Professor? Professor of what?


Well, absolutely nothing, actually. But the log-in page asked for a nick-name and I took it at its word. I assume computers know what they’re doing when they ask damn fool questions. And every damn-fool question deserves a damn-fool answer. How did the nick-name come about? Well, that’s a long story but if you’ve got the time I’ve got the web site space.

It probably sounds crass to say you recall your first day at the City of Bath Technical School – like saying you remember your first pint of beer or your first motor bike or your first… well, whatever. But, the fact is, I do remember it. First pint of beer as well! My starting date at CBTS must have been about September 1956. I lived out at Whiteway and travelled in by bus with another new boy called Peter Blight. (Are you out there somewhere in the UK, Peter? Or are you still in Australia?) It cost about 3d in those days to go by bus from Whiteway into the city. Ah, those pre-decimal days! Anyway, we were both assigned to class 1Y, a load of spotty-faced new boys in that old building next to Fishy Evans. There must be photographs of that building somewhere out there in the ether. Anybody know where? “Killer” Keating introduced us to the joys of secondary education and assured us it wouldn’t be painful. Some of us actually believed him. I can still remember the roll call of names: Bickford, Blight, Bowen, Carter, Carter, Caudrey, Daw (John Daw? Wasn’t he a friend of David Bowen? Whatever happened to them?) Harris, Higgins, Hill, Hough … etc etc. The list grows dim after my own name. Why in God’s name should such irrelevant information stay in my addled brain after all these years? There must be a medical name for it. Apart from senile dementia. One by one, the masters made themselves known to us, “Old Nick” Nicholas, “Bill” Hayman, “Jammy” James, “Bev” Lloyd and the rest. Wasn’t there was a German master called Herr Ault? I seem to recall he had a stutter that got worse when he lost his temper with us. These names will be known to all the old boys of the fifties. You remember them long after you’ve forgotten what they taught you.

The old city-centre school building was a real piece of history. Bare wooden floors, a brick-built latrine hut at the far side of the playground and the occasional sound of pigs squealing in the slaughterhouse across the road. Do you remember all that, chaps? There were a number of annexes: St James’s Hall just down the road past the Modeller’s Den, and some rooms up near the old Pump Room. Dispersed sites? We walked out to the old prison near Brougham Hayes for our woodwork and metalwork lessons and thought nothing of it.

I left the City of Bath Technical School in 1961, a year after moving out to the Brougham Hayes site. My father was posted to Rosyth Dockyard in Fife and I spent the next two years at Dunfermline High School. Not a very happy experience after CBTS. They still used the leather strap freely in those days and yet discipline was virtually non-existent. Riots in the classrooms were not uncommon. In 1963 I finished my schooling with a fistful of Scottish “Highers” and had to set about finding a job. In September of that year I went south to London to work in the Ministry of Aviation Accountancy Service. Okay, it was something different, living and working in London, but it wasn’t exactly a bowl of fun. Can you imagine sitting in an office day after day, going dizzy with page after page of figures? It almost sent me round the bend. I do recall meeting a CBTS “old boy” called Robert Munt on the underground one day. He was in the same class as myself. I have a feeling he went into teaching but I can’t really be sure what subsequently became of him.

The Job? In time I decided that enough was enough. I was fed up with London and fed up with wading through pages and pages of figures. One day I was reading a copy of Flight International and saw an advertisement for Air Traffic Control Officer Cadets. I hadn’t a clue what it was all about but it seemed like a possible avenue out of accountancy so, tongue in cheek, I applied for it. Surprisingly, I got the job and in November 1965 I moved down to the School of Air Traffic Control at Bournemouth Airport (It subsequently became the College of Air Traffic Control). I was a fresh new cadet in a job that was about to take off with a bang. In a way it was a bit like being a new boy at the school all over again. The big challenge was the three years of study and training to be endured. I had to settle back into a classroom and that was a bit like being back at school except that you also got to play with air traffic control simulators and – later - real aeroplanes.

First things first, if you want to control aeroplanes you must first learn to fly them. In the cold snows of January 1966 I got my private pilot’s licence at Cambridge Aero Club. Flying in the middle of snow clouds was interesting – trying to get your wheels back on the ground before the snowstorm hit the field! The instructor was a suave old RAF pilot. Pulling on his pure white gloves, he would say, “Try not to hit anything when you take off, old boy. Tends to make a mess of the aeroplane.” Navigation wasn’t my best subject so I got hold of a map showing all the railway lines in the area, and followed them whenever I was off on a solo cross-country. They actually had railways lines scattered around the countryside in those days. After a couple of courses at the college, I then spent most of that year back in Scotland. First experiences of real ATC meant working at Prestwick Airport (south of Glasgow) and Sumburgh Aerodrome in the Shetland Islands. Cadets were a new-fangled invention in those days. All existing controllers were ex-military and had been trained in rought and tough conditions in National Service or wartime. “Cadets are the scum of the earth,” they told us, “And we’ll treat you as such.” They were honest and they stuck to their word. It made life… well, interesting.

The following year I did a couple more college courses – great to be back in Bournemouth in the summer time – and then spent some months working at the old Preston Air Traffic Control Centre (now as defunct as the CBTS city-centre school). Then I did a spell at a long-range radar station in Northern Ireland. I wasn’t actually due to go to Northern Ireland but a friend asked me to swap postings with him so that he could be near his girlfriend. Ironically, it was in Ireland that I met Fionnuala, my future wife. Her mum owned the hotel I stayed at. She had six daughters and had a habit of marrying them of to the hotel guests!

The third year of training again involved a couple of college courses and then some live experience at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Bedford. An interesting place with some oddball devices. Imagine a single-decker bus with a jet engine sticking out of the back rocketing down the runway. Sometimes you made up he controlling techniques as you went along.

At the end of the three-year cadetship, in 1968, I was posted to Belfast Aldergrove Airport. That was about the time the troubles started. Nothing to do with me. I didn’t start it. But I was on duty the day they first ferried thousands of troops into the province. I remember working a five-hour morning shift and coming back that same evening for a long ten-hour night shift. And it was all non-stop troop movements between Lyneham and Belfast. Best not to say too much about what went on in Belfast at that time, it doesn’t make pleasant reading. The inbound route from England ran overhead Belfast. Pilots would report the fires and explosions they could see below. We would track them on radar and identify the targets.

In 1969 Fionnuala and I were married and then moved south to that long-range radar station again. It was called Ulster Radar and was a joint civil-military base on the coast of County Down about thirty miles south of Belfast. We tracked aircraft coming in off the North Atlantic and fed them into the national airways system. It was all very peaceful… at first. We bought a bungalow on the outskirts of Downpatrick, the county town. The night Fionnuala was taken into hospital after a miscarriage, I was woken up by a loud explosion. Flames and debris were flying into the air and it seemed to be coming from the hospital. Shivers of horror! In fact it was the county courthouse nearby that was blown up. Things went downhill after that. We often managed to get our heads down for an hour or two on a night shift and I took to bedding down behind the filing cabinets in the office. I had some sort of forlorn hope that the cabinets might stop any stray bullets.

The crunch came when I went on duty one Sunday afternoon. Rioting started on the road between the radar site and the nearby RAF domestic site. Cars were stoned and mob rule took over. My watch supervisor gave me an “early go” that afternoon. He wasn’t daft, he wanted to see what would happen to me before he set off home himself. I had recently bought my first brand new car, a little orange coloured Fiat 500 that cost me all of five hundred pounds. That was a lot of money when you bear in mind that controllers are paid only half the salary of an airline pilot. Anyway, I set off home with some trepidation. Rather than risk the wrath of the mob, I took a by-road which was the long way home but seemed to be a better bet. Some miles farther on I came to a road block. A car was pulled sideways across the road and a group of people were stationed either side of it. Who were they? Loyalists or nationalists? I couldn’t tell and I wasn’t prepared to turn and run as it would invite a bullet up my back end. Better to bluff it out, I decided.  As I came closer, they pulled the car aside and waved me through. I waved back regally and breathed a sigh of relief. But why did they just wave me through? On my next duty I had a chat with the watch supervisor, an old guy who lived next door to the Chief of Police in Downpatrick. “Bit worried about you, old boy,” he said. “Especially after you bought that new car. The local IRA brigade leader has an identical car to that!”

It was, I decided, time to move on. The “boss” of the radar unit told me in no uncertain terms that any request for a posting would mean moving to London, but I had no intention of going back to London. I went into ATC to get away from London! So I applied for a post as Aerodrome Manager and controller (one man – two jobs) at a Scottish Highlands and Islands aerodrome. Which is why in 1972 I was posted to a small Hebridean island called Tiree. The island is about ten miles long, two miles wide, has a population of around nine hundred and is not that easy to find on the map. The boat journey from Oban is scheduled for five hours but it actually took twenty nine hours the day I sailed out there with a fully loaded Fiat 500. Bad weather had that sort of affect in the Hebrides. Actually, that particular boat sank some three months later. I was woken up in the early hours of a dark, winter morning and asked to open up the airfield for rescue helicopters. When the boat hit some rocks, the crew boarded a lifeboat and pulled for the shore. The passengers boarded a lifeboat on the opposite side and headed out to sea. They were found by a rescue helicopter, going round in circles looking for land.

The job of controlling aircraft at Tiree wasn’t exactly onerous. We worked up to a peak traffic rate of one flight a day in the summer. It wasn’t as busy as that in the winter. I was also the aerodrome manager and, to pass the time, I took all the furniture out of the manager’s office and built a model railway around the walls. I was sitting in the control tower one sunny summer morning, building an OO gauge model of a GWR locomotive, when a naval helicopter landed. The pilot wandered across for a chat and we got into discussion about seeing similar locomotives passing by our old school. “What school?” I asked. “The City of Bath Technical School at Brougham Hayes,” he told me. His name was, to the best of my recollection, David Paul. Perhaps someone might remember him.

Model railways wasn’t enough to keep me entirely occupied so I had a couple of sheep which I kept in our back garden and I also set about growing tomatoes in the Visual Control Room. It was a funny sort of VCR that stuck out from the side of the old wartime control tower, but it caught the sun and I figured to make good use of it. When the plants reached maturity they tended to block off my view of the runways. Sitting reading a book one morning, I got my first radio call from the inbound Loganair flight, gave him the weather and decent clearance and went back to my book. Half and hour later I peered through the foliage to see him on the apron disgorging his passengers. I had forgotten about him and he had forgotten about me. It was that sort of life out in the Hebrides.

Fionnuala and I had one daughter, Fiona, when I was posted to the island. When we left three years later we also had two sons. Probably something to do with the fact that there was no television reception out there. Somewhere I have an old black-and-white photograph of Fiona as a two-year old sitting at the Tiree ATC desk. An interesting item as she was the only one to follow in father’s footsteps and become and air traffic controller. She worked nine years at Manchester Airport before moving to the college as an instructor alongside her old dad.

After three years in the wilderness I decided that I really had to get back into the thick of air traffic control once again. So, in 1975, I volunteered for a posting to the Scottish Air Traffic Control Centre at Prestwick. The “Centre” is the place where they control en-route aircraft. The busiest and most demanding job in ATC, especially as Scotland was a bit behind the drag curve and the en-route controlling was done from an old wartime building on the edge of Prestwick Airport with antiquated equipment. There was a radar site just a few miles up the road but its old wartime radar was unreliable, frequently failed, and we often had to fall back on pens, strips of paper and a good deal of ingenuity. And more than a modicum of good luck. Thank God the travelling public never actually knew….

Outside of the central area of Scotland, radar was (in those days) non-existent below 25,000 feet and the weather and winds made pilot’s reports and estimates rather unreliable. I remember trying to help a pilot who was lost. I asked him what he could see below. With a cry of joy he said that he could see the Forth Bridge. Now, the Forth Bridge is on the east coast of Scotland and my radio cover didn’t extend that far. He was actually near Oban on the west coast and looking at something called the Connell Bridge. Getting lost is one thing, you should at least know which side of the country you are flying over!

By the time we moved into a new en-route control building with new equipment in 1978 I was a watch training officer. I enjoyed that job and decided to do a five-year tour as an instructor at the College in Bournemouth. So, in the winter of 1979/80, we were on the move again and bought a family house in Wimborne, a quaint old Dorset market town. I began work as a college instructor and one of my early trainees was Chris Brain, another CBTS old boy although he came from the 1970s era. I have a feeling they called the school something else by then. These Bath Tec old boys seem to crop up again and again.

I should have gone back to operational ATC after five years but I had a nasty heart attack and my controller’s licence was withdrawn. I eventually got it back with a pointed suggestion that I should never again try to practice the privileges of the licence as a controller. The stress of the job would not be good for my health. Instead, I stayed on as an instructor and became a part of the furniture: a sort of “Mr Chips” of air traffic control. That was about the time I first became known as the “professor” and the nick-name sort of stuck.

In time I took over the training of ATC instructors and that gave me the opportunity to run a few courses overseas. Running a course in the Ferringhi Beach Hotel in Penang was great, so was the course in Hong Kong. First time I’ve seen people take out their lunch boxes, set up a picnic on the desk, and start eating – all in the middle of one of my lessons. Imagine doing that in one of “Bill” Hayman’s lessons! The course in Frankfurt wasn’t such a hot experience – I didn’t realise the Germans could be so brutal towards their trainees. It’s not exactly overseas, but I occasionally get to run courses up in Scotland. I get used to leaving Southampton Airport in thirty degrees of sunshine and arriving in Glasgow in the freezing rain. But it’s a diversion away from the rigours of everyday life.

Nowadays, Fionnuala and I have a nice retirement bungalow in Ferndown, on the outskirts of Bournemouth. Next year, assuming the company’s pension plan is still intact, I plan to retire early at age fifty eight. As a career, it’s gone on long enough and now it’s time to move aside and make way for younger blood. Fiona, our daughter, is now an instructor at the College of ATC, so I feel I’ve done my bit for the on-going needs of the company.

So, we go back to the original question, “Professor of what?” Like I said at the start, “absolutely nothing at all.” But it’s been an interesting journey getting there!


Dave Hough

(Class 1Y of 1956)