Sri Lanka (Ceylon) - The Day my Number (almost) Came up, by Gerry Catling (1960)
Sitting in my armchair in a cottage in North Yorkshire, with the thunder and lightning crashing and flashing overhead and the rain pouring down in bucketfuls, I was reminded of a similar night when I was on duty at Katunayika Airport, Colombo in Ceylon, as it was then called. I was waiting for the westbound Comet flight to arrive from Singapore on its way to London. This was the night when my airline career almost came to a spectacular and messy end.
It was monsoon time, and after a hot humid day, the towering cumulo-nimbus clouds would start to roll in from the Indian Ocean, and the rain would rapidly become a wall of falling warm water, accompanied by a spectacular display of thunder and lightning. The airport was still very primitive by todays standards and we worked from old wartime huts, dimly lit, as the passenger terminal was rationed by the airport authorities to three electric light bulbs per month.
Our main job, apart from looking after the passengers and baggage, was operational flight planning for the aircraft transiting the airport en route between London and Singapore, and providing weather forecasts of winds and types of weather to be expected both in flight and for the landing and take off at Colombo. The airport forecasts provided by the local meteorological office were not particularly reliable and were provided in code, which we had to decipher and pass to the aircraft captain via a small radio set of doubtful quality. If you were lucky you managed to make contact when the aircraft was half an hour out, just as it was starting its descent.
On this day the airport forecast was not particularly helpful, as the code was garbled and when eventually decoded indicated that ice spicules in suspension were to be expected, although if you walked out of the door you were soaked to the skin within a few seconds, the humidity was about 100% and the temperature over 30 degrees Centigrade.
The Comet IV was the latest state of the art aircraft flying at this time, excellent in so many ways, but unlike modern aircraft it had no reverse thrust on its engines and had to rely entirely on its brakes to slow it on the runway before it could taxi in to the terminal. In wet weather the runway was slippery and there was the danger of aquaplaning and skidding. In addition the Colombo runway was only about 2000 metres long. On some nights the Comet would taxi in with its brake drums glowing brilliant white with the heat of maximum braking, the water on the wheels turning to instant steam with some danger of a burst tyre.
One of our main responsibilities was to drive out on to the runway about 45 minutes before arrival to check the depth of water on the runway. If it was over about 10 cm. we would hurry back to the radio in the office to advise the captain of the situation so that he could divert either to Jaffna, about half an hour away, or to Madras if he had enough fuel, which usually he had not. Jaffna Airport was primitive, and had no runway lights, so whenever a Comet went through Colombo (every night), they lit an old RAF kerosene gooseneck flare path, which took them over an hour.
This was just in case of a diversion which happened only once or twice a year, but if the Comet was diverted it did not have enough fuel to wait around while the flare path was lit! So our job of measuring the depth of water on the Colombo runway, although not requiring a high degree of expertise (sticking a ruler in the water from the car door) was vital for the safety of the aircraft.
On one particularly dark night I drove out on to the runway, 45 minutes before the flight was expected, and measured the depth of water. It was well over 10 centimetres, and as I started to drive off the runway, the car engine gave a cough and died flooded. I tried to restart it for two or three minutes without success, got out of the car and was immediately soaked to the skin. There were no portable radios in those days, and no way to contact anyone to tow me off. The torrent of rain was easing slightly and visibility had improved a little, although the cloud base could not have been more than 150 metres above.
I glanced down the runway in the direction of the approach and thought I saw two small winks of light. I looked again and the penny dropped it could only be the landing lights of the Comet on its approach. The aircraft must have picked up time and be arriving early, and here I was, standing in the middle of the runway with a car immobile, a dead weight, and the crew of the aircraft could not see me.
There was only one thing to do. I turned the steering wheel towards the side of the runway, got behind the car and pushed as I had never pushed anything in my life before. The aircraft lights were growing brighter and now I could hear the roar of the jet engines. The car started to move and luckily the slope was downhill and it picked up speed in the right direction. Gasping for breath, I heaved the car off the hard surface onto the grass and seconds later the Comet landed behind me, engines shrieking, in a cloud of flying spray and water, which totally engulfed me, and disappeared on down the runway.
More than a little shocked, I staggered the 500 metres to the operations office, as I had to give the captain his onward flight plan to Bombay and tell the engineer how much fuel to put in the tanks, as well as supervise the ground arrangements for the passengers. This had to be completed within 45 minutes so that the flight could depart on time, otherwise questions would be asked by the route managers sitting in their dry offices in London.
As I entered my office, I saw that the Comet had arrived at the terminal and was just in time to meet the captain. Nasty night, couldnt get you on the radio was all he said he could not have seen me as he landed. I was still too shocked to reply more than Good evening captain, here is the flight plan and forecast for Bombay. Then routine took over and deadened the mind.
The aircraft was so wet that water had got into the firewire from the engines, which warned of an engine fire and set off red warning lights on the flight deck. These were all showing red on arrival, but there was no fire. This was a fairly common occurrence and air conditioners were positioned under the leading edges of the wings and dry air blown on them until one by one the lights went out. The aircraft was declared serviceable and the passengers embarked, no doubt looking forward to their gin and tonics and first class dinner nothing so common as economy class in those days. Luckily, too, they were oblivious of the drama that had taken place under an hour before.
The Comet roared off into the murky skies on time, I changed my sodden clothes, drove slowly home, and treated myself to a couple of whiskies. I had learned my lesson I never took the car on the runway again. I left it by the side, got out and paddled. I could not get any wetter anyway, and consoled myself with the hope that on such nights the Russells Vipers, scorpions and giant lizards that infested the place would be smart enough to stay in the their holes and not bother anyone stupid enough to be paddling about with a foot long ruler.
De Havilland Comet 4 G-APDA
Image: comet 4pda
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
Bangladesh - Days in the life of a new Station Manager, by Jim Mackison (1976 - 1980)
Turbulent times in a challenging environment
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 C. I. (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 Stewardess, by Taff Lark (1980)
shades of 007
Russia (USSR) - the Golf Lesson, by Peter Richards (1976)
In a Moscow Hotel Room..
Russia (USSR) - Domodedovo Airport, 'the House of my Grandfather' by Mike McDonald (1989)
a memoir of early days at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport
Russia (USSR) - Moscow Anecdotes, by Jim Mackison (1970)
various memories of working and living in Moscow
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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