This is a collection of reminiscences, some of my own, but the majority written by my former colleagues. We all worked in the civil aviation business, most of us overseas, with British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), British European Airways (BEA), and after the two Corporations were merged, British Airways. I have also been happy to be able to include several stories which have been contributed by flying staff, one of whom started his career with BSAA (British South American Airways) before it was absorbed into BOAC.
Our timescale is from the late forties to the early nineties, and in addition to some of the more lighthearted incidents described, we were inevitably involved in some of the wars, political events and natural disasters which occurred during that time, several of which are reflected in the stories.
I joined BOAC as a Trainee Station Officer in 1961. Alongside me was an intake of 16 other trainees – 13 of them British, one Uruguayan, one Ghanaian, one Indian, one South African. Together we underwent a series of training courses in the varied skill sets that we would need overseas. These included meteorology and 'form of the earth,' flight planning, aircraft load planning and load sheet preparation, cargo and airmail, passenger reservations, sales, and a general business course. After each of these training modules we were sent to an overseas station to gain practical experience in the particular skills.
Generally the training stations most favoured were those located in some of the hotter parts of the world where the training was felt to be of most practical use – the 'three Ks' -Khartoum, Karachi and Kuwait were among the more popular! The technical training was of a very high standard and stood us in very good stead in difficult situations. Sales training, as measured from the present, was quite rudimentary – I can remember a senior manager who had recently returned from a posting in the USA introducing us all to the new American concept of - ‘Marketing!’.
I was in the ninth annual intake of station officer trainees, which meant that there were already airport managers, sales managers, country managers, area managers and even more exalted folk who had undergone similar training. Subsequently there were other parallel training schemes, some with a more commercial and less technical orientation producing overseas managers.
BEA had its own training scheme suited to the coverage of its busy shorthaul network within Europe.
Station Engineers had their own regime of training and postings to provide technical cover on the ground, in parallel to that of station officers.
On most airports we worked in shifts to cover the airline schedule. Our primary function was to manage the arrival and turnaround of aircraft without undue incident and within the scheduled time for the stop.
After several postings in different stations around the world, some reached the exalted status of airport manager, country manager, or even regional manager. Depending on the size or orientation of the station, we were required to be all things to all people - administrators, liaison officers, trainers, property specialists, human resource managers, accountants, marketeers, technical specialists in almost every field related to civil aviation, customer service specialists - and, of course, always - diplomats.
In the early days such staff were mainly British expatriates, with a sprinkling of locally engaged staff who received the same training and returned to grow into senior management positions. Over the course of time, more locally engaged staff have taken over most of the functions of management that were once the preserve of expatriates.
Most of these recollections go back to the period between the late 1940s and the early 1990s, and are the work of the staff both of BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) and BEA (British European Airways). From 1975 staff of both of these State-owned Corporations found themselves working for a merged organisation, British Airways, which was privatised nine years later.
BOAC emerged from two pre-Second World War private airlines, Imperial Airways and British Airways, and maintained a separate identity throughout the war, although it operated to fulfil national needs, primarily the continuation of air links between Britain, its Empire and the world beyond the war zones. Its air and ground staff were supplemented by some ex-RAF personnel after the war. BEA started life as 110 Wing of RAF Transport Command, and many of its staff in the early post war years came into the airline from the RAF.
Although they worked in many different parts of the world, many of these early BOAC/BEA overseas staff maintain regular contact with their former colleagues and meet from time to time over a drink, dinner or golf to exchange memories and reminisce over shared experiences. None of us are in the first flush of youth. However, memories of earlier days are long, and the stories they have to tell, colourful. Some recollections are improbable but funny to look back on, but we also endured some less pleasant experiences – wars, coups, and hurricanes, among others.
I remember several times, when listening to my colleagues recounting their adventures, wishing that I had a tape recorder and could recall some of these reminiscences for posterity. In the end I did the next best thing. I asked those who were prepared to delve into their memories to share them with me so that I could try to record them. Many were happy to oblige, and this collection of stories is the result.
The aviation environment in the forties and fifties, when this story really begins, was very different from the present day. Aircraft were smaller, much smaller. So were airports, the technical facilities of which were often, by today’s standards, very rudimentary. So, of course were the facilities for passengers. Again, by comparison with today’s crowded timetables between major cities, route networks were sparse and sketchy, and operations infrequent.
Early telecommunications were distinctly unreliable, as is evident from several of the stories; planning and control of passenger numbers and cargo load between stations only gradually became a more exact science following the introduction of reliable computers. Air travel was still something of an adventure, a novelty for most people, and travellers regarded themselves as pioneers. Anything could happen - and occasionally did!
However, the vast majority of aircraft operations are, and were then, in accordance with the flight plan and free of unexpected incident. While mechanical reliability and the mechanization of processing passengers and freight have radically improved since those early days, life overseas was always full of adventure and occasional incident - no two days were ever the same.
At the beginning of the fifties, post-war austerity measures were still a most uncomfortable reality. Food and clothing rationing only ceased in the 1950s; currency restrictions, which severely limited the amount of sterling that people could take out of the UK, lasted in various forms until the mid 1960s.
Those who travelled by air regularly were something of an elite. There was a hard core of expatriates working overseas, most of them for banks, oil companies or other major multinationals, who travelled home on annual leave. For some of them, their children were at school in the UK and came out for the holidays. Business travel was confined to a few major decision makers. Holiday travel to long haul destinations was, for the majority of the population, still a distant dream. Emigration by air was still on a relatively small scale and was in competition with sea travel; friends and relatives overseas were visited only on special occasions, if at all.
The fifties and sixties were a period of transition from piston engined aircraft to faster, and eventually much more reliable, turboprop and jet aircraft. Early post - Second World War passenger aircraft were mainly derived from wartime transports; they shared many of their limitations and faults. Pressurisation was a major step forward as it allowed aircraft to climb to 6-8,000 metres (20-25,000 feet) and avoid the worst of low level turbulence.
The latest of the propeller aircraft, like the Douglas DC-6/7 family, Boeing Stratocruiser and the Lockheed Constellation, offered a pressurized cabin, much improved performance and greater comfort than their predecessors. However, by today’s standards, they were severely limited by speed, range and altitude. This meant frequent stops for refuelling and crew change, and therefore an airline company presence at out-of-the-way airports that modern aircraft can easily overfly.
With the advent of the jet engine, air transport gradually became much more reliable than before. Airlines were able to operate fairly close to a published timetable on a regular basis. Jet and turboprop aircraft were usually able to fly above or around the worst of the weather, giving passengers a much smoother flying experience than before. Aircraft increased in size and capacity exponentially –the DC-6 seated about 55, the DC-7C stretched the number to 80-95. The turbo-prop Bristol Britannia could accommodate between 95 and 120. Among the jets, the Comet IV carried about 100, the Boeing 707 and DC-8 from 130 to 180. The Boeing 747, first introduced in 1969, is able to carry over 400 passengers, while the two-deck Airbus A-380, which entered commercial service in 2007, can carry well over half as many again.
GEOGRAPHICAL PLAN AND SEQUENCE OF EVENTS
I have taken a geographical rather than historical view, dividing the world first into continents and then alphabetically into countries, putting the recollections as far as possible into historical sequence in each country. Occasionally a reminiscence spills over from one country to another, in which case I have usually placed it where the story commences, unless the important part of the story is in a later posting.
The ‘world coverage’ of the stories may appear at first sight to be somewhat uneven, with few stories from countries that were important on BOAC, BEA and British Airways routes, and many from out of the way places with infrequent schedules, now distant memories on the BA route network, like Rangoon and Gander. The origin of the reminiscences depended not so much on the importance of the station to the airline, as on how unusual or interesting the place was to work in - and indeed, where my willing contributors were located at the time!