A-A-S, the three Musketeers

Aviation serverance
Aviation serverance

The title of this story must seem like a puzzle. It will be solved as the story progresses.

It was the early 80’s. I was working as a radar-controller at Karlsruhe UAC, better known to the aviation world as Rhein Control. In my free time, besides caring for my wife and home, I had several hobbies, one of them was amateur radio.

I was licensed since 1979, known to the radio world as DF6OM. It was fun to sit in front of the radio being able to talk to people all over the world. This was a long time before cell phones, computers, internet, chat-rooms, email, facebook and all of those gimmicks. Especially fun was joining a daily meeting called “International Air Traffic Control Net”. This was a group of people either involved with ATC or other parts of aviation, like pilots, aviation technicians, any individual with some connection or interest to the aviation world. This group had been started by Ernie, W1BFA, a retired watch supervisor of an ATC unit in Maine. Ernie got up very early every morning and started calling on 14.277 Mhz, and eventually a group of 5, 6 or 7 people joined in and chatted about all kinds of matters, mostly connected with aviation. Of those people one might sit in Maastricht, another one at Algiers airport, another one in the center of England and so forth. I joined the group as often as I could, it was much fun. Ernie has passed away by now, but the I-ATC Net is still active, meeting every day at 12:00 UTC, now on 14.279 Mhz.

One day, after early-shift, I got home, and since lunch was not ready yet, I switched on my radio which I had left sitting on the I-ATC Net frequency. I immediately noticed that there was turmoil on that frequency. Ernie was there, so was Kamel, 7X2BK, the friend from Algiers, and a few others. They were constantly shouting “cq Japan, cq Japan”, which meant they wanted to have contact with some station from Japan. But – no Japanese amateur station seemed to hear them. Now – the shortwave is a very picky lady, sometimes she is in a good mood, other times she is not. That means, sometimes you can talk to the whole world with a wet thumb as your antenna, and sometimes it is very difficult to reach some areas. That is because of the laws of propagation, which depends mostly on the sun’s activity, the time of day and year, the weather and other factors. These factors create the reflection layers in the atmosphere which will bounce your radio-waves back to earth a long distance away from your location.

But what in the world was going on there now? I listened in for a while, finally by catching some of the conversation in between cq calls. They wanted to have contact to a Japanese station because they were searching for a very special medicine, which seemed to be produced only in Japan. Apparently there had been an accident to a young girl in Yugoslavia, she must have badly hurt her spinal bone and must have fallen short of disrupting her spinal chord. This medicine was a stimulant for growth and regrowth of nerve tissue, so they badly needed it there. A friend of this girls family was an amateur radio operator, or ham, as we say, and he knew about the I-ATC Net and asked them to help. So they had found out the name of the medicine, and also that it was manufactured and available only in Japan.

The shortwave kept on being picky at that time, no one in Japan heard the desperate calls. Once or twice the name of the medicine was stated (which I have forgotten in the meantime). It sounded like a familiar name of a medicine you hear every now and then. So I got curious. We have an international drugstore in Karlsruhe, so I got on the telephone and called them. I got a nice lady on the phone, I explained to her who I was, what I was doing and what I heard on shortwave. I gave her the name of the medicine and asked whether she knew anything about it. She took a while and then came back and said “Sir, we happen to have one package of this stuff right here in our store. It has been ordered by a medical professor for studies, but has not been picked up yet!”

I got very excited when I heard this. I asked her if this would be available for a good purpose, and she said yes, if I would be able to provide an official confirmation that this medicine was needed for an international emergency.

So here I was. What should I do now? Well – first I had to break in to the I-ATC Net to let them know that I located that medicine right here in the center of Europe. The fellows were still shouting and griping out their “cq Japan”. In a transmission pause I keyed my mike, stated “Break break”, thereafter identified myself. When Kamel, who seemed to handle the communication this day since Ernie was so weak, handed me back the mike, I informed them about what I had found out. Immediately everyone got very excited too, they urged me to get the medicine as soon as possible. I assured them I would try everything I could and I would call back.

So here I was again. Now what? There were two problems: Getting an official confirmation, and figuring out a way to get the medicine to Yugoslavia as quickly as possible. How to approach that problem? First – I got on the phone again and called the lady at the drugstore in Karlsruhe. She promised to hold the medicine, she said that it had been sitting waiting for that professor for a while anyway, and she could order another pack from Japan and it wouldn’t make a difference if that professor had to wait a bit longer. I promised I would provide the confirmation needed.

By that time I had forgotten lunch! My wife Maria was in the room with me, all excited too and listening and watching how things progressed. I now had to think – what will be next? I decided to call the fire department respectively their rescue squad. So I did.

What then happened was very frustrating. Their first question: “Who are you anyway?” The next statement: “Well, this could be anyone pretending a story like that!” After long and exhausting explanations – amateur radio, I-ATC Net, international medical emergency, need for a medicine, confirmation and information about transportation possibilities, their reaction was: “This is not within our responsibility, call the police!” So I did.

What then happened was very frustrating. Their first question: “Who are you anyway?” The next statement: “Well, this could be anyone …” – I think I just have written that! But it was exactly like the previous paragraph, their last statement: “… not responsible, call the Red Cross!” So I did.

What then happened was very frustrating. Their first question: “Who are you …?” … … “not responsible, call the fire department!” I was ready to pull my hair out.

In the meantime my radio was blaring since the others on the air kept calling for me wanting to know how things were coming along. I felt this whole thing was slowly slipping out of my hands! So I got on the local vhf frequency and called, wanting to know if anyone of my local amateur radio club, which is called A36, was on the air. Fortunately it was the case. I asked them whether they could help me with this case and take care of the shortwave traffic for me, while I would continue trying to get anything going on the telephone. So they did, and it took some load off my back.

Next try on the telephone was Lufthansa Airlines. After the original question “… who are you anyway …” they at least listened to the story, but then were of not much help either. They told me I could ship that package as VIC (very important cargo), but that would be connected with costs of at least DM500 at that time, about $250! I would have to bring the package to the airport in Frankfurt myself and deliver it personally with address of the recipient at the cargo terminal. So this was not very encouraging either. Now what???

Finally, I got the idea to call my work. There I got Hans on the phone, who happened to be the active watch-supervisor at that time, and who also was the boss of my own shift team. He patiently listened to my story and then told me: “Now sit down and watch the phone, but don’t do anything else. I will see what I can do to help. I will call you back as soon as possible.” So I did.

It took about half an hour, during that time I joined in on shortwave and told the group that something might be going on, but we needed to be patient. Finally the phone rang again and Hans was on. He told me: “Now you get in your car and go to the drugstore in Karlsruhe and get the package. The lady is informed. You take it home. You are off duty tomorrow, but you get up early and drive to Frankfurt airport. Be there at 6:30 am. Get to Lufthansa crew dispatch. Have them take the package and deliver it to Captain soandso. Be sure to get a receipt for this. Have the Captain, who will be on a flight to Belgrade in the morning, take the package with him and deliver it to an individual you will have to coordinate yet with your shortwave friends. Have him get a receipt too. Go home then and rest, and tell me how things went during your next shift!” I was stunned!

So I did as he told me. I called on shortwave and informed the group about this. They gave me a name of a person who would be at the airport in Belgrade. Then I went to Karlsruhe, the Lady in fact gave me the package. I had to pay for it, I don’t remember what it was, but it might have been $50 or so. Next morning I was in Frankfurt and delivered the package as told. And it eventually reached Belgrade and the girl.

What had happened? Well Hans, being the active watch-supervisor of Rhein Control that day, had called SAR Center and told them about that story. SAR in turn had then called Lufthansa Airlines and ORDERED them to follow along with the described procedure. When SAR calls, apparently everyone says “Yes Sir!!”. SAR also called the drugstore and later provided the confirmation. So all over sudden everything went like greased.

Our local amateur radio club sponsored the costs for the medicine. And some time later we received a thank you letter from that girl with a picture, who eventually recovered from her injuries.

And now the puzzle is solved, who the three musketeers were: A A S = ATC, Amateur Radio and SAR!

Good Weather

(translated by Juergen Matthes)

Duesseldorf Tower

Good weather
Good weather

Everyone thinks, flying in bad weather is more difficult or more dangerous than flying in good weather. But you cannot generalize this, flying in good weather can be damn dangerous too!

Tower Düsseldorf, good weather, sunshine, very light winds, no cloud in the sky. A perfect day. In such a weather, visibility unlimited, the planes come in visual and only monitor the instrument approach aids, like the ILS, occasionally. The magic words are: “we have the field in sight.” They get their landing clearance and everything is alright.

Not so with a Clipper (Pan Am) this very day.

Approach reports the Boeing 707 at 10 miles final. This means, the Clipper will be sent to our tower frequency. He calls in right a way and reports “… field in sight”. He gets his landing clearance. Only problem: After 2 minutes, no Clipper is visible anywhere!

He should have been at the outer marker by now, but – nothing. We called the Clipper and asked to confirm his position. His brief answer: “…landing!”

But that couldn’t be. Nothing on the runway. Ulli remarked: “Essen, he must have landed in Essen, oh shit!”

Ulli was right, as we found out by a quick call to Essen Tower. They got the big jet just barely stopped at the end of their runway! And what a surprise, the runway supported him, he didn’t sink in! One has to know, the runway at Essen is limited to a weight of 5.7 tons, but a 707 weighs about 100 tons, amazing!

How could an experienced pilot mistake Düsseldorf with Essen, that had never happened before. Essen lies about 3 miles north of the runway centerline of Düsseldorf, but the runway direction is almost identical to ours. The Clipper pilot was vectored by approach about 15 miles out onto final approach track performing a left turn. Doing this the pilot sees the Essen runway, although a few miles north, first. He doesn’t check his instruments and thinks, this has got to be my runway, reports the field in sight and adjusts his approach further north and a bit shorter. And he reports field in sight on our tower frequency.

We, on our tower, had no chance to notice this error, because Essen is about 6 miles northeast and the Clipper was already quite low, so no visual contact could be achieved. What is this normally called: A chain of unthinkable mishaps!

The colleagues at Essen left the 707 sitting at the end of the runway. They weren’t sure whether the taxiways would withstand the weight. The passengers could get off the plane after one hour. That was how long it took to haul some stairways from Düsseldorf to Essen!

One thing was clear, the chance to get such a heavy bird out of Essen again in one piece was very low. The landing had been already a miracle, but takeoff on such a short runway, impossible. That meant, Essen airport was going to be closed, for a long time.

We had to report this incident and to enter it into the daily log. The report went to Brunswick, Luftfahrtbundesamt, the responsible unit which investigates such incidents. We were also faced with interviews, we were involved. If things went wrong, they could convict us of malpractice. There such a dummy lands at Essen and we will prosecuted for this, the outlook was not very inspiring! Our fears became true after two hours, when the watch-supervisor of the radar control-room was at the door together with 2 policemen and watched us until we were relieved. Then all evidence, the control-strips of the Clipper and other things, were confiscated and we were questioned in the reclining room, highly official.

Some days later, the investigators from Brunswick were there, the whole case was reconstructed. An HS 748, a two-engine prop the German ATC used to calibrate navigational aids, acted like the Clipper. Approach now guided this plane exactly like they had guided that Clipper, according to the radar data. The investigators payed close attention, if we could have avoided this incident.

We thought this was quite unfair. They had all the time in the world and they knew what they had to pay attention for. So far never a plane had landed in Essen, that something like that is possible, we agreed, we could not have had a chance to expect. Therefore we also couldn’t have avoided it! The time which passed between landing clearance and the upcoming question “where is he” seemed long enough to complete the landing at Essen. You just don’t imagine that this could happen.

After the manoever had been executed 3 times and the plane was not visible at all, not even for the investigators, the guys decided to replay the recordings from the tower timed exactly to the progress of the plane during another run. Aha, they really were up to try to find something with us! We were supposed to have acted too late.

But this also didn’t work, it seemed we were safe. We did everything right, thank goodness! Pilots error.

Meanwhile the technicians agonized “how do we get that bird back out of Essen?” And this in such a way that you can use that plane again afterwards. This is a question of money, such a bird is not inexpensive! Question: What is a good landing? A landing you walk away from. What is a perfect landing: A landing you can use the plane afterwards!

After two weeks the decision was made. First they wanted to unmount the wings, then load the plane on a flatbed and haul it to Düsseldorf, then remount the whole thing again. But then they dropped that idea, 1 – too expensive, 2 – the plane would have to undergo a massive re-licensing marathon to get its airworthiness certificate back!

So they decided to strip the plane. Everything which was not essential for a short flight was removed and hauled to Düsseldorf, except the pilots seats (and instruments and engines, of course). Then the plane should hop (fly) to Düsseldorf where everything was to be put in again.

The technicians had calculated a max takeoff weight for the runway length in Essen. The task was to reach that weight! But no one was sure whether the whole thing would finally work, after all! Very comforting! We were able to follow the progress on this thing because all the removed parts were hauled to hangar #8.

Then the day came, takeoff should take place.

Our team on the tower had to close the airport at 14:00 for two hours. Two test-pilots of Boeing should takeoff at 14:15 and try the hop to Düsseldorf. Everything worked out, the calculations were correct, the Clipper appeared on the horizon and landed safely at Düsseldorf.

It took another 2 weeks until the plane was reassembled and disappeared without passengers, headed for New York.
Not always bad weather is a problem, there can be problems also during good weather periods!

belle etage or New Years Day at an ATC-Unit

radar control
radar control

(translated by Juergen Matthes)

What is more peaceful than a late shift at the area control center Düsseldorf, at three in the afternoon, assigned to the FIS position. FIS is a working position with a basic radar, a radio frequency and with the outlook of a light workload.

December 31 anyway is a “dead day”, commercial flights are extremely reduced, and private pilots usually handled by FIS are few in the air.

So my friend Dave, an Englishman working for ATC as a “runner”, and myself had set up our chess-board. Dave quickly recorded the current ATIS, then – we would have peace for at least 20 minutes! Dave didn’t have a license for recording the ATIS, but as an Englishman he sounded very professional!

Well, one can’t imagine today, but at the beginning of the 70′s, at the beginning of my career at ATC, it was still so peaceful. At that time Düsseldorf had about 12 commercial flights a day, on top of that 2 postal-flights at night, all of them propeller aircraft. For insiders: There were Vickers Viscounts, Super Connies, Electras and others.

So Dave and I “chessed away”, we wanted to be done by 4:00 pm, then our first break would start, lasting until 5:30. Actually, as mentioned, ATC at that time was a peaceful job, but as always us Germans liked to complicate things.

Radar-control takes place (at that time) in dark rooms without windows. Access to those rooms is normally not possible for the ordinary human being and strictly controlled. But every now and then a group of visitors managed to get access, they were guided as a horde to the “ape-rock”, as we called it, a gallery at the head of the control room.

Visitors on the ape-rock could yet admire our British colleagues at our facility, soldiers responsible for the British airspaces within the Düsseldorf control area, who were situated on on side of the control room, sitting in front of their consoles. The “boys” were in their uniforms and looked really handsome. That had triggered the terrific idea in our “belle etage”, to put the rest of the control personnel into shirts, suits and ties! It would make a better and more professional impression onto visitors, they argued.

Now ATC personnel is, because of the very hard and strict selection they have to undergo when applying for the job, the very complex training, the tremendous responsibility on the job and therefore the resulting pronounced self-confidence quite a peculiar bunch of people! This explains why normally ATC personnel doesn’t argue with any belle etage, but make their standpoint clear by actions.

So it was the case, that being the last day of the year, everybody was dressed like at Mardi Gras! Dave wore a t-shirt with a picture of a naked woman, I wore one which had a suit and a tie painted on it. All the others had similar things on, had funny hats on their heads or wore other gimmicks!

In the 70′s it was still the customs that the head of the whole control-unit (the LDF, as he was called) would show up in the control room at special holidays and shake hands (with his sweaty hands) with everyone on duty! What for, that remained his secret until today! We surely weren’t sad if we had any chance to miss that ceremony! But today, the opportunity was perfect, since the LDF was expected again!

Unfortunately (for him) today, because the last day of the year seemed to be a special occasion, the top-boss of Düsseldorf airport and the station manager of Lufthansa Airlines at Düsseldorf came along! Those two had looks on their face as watching the wrong movie! The LDF was just red in the face, but I mean red! He whispered into everyones ear “… this will have some consequences”. He completely forgot the shaking-hands, so our masquerade had succeeded to save us that ceremony! Naturally everyone was smirking, Dave tried a belly-dance and I acted like a waiter. Only the British stayed cool, but they were always cool! We could imagine how the LDF tried to explain to the visitors that what they had seen there wasn’t normality. We surely had wanted to be able to listen to that explanation!

The whole thing – didn’t have any consequences, naturally. Not because of the masquerade, but there wasn’t any money for work clothes.

The FIS working position was peaceful until – some private pilots had noticed there is someone reserved solely for them! I found myself busy all over sudden to guide Speedy, some Düsseldorf “underworld” king, in his Bonanza home to the airport. Dave suggested sometimes those private pilots will even ask us to reserve a table in a restaurant for them and to provide the menu on the air!

Well, I didn’t care, I had to sit here anyway. Speedy managed to reach the airport in time for the relief to take over. Dave suggested to come along to his house to have coffee and even announced our arrival to his wife.

The Englishmen, a small but very compact group in Düsseldorf, celebrated the last day of the year in a very special way. The wifes stay home, and the men wander from house to house and will be waited on by the wifes! When someone couldn’t walk any further, he just stayed put where he happened to be and then later went home. Much later, most of the time!

Dave meant, I should participate in this, it would be something new and different from most of the parties I would usually go to at the end of the year!

Only problem with that is the uncertainty, where you will end up later more or less disabled! And if you have another shift the next day at nine in the morning, and if you consider that 12 meters (hours) before a shift you are not supposed to drink any alcohol, the idea seemed quite dangerous to me. Instead I felt a tendency to accept an invitation by Peter to attend his party in Bottrop.

Fortunately I met Claudia at Dave’s home. She was a friend of Dave’s wife. Claudia didn’t feel like having drunk Englishmen trying to attract her all night either, since this is how it usually ended up, quoting Dave’s wife. So I arranged with her to take her along to Bottrop after my late-shift was over.

My shift was soon finished, the party in Bottrop was quite unidirectional, slanted towards Claudia, I would say. With other words, Claudia (my later wife) and I started to be together!

At such events the time flies, there was only time for a quick breakfast at the Bottrop railroad station. Then my next shift …

Dave didn’t look very good when he showed up at work! But you had to give him credit that he came to work after all. He even lasted through his whole shift, however he couldn’t walk straight, and no word about chess, although air-traffic was light on New Years Day also! Myself, I wasn’t feeling too good either, but that was compensated by pleasant thoughts and memories about the past day.

House, bathroom, bed, allohol, sex