Libya (and Ceylon) Unaccompanied Minors by Gerry Catling (1959)

There was a time when aircraft mechanical delays at route stations were fairly common, and were regarded as a routine occurrence in the working life of a Station Duty Officer, whereas, with today's sophisticated technology and direct routings, route delays, are, I believe, relatively unknown. 

In the 1950/60s this was not the case , particularly with piston engined aircraft developed to the limit of their possible performance.

These delays could occur for a few hours, or indeed up to one or two days, depending on the seriousness of the malfunction and whether a spare engine or parts had to be flown in.


For the passengers (there were no customers in those days), it was the luck of the draw where it happened : either in a delightful country with a pleasant climate, where high class hotels and local entertainment were available and an extra holiday could be had at BOAC expense, or in some more primitive location where less attractive amenities were available and a certain pioneering spirit was useful.


A Stratocruiser, Constellation, or Argonaut would depart, taxi to the runway threshold, run up its engines one by one, pause, and while staff held their breath, either take off with staff breathing a sigh of relief, or turn around and come back to the ramp and shut down its engines, with staff expecting that that their social arrangements for the rest of the day and night were finished, as in some places they had to stay with the delay until it was over.


There followed a consultation between the Captain and Engineer with the Duty Officer hovering to ask the dreaded question:  'How long is it going to be? ' Unless the fault was clear cut and a reasonable estimate could be given, it was as good as asking 'How long is a piece of string?'  Sometimes delays could drag on for hours without positive identification of the problem, and the lack of information  could make the passengers very irritated. So the immediate question was what to tell the passengers and how to keep them as contented as possible, updating them with information as it became available and explaining the local facilities for a short or long delay.


If a long delay was handled well,  wherever it was, many passengers enjoyed their enforced stay as part of the adventure of their flight and complimented  BOAC.  However, on some occasions things could go badly wrong with unforeseen consequences.  The worst long delays involved flights with a substantial number of Unaccompanied Minors on board, sometimes up to 20

teenagers travelling to spend holidays abroad with their parents, or returning to school in the UK.


The priority was to keep them safe and well looked after, particularly overnight. This was not always easy and often staff wives nobly volunteered to come in and assist, but sometimes the children were uncooperative and got up to whatever mischief they could find.  One night in Colombo in 1963, two boys and two girls climbed over the hotel wall at midnight, took a taxi to a nightclub, changed currency illegally on the black market, returning slightly drunk, with one girl cutting her arm badly while climbing back in, with the police following.  After many explanations, the police relented and luckily the flight departed the next morning, but a very difficult report had to be made to London.


I had a similar delay overnight in Benghazi in 1959.  There was a sandstorm blowing with sandflies off the desert. The only reasonable hotel, the Berenice, was full, the airport buildings were wooden huts, built and left over by the Italian Regia Aeranautica, the Luftwaffe and the RAF.  There were 25 passengers, including 11 Unaccompanied Minors to accommodate.  Fortunately, there was an old unoccupied former Italian Officers' accommodation building nearby, kept reasonably clean, which was adequate for an overnight stay.  All went well, the children were supervised, the passengers were happy and the flight departed the following morning.   About 10 days later , a signal came from London summoning me to report to Traffic Branch Operations to answer a very serious complaint from a Major General who was apoplectic, as his 16 year old daughter on the delayed flight had told him how she had enjoyed a very enjoyable night in the Italian Officers' Quarters!  The General alleged that BOAC had put his daughter's virtue at risk and demanded to know who was responsible - my colleagues suggested that a firing squad was a possibility!   The girl was obviously having a good time winding her father up and I was amused, but for London to take it so seriously to drag me back to London to explain that the Italian Officers had departed hastily some years previously, was difficult to believe, and showed the inexperience of some management of conditions outside the UK down the routes.   The storm soon blew over and I returned to Benghazi with some duty free.


Those were happy years with rarely a dull moment, and who would have wanted to exchange them for a 9 to 5 job?

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