Monday 20 October 2003

An interesting weekend

On Friday evening I attended the 50th Anniversary Dinner of the Prestwick Airport Aviation Group. I was a member of the group when I grew up near the airport as a teenager. It is a bizarre experience to meet people one hasn’t seen for three decades or more. The next day we took a tour of the airport and very interesting it was.

When Prestwick was sold by BAA to a local consortium about ten years ago it had lost all of its passenger services. Staff numbers were cut to fifty, thirty-five of whom were qualified firefighters (a legal minimum). These men doubled as aircraft loaders, security staff and handymen. At the time, they weren’t very happy! The sub-officer (equivalent of a military sergeant I would guess) who showed us round the fire station now acknowledges that the airport wouldn’t have survived without those hardships. He knew exactly how much each of the three recently acquired fire engines had cost (£370,000) and details of options to acquire more machines. I suspect that local government firefighters aren’t as switched on to the economics of their operation. Prestwick is now prospering and is on its way to carrying 2 million passengers a year.

We were shown round the Royal Navy air sea rescue base. One helicopter was out on a mission and the crew of the other machine were watching the rugby game but fully kitted-up for any emergency. Next we saw round the Polar Air Cargo maintenance hangar and looked inside a Boeing 747 freighter. That was followed by a tour of the control tower and local radar control room.

In the afternoon we visited the Scottish and Oceanic Air Traffic Control Centre. “Scottish” covers all aircraft over the northern part of the UK and part of the North Sea as well as out to 10 degrees west. It was fascinating to watch the radar screen covering Scotland and northern England. We could see in real time a procession of about 50 airliners moving towards the Atlantic, sixty miles apart at each altitude. “Oceanic” controls all aircraft from 10 west out to the boundary with the Gander control zone half way across the Atlantic. Beyond radar limits (about 10 west) they rely on regular position reports from pilots. We saw one guy controlling 38 aircraft on his screen and he was merely covering planes between 35,000 and 36,000 feet. There was an air of quiet concentration and complete professionalism. Even the BA pilot in our group was impressed. Think of these controllers next time you fly.

We rounded off the day with a three-hour slide show complete with 1940s Luftwaffe reconnaissance photos of the airport and the nearby Clyde shipyards with every ship accurately identified by the Germans. I was pleased to note that the Johnnie Walker whisky distillery in Kilmarnock was camouflaged to protect it from air attack. Freedom and Whisky!