At Southend Airport from 1955 by Barry Cole

Early Days

My father, the late James Henry Cole DFC greatly influenced my decision to follow in his footsteps and as such, I began working at the airport in 1955. He had previously joined the airport around 1948 following his release from the RAF where he had been a Wireless Operator/Bomb-Aimer and Senior Crew Leader with No. 644 Squadron, which had flown Halifaxes in support of SOE drops and Airborne Assault operations. I was 6 or 7 years old when I first became aware of my dad shouting and crying out in his sleep, which often woke most of the family. He never spoke about his time with the squadron or indeed, about the war at all. I think it must have been his experiences and the sights that he witnessed which caused him to have nightmares for most of his life afterwards. Thankfully though, the rest of his career in aviation would be of a much more peaceable nature and he continued to work as the Tarmac (Apron) Supervisor at SEN up until his retirement in 1979.

As for me personally, well after leaving school I worked for a time at St. Ann’s, and Smith’s Glass. Then in 1955, I started working at the Southend Municipal Airport as a Baggage Handler. I was 19 years of age and clearly remember that my starting rate was £9. 4/- per week. We generally worked two shifts: 7am to 3pm, and 3pm to 11pm under the charge of Bob Saker and Ron Turner. My duties at this time mostly involved the collection and loading of luggage via the operator’s kiosk onto the aircraft for departing passengers. Of course, we had to follow a strict loading schedule which was provided by either the operator’s staff, the aircraft engineers or sometimes by the pilots themselves and they also varied considerably according to the different aircraft types that used the airport.

For arrivals we would use a Bantam-Karrier vehicle (in essence, a small trailer) and transfer the luggage to the custom’s examination hall. Once the relevant checks had been made, we would then reload the trailer and take the luggage to the waiting coaches in the coach park outside which used to be on the right as you came in through the main gate. Freight flights were extremely common too and by the early 1960s, Southend had become the second busiest air freight terminal in the country after LAP (Heathrow). Such services also brought some nice surprises too and one of the best days I remember was when I opened an aircraft that was parked beyond the north-side of the apron and found that it was loaded with many beautiful tropical birds which we then carefully removed and dispatched to customs.

Mind you, it wasn’t all fun and games and none of us looked forward to the twice-weekly troop runs that Air Charter were at the time running to and from Germany. This particular ‘baggage’ included each soldier’s back-pack, their suitcases and on occasion, even their firearms and ammunition. That said, cargo operations were perhaps the most challenging for me as at the time Air Charter were experiencing staff problems and I was often called upon to load or unload cars from the Bristol B170s. Such operations would also extend to shipping new cars in and out of the country and we also unloaded hundreds of those low, 3-wheeled cars that were popular in those days and are more than likely considered ‘classic cars’ in this day and age.

Over the years, we also had a good number of famous cars passing through the airport some of which included James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5, Goldfinger’s Rolls Royce Phantom and Sterling Moss’ own car along with those of many other celebrities. However, on the odd rare occasion we would get even higher value consignments passing through and in 1956, one particular job came along that I felt a bit windy about. This involved a shipment of bullion that had been unloaded and placed in the brick-built ‘Freight Only’ shed and was constantly surrounded by numerous security personnel. At one point, I was instructed to remain in the building whilst the sole freight officer went about other duties. By this time all the security men had departed too and I was left alone for several hours with the bullion (that looked like ingots and were silver in colour).

From ‘Baggage’ to ‘Spanners’

In late 1959, my first air side station of employment was in the fitter’s shop in the former blister hangar and this would result in me becoming involved with refuelling duties. These duties were originally accomplished using Shell’s own refuellers and oil dispensers, but the decision was eventually taken by the airport to procure their own equipment. It was then that Peter Palmer needed an assistant and thus I was transferred from ‘baggage’ to ‘spanners’. I’m glad I made the move, because I was soon undertaking training and working on the AEC Matadors, the Bedford QL and the Zwicky Trailer Bowsers, etc. The Matadors were 3-axled, 6-wheel drive and held 2,500 gallon tanks that were fitted with Stolhard & Pitt pumps and left and right Avery Hardall meters offering left or right refuelling or de-fuelling possibilities through two steel booms elevated through double (heavy) springs via a 360º swivel. From the booms were 2″ I.D. rubber hoses that terminated in a discharge gun to permit over wing refuelling.

Two of the Matadors were later driven to Thompson Brothers at Bilston, Staffordshire for conversion to under wing (pressure) fuelling. This involved the fitting of retractable hose-reels (left and right) which terminated with coupling connectors that were filtered down to 50 microns for use with kerosene. The Bedford and Zwickies were also overhauled for the airport, this involving repairs to the pumps and the adjustment/recalibration of the meters. As far as fire fighting and rescue vehicles were concerned, No. 1 fire tender was a Land Rover which towed a CO² powder trailer while tenders No .2 & No . 3 comprised of two new Merryweather fire-tenders, each of which came with 850 gallon water and 150 gallon foam tanks. These had replaced a former RAF Crossley 4×4 fire tender which was no longer fit for purpose. An ambulance was bought at the same time too. I’m also proud to say that I was involved with the conversion of an AEC aircraft refueller into a water bowser & foam storage vehicle that would back up up the rather low water/foam capacities of the two Merryweather fire tenders. In addition, two ‘Knap-Sack’ tanks were fitted that could produce foam through two No. 5 FBX nozzles, making this water bowser a fire-tender in its own right.

Incidents and Accidents

It goes without saying that while SEN has a very good safety record, accidents can and do happen although thankfully, these are very rare occurrences. I do recall a number of incidents that took place though, one of which sadly had fatal consequences. This rather unpleasant accident happened some time around March 1962 while Channel Dakota G-AHCV was undergoing an overhaul and an engine change. At the time the aircraft was sitting in the hangar up on wing jacks and undercarriage retraction tests were being carried out. Meanwhile, any subsequent oil leaks were being wiped off by an elderly cleaner who performed this duty by standing or sitting on the relevant wheel of the undercarriage. Suddenly and for no apparent reason, one wing jack collapsed and the cleaner was crushed into the small space by the undercarriage. Tragically, the man died of his injuries while the plane was so badly damaged that it wouldn’t return to service until the following year.

However, thankfully most accidents don’t have such sad outcomes and one particular incident that I remember well and which produced nothing more than a few bumps, bruises and shaken nerves was that of Falcon Airways Handley Page H.P.81 Hermes G-ALDC which slid off of the end of Southend’s runway on October 9th 1960. Straight away, the aircraft struck the earth bank adjacent to the airport boundary which broke the nose wheel strut away from its upper attachment after which the plane then came to rest on the Southend to London railway track. British Rail then brought in a crane and after they had lifted the aircraft off of the railway tracks, I then assisted in the pulling and jacking of the raised tail-end of the aircraft down onto a large tyre placed on top of the AEC (Water Tank) via a thick strap that was in turn connected to the AEC and then the Hermes’ damaged rudder supports inside the tail cone. Next, we positioned and connected two, long, wire towing cables to the left & right undercarriage oleos, each of which was then attached to an AEC aircraft refueller.

With three AEC Matador tankers now connected to the Hermes we were ready to pull and on receiving ATC clearance, we slowly towed the aircraft back onto the runway. Once it was back on firm ground, we then disconnected the two towing cables from the oleos while leaving the damaged airframe secured to the airport’s water-bowser that held the aircraft more or less level. With a few final checks made, we were then ready to tow the aircraft down the eastern peri-track to a position of safety and most importantly, this would allow the runway to be re-opened for use. The aircraft was subsequently impounded pending an investigation by the AAIB, although it needed to be de-fuelled of its purple 115/145 octane Avgas which was then stored in a surplus tank for the investigators. While no doubt saving many lives, the cabin seating in this particular aircraft faced aft, making the task of evacuating the passengers at the crash-site very difficult. Many people found themselves trapped due to the acute angle that the aircraft had taken on after having come to rest on a sloped embankment without any nose gear.

Mind you, we were sometimes called upon to tow our very own, SEN based aircraft and recall one particular incident where two Air Bridge 170’s had sunk into the soft ground. ATL’s Combined & Tandem connected its largest vehicles in an attempt to pull the aircraft clear but failed, so they finally had to be recovered and pulled onto the hard-standing area using the winch of one of our AEC Matadors. One final prang that I remember involved a Channel Airways B170 passenger flight. The aircraft was held at the western taxiway prior to 24’s entry point, awaiting an aircraft on long-finals. A light aircraft however was allowed to enter by ATC. This aircraft then tried to pass the B170, but had insufficient space and its propeller hit and entered the fuselage badly injuring a female passenger seated near the window. The fire-engine I was driving at this time was not required and I felt that I should have taken the ambulance instead, but I was happy to see one of my crew attending this call-out, quickly arrive with the ambulance.

Naturally, work of this kind can at times shake you up, but one of my most frightening experiences actually involved the use of a new ground power unit the airport had bought which was used to start prop-jets the amperage draw of which was somewhat higher than what the GPU itself could supply. To reach the correct spool up speed for engine ignition, this GPU had to be over-revved while the aircraft started each engine… and it was while using this infernal machine that I experienced my first wet-start! Basically, this involves the premature ignition of fuel that is then shot out into the atmosphere resulting in a 15-20ft long flame which is somewhat reminiscent of a blow-lamp that has not ignited properly and that produces a long narrow jet of paraffin which then bursts into flames. Needless to say, I almost jumped out of my skin! The aircraft on this occasion shut off the fuelling cycle and restarted the sequence, this time with success. Just to put things into perspective, aircraft have a 28 volt system, this GPU was 24 volt. Prop-jets required 1800+ amps, but this GPU supplied 1700 amps… just!

New Aircraft

Late in 1957, I saw the arrival of the “King’s Flight” Vikings G-APOP and G-APOR. They gleamed like chrome. Inside, they were luxuriously fitted out but could not carry more than thirty passengers comfortably. Needless to say, Tradair quickly converted them and put them to work on their I.T routes. Then in June 1961, I witnessed the first Carvair conversion (from a C-54) preparing for its first flight. Water tanks were loaded and then secured as ballast at various points along the length of the cargo deck and the aircraft then commenced to make take-off runs that were deliberately aborted within the runway’s length. More water ballast was added and the procedure was repeated several times until sufficient information and certain adjustments had been recorded. Then on the 21st, Carvair “Yankee B” finally took off and performed a circuit, looking magnificent with its high cockpit. The following days consisted of many more circuits and bumps, during which time the ballast was increased for tolerance test purposes and as they say ‘The rest is history’. In fact, it wasn’t long after this that these large aircraft became a common sight over the skies of Southend.

Weather Issues

Another reasonably common sight at Southend, especially around the turn of the 1960s were winter diversions. With much of the country being fogged in, these diversions often saw a large number of aircraft heading for SEN and on Christmas Eve 1961, Southend was the only airport to remain open and operational which meant that we’d end up receiving over half of BEA’s fleet along with numerous other aircraft from European countries. The latter aircraft were of course able to return to their base (field) airports while BEA’s parked fleet of aircraft would remain stranded at SEN, at least for the next day or two. In fact, the airport was so packed that a number of freight aircraft were instructed to park beyond the north hard standing (on the grass). These were later inspected after Christmas and were found to contain pineapples, fabrics and birds amongst other things.

Admittedly, we do get quite good weather in Southend and while climate extremes rarely put in an appearance, as many know only too well, we do get the occasional, heavy covering of snow. As most people can probably imagine, deep snow or slush can present a real danger to aircraft, causing drag on take off while presenting a clear and present skidding or aqua-planning risk on landing. So, whenever this happened we had to take action such as during the winter of 1962 when we experienced constant snowfall which went on all night. With the airport not possessing any (snow) bladed vehicles, Airport Commandant Anthony Cusworth, decided to order all of our vehicles onto the runway where we would drive up and down in efforts to compact the snow after which it was then copiously gritted. As a result of our actions, Southend Airport became operational whereas most others remained unsafe and closed.

Moving On to Pastures New

In 1964 I transferred to the Freight-Shed Service which again was operated in two shifts, 7am to 3pm, and 3pm to 11pm. The blister hangar I worked from was the original fitter’s shop, although it later went on to become the freight-shed after Channel Airways moved their engineering facility to the No. 1 hangar on the north side of the airport. One of the less strenuous duties I had was that of ‘Customs Opener’ where I was required to search and remove pre-selected items of freight that had been randomly chosen by the Duty Customs Officer. This was simply akin to the kind of ‘open and display’ channel system of customs inspection that most airports have. The job itself kept me indoors and it was admittedly quite cushy although without much in the way of variation, it quickly became too tedious for my liking.

So, towards the end of the year I transferred to the ‘Duty Crew’ which had to cover three, fully rotating, eight-hour shifts; 7am to 3pm, 3pm to 11pm and 11pm to 7am. As a rule, we had to pair up for refuelling duties – Overwing (gravity) refuelling required carefully guiding the driver of the twenty-plus ton Matador to the trailing edge of the starboard wing of the Bristol Freighters or the leading edge of either wing of most other (petrol fuelled) aircraft and quite naturally, you could not walk on the wings of the smaller aircraft. Underwing (pressure) refuelling however, differed from over wing in that you had to set the fuel flow rate in accordance with the data recorded on the inlet panel of the aircraft being refuelled. There were standard rates for ‘resident’ aircraft, but non-resident aircraft required a wide variety of fuel flows.

Firefighting and manning the fire tenders in a proficient manner was another duty you would have to perform. Various lectures and tests were held on a monthly basis and were compulsory. Occasionally, we attended special classes at Stansted Airport where during one particular exercise we would don asbestos suits and undergo the practical test of being able to walk through a burning aircraft fuselage. It goes without saying that team work is essential as it is the man behind you who extinguishes the fire as you progress. Training was also given on all types of extinguishers including CO², CO² and Powder, and Chemical. Further experience was gained on the north-west (fire) area at Southend, where regular ‘test’ fires on board aircraft were carried out.

One of the other tasks that we would have to carry out if we were working on the 11pm to 7am shift was that of apron services. With our day time marshallers being off duty during these hours, any arriving aircraft would have to be met by one of our duty crew. When aircraft taxied onto the apron during the day, a system of arm movements would be carried out using flags whereas during the night, we’d use torches to guide the pilots in to park on the appropriate bay. For departing aircraft, you were required to familiarise yourself with each different aircraft type and their engine starting sequences. The removal of the wheel chocks would be the very last action performed by the ground crew and the pilot would then be informed that the undercarriage was clear before the aircraft taxied out to the runway for departure.

Strikes

To finish off, I’d just like to tell you about a strikes that occurred at SEN in 1970. By this time, I’d already left the airport where my final position was that of ‘Customs Inspector’ (I returned to the glass industry in 1967) although I still kept in touch with plenty of people there who kept up to date on the comings and going at the airport. The Dock Strike of 1970 was a major industrial action taken by dockers in Britain that raised fears of food shortages, and led to the proclamation of a state of emergency by Queen Elizabeth II. This strike seriously cut imports and exports and the Army stood ready to protect food supplies. Ships were being held at Rotterdam with perishable cargoes that numerous aircraft carried to Southend Airport over a number of weeks. However, the worst cargo to unload was the fore and hind quarters of cattle. The aircraft being used had the main spar running across the floor of the passenger compartment, so the lighter fore-limbs were loaded forward of the main spar obstruction. The difficulty worsened with the extreme weight and off-set shape of the rear legs, all of which had to be hung via hooks inside each refrigerated lorry. Sheep carcasses however, were much easier to handle.

With many thanks to Peter C. Brown for passing this information on with Barry Cole’s permission.