SEN Stories

On this page you will find a number of personal stories told by those who worked at 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, gives us a little more insight into the mostly affable characters who worked there.

So, may the aeronautical musings commence…

The Half-Dressed Approach…

In 1973, Southend did not have an Instrument Landing System or ILS. For the uninitiated, 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 A.R.A.A. (Aerodrome Radar Approach Aid) This was an amazing piece of equipment manufactured by 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, incredibly accurate. If it was set up precisely, the SRA (Surveillance Radar Approach) could be carried out down to half a mile with an OCL (Obstacle Clearance Limit) 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 while 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 belt so that 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.

However, our shenanigans eventually came to an end when one day, 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…

Being as 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. Mind you, we did have 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 that is. Now Fred liked to sit in the tower with the window open, a box of cartridges by 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 sea birds on ‘HIS’ runway he went apoplectic. He would launch into this frenzied scramble to load a cartridge into the pistol and then sit and fire it out of the window. We were not happy with the way he discharged it, but his aim seemed good. We would however have been much happier if he had walked over to the open window before firing it. Then, one day and somewhat inevitably, it all ended in tears. On this particular occasion 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 airside. 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 about 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 pistol 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 found ourselves all lying flat, face down on the carpet. Eventually, it ran out of momentum, fell to the ground and of course exploded which was absolutely deafening. Luckily, this happened during a quiet period, 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 plus, not to mention that there were plenty of ad-hoc cargo carriers who arrived in an assorted variety of mostly geriatric aircraft. Much of the cargo in those days was carried loose or at the very 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 the occasional freight special.

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 already cleared the Ostend runway, but had left the snow banked up along the sides. Apparently on landing, Alpha Victor skidded, braked and then 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 this 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 actually offered the chance to go on this 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, subsequently 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 power on the port side 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 then smacked down onto Aviation Traders’ lay down area that was full of engine stands and other related detritus.

As you may well be aware, this tragic event sadly claimed 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 retorted, ‘The same bloody thing happened to me in the Air Force!’

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

 

Car Capers…

Over the 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 both from films of the same name. There were also some quite interesting biking events, the annual Harley club outing being one of these specials. It was the ’60s and this 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 however around 30 of them all told and they just about filled a Carvair, but they were a great bunch of 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, vehicles were loaded without a hitch. However, the same could not be said of one E-Type Jag… This particular model first appeared during the early ’60s and came equipped with a vast bonnet whose length was extremely difficult to determine, especially being as it quickly fell away beyond the view of the driver. Needless to say, during this period we had had very few of them come through the airport and quite naturally, we were somewhat unfamiliar with them. However, the loaders quickly learnt the hard way that you had to pay attention when dealing with these vehicles.

One day, one of our first E-Types was checked through and then summarily driven onto the Hylo although the driver (name withheld to protect the not entirely innocent) had unknowingly edged this Jag 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 platform 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 vehicle.

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

 

All Aboard the Gunbus…

Many people still retain fond memories 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 U.K. 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 of course. Being as Squadron Leader ‘Jack’ Jones was always happy to get as much free advertising as possible, 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 Gunbus (likely piloted by Dizzy Addicott) arrived at the airport from Weybridge, although this aircraft was in fact a replica that had been built the year before.

With this ancient looking machine now 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 renowned for packing their aircraft to the gills. However as a result of this, some flights would end up being overbooked and it was this situation that the Candid Camera team would take advantage of. Quite naturally, this also gave Channel the opportunity to advertise the fact that they had just purchased new jets, namely BAC 1-11s. So, having been led out to the waiting 1-11, the last few passengers were subsequently told that the flight was full but that there was a back-up plane. They were then led to the rather rickety looking Vickers Gunbus whereupon they were given a leather flying helmet, googles and silk scarf. Cameras hidden in the back of a battered old Commer Walk-Thru which moved around the apron like an airport service van then captured the somewhat incredulous expressions of these unwary passengers. Sufficed to say that once the prank had been revealed, they were then put onto the 1-11 to safely continue their journey.

With thanks to Tony Avis & 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.