ATCOs came from previous aviation jobs or services which created different cultures within the ranks. The Cadet courses and disappearance of the older generation really changed the atmosphere for a time but ultimately it did evolve into what we have now.
Teams were from a varied background – personally I was educated in France during WW2 under German occupation, then at 16, joined the British Merchant Navy. There I got my maritime navigation ticket and served 4 years, leaving the service when I got married.
I then served 8 years service in the RAF attached to Coastal Command as an Air Electronics Officer, serving in Maritime Reconnaissance Lancasters and Shackeltons. During my time in the RAF I flew from St.Eval, St Mawgan, Kinloss and Gibraltar. Towards the end of my time in Coastal Command I was offered a transfer to the V-Force and promotion if I signed on again, this I promptly refused !!
At the time the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (MTCA) were recruiting ATCOs – I applied and was lucky enough to be accepted, starting my primary course at Hurn during my demob leave.
After the primary course I also trained at Gatwick as well as Hurn then returned to Hurn for the licence examinations. My licence was endorsed on a Friday and I started work in Hurn Tower on Monday. I was told it would not be a permanent posting but as it turned out I had been selected to be the first civilian ATCO trained to be sent to a Ministry of Supply unit upon the amalgamation of the 2 services, the 2 services ATCOs being merged together at that point.
One morning in the Tower at Hurn a smart young man arrived and was introduced to me as Howard Tilley – the very same ..! My wife and I have been friends with Ted and Allison ever since, albeit at a distance these days.
Subsequently I was posted to Pershore and initially I was viewed as a strange creature who actually had a MATS Part 1, with funny ideas on ATC and was going to “have to change” if I was going to be of any use to anyone.
Pershore was the aerodrome for the RRE (Radar Research Establishment) at Malvern. The staff were all civilian except for the aircrew who were graduates of ETPS (Empire Test Pilots School). The military had their Officers Mess and we were expected to join.
The aircraft fleet contained a Varsity and a Hastings and these were often used for unofficial trips e.g. the Varsity sent to Stornoway to collect seafood for a mess party and the the Hastings to Malta for a weekend etc – an ATCO was always invited. The aircraft fleet changed from time to time depending on the R&D kit being developed, but the resident aircraft comprised about 6 Canberras with funny noses and tails, 2 Viscounts (ex Austrian Airlines and Ghana Airways), a Varsity and a Hastings also with funny appendages.
The ATC kit was the very best for our requirements – we often worked at long range with a modified Marconi 264 High&Low, a wonderful D/F setup and a standard PAR (no ILS for the military then).
Obviously, at that stage, for aerodrome approach I was practically useless, we didn’t have approach, only an approach radar and I was quietly sent to Hurn to make it legal. All approaches were only Radar, or D/F when the radar was on maintenance – great fun. The same training ethos ethos was adopted for PAR, except for this I was expected to to undertake the full course at Hurn.
The course at Hurn was really an enjoyable joke – Civil PAR existed then at Heathrow, Gatwick(?) Manchester, Prestwick and Hurn. The civil equipment was an old Federal system left behind after WW2 and consisted of 2 caravans and a prime mover. The truck had a generator, the 2nd unit was the PAR equipment with aerials on the roof, the last was the rest room. When doing a runway change the whole lot had to be driven to the other site, set up to the exact point and checked – this took more than half an hour.
The equipment caravan had 3 positions, the controller and 2 trackers. The GP and CL were fixed beams and the tracker moved the beams with pedals – obviously, if they moved off target, the target would be lost..! The Approach Radar Controller turned the target on to CL at about 12 miles, then the PAR Controller did a quick ident and then settled the aircraft on the GP and went into his talk-down In the civil world the approach ended at ½ mile. The small screens were 12” or 14” and not of excellent quality (!) – also, the ranges were linear, the distance between the markers being the same at 9-10m miles as at 1-2 miles, so no better definition was available a mile from threshold than at 10 miles.. Despite the limitations, during the war and during its’ civilian service, it did save many aircraft and was certified by us – but it was challenging and we had only a few PAR Controllers to man the 5 units.
On the course at Hurn there were only 2 trainees and each had a dedicated instructor. The targets were the Ministry De Havilland Doves which came for each week and flew 2 sorties mornings and afternoons.
Only one person could train at a time so the “spare” could fly in the right hand seat of the Dove and watch his mate dictate the approach – during the last week of the course the Dove Captains would play all sorts of games, it was quite fun at times !!
I did my course with my good friend Bob Cooke (Heathrow) and look back on it with pleasure. At the end of the course I was required to go to Boscombe Down for conversion onto the Standard Radio (mil) kit and complete at least 50 live runs with any aircraft that would oblige – this Standard Radio kit was a wonderful piece of equipment for its’ time…
The equipment was built into a permanent concrete “house” on the field where it served both ends of the runway. A runway change could be made in less than 10 minutes. In the approach room sat a large console with 2 large screens (GP and CL), manned only by a controller, no need for trackers as the beams scanned. The presentation on the screens was logarithmic, therefore the definition at 9-10 miles was different than at 1-2 miles. The distance between markers on the last mile was about 3 times what it was at 10 miles, so it was actually possible to land a target on the runway, left or right of CL. Military PAR approaches were done to touchdown – it was possible and sometimes, required, to carry out tight PAR formations of 3 or 4 aircraft by talking down the leader while the other aircraft positioned themselves visually on the lead.
The PAR job was probably the most satisfying – to complete a good approach in thick fog gave some buzz, it only lasted 10 minutes or so, but during that time the controller was almost God – in charge, with 100% responsibility for the outcome, although it should be noted that it took a good pilot to follow the continuous corrections exactly. The secret was a relaxed and reassuring voice.
And so on to Prestwick. I negotiated a transfer to SCOACC in 1968 – another culture shock, moving from a 5 ATCO unit in a semi military environment back to civilian standards (there were MATS Part 2s ! ) and a host of people. SCOACC at the time had a good feel, it felt like a large family with both its’ flaws and good points.
The centre was in Redbrae House on the edge of Prestwick Airport – it was in a fairly sorry state structurally – the roof occasionally leaked and rats were seen running about under the floor boards from time to time, but it was homely. The radar site with its WW2 type 7 band 14 radars was at Gailes, the ex South of Scotland WW2 radar defence unit about 6 miles North of the airport. Radar controllers on the old 4 watch system worked radar at Gailes on morning shift and afternoons and nights at Redbrae.
Oceanic moved in to the old NCB building in Prestwick, moving into a new ops room along with Tels and Admin. The building was renamed Atlantic House. Airways followed on the next year and at this time the staff were split into Oceanic and Domestic disciplines with separate validations. I moved to Oceanic and was happy to do so. The planning and en-route functions and the designing of the NAT Track system for the next flows were very different from what I had seen before.
At that time Oceanic had an early form of computer, named Apollo. It was built by Ferranti, and was a simple strip production / digital data transfer system which did not cover our whole area of responsibility, but it was said to be the first to transfer data across the North Atlantic, to its’ Canadian equivalent in the Gander ops room.
Maybe because of my French language capability, in 1969/70 I was asked to go to the Eurocontrol Test Centre at Bretigny with Bill Eames (Belfast) to carry out an evaluation on the determination of Concorde Oceanic entry and exit routes plus acceleration and deceleration points. Eurocontrol did very well – the SW London and Brest sectors were simulated, traffic could be set at any rate and the controller had direct RT with the Captain in the Concorde simulator at Toulouse. The trials lasted the best part of a month and led to the Concorde tracks we eventually used.
Promotion followed, to ATCO 2 and then 3 years later to ATCO1. The Assistant Centre Superintendent job had become vacant and I was persuaded to take it as no one else wanted it! Another culture shock : This role entailed overseeing daily operations, staffing issues and any other matters that others could think of, also formulating and implementing future plans – there were many coming up..! My good friend Tom Craig lost his medical round about this time and came into the office to help – together we made a good team.
In some ways the post was unique. The NAT region, overseen by ICAO, was divided and the portions were, and still are, allocated to various states. ICAO set up the North Atlantic Special Planning Group (NATSPG) to hopefully ensure a unified approach to current and more importantly future service provision within the region. The group met in the ICAO building in Paris every year for 2 weeks and was attended by all agencies involved in oceanic matters :- ATC and Comms providers, airline representatives, statisticians and pilots unions etc. The main purpose of the Group was to tackle the future changes to come. At the time many technological advances led to a need for procedure changes to accommodate upgraded aircraft navigational capability and both 2 engine and 2 pilot operations. It was decided to encompass this in a new class of Oceanic airspace to be used initially only by those aircraft that could meet the new enhanced Minimum Navigation Performance Specification (MNPS) standard, although there was a realisation that existing aircraft that could not would either be retrofitted or moved to a different theatre of operations. The UK was tasked to produce the MNPS Ops Manual. UK representation on the group was led by CG2 at CAA House – the office only consisted of an OPS1 and an ATCO2 and I was required to attend as the Shanwick rep as were my compatriots from Gander, the Azores, Iceland and New York.
In addition ICAO sponsored a yearly group meeting of what they called the NAT Chiefs – only the ATC manager from each Oceanic area, to meet informally and discuss their issues without the constraint of oversight. Each unit would play host in turn, on their own home turf, which we all did, however, New York chose to host their event at San Juan in Puerto Rico, which was fun..! Obviously, this was not just a “jolly” – we were expected to produce a meaningful annual report and this was presented to the NATSPG.
The proposed “automation” of Shanwick reared its head in the late 1980s and I had no choice but to become involved. The spec was to be drawn up “in-house” by various groups. A software house was appointed and some of our staff were given IT training and attached to them. Over the following years there were endless meetings to settle the details of the specification and try to sell it to the staff. The front end hardware displays were specially designed, as were the keyboards, as the National Radiological Authority (NRA) insisted on doing radiation checks in the Ops Room. Eventually the system went live and essentially met the required specification but it was not exactly stable (!) and as there was no backup, when a failure occurred, the entire traffic picture was dumped onto flight progress strips and Manual reversion declared.
I had been a lone voice, urging for us to look at the Canadian system (GAATS) from the beginning. It could have been modified easily to Shanwick Ops but it seemed there was a settled will to do our own thing. The beast eventually settled down and I believe, was subsequently changed – a version of the Canadian system is now in place.
As I was coming up to retirement I decided to wind down and went back to the Ops Room as a Watch Manager – I couldn’t have asked for a better Watch and it was a great 2 years back in “the family”. I will always be grateful for that time among a great group of friends.
(sadly Don passed way on 17th August 2018 – atchistory)