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 one’s 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 one’s 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 aircraft’s 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 Khartoum’s famous Gordon’s 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 airline’s 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 brewery’s 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.

Image: camel

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