RAFairman's Blog

An RAF Airman's Blog

It’s behind you…

Back when I was a youngster, as you are probably aware, I used to work on a squadron.  This varied work from actually fixing the aircrafts Radar and Avionic equipment through to doing Before Flight and After Flight servicings.

These servicings were a case of checking oil levels, making sure the aircraft had two wings, four wheels, a big fin on the back…that sort of thing. If you can imagine, it was similar to a garage mechanic or more likely a member of a motor racing teams pit-crew.

If you found a problem, you’d report it and the Trade associated with that equipment would come out and check it was ok or else work on the aircraft to fix it.

The other part of this job was being part of the See-Off or See-In crew. This is that fella you see at the airport with the fire extinguisher bottle standing next to the aircraft as it starts up.  He’s the one with the Ear Defenders and the High-Viz jacket.  And he’s the bloke with the ping-pong bats that does the marshalling to make sure the aircraft moves about safely on the ground and doesn’t bump into things like walls, cars, or other aircraft that are parked nearby.

Pretty much all aircraft nowadays have a thing called Nose Wheel Steering, with allows the pilot to steer the aircraft on the ground, under the direction of the marshaller, who has signals that mean move in different directions, go, stop, put your brakes on, steer to the left, steer to the right…all sorts…It takes a bit to learn them, and like anything it takes not a little confidence to direct a big aircraft about…there’s a lot of responsibility involved and you DON’T want to direct an aircraft into crashing into something else. There is generally a lot of paperwork involved in something like that.

Marshalling different aircraft types is a nightmare too. Helicopters can turn on the ground on a sixpence, something like a Hercules is massive and has the a turning circle similar to an oil-tanker. And you need to think about things like how big the wingspan is and something called “Swept-wing growth” which is when you THINK an aircraft that has swept back wings has a small wingspan, but they are actually a lot bigger when they come to moving. It’s just stuff to think about, that you wouldn’t imagine being important…like the equipment you use.

Those ping-pong bats, for instance, aren’t used that much. People tend to use High-Viz armbands and wands which consist of a standard torch with a special cover attached to resemble a very short Light-Sabre.  I once had to marshal a C-130 Hercules, at night, using such wands. I did the usual arm waving motion, with the wands held up and being waved simultaneously from left to right to indicate move straight ahead. All was going well, until the cover on the wand in my left hand flew off as I waved it – landing some 10 feet away from me.  This meant that the pilot could only see one moving wand and he hit the brakes quite sharply. It took me a moment to realise that there was a problem. I’d been concentrating too hard on the direction I’d wanted the pilot to steer and not noticed I’d lost my wand…And then I was scurrying about the pan trying to find it.

But this wasn’t the most embarrassing marshalling story I have.  The Squadron I worked on operated out of Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS’s) which was essentially a single garage for one aircraft. The jet would start up inside and be marshalled out (my job) and then once on the taxi-way it’d find it’s own way to the runway and ‘punch a hole in the sky’ to take off.

This particular day a new pilot came walking out to the HAS. We chatted for a moment and he told me he was a little nervous as it would be the first time he had taxied a jet from a HAS. I told him he’d be fine and he was in good hands. ‘Just remember to swing the wings and there’s LOADS of room. And if you forget I’ll remind you with the signal anyway. I won’t be able to talk to you, but I’ll do the marshalling from over there’ – I pointed to the spot I’d use – ‘and you’ll be fine.’

We went through the start-up procedure quickly and without incident, although it was clear that the pilot was, bless him, nervous.  With both engines running and the cockpit canopy glass closed I went and stood just outside the doors of the HAS, with my back to the outside, facing into the pilot.

He gave me the signal that he was ready to move by flashing the taxi-lights on the nose wheel and I immediately put up my hands with the STOP signal. Both arms crossed above my head, fists closed to show that I wanted him to keep his brakes on. Of course he’d forgotten to swing his wings, so I gave him that signal which was kind of like the motion a swimmer makes when doing breast stroke…swinging my arms behind my back.

He realised and the wings of the Tornado moved backwards making the clearance between him and the HAS walls a lot bigger and making it a lot easier for him to get out of the building without bumping into anything.  But forgetting to swing the wings had made him even more nervous and he took a moment or two before he flashed the lights again. I signalled for the other people in the See-off crew to take out the chocks that held the Tornado in place and then held my arms up – still crossed – but with my hands open to say take your brakes off. I then slowly started to wave my arms from left to right at the same time to show him to move forward.  The young pilot powered up the engines and the 40 ton aircraft edged slowly forward. Normally the speed you move your arms shows the pilot how fast to move, so I speeded up my signalling. He moved forward, still very slowly, head moving from side to side checking that he wasn’t moving towards either wall.

He was crawling out very, very slowly, and so I speeded up more. ‘Come on,’ I said to myself, ‘I want a cuppa!’ When all of a sudden about 15 feet away from the front doors of the HAS the aircraft came to an abrupt stop. The nose of the aircraft dipped as he hit the brakes.

I looked at him quizzically. I glanced over my shoulders to see if there was a vehicle moving about that I’d not seen, but there was nothing there. I pulled a face and waved at him to move forward again. The pilot stuck fast. Didn’t move. I waved faster. He refused.

I pointed at him and gave the signal to release the brakes and move forward.  I waved my arms fiercely, almost with venom. ‘Come on you silly bastard. Nothing to worry about. It’ll fit through the sodding doors.’ I said to myself. Still the pilot refused to move. I shrugged towards him and dropped my hands.

The pilot laughed and pointed to something behind me. I turned round and there about 100 feet away from me and about 50 feet above me was a massive yellow Sea King helicopter that was trying to land. The pilot of which was confused about where he should be on the airfield as he was visiting.  From the distance he was away, he’d seen my High-Viz jacket and me marshalling and thought I was directing him – and not the F3 coming out of the HAS. He was trying to land his helicopter on the pan in front of the HAS that I was trying to marshal the Tornado out of.

I looked at this second pilot with a confused face. It hovered just a little bit lower and I turned and pointed towards the F3. I then pointed at the taxi-way and then finally I pointed back at the helicopter. And made a ‘clear get out of the way’ signal that WASN’T in the publications and posters for marshalling. The Tornado pilot must have talked to the air traffic control tower as all of a sudden the Sea King pulled up sharply and flew off in the direction of the other squadron’s dispersal – where he’d meant to have landed in the first place.

I turned back to my pilot and made a bit of a face that said, amongst other things,  ‘sorry’ and ‘oops’ and ‘bloody idiot’ and ‘thank you’ all in one. I gave him the thumbs up and he replied and off he went, me marshalling him out onto the taxi-way and off for his flight.

Quite how the Sea King pilot had become so confused I don’t know…as the signals for an aircraft to move on the ground are completely different to those for a helicopter coming in to land. Hmmm, it was either a reflection on MY marshalling skills, or HIS flying…but who am I to question a pilot…

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3 thoughts on “It’s behind you…

  1. Carol_51 on said:

    I must admit your blog has made me smile sounds like a Frank Spencer moment ‘Ooh Betty’ but seriously very responsible job for all involved I’m not surprised the young pilot felt nervous!

  2. Big Bro on said:

    I know what you mean regarding marshalling different types of aircraft. I went from Jaguars at Coltishall (albeit intermittently as I was an Engine Bay man) to Hercules at Lyneham two years later. I was promoted to Sergeant whilst in the Lyneham Engine Bay and was posted to B Line Servicing Sqn and my first job was to ‘See-in’ a Herc!! It certainly concentrates your mind having a Hercules lumber towards you – especially those four dirty great twirly things ….twirling around!! Marshalling a Herc backwards around a corner (without painted lines) is interesting as well – THAT was I think the only time that the pilot actually took any notice of my marshalling!! Just a tip when marshalling a Chinook – DON’T – but if you have to, STAND WELL back!!!

  3. from @multimedian on twitter, great story.

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