Life on Mars – Will we ever get there?

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.

Life on Mars – Long night of waiting

Almost half the people had gone and the makeup of those who were left was much more civilian biased.  Edsel and I decided we were hungry so headed to the hotel’s restaurant.  I say restaurant, but in fact it was like an army canteen run by the NAAFI – the Navy Army and Air Force Institutes.  To me the NAAFI were an anachronism I remember from old post war black and white British films.  But here it was brought right up to date.  To me, the food was edible but nothing to fuss about; sausages, steak and kidney pie, heaps of chips and baked beans.  For Edsel he was not used to this kind of filler cuisine, and since he had chosen years ago not to eat any pig products there was not that much left on the menu.  I poured myself a glass of orange juice that turned out to be the sort of weak cordial that I remember from school dinners – tasting more of chemicals than fruit.

That nightmare out the way we returned to the TV.  It was here I got my next induction into military ways.  I had thought I had been watching ITV – the UK’s old commercial channel – where X-Factor came from, but now they were watching something on BBC1…. and the channel was the same.  In fact there were only two channels on this TV.  BFBS 1 and BFBS2.  The British Forces Broadcasting Service pump amalgams of various programmes from various broadcasters on these two channels, with the occasional self made programme such as their forces news.  It was like I had moved in to a parallel world, where elements of my old one existed but in a new form.

We were given an update on our flight early in the evening.  The plane would leave Luxembourg at first light and be at Brize Norton at around 6am.  We should expect to be called at 5am to head to the terminal.  Given this news Edsel and I retired early.  Although we had been vegetating around the hotel for most of the afternoon, the uncertainty of what was to occur had exhausted us.  But I found it difficult to get rest – there were still planes coming in and out of Brize, the noise from the lobby rose into our room and my mind was still whirring about when we might or might not get off and what impact that was having on our proposed work programme on Ascension Island itself.

I must have eventually nodded off because the next thing I remember was a screech from the old speaker above our heads and a brusque female voice telling us that those on the Airbridge flight to the Falklands should be assembled in fifteen minutes at the front of the hotel to board the buses.  From a supine groggy start this was a demanding timetable, but really we both just had to have  a quick shower and brush our teeth and pack the few things we had in our carryon bags and we could leave.  There was no time to use our breakfast vouchers – the NAAFI did not open for another hour fortunately.

Life on Mars – Night at the Gateway

So next day we had a morning to ourselves and I showed Edsel some of the sights of my local area.  We got back for a light lunch (hurriedly bought from a local shop since I had emptied the fridge the previous day – I was intending to be away for 6 weeks!).  I rang the number once more but could not get through to the automated message.  So we decided to take a chance and head over to Brize Norton once more.

It was a Saturday so the roads were less busy and we reached in half the time of the previous night.  It is one of those truths of life travelling around the south east of England.  You can know how far you have to travel but whether you get there in an hour, two or three is up to the sheer weight of traffic or the multiple incidents which can grid lock whole stretches of motorway in seconds.  And living in Kent I almost always have to travel round London clockwise or anticlockwise on the M25; the number of alternative routes can be limited.  But second time around we were fortunate with this piece of travel.  We still had to go through the rigmarole of getting security passes at the main gate.  Different officers were manning  the desk and they had no news of the flight.  When we got to the main terminal though we discovered the news was bad.  The fault had still not been fixed and there would be no flight tonight.  They had been assured by the charter company that the plane would arrive early on Sunday morning.  We were told we could either head home again but be back by 5am, or spend the night in the military hotel within Brize Norton’s perimeter.  We decided to take this option but that meant a lot of paperwork.  And we were not alone – there were many more people in the terminal this time.  We were checked in with our baggage leaving us; we took out just what we needed for a one night stay, and we were handed a booking slip for the hotel, and vouchers entitling us to one dinner and one breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant.

Now, I had heard stories about this hotel – the Gateway House.  It was reputed to be not much more than a glorified barracks block.  When we got there I found out the truth…  It was not much more than a glorified barracks block.

Built in the 1960’s it was Spartan to say the least.  Our room was up echoey stairs on the second floor.  The room itself was long and thin – with just about enough room to walk between two single beds.  One single glazed window looked out over some landscaping to the airfield beyond – which meant we heard every plane that was landing and taking off even when the window was shut firm.  And apart from small bedroom cabinets, a built in wardrobe and a couple of bedside lights there was no other furniture. Just a large speaker attached to the wall – dating from the same time as the building itself.  The last time  I had seen a speaker like this was when I would do “Movement and  Music” at school in the 1970’s.

We decided it would be too depressing to sit here till the flight, so we headed down to the public rooms.  People were everywhere.  Our flight was not the only one to be delayed.  At the time the post Iraq conflict meant that the British were moving people in and out of Basra every day.  A couple of hundred well built young guys in their desert camouflaged uniforms were sitting around everywhere with their helmets and piles of kit bags.  Some played cards, some were  glued to their phones; others reading or staring off in to space or just closing their eyes and trying to shut off this world and mentally prepare for the tough assignment to come.  I thought how where I was due to head would be completely different and the juxtaposition of people going to what was still in effect a war zone and those travelling to one of the most peaceful places on earth jarred me.  As well as the soldiers going out to Iraq were many in civilian clothes – contractors and consultants no doubt.  I even saw some very well dressed Iraqi men in suits wearing large watches and smelling of expensive after shave.

Every seat was taken in the main lobby area, so we settled in the TV room next door.  This was still crowded but there were some spaces at the fringes.  We had little to do but wait and I found myself watching a new phenomenon; the X-Factor auditions on the big TV.  I’d studiously avoided this kind of programme for years but here I was commenting on the lousy singing, outrageous outfits, pushy parents and bitchy comments from the judges along with the rest.  We watched about three hours of TV nonstop.  After that, I decided I needed some fresh air so went into the trees behind the hotel and rang Vicky and  a couple of others to give them an update.  It was a hazy midsummer’s evening but I felt trapped behind the airfield’s fence in this curious no-man’s land.  No home comforts but no exciting adventure either.

We had observed that more and more people were arriving at the Gateway, but as I walked back from my phone calls I heard a tannoy message that said the Basra flight would leave in three  hours time and people were asked to make their way to the front of the hotel to board buses to the terminal.  Most of the soldiers collected their kitbags and emptied the lobby of so much clutter.  The Iraqi suits I had seen calmly put on flak jackets and helmets over their expensive clothes and headed out.  I pondered that they may have been Iraqi politicians who had been at a meeting in the UK and were now heading home with some new policy.

Life on Mars -Trouble from the start

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.