Thursday, 25 February 2010

My Falkland Islands Experience - Part 4 of 4

It's about 8am on Saturday 19th September 1998 and I'm having a cooked breakfast in a little cafe in Mount Pleasant Air Force base on the Falkland Islands. After I've finished eating I walk across the road with my colleagues and check in to board the plane home to the UK. We're hitching a ride home with the RAF. there are no scheduled flights to and from the Islands to the UK so the only way to travel is by chater flight (see part 1) or by buying a spare seat on an army rotation plane.

After a couple of hours of waiting we walk out across the tarmac (no transfer buses here). It's quite a trek to the 737. We board, settle in and soon the plane is taxiing out to the runway.

My first thought as we soared into the patchy clouds was how intensely the plane seemed to be banking as it climbed. I wondered if the pilot was showing off to his buddies in the back just how he could push the flight envelope of a 737 in the same way as he could with a jet fighter. It was nerve-racking, those first few minutes, but then we levelled into a steadier climb.

I had an aisle seat on the left side of the plane and I looked across the two men sitting beside me and out the window where a fighter jet hovered just off our wing. There was another fighter on our other wing. It may sound cheesy to say this but I really felt a surge of pride to know that this flying British military target, a plane full of officers of various ranks, was being safely escorted out of Argentinian airspace. After twenty minutes the fighter pilots waved to us and banked away.

Our 737 was headed to Ascension Island, some eight hours away. Ascension is a tiny little rock that sits in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean just below the equator. It's a military base and little else, and it serves as a refueling stop for flights between the Falklands and the UK. Because the flight to the UK is more than twelve hours long, we will get a new flight crew in Ascension that will be woken up just in time to fly us the rest of the way back to Brize Norton.

We're an hour and a half into the flight. We've had our lunch and I'm glad to be going home. I've been reading Stephen Baxter's book Titan. I've got my headphones on now and I'm listening to music. But why is the plane banking? Why is it still banking. Why is it still banking? We've turned through 180 degrees. I remove my headphones just in time to hear the last few words of the pilot's announcement, stating that we'll be dumping fuel just before we land.

I turn to the man next to me and ask him what was said. "We're going back to the Falklands," he replies. When I ask why, he just shrugs.

An hour and a half later and fuel is spilling off the wings as we shed every last drop so that we're not too heavy when we drop to the tarmac at the right speed for landing. We taxi back to where we started, de-plane, and walk back into the terminal, and still we don't know why.

We wait for two hours in the terminal before being told that we can re-board the plane. Which we do. And the whole process starts again. We taxi, we take-off, we climb, we bank, we are escorted out of Argentinian airspace, we get another meal. This time we carry on flying, and nobody is any the wiser as to why we had to turn back. Towards the front of the plane I can see our Operations man talking at length with the man sitting next to him. Perhaps he knows what's going on. All I know is that a three hour round-trip followed by a two hour wait means we are 5 hours behind schedule getting back to the UK. Annoying, but not the end of the world.

Later than evening we descend to Ascension Island in the dark. It's midnight and because we are in an army base our movement is restricted. We are taken off the plane over to a fenced compound where you can get drinks and, for 50p I got a stamp in my passport that says "Wide Awake Air Force Base, Ascension Island". We wait while the plane is refuelled. Then we wait some more. Then we get back on the plane and we wait some more. Then there is an announcement to tell us that there is a problem with the aeroplane, and that we will not be flying tonight. Our flight has been rescheduled for 2pm the following day.

We all disembark and return to the fenced area and wait some more. Then we are loaded into coaches and taken through the dark hills to some sort of community centre where we are given a meal. By now it is nearly 3am. After our food, we board the coach and head to an army barracks where we bunk down for the night.

The following morning it feels like summer. We have come away from two weeks in temperatures of minus five and here we are in equatorial heat. We drive through the red rock and dust. On top of every hill is a cluster of pristine white dishes pointing vertically at the sky to geosynchronous satellite directly above us. This image stays with me and finds it's way into my story The Techipre Filament. Back at the airbase I'm told by our Operations man that the guy he'd been sitting next to was the person we'd turned back to the Falklands to pick up. Apparently, after our flight had taken off, he had discovered that his wife back in the UK had kidnapped his child. He needed to urgently return home to deal with it. The next flight out was two weeks away. The army looks after it's own, so we went back to get him.

Back in the fenced compound I use a payphone to try to call anyone and everyone I could think off to let them know I had been delayed. I tried family, friends and the parents of friends, but nobody was answering. Hopefully nobody was worried about me not returning home the night before.

We board the plane in the early afternoon heat and across the aisle from me the three seats are taken up by two officers flanking a poor dishevelled man who looked to be South American. He was in handcuffs. Apparently he'd been found in a small boat on one of the rocky shores of the island. How he'd got there was anybody's guess.

Once airborne the rumour mill was spinning again. Apparently there had been nothing wrong with the plane. Well, that wasn't strictly true. There was a problem with the plane; it was a faulty indicator light that had been reported back in Brize Norton before the plane even came to the Falklands. But the fault was not a reason to ground the plane, and not the reason why they turfed us off the flight and into barracks the night before. The real reason was this...

After our little about-turn in Falklands airspace, we ended up being delayed by 5 hours. The second flight crew at Ascension had been woken for the UK leg as normal, so when they came to board the plane, it was five hours too late. This, plus a potential eight hour flight time on the 2nd leg meant that they would be over their twelve hour allowance (I hope you're keeping up!) Now, regulations state that they are not allowed to fly twelve hours after being woken up, so they were ineligible to fly. They had to sleep again, and there was no other crew to take us. So we all had to wait till the crew were ready again the next day.

The remainder of the flight was uneventful. I watched a film called Shooting Fish on one of the little handheld VHS players that had apparently been donated by Richard Branson. We reached Brize Norton late on Sunday night. The extravagance of the oil business was such that we ordered a taxi from nearby Swindon to collect the three of us and drive us down the M4 to London. We waited ages for the taxi to collect us and I remember spending an hour on a mobile phone to the team in the Falklands because one of the laptops had a virus. I recall that they had asked me to stay in the Falklands for the whole month, the full length of the drilling operation, but I couldn't, I had to be back in the UK to move out of my flat.

The taxi to London cost £150. I got home at 4am on Monday morning. Why is it that when you return from a trip abroad, an adventure, your humble home always seems so small?

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

My Falkland Islands Experience - Part 3 of 4

I'm sitting in a Bristow personnel transport helicopter built to carry about 30 people. We're hovering about 2 feet above the runway at Mount Pleasant Airforce Base and I'm wearing a ridiculous (but lifesaving) 1-piece suit with rubber seals around the neck, wrists and ankles. Some of the other guys who I'm sharing this flight with have been in the training simulator and passed an exam to be here (a dummy helicopter cabin is dunked upside down into a swimming pool and if you don't escape to the surface, you don't pass the exam, among other things). My training consists of a 20 minute video, most of which is about how to put the suit on. The video told me that is you're not wearing the suit when the helicopter ditches into the frozen South Atlantic, then you'll live for about 1 minute and 40 seconds. With the suit, you get to tread water for an additional 6 minutes before freezing to death. It's hard to know which is better, given that nobody could get to you that quickly in the middle of the South Atlantic.

This is my first helicopter ride and it's smooth as we lift up into the clear morning sky and traverse the expanse of the land, northward over the occasional house (or farm?) towards the sea. 150km and an hour or so later, the rig comes into view. A little floating city, an oasis in the choppy grey sea. That "H" looks bloody small. Are we really going to land on that? The pilot deftly swings us into position above it and for a moment I have this horrific sensation that everything is fluid and moving (which they are) and all these things need to touch and connect with precision, despite this fluidity. It also feels like we are still, and the world around us is moving, and that the pilot is somehow controlling the platform under us, rather than the helicopter. It's precarious and frightening, and exhilarating.

After a short safety briefing we're shown to our 4-man dormitory. I get the upper bunk on one side and it has a little green curtain that you pull across and a small reading light above your head. This was the most comfortable bed I have ever been in. I was cosy, in my t-shirt and boxers, curled up in bed reading my book, in a steel encased room which was hanging off the underside of an oil rig, 20 metres above the icy, dark, churning ocean, thousands of miles from anywhere (except the Falklands). Strange and incredible.

The food on the Borgny Dolphin was the best in the world. I was told that each plate cost $40 to get to you, when you factor in the location and everything else. And this is an all you can eat kind of place. These crews work 12 hours on and 12 hours off and it's clear to see that an army marches on it's stomach. If I had to battle the elements, hanging of the side of a rig in the dawn hours, I'd want to be able to eat as much as I liked too.

What was originally going to be a 24-hour stopover turned into three days because the weather came in, making flights for the helicopter impossible. Once I had configured the email clients (yes that was all I came here to do, although it was a little more complicated back then), I sat back and read my book for the remainder of the stay. Fascinating though it was doing a tour of the rig, seeing how all it all worked, in all honesty there's not a lot else you can do without getting in the way.

At one point I decided to test the local phone line. In one of the operation houses I picked up a handset, dialled 9 and got the dialling tone in London. I called my flat, to see what my flatmate was up to. The phone was answered by one of our friends, who was visiting. Apparently my flatmate, his girlfriend, and the friend, were crowded around my PC at home playing Micro Machines (a game we were all addicted to) as I called. The 2 hop satellite delay made the conversation a little stifled, but at least it worked.

The day we flew back to Port Stanley the helicopter stopped off at a little farm in the north of the Island to pick up some eggs. These would undoubtedly be going back to Mount Pleasant to make omelettes for the army boys.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

My Falkland Islands Experience - Part 2 of 4

It's 4:30am, mid-September 1998 and I'm up and about, making a quick cup of coffee in my hotel room and getting dressed for a day at the portacabin, sorry office. When I'm dressed I plug in the headphones on my CD Walkman and step out into the frozen night. It's perfectly still and perfectly clear. I listen to Paul Carrack's album "Beautiful World" and I walk to the other side of the sleeping town of Port Stanley. The stars are unrecognisable above me but they are present in their millions in a truly breathtaking vista. There's no pollution here.

My workday began at 5am, which was 9am in the UK. I was dealing with our internet service provider in Wigmore Street in London, and the Cable and Wireless folks in Aberdeen. Come 1:30pm, when it was 5:30pm in the UK, my day came to an end, and I was free to please myself for the afternoon. The Head of Operations offered me one of the SUV's to go driving if I liked, but I couldn't drive. However there was much to explore in Stanley after all.

One of the things that was rammed home to us right after our arrival on the Island was that it wasn't wise to walk off the roads. Unexploded Argentinian mines, remnants from the 1982 War, had not been fully located and removed, even though the British mines had been. We had maps of where we'd put ours, but sadly the Argentinians didn't furnish us with theirs. The weight of this problem lies heavy on the land and infects one's view of the beautiful terrain. You feel trapped, confined to preset roads and pathways. On Ross Road, down by the water there is a little shack; a shop where you can pick up a free copy of the minefield map, where green areas are considered safe, blue areas contain possible danger, and red areas where mines are still believed to be buried. I took a copy and still have it. For a while I had it in a frame on my bedroom wall. Somehow I'd looked at the different shades of danger and seen art. But the shop on Ross Road doesn't just provide maps. Here is a gallery of photographs of the effects of these landmines. Children and adults with missing arms and legs. On the floor are shards of twisted metal. Pieces of rusted ordnance that served as examples of the indiscriminate power of these impersonal maiming devices.

There is a supermarket in Port Stanley. I don't know what it's like now, but at the time you didn't want to risk buying the fresh food. With no agriculture to speak of, the Islands were reliant on a weekly plane that flew in from Chile, loaded with produce. I seem to remember eating a lot of Pot Noodles from the supermarket. It was hard to find things that were still inside their sell-by date.

The Victory bar was the main pub in Stanley, and for a fairly accurate description of that I suggest you read Remnants, because a key scene takes place there. All the stuff about the pen, and the toilet, and the pool table mentioned in the story, were absolutely true.

Across the water, to the north of Stanley the word "Barracouta" had been written on the side of the hill in huge letters. I'll never forget reading that word every day and wondering what it meant. It was years later that I found out this and other words written on that hill were the names of Royal Navy hydrographic survey ships. The history of this place was palpable. It wasn't in the architecture, it was in the land, put there by real people with real stories.

One afternoon a few of us decided to go penguin hunting. September, I was told, was a little early in Spring for them but we might get lucky. So we jumped into an SUV and drove out to the northeast, around the inlet, where a derelict ship sat rusting in the water. We parked up and followed paths around the beautiful sandy beaches, all of which were cordoned off in case a landmine washed up. Such a shame. These paths led from one Argentinian gun emplacement to the next. These windy, exposed hilltop locations provided beautiful views of unspoilt grassland; sad therefore that these vantage points were used for killing. We saw no penguins, just graffiti ridden bunkers and rusty cannons pointing at long departed foes.

One day we received an invitation from the Government of the Falkland Islands to attend a drinks reception at the town hall. We went, with the strict instructions that we were not to divulge whether we thought we had found oil (we hadn't, only traces of oil in porous, ashy rock, itself the remnants of an ancient Argentinian volcano that had flooded the basin making it difficult to find. Time may reveal there to be some irony in this). These people had other day jobs as farmers and such like. They seemed to be moonlighting as government officials. Of course, their sole purpose was to extract information from us by getting us drunk. The government wanted to know if their economy, and the future of the islands, was going to change for good. The discovery of oil here would undoubtedly be seismic.

All the while, the Borgny Dophin mobile rig was being anchored into position in a location set by our geologists. And one morning I got an early call, waking me from sleep. It was the Head of Operations. "Get ready and meet us up at the house. Today you get to go to the rig."

To be continued in Part Three.

Monday, 22 February 2010

My Falkland Islands Experience - Part 1 of 4

All this stuff in the news about the commencement of offshore drilling in the Falkland Islands brings back vivid memories of the previous drilling round which took place in 1998, which I was there for. I wanted to write a bit about it because the time I spent on the island gave me a lot of inspiration for my science-fiction writing, and three of my stories (Remnants, Galileo's Tides and The Techipre Filament) are based on memories of that trip. This blog entry will be in four parts.

At the time I was working for one of the oil companies drilling there (obviously) and I remember there was some speculation as to whether I would get to go with the exploration team who were headed down to the Islands. But, given the remote location it was decided that my IT skills would be essential to set up and maintain the email/phone link to the London office, and ensure the team's laptops and PC's were working at all times. The project was costing $100,000 a day, so downtime would be costly. The work itself was mundane, stuff I did on a day-to-day basis in London; it was just the location that was different.

So we flew out of Stansted airport one evening in mid-September 1998 on a 747 with 80 seats. An extravagant unbranded white aeroplane that, rumour had it, once belonged to the Sultan of Brunei. In our team were the chief geologist, the accountant and myself. The plane was full of drilling crew on rotation, most of whom were from Aberdeen. Although there were lie-flat seats, we spent most of the time in the conference room (yes, this plane had a conference room) talking about whether there really was oil in the North Falklands Basin, and what that would mean for the local economy. After a sixteen hour flight (not including a refuel at Recife), we disembarked onto the flat, endless tarmac at Mount Pleasant Airforce Base and rode in a minibus for an hour some 40 kilometres across a barren, sun-dappled, Dartmoor-like landscape.

Port Stanley, the world's most southerly "city" eventually appeared over the horizon. It seemed at first like little more that a row of bungalows and beach houses in a northern seaside coastal town, and grew to be only a little more. We stopped off at the staff-house, one such bungalow, where the other members of the team were staying, to say hello and regroup with the other Operations staff who'd flown down earlier. There was no room for me and the accountant in the house, we were checked into the Malvina House Hotel, a lovely little place that overlooked the inlet and the War Memorial, and had a quaint, chintzy charm that reminded me of beach holidays in the late 1970s. We all had dinner and drinks there the first night, and once again the drunken conversation between brash oil men turned to what seemed like a career-making or career-breaking question; was there oil in the Falklands? What I wanted to know was, would I get to go to the rig?

The next morning we travelled to the Stanley offices up on the hill to the east of the town. These were nothing but a set of portacabins and a small car park that were being passed between the different oil companies that had clubbed together to share resources thoughout the drilling round. We were to take it over in a couple of days and run our operation via Cable and Wireless data link to London (via an equatorial satellite and Aberdeen), and the offshore rig, via another satellite. At great cost, it would be possible to pick up the phone, both in the Stanley office and on the rig, dial 9, and get a local London line.

Port Stanley felt remote, no doubt about it. It was hundreds of miles from the nearest civilisation, and that remoteness gets under your skin. With an area the size of Wales and a population of only 2000, I really felt a long way from home. When I first arrived there I could think of nothing more desolate than having to live in such an empty location. But the Falklands has a certain magic about it, and I'm sure that anyone who goes there, never forgets it. I remember on the second day meeting a couple who had decided to move to the Islands from the UK only five months earlier, and I wondered how they could decide to make such a move. But all these years later I can sort of understand it.

Check back soon for Part Two, where I explore my surroundings.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Web Fiction Guide reviews Spireclaw

Fiona Gregory over at the Web Fiction Guide has given my eNovel "Spireclaw" a respectable 4 out of 5. She starts her review by saying...

"Within the first paragraph of this novel I knew I was in the hands of a skillful, practised writer. The atmosphere is eerie and evocative as the main character, Kieran, wakes from a disturbing dream and looks out the window into the dark, wind tossed yard."

But she seemed to struggle with the ending. This was either because she somehow managed to skip a big chunk of the penultimate chapter, then had to go back and read it after realising her error, or because she found the twist ending a little too shocking (and let's face it, she won't have been the first to have that reaction).

But she finishes up the review on a positive note by saying... "If you’d like to read a nicely crafted modern dark (subtly) supernatural mystery set in London, here’s your book."

All in all a very positive review.

Monday, 1 February 2010

The Future of The Axiom Few

SF Crowsnest's Rod MacDonald has confirmed himself as a fan of The Axiom Few. In his review of their latest appearance in Jupiter SF 27, he describes The Voidant Lance as "an electric story" and calls out to Channel 4 to make a TV series! High praise indeed and very inspiring for me.

SFRevu's Sam Tomaino speaks just as highly of the story and was also kind enough to link to my website for the follow-up.

So I'm five stories into The Axiom Few's world and I'm wondering whether to flesh out the canon with more short stories or press on with a novel. A novel, as I said before, would be a big undertaking and I have a few ideas for it, but I don't want to undermine the format of the short stories which seems to work so well. I rather like the idea of constructing the whole canvas (back story and all) in a collection of short stories that fit together as puzzle pieces, rather like they are beginning to now. Other ideas have crossed my mind, such as creating an Axiom Few blog with running, serialised entries by Geek and Archer. How does that sound?

But I cannot ignore SF Crowsnest's calls for The Axiom Few to be realised on TV or radio. A lofty dream, but radio feels like it might just be possible. Can anyone out there make any suggestions on where to begin?