Better On A Camel

BOAC, originally uploaded by painter girl.

The British Overseas Airways Company was created in November of 1939, from the merger of the two British airlines: Imperial Airways, the nation’s large, state-subsidised international carrier; and British Airways, a smaller privately-run carrier that focused on European routes.  While we in the modern era tend to look on early Jet Age travel with a mixture of awe and nostalgia, the airlines were not always so highly regarded in their own time.  In BOAC’s case, delays and inconveniences led some wags to coin the acronym/nickname that titles this post.

There can be little doubt, though, that an interesting assignment to a faraway land was and is what every twentysomething craves at one point or another.  And that spirit of young, carefree adventure certainly pervades the stories at Better On A Camel, a site devoted to the memories of former BOAC staff.

One of our main responsibilities was to drive out on to the runway about 45 minutes before arrival to check the depth of water on the runway. If it was over about 10 cm. we would hurry back to the radio in the office to advise the captain of the situation so that he could divert either to Jaffna, about half an hour away, or to Madras if he had enough fuel, which usually he had not. Jaffna Airport was primitive, and had no runway lights, so whenever a Comet went through Colombo (every night), they lit an old RAF kerosene gooseneck flare path, which took them over an hour. ??This was just in case of a diversion which happened only once or twice a year, but if the Comet was diverted it did not have enough fuel to wait around while the flare path was lit! So our job of measuring the depth of water on the Colombo runway, although not requiring a high degree of expertise (sticking a ruler in the water from the car door) was vital for the safety of the aircraft.
On one particularly dark night I drove out on to the runway, 45 minutes before the flight was expected, and measured the depth of water. It was well over 10 centimetres, and as I started to drive off the runway, the car engine gave a cough and died – flooded. I tried to restart it for two or three minutes without success, got out of the car and was immediately soaked to the skin. There were no portable radios in those days, and no way to contact anyone to tow me off. The torrent of rain was easing slightly and visibility had improved a little, although the cloud base could not have been more than 150 metres above. ??I glanced down the runway in the direction of the approach and thought I saw two small winks of light. I looked again and the penny dropped – it could only be the landing lights of the Comet on its approach. The aircraft must have picked up time and be arriving early, and here I was, standing in the middle of the runway with a car immobile, a dead weight, and the crew of the aircraft could not see me.

One of our main responsibilities was to drive out on to the runway about 45 minutes before arrival to check the depth of water on the runway. If it was over about 10 cm. we would hurry back to the radio in the office to advise the captain of the situation so that he could divert either to Jaffna, about half an hour away, or to Madras if he had enough fuel, which usually he had not. Jaffna Airport was primitive, and had no runway lights, so whenever a Comet went through Colombo (every night), they lit an old RAF kerosene gooseneck flare path, which took them over an hour.

This was just in case of a diversion which happened only once or twice a year, but if the Comet was diverted it did not have enough fuel to wait around while the flare path was lit! So our job of measuring the depth of water on the Colombo runway, although not requiring a high degree of expertise (sticking a ruler in the water from the car door) was vital for the safety of the aircraft.

On one particularly dark night I drove out on to the runway, 45 minutes before the flight was expected, and measured the depth of water. It was well over 10 centimetres, and as I started to drive off the runway, the car engine gave a cough and died – flooded. I tried to restart it for two or three minutes without success, got out of the car and was immediately soaked to the skin. There were no portable radios in those days, and no way to contact anyone to tow me off. The torrent of rain was easing slightly and visibility had improved a little, although the cloud base could not have been more than 150 metres above.

I glanced down the runway in the direction of the approach and thought I saw two small winks of light. I looked again and the penny dropped – it could only be the landing lights of the Comet on its approach. The aircraft must have picked up time and be arriving early, and here I was, standing in the middle of the runway with a car immobile, a dead weight, and the crew of the aircraft could not see me.

— Catling, Gerry.  “Sri Lanka (Ceylon) – The Day my Number (almost) Came up.”  Better On A Camel.

There are also accounts of dealing with the functionaries of totalitarian states, like Franco’s Spain, Idi Amin’s Uganda and Soviet Russia.  They are certainly interesting, but one story I found most affecting was this account of the intersection of First World and Third World in the Seychelles:

A young engineer arrived in the Seychelles with a pregnant wife, and he was clearly concerned, as it was their first child. They appeared to be getting increasingly anxious, so one day I asked him “Why are you nervous?” and he said “Well, it’s because every day we notice an increasingly large number of people come and stand outside our bungalow. They don’t come into the garden or anything, they just stand around, looking, and we find this disconcerting.”

I said, “What time of day is this?” “It’s first thing in the morning” “Fine”, I said, “I’ll come along tomorrow morning and see what happens. I’ll bring a Seychellois with me”. I went up to his house the following morning, first thing, just after dawn, taking with me a building site foreman who had been working on the estate.

Sure enough, there was a crowd of about 25 people, standing, staring at the bungalow, and as soon as he saw this, the foreman burst out laughing. I said “Why are you laughing?” and he said: “Well, you know why they are all standing there?” “No, I don’t”. “Look in the middle of the lawn”. In the middle of the lawn there was a standpipe for watering the garden. He said, “These people have no access to clean water. If you look at them, they are all carrying receptacles, and are waiting for the owner of the house to give them permission to fill up their water bottles, and take them back to where they live.” So I went in and told the engineer and his wife.

He laughed with relief and went out and motioned to the people to come and fill their water bottles and water carriers. Nature took its course; some months later a child was born and the engineer and his wife and baby returned to the house. The following morning, the entire veranda was covered in gifts of fruit and flowers from the local villagers.

— McDonald, Mike.  “Seychelles Days.”  Better On A Camel.

Such simple courtesy and respect from men and women lacking the necessities of life is all but unthinkable in this day and age.  Especially to anyone who lives in a modern city and has extensive experience with our own vagrants and homeless.

At any rate, Better On A Camel is an interesting collection of short memoirs, from the fantastic and unlikely to the banal.

When I read these sites I always feel a little melancholy, not so much for the lost era depicted by the raconteurs but for the knowledge that even the recollection will fade away.  While the net often provides us with interesting reading and copious time-wasters, it’s worth remembering that an awful lot of it is highly emphemeral.  The things we read online today will vanish in the next ten or fifteen years.  Companies redesign their sites, merge with competitors, purge databases, go under.  When a blogger passes on, unless they have provided a foundation for site maintenance in perpetuity, their site will eventually disappear.  Ten years ago I recall finding a Geocities site hosting the memorabilia and memories of airmen who had served with a reconnaissance squadron at Incirlik AB, Turkey through the 1950s and 60s.  It recounted some truly exceptional exploits, like squadron members breaking into a locked, guarded hangar (containing a CIA PHOTINT aircraft) and stencilling the squadron’s mascot all over the top-secret avionics and electronics within.  Or the base commander lecturing his unruly, wayward charges in a hangar for an hour, and exiting to find his blue-and-white staff car (with rotating red beacon) suddenly missing, replaced by a camel painted blue and white, the rotating red beacon on its hump.

Sadly that repository no longer exists now, one more lonely atoll of human experience eroded and subsumed by the unceasing tides of time.  We should enjoy the chance to explore these memories while we can.

Category: Historica  Tags: ,
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