Ray Watts - My ATC memories

By Ray Watts

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As some of you folks will know I started out my aviation journey as an ATC. This is my story.

My adventures into the world of aviation started in July 1969 when the head of the ATC school at the then Jan Smuts came to give a career guidance presentation at my high school. I was hooked and after taking my dad's advice that night, I signed up the next day. Very shortly after that I was told to go to MMI (Military Medical Institute) in Irene for my first medical check-up as well as an IQ test. All was well and I got a letter from DCA in September 1969 telling me to report to the ATC school on the 5th of January 1970 to commence training.

My first salary cheque was R110.00 per month which was quite a large sum of money in those days.

I didn't have a car or motor bike at the time and therefore I had to catch the train from Birchleigh to Kempton Park. I did have a bicycle, but it was beneath my dignity to ride that to work. I had to walk from home to the Birchleigh station (about 1 mile) to catch the 06h30 train to Kempton Park station where we were picked up by a staff bus and delivered to the control tower. We were issued with a government rail pass, so the train trips did not cost us a thing. The staff bus was also free.

FAJS Tower building 1953

On the first day we were taken into the control tower and approach control rooms as a sort of introductory tour and then taken back to the ATC school. We spent about three weeks here learning about flight plans, flight tracking strips, met, the phonetic alphabet and other basic stuff.

After this course, we were divided into shifts and then sent to the briefing office. The head of this office was Mr Roy Vogel and he immediately put us to work on flight plans and flight strips. This involved getting the flight slips made out for the next day's standard flight plans as well as ad-hoc flight plans that came in during the day. The early morning shift started at 6am and the first thing to be done was to get the standard flight plan strips to the various controllers on duty. In the briefing office lived a rather aggressive African Grey parrot named Joe. He would sit either in or on his cage and screech at everybody. Eventually he got too noisy and spent the rest of his days at the home of Mr Bodenstein. Funnily enough, when he was out of his cage, he would not touch any other colour paper except pink, which he would destroy totally.

I then went into the SAAF at the end of June 1970 for my national service. There was an arrangement between DCA and the SAAF that all of us who'd started at ATC would, after basic training, be sent to the various airfields as ATC assistants. I was sent to Pietersburg AFB where the SAAF ATC School was and after a six-week course was sent to Dunnottar.

Joseph, maker of extra-ordinary cups of tea

After finishing with the SAAF in July 1971, I went back to DCA as a trainee ATC and eventually qualified as a Tower controller. The first course that we attended at the ATC College was an introductory course where we were taught all the basics as laid down in the ATCI (Air Traffic Control Instructions) manual. Included in this course was radio work, flight planning, met and a host of other things. An awful lot of learning but with the group of guys and one girl that we had on the course it was great fun. I do not remember how long the course was, but I think it was 6 weeks. We then went onto the control centre help desk and were kept occupied filing flight plans, making out flight progress strips etc. Another character there was Joseph the tea maker. How we ever survived his tea is a wonder. I am sure that he used to boil the tea, leaves and all before serving it, as it was so incredibly strong. The person in charge of the briefing office was Roy Vogel.

Dick Hague, one of the two shift supervisors

The centre boss was John Botha and the two shift supervisors were Dick Hague and CJ Bodenstein. There were other controllers like Dick Hoogewind, Paul v.d. Heydn, Colin Marais, Norman Wyer, Basil Smith, Gert Esterhuizen, Ken Edmunds, Eddie Travasces, Rob Rundle, John Pickton, Johan Schoombie, Ron Peal and Rob Allison. There were others, as well and as this story progresses, I will probably remember their names as well. The person in charge of the ATC School was a Mr. Alexander with his assistant Paddy Ireland. I actually went to school with Paddy's daughter Colleen. There was also Theo Whitford (Went to school with his daughter Sue).

Gert Esterhuisen in the tower at FAJS

In the school a Mr. Anteglovich gave the met lectures. He was great fun and I guess his style of lecturing was good as to this day I have not forgotten anything he taught me. We also had to learn a bit of Morse code but didn't have to learn to send it. We just had to know the Morse letters used to identify the NDB and VOR beacons that were in use at the time.

After completing the next course, Aeronautical Information Service, we were allowed loose on the HF frequencies and it was here that we got to work with the guys from the comm centre like Charlie Brown. He had a run in with one of the DCA guys once. He was operating the HF and a pilot asked him for the Cape Town weather. His answer was "Standby I'll get the witch doctor to rattle the bones" Unfortunately for him there was a DCA aircraft also listening out at the time. He, and I think it was the late Arthur Thomas, had a serious sense of humour failure and reported Charlie. These guys were great as they were all ex WW2 radio operators and really knew their stuff.

If you think that it was a straight & serious attitude that prevailed throughout the ATC centre, you're mistaken. The job was a serious one, after all you're playing with lives there, but fun was had by all as well. To illustrate, a floor switch activated the microphones, which was rather a large paddle type affair. There was a particularly pretty young Swiss lady pilot (Pirette Peroz, who I got to know much better later on) and who flew a Beech Baron ZS-HWW for a construction company. On this particular day she was inbound to Rand from somewhere in the eastern Transvaal. Norman Wyer was on area control that day (126.7) and he had turned his chair towards the controller who was working the approach frequency (124.5) and was telling him a particularly dirty story. I was working the information frequency (119.5) and all of a sudden, I get this call from HWW telling me that she was enjoying the story the 126.7 controller was telling but she really needed to talk to him. What had happened is that Norman's chair had ridden up over the foot switch and he was broadcasting his story to all and sundry that happened to be on that frequency. I can assure you that he moved his chair rather quickly and apologised to her, but the damage was done. Every time Pirette saw him after that, she would tease him about it. She would not let him live that down.

A SAA Vickers Viscount

SAA were flying the Viscount on most of their internal routes those days and we had some good laughs with them. For example, when the Viscounts taxied out for take-off, they would hardly ever stop at the holding point but would go straight onto the runway and start their take-off roll. There was one particular morning when the aircraft stopped quite suddenly and when he was asked if there was a problem the 1st Officer asked us to "Standby" for an answer. I was watching the aircraft through the binoculars and suddenly the rear passenger door opened and there was the captain with one of the passengers. Apparently, we were told later, the passenger had refused to put his seat belt on and when the hostess reported this to the captain, he left the cockpit to talk to the passenger. The pax still refused and then threatened to throw him off the aircraft, without the use of steps. The pax sat down and put his seat belt on.

In those days, the Captains would regularly give the passengers an update as to where they were and this also caused some hilarity. The cockpit layout on the Viscount was such that the intercom microphone and the standby radio microphone were next to each other on the back of the centre console and it was quite easy to pick up the wrong one if you didn't look properly. There was one occasion where the pilot was giving the pax a position report like "Ladies and Gentlemen, if you look to your left, you'll see the town of Ladysmith". The ATC on duty simply said "Thanks, now we know where you are" The pilot had picked up the wrong microphone.

The wreckage of the SAA B707 ZS-EUW at the crash site

We, as ATCs, were allowed three route familiarisation flights with SAA per year and these were free so I decided that I wanted to go to Windhoek on the "milk run" from Jan Smuts to Kimberley, Upington, Keetmanshoop and Windhoek. This was a four-hour flight and I occupied the jump seat all the way. Between Jan Smuts and Kimberley, we encountered some nasty turbulence and the 1st Officer asked the captain if it wouldn't be better to climb higher to clear this turbulence. His answer was "If we go any higher this old bus will fall apart" A scary thought to say the least. When we got to Windhoek I wandered around the airport for a while waiting for the return flight and I visited the area where the wreckage of the SAA B707 ZS-EUW (Pretoria) was stored. This is the one that crashed at Windhoek on 20 April 1968. What upset me the most was seeing a child's shoe and a little teddy bear among the wreckage. The flight home was a direct flight, with a different crew and was at night directly over Botswana. The new crew didn't want me in the cockpit for some reason, so I had a luxury trip home in first class (that wasn't supposed to happen). What a trip that was.

Concorde 002 at FAJS 25 Jan 1973

Another great dose of excitement was the arrival of Concorde 002 G-BSST on 25 January 1973 for her hot and high trials. I was in the tower that day and we had a whole flock of light aircraft that arrived to see her land. They were all parked on the eastern side of the apron. When she arrived, she did a flypast down Rwy 03 with a right hand turn out and, in the process, lost sight of the runway. It was not difficult to give her the correct heading to place her on a right-hand downwind, but the pilot was quite worried. While she was here, she was parked next to the fire station. She had to be towed away before any start up as the fire guys could not hear the alarm if it went off. There was also an ATC course on the go at the time in the control tower building and the lectures had to stop as nobody could hear a darned thing or concentrate as they were all looking out of the windows. She was also stopped from standing still at the holding point as the angle at which the engines pointed down was melting the tar on the taxiway.

The Jan Smuts Approach 124.5 station and the Johannesburg Info 119.5 station

Another very exciting day we "appies" were invited to visit SAA's company radio section called ZUR. It was very interesting to listen to the guys talking to SAA aircraft all over the world. We also the visited the aircraft simulators. I got a chance to fly the Boeing 707 sim which was quite an experience.

During this period, we were regularly sent to Rand Airport to man the tower there and this is where I got checked out for my tower rating. I'll go into my time at Rand in the next article.

Me on night shift in the tower at FAJS

ATC was and still is one of the most stressful jobs in the world but with the high standard of training given, one learned to cope with that.

After doing the tower controllers course the next one was the Approach Control course, which I consider to be the most difficult. During this course I came down with Encephalitis, which is an inflammation of the lining of the brain. Unfortunately, I had to spend many days in a darkened room and because of this I could not study. Once recovered, I went back to the ATC School but failed the course. For some reason I was not given a chance to retake it and was transferred to the Directorate of Civil Aviation (DCA) head office in Pretoria.

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