ONE MAN’S MET: MEMOIRS OF A CLIMATIC KIND.
As I am in the twilight of my years, I thought it appropriate to pen a few words of posterity, having shuffled off
the chains of a wage-slave and prior to decamping to a Macedonian time-share.
For nigh on forty years I have been involved, on and off, here and there, now and then, with the Met’ Office and their black art. As I
have been drinking deep in the well of erudition I shall recall some of these times and places and perhaps bring back some distant memories to the odd Teleg or two. My first encounter with Met’ came in 1958 when, as a baby Telegraphist I was posted to
RAF Church Fenton, a Fighter Command station within sniffing distance of John Smith’s Tadcaster Brewery. My job was to operate CF’s link to the HQFC teleprinter network. This involved putting in CF’s weather actuals every 30 minutes at an
specified time and collecting inputs from other stations. This enabled the controller to know what the were the state of other airfields in the land and they would know ours. I would then have to leap in to Air Tragic Control and adjust the state board, a
chart of the UK bearing a legend for each fighter and diversion field so at a glance the controller would know where to divert any poorly, lost or meteorologically challenged aeroplane. Dotted around the chart were names of airfields long-lost to the RAF;
Middleton-St-George, Waterbeach, Horsham-St-Faith, Stradishall, Dishforth, Duxford et al. Places which have become civil airports, trading estates, police training schools, air museums and even open prisons.
The airfield states were simplicity itself; colour-coded discs on the UK chart for at-a-glance assessment. I believe a similar coding still exists (perhaps on of you fly-guys will put me right). It went something like this;
GREEN: Perfect conditions, good vis, cloud, wind speed and direction.
YELLOW 1; Slightly less than green, but acceptable.
YELLOW 2; Deteriorating weather but landing condition OK at a
YELLOW 3; Marginal conditions, seriously consider a diversion.
RED; Clampers conditions, ice, snow, fog, etc. Divert!
BLACK; Airfield closed for reasons other than weather; Crashed
aircraft, runway resurfacing etc.
So, that was my first encounter with Met’ – A name that springs to mind from that happy station was the Chief Forecaster Paddy Harrington. He had under his wing a flock of
spot-faced young assistants called Met’ Observers, each with an unhealthy interest in books of ladies’ underwear. Thankfully I cannot recall their names. Just as well really, - they probably went on to be the great and the good of the Met’
Office but I am almost certain that one of them regularly appears on television – no names, no pack drill – keep schtum!
Eventually I was run out of CF and onto my first overseas draft, Gibraltar. Not much
dealing with the Met’ there, apart from receiving regular obs from the North African stations USN Port Lyautey, Casablanca. El Adem, Algiers and so on, all via C/W. They were all in five figure groups that we Telegraphists did not understand. We weren’t
meant to and didn’t ask and nobody told us, apart from “it’s the weather”.
End of tour and back in UK long enough for the Mammy to do my dhobi, then back overseas, this time to Singapore, where
for six months of my tour I found myself in the Central Forecast Office at HQFEAF Changi. There I rejoiced in the glorious, if not pretentious title of Editor. It was my sorry lot to receive obs from all over the Far-flung; Tokyo, Tachikawa, Korea, Laos, Cambodia,
Phillipines, Vietnam, Burma, Ceylon, NZ and Oz, as well as Malyasian stations. It never failed to amaze me that we were at war with Indonesia but continued to receive their obs and the Americans were bombing hell out of Indo-China. From this endless stream
of obs I had to edit what Bracknell did and did not want and relay it on to Met HQ in that soul-less Berkshire town, so far away in a land of warm beer and cold women. The job sent me bananas – all these five figure groups meant nothing to me because
they didn’t tell me and I didn’t ask. I was on fifty fags a day and seemingly as many cans of Tiger. The pressure to get these obs to Bracknell was quite overwhelming. I did not think the weather was that important but obviously it was to someone.
In retrospect I suppose it was to appease our American friends so they would know what the cloud cover was over Hanoi so that crazy bastard Lyndon B Johnson could drop bombs all over the women and babies.
I hardly recall
the names of the Forecasters at CFO. I don’t really want to. They were given officer status and looked down on a mere erk like me. They took upon themselves the mantle of Burra Sahibs and strutted around in baggy white shorts trying to look colonial.
I do however remember the assistants, a collection of locally employed personnel; the Lees, Rajaratnams, Wongs and Raschids. Good men all who took me into their homes and their hearts and fed me exotic spirits and foods, which was more than could be said for
the white supremecist. I went native and learnt a lot more by so doing. I’m still here but some of those white masters ain’t!
My assignment to CFO came to a close and I was sent to sit in a swamp with a radio.
This was far more preferable and pleasurable than sitting in the Editors chair, watching five-figure groups flying past my eyes. I still did not know what these groups meant. I didn’t ask and they did not tell me.
was time to go back to the UK again, only briefly as Telegraphist rotation was pretty rapid. RAF Gan beckoned before my last tan had even worn off. I found myself in Flight Watch and the ground floor of air traffic. The Met’ men were a more sympathetic
bunch than the White Rajahs of Singapore. They kept a fine cellar in their compound and were apt to share it with us provided me got their weather right and could slide the odd CSN telegram in for them under the guise of an SVC. The Met’ man’s
life must have been and easy one. The weather was always the same, except in the monsoon season, when it was different but nearly the same, if I may use scientific terms.
After my year on Gan it was back to the UK and
pastures new and a quick rotation to Europe and the Near East and there my association with the Met’ seemed to peter out. I still didn’t find out what those five-figure groups meant. They didn’t tell me and I never asked. This should have
ben the end of the story, but it was not to be.
The air force and I parted company after 22 mainly happy years, with perhaps a couple of exceptions. I found myself as a member of HM Coastguard, given a sailor suit and
drafted to the Liverpool station at Formby (Remember Woodvale?). Prior to automatic weather stations, Coastguards did weather obs on behalf of the Met’ Office. I went on a course to the Met’ Office college at Shinfield Park (the old HQFTC) and
they told me how do to read the clouds
Mackerel Sky and Mares’ Tails
Time to furl
The feckin’ sails.
translate all your observations in to five-figure groups. Not a secret code, not difficult, not cryptography. All was revealed. It was as if the runic stones, Sanskrit and the Dead Sea Scrolls presented themselves clearly and simultaneously. I now knew what
all those five-figure groups meant, even though it meant travelling through continents and decades. You see, they never told me and I never asked!
Mike Roberts 28/29th Teleg.