FIRST FLIGHTS AND OPENING CEREMONY
On 1st May 1985 I and Graham C, John G, Dave D, Ian W and Gerry M went to the north side of the runway near the landing area and stood on a small hill to watch the first plane land. John G and Dave D moved down lower a bit further along opposite the place where the wheels were expected to touch, but we others preferred to see the plane still in the air and follow it to the touch-down.
It was a bit like waiting for an alien spaceship as in "close encounters of the third kind". We didn't know if it was going to be a VC10 or a Tristar, nor exactly when it would arrive, nor exactly which direction or how high up.
People were supposed to stay 150 metres back, but many didn't. There were people standing everywhere, even on top of containers beside the runway. First we saw a dark blip, then it seemed to split into two. We then realised that the plane had two Phantom escorts which put on reheat and zoomed past first. The Tristar followed steadily. The wind was quite strong and dead ahead, ie west-north-west. I took several photos as it passed and got one just as its wheels touched down. It landed on the third bay of concrete PQC just before the asphalte - pretty accurate.
The plane had had fighter escorts out of Ascension Island, then Harriers from an aircraft carrier, then Phantoms from Stanley. As the plane turned on the Apron to be parallel with the hangar, some people standing at the end of the Apron got blasted by the jets.
A tight fit for the Tristar in the hangar on 2nd May 1985
the cabins were removed when more buildings were finished
As a long-term resident at MPA and a pioneer I was given the chance to go on test flights on 2nd May. The plane was in the hangar overnight, and only just fitted. There was only about six feet each side and about three feet at the top. I wondered what would happen when Tristars were replaced by bigger planes. There were only about sixty of us and we all had window seats.
The plane took off from the west end, ie not the normal end, with a following wind, turned over Fitzroy and Bertha's Beach and returned for a mock landing, revving up just before touch-down and zooming up to do the same from over Swan Inlet. It felt like being in a fun-fair switch-back. The acceleration of the lightly loaded plane was amazing. This happened several times, sometimes the main wheels just touched down before it took off again.
The plane left at 2 pm with a full load back to Ascension Island and the UK. As it taxied off the Apron I noticed that the engines were so low and far out that they only just missed some reinforcing bars set up as marker posts or levelling profiles at the edge of the taxiway. After the first landing where people were probably too close to the runway, for the takeoff there were armed soldiers every 100 metres along the runway!
8th May 1985. A schedule of duties for PSA and consultants was published. I was assigned to the press lunch with Eddie M, Gavin L and Nigel H. I said I could tell them all the scandals, I was leaving anyway so sacking me would be pointless.
Bill J had been concerned that nothing was being done by the consultants as a thank you to PSA and everyone else. We weren't supposed to entertain PSA, or to put it another way, they weren't supposed to be entertained after some scandals back in the UK. However, his idea was OK'd by his boss and other consultant bosses in the UK, so we organised a party to be held after the opening ceremony when a UK partner from each firm would still be on site.
There was some discussion on whether to invite Kelvin's Kittens, the women who ran the camp, but Bill J seemed to have got friendly with a few, quite well according to rumours, and wanted some "to provide a bit of atmosphere". Kelvin's Kittens were known to be heavy drinkers with coarse language and habits, from Paisley, but with hearts of gold, so I was expecting fireworks, but not against the idea. Matt G was very against the idea, Chris W not very keen, Bill J was in favour and I was only in favour of four or five who used to visit our bar. Bill gave me a list of sixteen (out of only twenty three - I thought there were more than that) to be given invitations.
5th May 1985. Dress rehearsal day. The army might have got things organised, but PSA had done little. HRH was due to arrive by helicopter and go to the ATC control tower to watch the plane with official guests arrive. He would change personality there from a ship's officer to HRH. The press were to be kept away from him and it was suggested they stand outside the ATC tower on the metal roof to avoid getting at him before he assumed his HRH role. I asked Wayne M the Clerk of Works whether the roof was strong enough.
On the day I think they stood on a concrete balcony where they could look in through the darkened glass of the control room, but perhaps HRH didn't watch from there or it was assumed it didn't matter if they looked in. The press were then to be driven across the runway while the plane waited at the end so that they could take up new positions. The plane was to taxi to the Apron, everyone was to get out and take their seats, then HRH was to be driven across from the ATC tower. Jim O was to drive HRH, but the lead landrover was to be driven by Phil "go-fer" P. He had really thick glasses and I had visions of him going the wrong way.
We had a briefing later in the day, nothing important except not to gripe and whinge to senior PSA visitors (PSA staff were still moaning about pay and conditions - no pioneer spirit in the latest ones). John T asked about clothes ie suits and ties? and got a meaningless answer from Brian B about thermals. Dave D asked about restrictions on movement and got an ambiguous answer. I asked if we could watch the plane down from anywhere of if we had to wait on the Apron and got another ambiguous answer.
John T as senior PSA M & E man had organised a new villa for the use of three consultant partners from Ewbank Preece, Sir Alexander Gibb and Gardiner and Theobald, but BDP's boss David W was assigned John S's room and he was expected to move out into a portakabin. He was not amused.
Sunday 12th May 1985. Surprisingly everything seemed to go to plan, or more precisely, things were fairly relaxed and fluid and I didn't notice anything go seriously wrong. Five of us G & T walked to the middle of the runway on the south side so that we could walk to the Apron after the plane landed. Apart from five WTW men everyone else seemed to be around the Apron.
Two helicopters arrived, Prince Andrew went into the ATC tower and the press men on the balcony were told not to turn round and photograph him through the green glass! Two Phantoms arrived and went vertically up with reheat on, then the plane landed. There weren't soldiers at 100 metre intervals this time, in fact none along the runway, perhaps it would have given the wrong impression of a highly militarised airport. They were out of sight around the navaids in camouflaged netting with what looked like anti-aircraft guns.
Opening ceremony 12th May 1985
The landrovers arrived with the press, the plane taxied to the Apron, guests took their seats, the Royal Standard replaced the Civil Commissioner's flag, the Prince arrived in a convoy of two clean landrovers, the band played, salutes were given and the National Anthem played. The Prince walked around a bit, then disappeared into the hangar. VIPs followed and we all trooped into the hangar for speeches from Sir Rex Hunt, Mr Ian Gow the construction minister, Mr Heseltine, then the Prince.
Priests blessed the project as many people were already creeping away, then we walked to our office, where I went to the press lunch in the conference room. I spent most of the time talking to an RAF man who never once asked any questions about the airport or the project, but admitted he was suffering from jet-lag.
After the press lunch I went with my colleagues to the Army Works Phase 1 canteen for the VIP lunch. This canteen had never been used before and had clean gravel outside, painted wooden posts with new scaffold pole rails, etc. The toilets were spotless. Prince Andrew had already left to chase his ship which was steaming north. Afterwards my boss went on a short coach tour round the airfield, so we went to the hangar a bit later to meet him and to fetch his bag. An exhibition of children's pictures, stamp displays, etc. was being hastily cleared so that the plane could get in. We watched it pulled back in, just missing the doors.
On 13th May we took our boss around the airfield and also down the Stanley Road which hadn't yet got its final surface chippings. We saw a local landrover off the road with its windscreen and soft top completely flattened. A man and a girl were overtaking another vehicle too fast and got caught in the soft gravel at the edge of the road which dragged them off. He got broken bones. We went to Hillside camp for lunch and later drove around the Canache (the military area), West Store, The Pink Shop and Speedwells, then looked at Government House.
On the return journey we suggested he got out at the minefields to be photographed there but he refrained. We then found Phil P after dark with a puncture on his own with no radio and his jack was no good. It was early winter and not a good idea to be stranded in icy weather at night. He used our radio to call for help.
The consultants' party for PSA and others was held later on 13th May 1985. When I went into the Army Works 1 canteen early it seemed huge and I wondered if it would be too large, but as everyone had heard about a party it soon filled up with virtually the whole camp, invited or not. Kelvin's Kittens were lost in the general hubbub.
The bar manager had done us proud, whole hams covered with a cream paste looking glossy, also a margarine carved fish. I think some of it was left-overs from the HRH lunch and LMA's social club do the night before. Just before 11 pm I looked at the bar and could only see one crate of beer and a few bottles of spirit. John T announced that the bar was closing in a few minutes, so it was perfect timing.
The VIPs left on 14th May 1985. We watched a Nimrod take off before the Tristar. We understood it flew about 150 miles to the west of the Tristar as a target for any enemy action. Later a Chinook landed and taxied along the Apron. I was amazed how it could make a turn on the concrete apparently just using its rotors, but it did nearly clip the flagpoles.
Stanley Road 15th May 1985 in rain
the final gravel topping was applied later
15th May 1985. I was taken into Stanley by Phil P for one of the last Hercules airbridge flights to Ascension Island the following day, then VC10 to the UK. The Stanley Road was covered in deep puddles and the surface seemed quite rough already, but it was cleaned up later and the gravel topping applied. The Hercules flight was a freight flight so there were only twenty four passengers. Although there were great piles of baggage next to our knees initially, we had plenty of room to spread out after take-off.
On the Hercules the food going north was usually worse than coming south - no fresh cold chicken. We had genuine compo rations like I had found in the barn at Mount Pleasant House - Biscuits Brown AB, Fruit AB (Garibaldi biscuits), tins of corned beef, fruit juice in a can, mixed veg in mayonaise, fruit pastilles and tinned mixed fruit cocktail. I quite enjoy that sort of food.
The northbound flights were usually quicker than southbound, no refuelling as friendly territories were within reach going north if a problem developed. It only took ten and a half hours. Then into the "Greasy Spoon" as usual at 10 pm for breakfast! We got onto a VC10 at 11 pm and had another breakfast.
I returned to MPA in November 1985 until January 1986 while Graham C had his back operation in UK and I returned for one week in April 1986 to collect data in regard to a claim made by LMA about valuing excavation that they wished to have valued as "rock" excavation when rock fill was not required by the specification. Although I kept a diary, life was quite boring compared with the pioneer days, so I haven't recorded it here. I did go on some more hiking trips which were enjoyable.