Ray Watts, my ATC memories - Part 3A

By Ray Watts

In November 1973 I was taken ill and therefore failed my Approach training course. For some reason I was never given the chance to repeat the course and I was transferred to the DCA head office in Pretoria where I worked in the department that controlled the scheduled and non-scheduled licenses for companies. The head of the department was Mr Alexander, who had been head of the ATC School when I started there. My direct boss was Tinus Visser, who, to be quite frank, was a little weird, being absolutely pedantic about the neatness of his office.

FAGC 1975 one can see the main runway 35 as well as the old cross runway 28. Traces of the old runway 03 can be seen on the right of the picture.

In late March 1974, an ex-colleague of mine, Sue Davis, telephoned me and let me know that she was leaving the position of Aerodrome Flight Information Service operator at Grand Central and wanted to know if I was interested in the position. What a question, I certainly was. Anyone who has ever worked on an airfield will know that being stuck in an office is not the best place to be. She set up an interview for me with the MD of Grand Central, Roger Lea and I was given the position with effect from the first of May 1974. I was ecstatic to say the least. He had my letter of appointment delivered to my home and on Wednesday the first of May, the best ten years of my aviation life started.

There is quite a difference between a fully controlled airfield and an AFIS service. With an AFIS service, clearance is never given (like ZS-ABC you are cleared to land) but advise is given as to whether the runway is clear etc. AFIS will also give approaching aircraft the runway in use and where the aircraft could join the circuit etc. There is a way of saying things that don't sound as though you're giving an instruction. One learns these things quickly.

As Grand Central was a privately owned airfield, it was quite different to the publicly owned airfields that I was used to working at. Please forgive me if I go into some detail over this series of articles.

Looking from the taxiway side of the tower showing the landing T and windsock pole.

The "tower" was a little red & white steel hut stuck out in the middle of the apron and was not particularly comfortable. It was bitterly cold in winter and boiling hot in summer but with the help of a large heater, in winter and a big fan in summer, it was bearable.

There was very little in the way of equipment in there being only a chair, desk, desk-top radio and an anemometer. There was also a portable radio on the desk that could pick up the ATC transmissions from Jan Smuts. This is the way we used to get the QNH, by listening out to the transmission from Jan Smuts Tower (118.1).

One of my briefs was to up the safety standards (although they were good) at the airfield and I started on this right away. The AFIS frequency at GC was 120.7 at that stage, but as this was the general chatter frequency (like 123.45 is now) it wasn't ideal and the management applied for a dedicated frequency, which we got in October of that year - 122.8 was ours.

The airport was managed by Roger Lea with Des Yaxley as accountant and staff member Alma Cooke. Roger Lea's secretary was Joanne Burger.

There was only one training school at the airfield at that time, Placo Grand Central, which was run by Peter Bull with instructors Ian Dornan, John Waller, Lillith Billings and Freddie Smith (CFI). Barry Stone joined soon afterwards as did Gordon Hollingsworth. The flying school looked after the Grand Central Flying Club's two Cessna 150s (ZS-IOD & ZS-IVS) as well as their own fleet of Pipers. These were Cherokee 140s ZS-IEJ and ZS-ISG, Cherokee 180 ZS-ELL and Cherokee Arrow 200 ZS-ICY. Another instructor was an ex Luftwaffe instructor Ingrid Adolphs - boy was she strict. The office was run by Sandy Stone and Angela Waller.

The only charter company on the airfield at the time was Rennies Air run by John Pocock. They operated a fleet of Cessna twins ranging from the Cessna 310 to the Cessna 421. This was a very busy company and they regularly had to charter aircraft from other companies to fulfil their daily flights. Their two front-line ladies were Sue Vosper and Robina Anderson with engineer Buck Rogers.

The people on the airfield turned out to be very friendly and welcoming to this newcomer. There had been people operating the tower before me but none of them were DCA trained and I think this gave me a standing that I felt I didn't deserve. I am told that I was friendly but strict and that's the way I wanted it.

ZS-BDB with the clubhouse in the back ground.

Sunday nights in the club house was where any safety issued got thrashed out over a few pints and a huge platter of chips (French Fries). Many suggestions were brought forth and one of them was to extend the hours of operation of the tower. It had been from 7am to 5pm on weekdays and 8am to 4pm on weekends and closed on public holidays. We extended these hours to be from 6am to 6pm seven days a week. The only public holidays I insisted on were Good Friday and Christmas Day- otherwise the tower was operational.

The fire truck was an old Mazda bakkie with a flat back and two stretchers on it and four large foam fire extinguishers fitted.

Apart from the normal duties of the AFIS operator, I had to man the fire truck (in case of an accident) and also go out daily to check and see that all the runway lights were operating. These lights were basically Fibreglass cones with a round truck turn indicator light mounted on top. Each one had its own 220/12v transformer inside the cone and a globe. These globes burnt out regularly and had to be checked and changed as necessary. The main problem with working with these lights was that one had to turn them upside down to check the transformer and there were some nasty's (Spiders etc) lurking inside. I never got bitten but the risk was always there. The fire truck was an old Mazda bakkie with a flat back and two stretchers on it and four large foam fire extinguishers fitted. Thank goodness we never had a serious accident as I have no doubt that there would have been casualties. However, the fire truck was put to other nefarious uses. On nights when there was a party in the club house, one would see it depart from the tower and head out towards the runway where the stretchers were put to use in a way that they were never intended to be used. We eventually got a Double Cab VW Kombi from Jimmy Popham (Multispray) and this was far more reliable.

The altimeter from one of the Sikorsky helicopters was installed this on top of the anemometer box on my desk.

One thing I had to get right was to get an altimeter in the tower so that we could get our own QNH reading and not rely on listening out to Jan Smuts. There were three old Sikorsky S55 helicopters stored for Court Helicopters on the airfield, one in the main hangar and two in T hangars. I took the altimeter out of the one in the main hangar, had it serviced by the instrument shop and installed this on top of the anemometer box on my desk. We could now get our own QNH reading - brilliant.

Grand Central was a busy little place and during the week there was all the charter flying and the flying training going on and it was not unusual to have ten aircraft in the circuit at a time. It was on the weekends that the place really came alive. This is when all the club members and other private individuals came out to play. There were a number of older aircraft that weren't fitted with radios or if they were, they hardly ever worked properly but I learned to fit these guys in with the other traffic. Once or twice a weekend somebody would be pulled aside and read the riot act for doing something stupid, but this was always done on a one-to-one basis and never in front of anybody else or over the radio. This was we built up a mutual respect between myself and the pilots. There were some who didn't take to this very well, but in general everybody got on well and the safety levels increased dramatically.

Grinaker Construction's Aero Commander 690.

And their DC3 ZS-GPL.

There were quite a few company aircraft based at GC at that time. The main one was Grinaker Construction with their Aero Commander 690 ZS-GKR and their DC3 ZS-GPL. The DC3 was the biggest aircraft based there. People used to ask me if it wasn't too big to fly from there but she never had a problem. Their chief pilot was an Irishman named Ronnie Nash - he was a real character. I flew with him often and enjoyed every minute of it.

A Multispray J3C Cub.

Another company was Jimmy Popham's company Multispray, who owned a number of Piper Super Cubs (ZS-DGI & EGI), a J3C Cub (ZS-AYC) and a Cessna 206 (ZS-EDG). They manufactured crop spraying equipment for towing behind a tractor and also did some aerial spraying with the Super Cubs. The Cessna 206 was used for visiting farmers to deliver spares etc. It was said that Jimmy never carried anything more than a Caltex road map on board as he knew the countryside so well, he didn't need a proper aviation map.

Fairchild F24R.

A Luscombe.

One off two Globe Swifts.

The folks with their private aircraft were the backbone of the airfield and were the most fun to work with. There was a whole variety of aircraft types there including a Fairchild F24R (ZS-BAY), a Tiger Moth (ZS-FEY), a Luscombe (ZS-BTL) and two Globe Swifts (ZS-BDB and ZS-FZH which had been converted to tricycle undercarriage) and various home-built aircraft. There were a number of hangar queens hidden away in the T hangars and I rarely got to see them. The best of these was the three Sikorsky S55s that were stored here. They had South African registrations but were in basic Royal Navy colour schemes.

It was during this time that the fuel crisis hit us and we had to close the fuel bay on weekends as well as at 6pm on weekdays. It was a scramble to get all the aircraft refuelled for the next day's flying. On the weekends however, a Cessna 337 and an Aztec were filled to the brim and fuel was syphoned off to keep the flying school fleet going. Not the safest operation but it worked and the authorities never found out.

The restaurant was run by Mrs Nofke and served fairly reasonable food. It wasn't a gourmet menu but totally edible and not too expensive. One thing that was great was when a waiter brought a cup of tea to the tower at 10am and 3pm daily. It was here that I discovered a favourite sandwich - ham and cheese - and still enjoy it to this day. For the life of me I can't remember the head waiters name, but he was a Malawian and had a tremendous sense of humour. They also baked delicious cakes and sometimes I would buy a whole cake to take home with me.

I was still driving my first car, a Morris Mini, at this time and we had staff parking in the first T hangar right next to the Rennies offices. There was a short walk from there to the tower and this was OK unless it was winter or raining. The wind whipping across the apron could freeze the balls off a brass monkey. At times like this I would park my car next to the tower. The fire truck was also parked next to the tower during the day and in the staff parking at night.

A hangover from the non-radio days at the airfield was the landing T in front of the building. The T had to be turned to line up with the runway in use so that any non-radio aircraft flying overhead could see which runway was in use. One landed up the T towards the cross piece at the top. This had to be turned around by hand every time the wind changed and the runway changed - quite a job because it was heavy. The T also had to be closed up when the airfield was unmanned. The windsock was also just in front of the tower and regularly got itself wound around the pole. The pole mounting was hinged in the middle so the sock could be lowered and untangled or replaced as required. This was a two-man job and seeing as I was alone the sock was generally left to untangle itself.

The airport's jack of all Martin Thepa there was almost nothing that he could not do.

There was a jack of all trades on the airport named Martin Thepa and there was almost nothing that he could not do. He was also the driver for the company and his pride and joy was a little brown Datsun 1200 LDV. This little vehicle was always highly polished and immaculately maintained. If anyone in the company needed something done, Martin was your man. He retired in 2009 after 50 years with the company. At the time there was a newish Nissan 1400 LDV that he used and this was given to him as a parting gift.

I'll write about the vintage and home built aircraft in a later article.

My time at Grand Central is far too interesting to do justice to in one article so I'll be doing a series over the next few months. I must really get my brain in order and memories are coming flooding back as I write this. I must get them in some sort of order: - after all this was almost 46 years ago. I really hope you enjoy reading this as much as I am enjoying writing it.

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