Friday 30 June 2017

Shetland Radar Part 3 "A SOMEWHAT DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE " - David Smith

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:













1 comment:

  1. an excellent piece. my time at Shetrad was definitely the best tour i had in the RAF.
    the radials from Aberdeen are still in use today