SEN Stories

On this page you will find various stories told by those who worked at or from SEN. Some of them are amusing, some are serious and some may even be a little melancholic. Nevertheless, they all contribute towards our historical appreciation of the airport and of course, the mostly affable characters who worked there.

So, may the aeronautical musings commence…

The Half-Dressed Approach…

In ’73, Southend did not have an Instrument Landing System or ILS. This is a piece of equipment that allows aircraft to land in poor weather when the visibility is so bad that a visual approach is not possible. Instead, Surveillance Radar Approaches were carried out using an EKCO ARAA (Aerodrome Radar Approach Aid) This was an amazing piece of equipment manufactured by a local electrical company, E K Cole. It hung from the ceiling of the tower rather like a periscope in a submarine. The operator stood looking into a small ‘A’ scope tube. He was able to follow the aircraft by literally rotating the entire radar receiving unit on its axis. Azimuth control was maintained by turning two hand grips either side of the unit.

It was very, very basic but in the hands of a skilled operator, very accurate. If it was set up precisely, Surveillance Radar Approaches could be carried out down to half a mile with an OCL of about 250 feet. Once the approach was commenced, the controller was committed to it. He stood upright looking into the ‘A’ scope. Both hands on the azimuth controls and at the same time talking on the R/T. Our favourite trick was to wait until the talk down had commenced and then we would loosen the poor unfortunate’s trouser belt so his trousers fell to the floor. He had no spare hands to help himself so the SRA would be conducted with his trousers round his ankles, much to the mirth of everybody else in the tower.

Our game came to an end however when one day the Airport Commandant, Mr Tony Cusworth, appeared in the tower with a party of very influential visitors from Southend Corporation Council. An SRA was in progress as they climbed the stairs into the VCR (Visual Control Room) where they were met by the sight of an Air Traffic Controller conducting a Surveillance Radar Approach to an inbound aircraft in his underpants. I can still see it now as plain as if it was yesterday. The underpants were red and yellow stripes although the red was not quite as vivid as the faces of the Commandant or his visitors. He made a polite cough and then made his excuses and left. Of course we did not get away lightly. Within hours a memo appeared that with immediate effect, no Surveillance Radar Approaches would be carried out in ones underpants. What a spoilsport Chuff was.

Clint Gubby – Former ATCO at SEN

Many thanks to Peter Clark for sourcing the image of the ARAA

 

The Very Incident…

Because Southend is so close to the sea, seagulls and other sea birds have always been a constant nuisance on the runway and manoeuvring areas. When requested, the airport fire service would come out now and again and fire off a few Very flares to scare away these birds but it was never really very satisfactory. We had our own Very gun in the tower and our own stock of cartridges. We also had one window that opened to give a perfect view of the airfield. From this window we could fire off cartridges all day long, although it meant standing at the open window and leaning out in order to fire the gun. Not a problem for us, well apart from one controller called Fred. Now Fred liked to sit in the tower with the window open, a box of cartridges buy his side, pistol ready and was happy to say, ‘Cleared to land, cleared to take off, surface wind is….’ until the cows came home.

But when he saw some sea birds on ‘his’ runway he went apoplectic. He would launch into this frenzied scramble to load a cartridge into the gun and then sit and fire it out of the window. We were not happy with the way he discharged the gun, but his aim seemed good. We would however have been much happier if he had walked over to the open window before firing the gun. Then somewhat inevitably, it all ended in tears. On this particular day he was sitting in the air position and it was not particularly busy. A couple of us were reading the papers in the comfy chairs that every tower has positioned so that they can’t be seen by any pilot air side. Fred suddenly announced ‘I need a wee’ so one of our colleagues, a controller of more advanced years called Roy, stood up and announced that he would take over and a handover was effected. Roy had only been sitting down for a few seconds when he remarked how cold it was in the tower and immediately closed the window. We carried on with our newspapers and after a few minutes there was a stomping up the stairs from the loo and Fred was back. Another handover was done and within minutes there was an expletive about seagulls on the runway.

Fred went for the gun and loaded the cartridge all in one action, such was his rage because seagulls were on ‘his’ runway. He pointed the gun at the window and pulled the trigger. It was at this point that we all realised that the window had been shut and we all hit the ground as the cartridge left the pistol and thudded against the window. Had we been luckier, it might have gone through the glass and exploded outside, but it didn’t. It fell to the floor and then flew round the tower four or five times at waist height bouncing off the windows several times. The noise and the smell was incredible and as the smoke filled the tower, we were all lying flat, face down on the carpet. Finally, it ran out of momentum, fell to the ground and of course exploded which was deafening. Luckily it was a quiet time, so we evacuated the tower and attempted to clear the smoke. It goes without saying that the procedures were quickly changed as to the discharging of Very cartridges. We were told that we had to use the Land Rover and go out onto the airfield to fire a cartridge and not do it from the comfort of the tower.

Clint Gubby – Former ATCO at SEN

Many thanks to Jamie Popplewell for passing both of these stories on with Clint’s approval.

 

Feeling Sheepish…

I’m not sure how much traffic SEN gets these days but back in the early to mid-1960s B.U.A.F did about 25 trips a day and Channel maybe 15, not to mention that there were plenty of ad-hoc cargo carriers who arrived in a variety of geriatric aircraft. Most of the cargo was carried loose, or at best palletised – no containers back then. As well as export cars, of which there was literally a field full (opposite the new terminal). We also did MFO (Military Forwarding Officer – family gear, not guns) and general freight, so any space left after the pax and their cars had been loaded was always filled. We did Calais, Ostend and Rotterdam several times a day with Le Touquet, Basle and Geneva a few times a week, plus occasional freight specials.

One of the earliest ‘specials’ I recall involved G-APAV – the old Sabena painted B170. On this particular occasion we sent a load of sheep to Ostend – about 40 I think, but there was nothing as fancy as animal containers in those days, just a few bits of scaffold to pen them in so they were effectively loose in the freight hold, if somewhat loosely segregated. It was winter and snow ploughs had cleared the Ostend runway but had left the snow banked up along the sides. Apparently, the kite skidded as the aircraft braked and edged off the runway, after which it hit the packed snow and tipped up onto its nose, the jolt throwing all the sheep into the nose door area, which of course then made the aircraft too nose heavy to pull back on her tail wheel.

So Frank and Terry – our loaders who went on the trip – had to lug the sheep up the slippery cargo hold and hand them out of the back door one at a time. I’ll leave you to imagine the indignity of having to carry a number of struggling sheep up a steep hold, the floor of which was covered in half frozen sheep’s pee. Suffice to say, Terry and Frank were a little past their showroom best on their return. Thankfully, the damage to the kite was minimal as the snow had apparently acted as a cushion. Those old kites were virtually indestructible anyway. I was offered the chance to go on the trip but didn’t have my passport with me, so Terry went in my place, something to this day that I am extremely grateful for…

Tony Mullinger – Former B.U.A.F Employee

 

More Prangs…

On the subject of close calls, this one much closer to home… one day a Carvair was landing on R/W 24 when the port outer wheel inadvertently came off. As the aircraft braked the captain may well have seen it overtaking him, which would have been a sobering sight indeed! At any rate, the absconding wheel was described as “making a big circle across the grass after which it then headed off towards the apron tarmac” or words to that effect…

Roy Fields, the ramp super either got a radio call or saw the event occur. He ran outside and jumped onto the back of the tractor, which already had Paddy the driver in his usual position. Apparently, the aim was to run into the wheel and prevent it from colliding with G-APAV, which was parked up on the northern apron. It may well have been my overactive imagination or pre-Alzheimers kicking in, but I swear that I saw Roy waving a spanner in the air in an apparent attempt to intimidate the wheel into submission!

However thankfully, the wheel narrowly missed the aircraft and instead hit a little hut that the pan marshals used for sheltering from the rain, demolishing that and changing its trajectory so that it turned a bit more and ended up jammed under the elevator of Channel’s geriatric old Viking – a real blow to the opposition no doubt! I’m not sure that I ever saw this old Viking flying again, but if the wheel never did the job, then it wouldn’t have really mattered as it was about 10 years past its ‘use by date’ anyway.

A far more serious event involved Channel Viscount G-AVJZ which pranged on take off. Apparently it was a crew training flight and the training captain tripped #1, upon which the captain under training accidentally feathered #2 (which also tripped #2). Right procedure, wrong engine as it meant a total loss of port power with full power now being applied to the starboard side only, Needless to say, the kite slewed round just after lifting off of the runway, narrowly missing the tank farm and smacked down onto Aviation Traders’ lay down area that was full of engine stands and other related detritus.

As you may well be aware, the event sadly took the lives of two people working in the ATEL storage shed (these details are from memory only) but what I do recall is that there was another ATEL storeman who was working on the site, looking for something or other when this Viscount somewhat unceremoniously landed on top of him. Thankfully, he was protected somewhat by the numerous engine stands and other rubbish but still received a broken leg, arm and collar bone amongst other injuries. He was off work for some months and when he came back I congratulated him on his luck – for having had an aircraft land on top of him and survive it. ‘Luck?’, he said, ‘The same bloody thing happened to me in the Air Force!’

Tony Mullinger – Former B.U.A.F Employee

 

Car Capers…

Over years we had a vast number of vehicles passing through the airport including some of silver screen fame such as Goldfinger’s Rolls and Bond’s Aston, along with The Yellow Rolls Royce and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from the films of the same name. There were also some quite interesting bike events, the annual Harley club outing being a special. It was the ’60s and the club was made up almost exclusively of U.S. cop lookalikes and their geriatric steeds; one sidecar combination actually had a reverse gear. There was none of the ‘modern Harley cafe posers on their brand new Fatboys…’ There were about 30 of them all told and they just about filled a Carvair. But they were a great bunch of genuine enthusiasts even if they did look like a bunch of extras trying out for the latest Village People video.

It goes without saying that most of the time, these vehicles were loaded without a hitch. However, the same could not be said of one E-Type Jag though… This particular model first appeared during the early ’60s and came equipped with a vast bonnet whose length was extremely difficult to determine as it quickly fell away beyond the view of the driver. Needless to say, we had had very few of them through the airport and were at the time quite unfamiliar with them, but the loaders quickly learnt the hard way that you had to pay attention when dealing with these cars.

One day, one of our first E-Types was checked through and summarily driven onto the Hylo although the driver (name withheld to protect the not entirely innocent) had unknowingly edged beyond the front of the lift. The lift operator (similar name omission to spare any blushes) was not really concentrating and started to raise the lift. At the time I was passing by and saw what was about to happen, so I waved my arm at the lift guy who just smiled and waved back as the Hylo table continued to rise. Of course, when he heard the Jag’s nose crunch up against the under sill of the Carvair, his face dropped a mile. The front yard or so of an E type contains very little engine so the car was still drivable but I don’t think the owner was too impressed with having to spend his holiday cruising around the Continent in a duck billed Jag.

Tony Mullinger – Former B.U.A.F Employee

 

All Aboard the Gun Bus…

Many people still remember the U.S. TV show Candid Camera which eventually began to unleash its comical japes upon an unsuspecting British public from around 1960 onwards. Thus it was in 1967 that SEN and in particular Channel Airways found themselves being approached by the programme’s production team whereupon they discussed their intention to carry out a particularly humorous ruse on a select number of passengers with the support of the management team. Quite naturally, with Sq.Ldr. ‘Jack’ Jones always happy for a little free advertising,  the project was given the go ahead. However, it was probably with some surprise that on the day of filming, an ancient looking WWI era, Vickers F.B.5 Gun Bus arrived at the airport although this aircraft was in fact a replica that had been built the year before.

Once parked up on the apron, the wheeze was set into play. At the time, SEN was going through its passenger heyday while Channel was also known for packing their aircraft to the gills. However, quite naturally some flights would be overbooked and it was this situation that the Candid Camera team would take advantage of. So, having been led out to a Viscount, the very last passengers were subsequently told that the flight was full and were then instead led to the rather rickety looking Vickers where they were given a leather flying helmet, googles and silk scarf. Needless to say, a hidden camera caught the somewhat incredulous expressions of these unwary passengers, although after the prank had been revealed they were put onto the Viscount and safely continued their journey.

With thanks to Mike Harvey for help with this story

 

If you have any other SEN related stories that you would be willing to share, then please don’t hesitate to send them over to us at saadinfomail@gmail.com and we will gladly post them here.