30 minutes later we repeated out taxi to the runway. Every single person had their fingers crossed and were daring to hope we might leave. It was now about 70 hours since Edsel and I had first left Kent and we had only achieved about 100 miles of our 4000 mile trip. The engines revved up, then roared then we powered almost interminably along the 10,000ft runway. We lifted, slowly, and rose into the air and the relief amongst everyone on board was palpable as we got to our cruising altitude, leaving the sunshine and harvesting of southern England below us and heading out towards Iberia and the West African coast.
The age of the plane meant that the only entertainment was from large screens at the front of each cabin and it turned out that only children’s films were shown. I read a lot of my book that day. We were served “dinner” about 11 am- a ham sandwich which Edsel would not touch, and breakfast about 6pm – pork sausage and scrambled egg and again Edsel had to pick out the pork. No flexibility to the time of day – the catering reflected the original night time flight plan.
Over several trips to Ascension Island I have never been so delayed, and very little changed over the service. Different charter airlines have undertaken the contract for the RAF, including an American firm who shipped over their own cabin staff who called you honey and chassed up and down the aisle in their tight uniforms. The planes changed to , including a DC10 and an Airbus. And the last time the entertainment did change and iPads were handed round from which you could select your movie or music. But those two meals of ham sandwich and sausage and egg have never been altered.
The sun was set by the time we came into land at Ascension and all we saw was the red lights of obstacles around the airfield and the huge floodlights on the airport apron. I’d met our host, Tara once before in London, and once the introductions to Edsel were made, we were taken the few miles to the capital city – Georgetown. I’d not bothered to call Tara to tell her about the delays – she knew far more through the network on island and what was the point when the only option was to wait for the plane to depart and pick us up when we arrived.
I joke when I say we headed to the capital city. True it is the administrative centre of the island, but in fact it was a town of barely 250 souls, in a country of about 1000 people. The make up of the island was a mixture of military staff and workers supporting the functioning of the island, and one or two private businesses. There are actually very few military ranks there. Around the airport is the American Air Force base but apart from the commander and a couple of others they tend to be contract workers keeping the place oiled and greased in case it is needed. The RAF base is up the hill about a mile away from the airfield. It holds a few military staff but again has more contractors keeping the place going and a host of visitors including military people on rest and recuperation or R&R from the Falkland Islands. What a shock it must be to them to feel the tropical heat of Ascension Island after the windswept cold of the Falklands.
After several months of waiting for approval, we finally were allowed to travel to Ascension around mid summer of 2005. Now Ascension Island has no commercial flight; it is in many regards a closed island. There are only two ways to fly in. One is as an American military personnel starting at Fort Patrick in Florida and stopping in Antigua. The second route is from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, England. Ascension is the midpoint on the “Airbridge” the flight which links the UK and the Falkland Islands. Two or three times a week a jumbo jet set off from Brize with military personnel, workers from Ascension Island, Falkland Islands and St Helena, and the infrequent, intrepid tourist. The general public are generally dissuaded from travel. The cost of the air ticket for Jo Public is prohibitive but both the military and residents get allocated seats at a reduced price. And consultants like myself and Edsel working for one of the governments in Falklands, Ascension, St Helena (or maybe Antarctica!) could also get slightly discounted seats.
I collected Edsel from Heathrow and took him back to my house at the time in Kent. We had one night to help him get over his transatlantic jetlag and then we were to do a one-way car rental to get over to Brize Norton. Everything ran smoothly up to the point of preparing to head to the airport. I had been warned by several people that the Airbridge flight was prone to delays. For various reasons it could be held up for hours. Early in the afternoon, we rang a phone number for flight updates but all we got was the engaged tone. So we just had to chance it. We joined the motorway around peak time, though; our check in time was 8pm for a midnight departure and rather than get there earlier than our four hours, we had to join the commuters. The M25 gauntlet was bad enough but we also had to contend with Oxford’s Ring Rd, so we were rushing in the last few miles to get there by eight.
At Brize Norton we drove in through the main gate and were ushered off to the side to a security hut. As we breathlessly barged in the door we saw several people in front of us. One of the security guards looked up and said “Don’t rush, if you are on the Airbridge flight you ain’t going nowhere tonight.” When we reached his desk he took our passports, photos and fingerprints and we were issued with base passes, but he said “the plane is not here”. We decided we would head up to the terminal anyway and find out more information. From the main gate, the drive to the passenger terminal is short past all sorts of airfield bric a brac and offices. In the gathering twilight I could see a few Tri-stars and Hercules scattered around the apron. Parking is limited at the airport but fortunately for us hire cars can be parked in a section closest to the terminal entrance. We offloaded our bags to a trolley and steered it into the building which was almost deserted save for a few people queuing at the checkout desk. We did not queue long, a burly RAF guy came over to us and explained that the plane had developed a fault and had been flown over to Luxembourg to be fixed. It was due back tomorrow morning and the schedule was to leave tomorrow afternoon around four.
With a sigh, but a thanks, we were about to head back to our vehicle when I realised we only had a one way hire and it would expire at midnight. So I had to phone the rental company and rearrange our hire for a second day. I was so glad I had not dropped the keys into the box at the rental’s unmanned desk. So we were able to head back to Kent again. My landlady, Vicky , was very surprised to hear the door bang around midnight, but soon realised something was not right by the glum faces we wore.