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?


  1. Thanks for posting these Huw. They've been fascinating reading. :-)

  2. Thanks Kate, glad you enjoyed. I enjoyed delving into my memory and pulling all this stuff out!