Uruguay - Jet Flight Arrives in South America, by Alan Douglas (1959)

Image: Comet 4

I was sent to South America in 1959 to assist in the introduction of jet services. I flew in a Panair do Brasil DC7C, and the total elapsed time from Heathrow to Montevideo was 31 hours. The sector from Lisbon to Recife was over 12 hours non-stop and I had the middle of three occupied economy seats. That was before modern seat design enabled you to straighten your legs under the seat in front! Your shins hit a bar to prevent you doing that. When I arrived in Montevideo, nobody met me - they'd forgotten to say I was coming!

The new South American route was set up in a way that was reminiscent of the airline’s predecessor on the route, British South American Airways (BSAA). The route from London had stops in Madrid, Lisbon, Dakar, Recife, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, and finally Santiago. The route general manager, route captain and a number of the other 15 captains on the route had flown previously with BSAA.

My job in Montevideo was to train the new airport staff. Only one, who came from Pan Am, had worked for an airline before. The others had been a banker, a farmer and a convent school pupil. BOAC had very wisely kept the old airport accommodation which consisted of a storeroom in the basement with vehicle access, a check-in desk and offices opening on to the tarmac, an upstairs office and a small storeroom above that.

I immediately set about training the staff and inquired where the manuals were. I was told that everything had been sent out by sea in a large packing case, which had been impounded in customs at the port. On going to investigate, I discovered that the whole consignment had been banned because the box contained many items, which were produced in Uruguay, such as paper and drawing pins. No, they would not release anything. So the training went ahead with me conjuring up the complete syllabus from memory.

When Comet operations started, there were only to be four flights a week and it was quite remarkable that the station was set up to be completely self handling. The engineering staff and loaders nearly all had a second trade - carpenter, painter and so on. The most important was the head loader who was also the asado (barbecue) expert. The same people did aircraft cleaning and loading, switching from one to the other as required.

With the exception of PLUNA's (the Uruguayan airline) Vickers Viscounts, all the aircraft operating through Montevideo were piston-engined, Douglas DC7Cs or Lockheed Super Constellations operated by Pan Am, KLM, Alitalia, Air France and Pan Air do Brazil. I remember seeing a KLM DC7C with the cowling off one engine and the engineer looking in each successive cylinder with the aid of a special light. When he reached one particular cylinder his face fell a mile when he saw the end of a connecting rod instead of the top of the piston.

Pan Am was notable for running its own operational communications, duplicating what was done by air traffic control. In their office I saw for the first time someone using a bug key, which operated from side to side instead of the more familiar Morse key.

I spent some time getting the airport used to the idea of jet operations. Getting the runways cleaned was a major task - small stones, which are of no trouble to piston-engined aircraft, were very bad news for a jet, particularly the Comet IV. Then there was the problem of jet blast on the apron. No one would believe that behind a jet engine starting up, the more lightweight pieces of ground equipment could take to the air. In the end they had to learn by seeing some engineering steps in full flight.

Air traffic control needed some education as well. They, and in fact the whole of the air-traffic control world, were used to aircraft cruising at fixed altitudes determined by the direction in which they were flying. In order to increase range and save fuel the Comet IV operated at a ‘cruise climb’ which meant climbing initially as high as possible and then allowing the aircraft to climb continuously maintaining maximum altitude as fuel was burned off and the weight decreased.

The post office at Montevideo airport ran a unique service. You could post a letter at the airport to catch a specific flight to Europe two hours before it left. In 1968 a letter I posted at Montevideo airport was delivered to my parents at a village in Somerset 36 hours later!

In between staff training sessions we gradually got the office in order. This involved sorting and throwing away a lot of old files from the storeroom in the basement. One of the staff doing this came to me one day with a file, which he said he thought I would like to see. It was marked ‘Top Secret’ with a diagonal pink line in true RAF tradition. Inside I found a confidential letter from Air Marshal Bennett, the then boss of BSAA, to all overseas managers. The gist was that at long last the British aircraft industry was going to produce an aircraft which would solve all the current problems of a range and payload and would start a new era of aviation for BSAA. I turned the page and found an artist's impression of - the Princess Flying Boat!

There were two inaugural flights during which the staff were able to put into practice what they had learned. Fortunately, by then we had been able to negotiate the manuals and a few other essential bits and pieces from that big packing case in customs. Then came the inaugural flight, running late as they usually do with the fleet captain asking for the fastest possible transit. We managed 27 minutes - a good effort for the first commercial flight with the new staff. (Later I believe the minimum transit allowed was 30 minutes to give the brakes time to cool).

In general, flights operated smoothly, although we had to get used to the idea of the Comet IV flying faster than the air-traffic control communications, which were transmitted by Morse code. We were lucky to receive the departure message for the last station but one by the time an aircraft arrived! For the first flight I followed the BOAC tradition of lining up the staff for the aircraft departure. We too learned a lesson about jet blast - after that I was on my own!

Our engineers did the aircraft marshalling on the ground, but one day the aircraft totally ignored the marshaller and turned in the opposite direction - to my great surprise since the captain was an old friend of ours. When I got on board I found that the nose wheel steering was partly jammed which limited turns to the right. They discovered this at the previous stop in Sao Paulo when he tried to turn round on the runway and finished up at 90 degrees to the edge and called for a tractor. Because the air traffic control personnel spoke no English, our multilingual airport manager was brought in and had to tell the captain that he could have a tractor but that there was no tow bar - it hadn't arrived yet. What followed was probably the only three-point turn ever achieved in a Comet IV.

Quite early on during the operations I was very alarmed when the aircraft did a ‘wet start.’ 15 foot flames coming out of the back of the engine are, after all, rather spectacular. The station engineer standing beside me told me not to worry. “If you want to have a fire anywhere, the best place is inside a jet engine”.

My worst memory at Montevideo was arriving at the traffic office one morning to find a signal left on the desk by the airport communications people. The first words were ‘aircraft accident’. It was the Comet IV which had approached the wrong airport in Madrid at night, diverted to the right one but brushed the very top of a hill in between which was not marked on the map. He had then managed to land safely on two engines, leaving a quantity of metalwork on the hilltop.

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