters, the Avro Tudor fleet is assigned to the Berlin Airlift as fuel tankers
Germany - Learning German, by Larry Gorton (1966)
recollections of a BEA manager having problems learning German
Italy - The Secret of Fiumicino, by Bill Smith (1967)
airport customer service staff get a morale boost and valuable lessons for motivation are learned
Romania - Heidi's Haggis, by Mike Lewin (1971)
a bit of BEA memorabilia - ingenuity in the kitchen saves Burns Night in Bucharest
Poland - The Stand-off, by Roy Burnham (1978)
an encounter with American presidential security guards
Russia (USSR) Trans Siberian Start-up, by Brian Burgess (1969-1972)
planning for an historic moment - BOAC's trans Siberian route to Japan
Russia(USSR) - The Omelette Factory, by Peter Richards (1970s)
Navigating over Siberia
Russia (USSR) - Red Faces in Red Square, By Bernard Garvie (1970)
Diplomatic Incident with Chandelier
Russia (USSR) The Security Guard, by Peter Richards (1976)
How to scare a Russian Security Officer
Russia(USSR) the Golf Lesson, by Peter Richards (1976)
In a Moscow Hotel Room..
Russia (USSR) -The Stewardess, by Taff Lark (1980)
shades of 007
Russia (USSR) - Domodedovo Airport, 'the House of my Grandfather' by Mike McDonald (1989)
a memoir of early days at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport
Spain - Dictatorship and Honour, by Gerry Catling (1960)
a recollection of Franco's Spain - negotiating the 'personal honour' code at Madrid Airport
Spain - A Soft Touch, by Ralph Glazer (1971)
A Meeting with Franco
Switzerland - The Precision of the Swiss, by Gerry Catling (1968)
recollections of how we proved to the airport authority that the Super VC-10 was not a noisy aircraft
Further reading and watching for addicts....
Some miscellaneous photos that don't have a story to go with them
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