About 150 people gathered under the portico of the hotel, but no buses arrived for nearly half an hour. We contemplated walking to the terminal and in fact we saw some head off alone, but in the end we complied with authority (was I already being brainwashed into acceptance of taking orders?) and when the buses arrived dutifully boarded.
The trip took less than four minutes but was uncomfortable as this old bus rattled as it bounced over speed bumps. Once at the airport we had no queuing to do as we already had our boarding passes from the check in the day before. It was an RAF boarding pass in red and blue. Despite the flight being conducted on a charter jumbo jet and crewed by a commercial airline, it was still treated as a military flight.
We were held in the check in area for about an hour and given there were no windows onto airside, we had no idea whether our plane had turned up or not. Rumours went round but we had no firm evidence. I saw now that although many people were in civilian clothes, some of these were military. On this occasion and later trips I could usually distinguish between the majority who were travelling to the Falklands and those who were alighting half way at Ascension Island. The Falklands bunch had fleeces, bubble jackets, heavy sweaters and scarves about their person. Ascension Island travellers were in t shirts and light trousers. As well as the British there were a number of darker skinned people with a variety of different features but all with something in their pleasant countenances that made me link them together. This was my first real encounter with the Saints.
Saints are the common term for people who come from St Helena. There has always been a smattering of them on any flight up and down to the island. They may come from St Helena but many work on Ascension Island and the Falklands where the wages have traditionally been much better. And several have taken up residency in the UK. The UK is also where many go to University and there are little honey pot concentrations of them in West London and Swindon. The latter is not really much of a surprise as it is the nearest large town to Brize Norton.
After another long sit we were called through to the departure lounge. To get there we went through the ticket check and airport security machines like you do at any airport, but the staffing was small at Brize and I found the same people who check you in were often at the boarding pass stand and both checked the x-rays and frisked you on the way in.
We were now in an airy but boring room. But at least there were large windows at one end and I could now see the white jumbo jet that had been causing all the problems. We were never told exactly what had happened to it to cause it not to travel on time, but still be able to be piloted to Luxembourg to be fixed. It’s not a huge worry but it always makes me a little more nervous of a flyer when I know something has recently been wrong with my aircraft. I know deep down it is more likely that it is in a better state now than it had been but it does not stop me thinking about my fatality probabilities.
It seemed another age before we were called forward to the gate and shuttled off on buses. Curiously, the military do queues by rank, so all officers went first, then the enlisted men, the contractors and consultants and finally the civvies like ourselves. When we got on board we were all scattered around this huge aircraft – and there was at least two seats for every passenger. We waited for ages again and I had time to look in a bit more detail. The aircraft had obviously been owned by British Airways at some stage – some 1980’s style branding was still evident on the panels, but its history had obviously been more complicated as it had instructions stuck on the seat backs about life vests and seatbelts that appeared to be in Indonesian. I later saw a plaque which stated that this had been the first ever 747 that had been delivered to British Airways. And it showed. Some of the seats were broken, tray tables were missing bits and every armrest had an ashtray.
This was going to be an interesting flight…. if we ever got off the ground. Eventually with a huge apology from the captain for the delay, we taxied down to the runway and turned and waited for the all clear to take off. And we waited. And we waited. And then slowly but definitely the huge jumbo full of weary, angry passengers lumbered back to the terminal. The shrieks of “oh what” and “no way” around all the cabins were almost in unison. The captain once more apologised and explained that all jumbo jets have 7 compasses, and one of them had failed. And without it they could not leave. This did nothing to enhance the incredulity of the passengers, but we were told we would stay on the plane and an engineer was being called in from the airfield to take a look.