Sunday, 30 July 2017
Dave Childs did his National Service from Mar '57 to Mar '59. He spent the first few months at RAF Hopton in Norfolk and the last 17 months of his RAF time at Saxa Vord. This means he would have arrived on Unst in the early autumn, before the station was declared operational. He had opted to serve in the RAF Police. It is worth noting that the MOD civilian police took over from the RAF police at Saxa in the early 60's and controlled access to the classified sites for 21 years before the RAF police resumed their duties in Dec '85 His journey to Unst was not unusual for those days, a trip by rail to Aberdeen then an overnight passage to Lerwick on board the St Clair (1,641 tons) , (Left click on pictures to enlarge):
The voyage from Aberdeen was fairly rough and Dave suffered from sea sickness. He was relieved when he stood on deck as they arrived at the harbour in Lerwick. Then someone pointed out the Earl of Zetland, to which they would be transferring for the continuation of their journey. The Earl, at 548 tons, was a much smaller vessel and Dave's stomach remembered it wasn't happy!
Fortunately the Earl didn't stray too far from land and they safely arrived in Unst after 8 more hours at sea. Dave enjoyed his time on Unst and his travels were not always unpleasant: "
"I have fond memories of my time on Unst, and eventually after a number of periods of leave, became a good sailor. My experiences include seeing the Northern Lights, and also the midnight sun at the height of summer. Less enjoyable were the winds which at times exceeded 100 miles per hour on the top of Saxa Vord Hill, and on one occasion in particular caused snowdrifts that reached the top of the perimeter fence in places. In the worse weather the road up to the top site would become too difficult and it was not unusual on those occasions to work a double shift. There was one occasion when going on leave, that the bad weather prevented the Earl of Zetland from berthing at Baltasound and we had to go out into the bay in a small boat and jump aboard the ferry as the waves brought the boats level in what was probably a six foot swell. Talking of Baltasound, I believe at the time, the Hotel there was the only one on Unst. I think it was either the first night or perhaps the second that three of us decided to walk to the Hotel for a beer or two.
It was daylight when we left the camp but when we came to leave the Hotel to return ,it was dark, and my, how dark is dark. We had only consumed a couple of beers, or perhaps three, but were quite sober. However we hadn't realised how difficult it is to see your way when there is no moon and no street lights of any sort. We eventually made it back to camp but had to virtually feel our way along the road.
There was not a great deal of opportunity for recreation although we did quite a lot of walking to explore the island and some fishing in Norwick Bay were the mackerel were plentiful.
also recall seeing that colourful bird, the Puffin, for the first time, and was quite amused by its appearance.
I took an interest in Basketball and represented Saxa Vord in a match against a team in Lerwick, which we won. I can't recall the final score, but I scored two baskets. We also played football, but in those days it was difficult to find an area big enough and level enough for a decent pitch. I also recall in the summer of 1958, a sports day was organised and I was part of an RAF Tug of War team who managed to beat a team of islanders, two to one. I still have the medal."
Dave was actually the RAF anchor man and a picture of his medal is below:
The RAF Police were responsible for manning the guardroom in the Operation Block (Known as the R10). Control of access was particularly important as some of the RAF Equipment and procedures were highly classified and because entry also enabled entrance to the Admiralty buildings. During 1957/58 a number of classified naval exercises and trials occurred, such as Exercise THERMOSTAT IV. The next picture shows Dave, together with a Land Rover, outside the Ops Site Guard Post:
By coincidence, the late Ray "Dickie" Dawson sent me a picture of the same vehicle aboard the SS St Clair showing it being delivered to Shetland:
Another Policeman, at Saxa Vord at the same time as Dave, was a chap by the name of Moss Bilson. The next photo shows Moss (bare-chested)and Dave on the shore at Norwick:
The following picture, also taken at Norwick, shows Dave swimming in the sea, without the aid of a wet suit!:
Another recollection from Dave: "One other incident I recall that occurred during my time there was the arrival of a Russian Fishing Fleet just off Muckle Flugga which caused some consternation. I photographed what was described as the "Mother/Parent" Ship which for a few days had stationed itself only a short distance to the north, no doubt engaged in some spying activity on NATO's defence system. Over the life of RAF Saxa Vord Soviet vessels showed a great interest in the Station! The picture of a Russian Fishing Fleet north of Unst was taken by Rod Pye a few years later:
And the next, from David Goodall, shows 2 Russians in Burrafirth below the Saxa Ops Site:
I'd like to thank Dave for sharing his reminiscences and to encourage anyone else with material from the early days of Saxa Vord to get in touch: gordon.carle(AT)gmail.com
NOTE - AOC's Inspection 1988
With the kind permission of the Station Photographer of the time, Andrew Thorpe, a number of excellent pictures have been added to the previously released article about the AOC's Inspection in 1988:- http://ahistoryofrafsaxavord.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/aocs-inspection-1988-avm-rh-palin.html
Friday, 30 June 2017
I am grateful to David Smith, who wrote most if this section years ago under the nom-de-plume "Blue Silk". Numerous photos have been added but David took most of them himself. Not only was he in Unst in 1978 when Shetland Radar started but, he was sent north a few weeks earlier to meet representatives of the Helicopter Companies and to begin arranging the operational procedures which were to be used by the Unit.
You may remember that in the nineteen seventies the North Sea oil fields were becoming extremely busy with an astonishing number of oil rigs being put in position and being served by a quite remarkable fleet of helicopters. The primary operators were British Airways Helicopters and Bristows and the main bases in the north North Sea area were Aberdeen and Sumburgh in the Shetlands.
It was becoming very clear that a system was urgently required to keep the helicopters apart when flying to and from the rigs. A growing number of Airmiss reports were being filed, meaning the crews were coming too close to each other when in flight, (today these reports are called Airprox). Quite clearly something needed doing to aid flight safety, even though there were those who thought some of these airmiss reports were being filed simply to get something done.
The scenario was that the oil rig workers, we called them oily boys, were flown to Aberdeen or Sumburgh by fixed wing and then ferried out to the relevant rig by choppers. Weather obviously played a big part in governing when the flights could take place. In the late seventies there was no GPS and by today's standards navigation equipment was rudimentary, though crews of that era were very skilled in the use of what was available. Apart from aircraft lights and voice communication there was no anti-collision equipment installed either.
In 1978 I was employed in a ground job in London whilst still serving in the Royal Air Force and I was asked if I would like to volunteer to go north to get things moving. Not sure what would have happened if I had said no, probably been told to go anyway! I had absolutely no idea what I would find or what was to be done, but I was told the helicopter companies would be expecting me and I would probably be there for 6 months. As it was now September I packed my cold weather kit knowing what Shetland could get in the way of winter weather. My destination was RAF Saxa Vord situated on the island of Unst, the northern most of the Shetland islands.
I left Heathrow in a British Airways BAC1-11, which could carry about 90 passengers, and landed at Aberdeen an hour later
From there I went on northwards in a British Airways Hawker Siddley748 (twin turbo prop and approximately 50 passengers). to Sumburgh
and from there north again in a Loganair Islander (twin piston, 10 seats).
That last part was an introduction to the Shetlands with strong winds and much turbulence. We landed on the tiny airstrip on Unst to be met by a Land Rover which took me the short distance to RAF Saxa Vord. Saxa Vord was dominated by a hill around 1000 feet high, on top of which was a radar site manned by fighter controllers.
Their job was to keep a look out for Cold War aircraft sneaking round the Norwegian North Cape to test our defences and to control our fighters when in the Saxa radar cover. I think they were a bit miffed when they found out what I was up to and others would shortly follow but as they were trained to keep aircraft together and we wanted to keep them apart........... eventually we got along all right.
Having looked at the radar site there did not seem too much of a problem once we got some procedures sorted out, so the next step was to go down to Sumburgh to talk to the companies. Loganair took me back down and it was evident that both helicopter companies were very pleased to see me and we began planning what we might be able achieve.
If I remember correctly, it took about 3 weeks to come up with a radial system emanating from Sumburgh and Aberdeen and going out to the rigs. We decided that certain radials would be used for outbound and certain others for inbound. The chopper pilots were happy they could fly along these radials using the Decca navigator fitted to the aircraft. We also arranged different altitudes for outbounds and inbounds. We all decided that the system would commence on a Monday. The date was fixed as 2nd October 1978, and the first choppers would start calling at 0800. By this time 3 RAF controllers had arrived and having briefed them as much as I could we waited for the onslaught The following photo was taken just before we officially opened and it shows the first 3 controllers and four assistants to arrive at Shetland Radar - my memory for names is poor, so if anyone can help out it would be appreciated.
By 0802 we had choppers calling from all over the place, all knowing exactly what they were doing and where they were going, whilst we had no idea where the rigs were, apart from being X miles out. The Brent Bravo, Ninian, and Thistle along with lots more meant nothing to us at the time, especially when the call was "just lifting from such and such rig inbound" and not really knowing which part of the screen to watch as well as keeping an eye open for all the other choppers on frequency. Clearly more research was required!
We then consulted a large map showing the position of all the rigs plus the accommodation platforms, as they were called. I was amazed at how many there were. A chat with the two companies then produced an invite to go and fly with them to see the rigs, the decision to go took all of a second! I went down to Sumburgh again courtesy of the Loganair Islander for a couple of days to see operations from their side. I failed to see the fun in driving down which required 2 ferries I think to get from Unst via the island of Yell and onto Mainland. Took hours, we tried it once at a weekend to go see the sights of Lerwick.
I sat in the jump seat of the SK61 of British Airways with about 26 chaps behind me, all decked out in immersion suits and Mae Wests. I was faintly amused and a bit nervous that the 2 pilots and yours truly had our respective uniforms on and that was it.
I think the rig I visited was the Brent Bravo which I thought was absolutely enormous and the heat from the flare burning off unwanted gas could be felt from some distance as we approached.
The deal reached by the companies was that the choppers would fly throughout the day, not stopping for lunch, and would be fed from the rigs with take away boxes. The food provided was superb and I was told the rules on the rigs were no alcohol, no females and top grade food.(I am told the first and last still apply but now there are females among the crew). Two photos from a rig helicopter platform are below:-
Later on I flew several times with BA and a few times with Bristows, who were operating Pumas, taking 16 on board. The Bristow’s crews all wore immersion suits as did the passengers behind them - I decided it was not the thing to do to ask why the BA crews did not!
A few weeks after I arrived at Saxa two more Air Traffic Controllers joined us. Flight Lieutenant Bill Cooper was posted in from Eastern Radar as the first Commanding Officer of Shetland Radar on 26 Oct 78. The other, I believe a first for the Unit, was a single female officer called Ticia Brewster, who arrived from Midland Radar. I collected her from the Loganair Islander when she arrived on Unst and I took her back to the strip when she left sometime in January.
I believe some of the young, single male officers were quite excited by the prospects of meeting the new living-in member of the Officer' Mess and there was a run on Brut in the NAAFI. Ardour dimmed when it was discovered that the young lady was already engaged to a serving officer!
A few times the weather was such that the choppers could fly but it was below limits for the fixed wing aircraft to ferry the off going workers south from Shetland. One such time, when I was staying at the only hotel at Sumburgh, the hotel was overrun with the oily boys wanting to head south with no aircraft able to operate. In those days they were paid in cash, lots of cash, and the hotel ran out of every type of alcoholic drink they had!
Around Christmas time when the snow was thick on the ground, the only way up the hill to the radar site was by three ton truck, even the Land Rovers were banned from trying. The next 3 photos show the wintry conditions experienced:-
One weekend I was at the top site on a Saturday. I watched the snow falling heavily and then saw clearing skies revealing a blue cloudless scenario. I was thinking that I and the other 3 at Shetrad were stuck for the weekend - there was too much snow to attempt to drive down. We were talking to the last Bristows chopper inbound to Sumburgh who was about 20 miles north of us and the pilot said he was quite happy and that we could close down for the weekend and get off to the bar. When we told him we were stuck he came back with “ do you want a lift down”. How long did it take to say yes please, about a nano second I should think. I told my chaps to close down and get outside quickly, which we did in time to see this lovely great big chopper (S61) come clattering towards us and touching down a few feet from us. We scrambled aboard and were deposited at the foot of the hill just by the guard room about 2 minutes later.
The amusing sequel was that the chopper dropped us in the C.O.s garden damaging some of his veg, but which were hidden under the snow. The fighter controllers were again a bit miffed but I remember the C.O. was placated in the bar with a couple of bevvies and we all stayed friends.
Our off-duty time was made more enjoyable by the purchase of an old Bedford Dormobile, nicknamed "Gertie", which was used as a runabout. "Gertie" made the trip to the Springfield (Baltasound Hotel) about once a week and, occasionally, made the journey to Lerwick and back Our wheels can be seen nearest the camera, covered in snow, in the next photo:-
John Larby and I went on the odd fishing trip and on one occasion he got tangled up with a whacking great herring gull which pecked him, broke the skin, drew blood etc. Off we went to the Doc. And when I asked if John needed a tetanus jab he replied “ no but the gull might”. Sometimes we managed to do a little exploring. The next three pictures show one such trip - the first taken on "the Floggie", a steep hill leading from Norwick to Lambaness. The second shows the south side of the headland of Lambaness, with a Fulmar flying past. The third picture is of the approach to Skaw and, what was, the most northerly inhabited dwelling in the UK.
There were a few warmer days when I was able to meet some of Shetlands' most famous residents. The next picture was taken near the Domestic Site and shows me with some Shetland ponies:
There were also many sheep on Unst and in this photo the road to the radar site can be seen on the right-hand side of the picture:
Just before Christmas 1978 the RAF held a party in the Airman's Mess for local folk. I believe that 168 attended and an astonishing amount of booze was consumed, especially whisky. Eventually the RAF buses arrived at about 01.00 to take everyone home and, as the guests were leaving, I received an unusual request from one of the RAF wives - “David, can I stand behind you, please”. On investigation it transpired she was trying to avoid one of the old gentlemen who was kissing the girls and fondling them where he shouldn’t at the same time! Apparently he was about 80 years old and I remember wondering if I could get away with that if and when I got to 80. Not there yet, so still wondering!
I remained at Saxa until the February '79 and enjoyed the experience immensely - happy days.
Two earlier sections about Shetland Radar can be found by following these links:
Wednesday, 31 May 2017
Mick (Ginge) Churchward, Saxa Vord '63- '66 : How I came to be posted there and my subsequent journey into the ‘unknown’!
"Getting an Air Radar Fitters Course was deemed virtually in 1962 impossible, so I elected to go Ground Radar like so many ex boys, which initially I thought was a step down leaving Air Radar. As time went bye I realised I was being stupid. So of I went for 13 months to complete my Ground Radar (Rotor) Fitters Course at Locking, Compton Basset and back to Locking.
With the usual RAF efficiency I was posted in late March 1963 back to Cottesmore to await an appropriate Posting. However, I was posted in May to a Stafford MU, which was ear-marked to become a holding site and maintenance unit for Thor Missiles; I must add here that Stafford was made up of 6 different MU sites at the time.
So having had a lot of cash spent on training me as a Air Radar Mechanic and then a damn sight more on getting me trained as GRF, some twerp (in Gloucester Records Office) thought it would be a good idea to send me to work on something I’d never seen. That is, if and when the missiles were going to arrive, which no one was able to confirm.
One day in late June we were told that the Stafford RAFA was to be opened by the AOC, and it was suggested we young airmen should go along and swell the numbers, which we did.
After I’d had a walk around and a few pints I was approached by some nice oldish, well-spoken bloke who asked me if I was stationed at RAF Stafford. I said yes and he went on to enquire about my trade and what I did there, and if I liked what I was doing. You may recall that I am inclined to speak my mind and be direct, so I did, but what I didn’t know was that he was the bloody AOC.
Next morning the Sqn Leader (CO of the unit where I was based) called me in and in no uncertain manner asked what the hell I was playing at, talking to the AOC like that. I tried to point out that the AOC had asked me questions and I thought he genuinely was interested in what I did. Well you can imagine the response that generated, and the admin staff next door heard every word. It soon became common knowledge about this fool of a J/T who had upset the Sqn Leader by having had the temerity to talk to an AOC, but worse still had the stupidity to tell him the truth!!
It was later that day that I was called to the General Office to be given two choices of posting to a Ground Radar Site, wait for it, wait for it: Saxa Vord or Aird Uig.
Now, for the uninitiated or those not from Scotland or just not so good at the old geography, these two little gems feature in the North Scottish Islands and West Scottish Islands respectively. They do have something in common though, (apart from housing a Radar Site each I mean) the Islands that they are on both start with a U, Unst and Uist.
I asked for the weekend to think about it and was generously given the OK. Only to hear on my return that “Only one is left”, which one I asked, Saxa Vord was the reply, to which I smiled sweetly and said, “Oh great, ‘cos that was the one I wanted.” I spent the next six weeks in the Technical Records office for my sins, up dating AP’s before departing Stafford for the Shetland Islands in August of 1963.
It was the summer season and not a bed/cabin was to be had aboard the ferry to Shetland - the MV St Clair:
Arriving at Lerwick at 6.15 in the morning I woke up with a blanket wrapped around me, obviously some kind seaman had the job of issuing blankets to those without a cabin; my first trip over the North Sea (NS) was the kindest I ever had. I found the office where my rail/bus warrant needed to be changed - Leasks Travel:
At Leasks I received a strip of 6 tickets, with names like Gutcher, Mid Yell, Toft & Belmont on them. I was somewhat bemused.
The first bus was just like any other coach, comfortable seats etc, but it carried nothing like any other coach. However, I didn’t realise that until after an hour or so of driving, we then stopped at a small pier at a place called Toft. With absolutely nothing in sight left or right or out to sea, we sat and waited. While we waited loads of stuff was unloaded onto the quay, milk, (crates of it), packages, cases, kitbags and all the usually stuff associated with travel, together with the Royal Mail.
We still waited. I did say my first crossing with the North of Scotland ferry to Lerwick was the best, so you can imagine that the weather was very good, it was. But, standing there waiting for the inter-island ferry it felt freezing cold, believe me it wasn’t nice. Then, at last, with a chug, chug, chug a smallish boat came around the headland.
Passengers helped unload the contents of the boat on to the bus and then we all heaved and lifted the unloaded stuff onto the boat, which had been previously loaded from the bus onto the pier. Then we all climbed on the boat too. Forty minutes later we were unloading the same stuff, then loading it onto a less smart bus, with harder seats and a noisy gear box. As we travel along on what is mostly a single, but tarmac road, the driver stops in what seems to me to be in the middle of nowhere? OK, I can see a small track leading away over some peat fields! Where he deposits milk and mail; this was certainly becoming an eye opener for me.
He repeated this many times before we reached Mid Yell an hour later, when we did the unloading and loading up activity yet again, except it was now from one bus to another old one
Well I’m sure you’ve got the hang of this by now. Off we jolly well go for another hour, again as postman pat and milk man and dropping off all manner of things that small peat farmers and Shetland ponies need. Eventually we arrive at another, but much smaller quay, and a boat arrives not much bigger than a rowing boat. It’s OK though, because our numbers have shrunk to seven people, four blokes including me, a couple and a young woman.
After we rounded the headland and 20 minutes on I saw the oldest looking coach you’ve ever seen, well what I mean is, I’d ever seen. It was backing down this causeway towards where I assumed the boat would tie up – well I got that right and I’d arrived on Unst.
Just another 40 minutes drive on rock hard seats, no evidence of springs in the suspension and a gear box that had more to say than me, and my journey was over. “Fine day” and welcome to Saxa Vord said the bloke in the General Office, the expression “fine day” I was to learn was used by everyone and especially the locals IN ANY WEATHER conditions, and believe me we had weather conditions up there.
I always seemed to pick the worst weather to go on leave, booked way in advance, so much so I was asked to ‘post’ my proposed leave dates on the notice board so that others could avoid them. I flew out once on leave and once when there was an epidemic of something in
all the other times the weather was far too bad to fly so I had to use the over-land
and then St Clair into . Funny how I could always fly back though, I
began to think someone ‘upstairs’ had it in for me. (Note: I believe the "epidemic"
referred to in Aberdeen
was a famous outbreak of Typhoid, caused by South American Corned Beef -
Having said all that, I had a great time there, basketball in the winter and football in the summer and I almost lived in the gym when I was single. An entry from Station Routine Orders from Jan '64, supplied by Pete Brindley:
A Saxa Soccer team photo (with key) from 1964, supplied by David Shields, I'm in the centre of the front row with the shield:
My stay was interrupted in June of ’64 to attend my Conversion Course and become C & R GRF, so Rita (my then wife and eventual mother of my two children, Tom born in Lerwick and Jen in Cyprus) and I went to RAF Locking and Weston Super Mere.
I was asked to complete a posting request whilst at Locking as my 18months would be up shortly after going back to Saxa, I requested 91SU, Saxa Vord and the Shetlands.
We duly returned in November, only this time we drove a mini van from Locking to Aberdeen, trouble was we’d failed our driving tests, which we had had to take in Bristol, not Weston-super-Mare where we had learnt to drive.
Our qualified driver to Aberdeen was a 6 foot 2 direct entry lad named Bert Weedon whom would have just finished (with me) his Conversion Course. I really don’t remember his first name, but he was a smashing bloke and I've never seen him since. We all shared the driving and it was great adventure for us and gave us what we didn’t have for the test in Bristol, driving experience.
The following picture was taken in the Grand Hotel, Lerwick, by Lez Fishman:
Taking the driving test six months later was fun on Unst. Imagine you are approaching a set of traffic lights -Mr Churchward, they are… Similarly, 25yds ahead is a zebra crossing; neither of these things existed on Unst then. I went back in the afternoon with Rita as her qualified driver! Interestingly, I had never seen so many L plates appear in the space of two days ever before, or since.
Foot Note: - I had an email from Bert (Alan) Weedon 22nd December 2016; funny old World isn’t it?"
Sunday, 30 April 2017
This is the last issue of the Arctic Circular that I have a copy of. According to the editorial they were having production problems. The quality is poor in places, especially the article written by my late father-in-law, Hughie McMeechan. If anyone knows of latter editions I would be pleased to hear from them because, as far as I know, there follows a gap of 12 years until the next Station Magazine, The Saxa Voice, appears in 1998. (Left click on images to enlarge).