“You are cleared to taxi to holding point Bravo one. You are in for a treat. Half an hour of non-stop entertainment from me, as I juggle arrivals and departures from different runways while you wait. See you there!”
He didn’t actually say that, but he could have. We had obviously timed our planned departure from Shoreham, or Brighton City Airport, to coincide with every other aircraft in the vicinity. As we got clearance to taxi, just squeaking ahead of a PA28 also starting up, we had no idea what lay ahead. It was a half-hour wait at the holding point, while every type of plane landed, did touch and go’s and the queue for departures grew longer and longer.
I was passenger on this leg of the trip, happy to bask in the knowledge that I had just done my second away landing in this colourful vintage plane. It was on an opposing runway to the last time I had come in here – admittedly just a day ago – but I’d nailed both the ATC radio calls and the landing. I didn’t have to worry about the one six figure the ATIS had given for wind strength, or whether our air-cooled 1950s Lycoming engine could cope with waiting indefinitely, or if holding the brake that long would mean a problem on our return runway. I left all that to the pilot in command and settled in to enjoy the show.
And the air traffic controller was a master showman. My years as a drama critic for a national newspaper mean I have honed my ability to appreciate the elegance with which this man was delivering his lines. Rush hour didn’t faze him. His timing and delivery were pacy and energetic. He was clearly relishing the challenges that myriad pilots were launching at him. In fact, he was more like an orchestra conductor, always in control, aware of every nuance of the circuit, bringing one in, letting another fade, like musical instruments that swell in sound and then disappear from the composition. He was calm when an irate pilot corrected his call-sign, emphatic when one wanted to join right base – “No, left will suit me better”; cheerful when explaining why some poor pilot was heading out to sea – “Poor chap, he couldn’t get a word in edgeways, but why don’t you take runway zero six and let’s see how we get along.”
It didn’t let up for a minute. I sat agog. This man must have more going than most ATCs at Heathrow, where at least the runways are parallel, not at opposing angles. Most of us were waiting to take off on the hard 02, but a determined Tiger Moth was getting in far too many touch and go’s on 06 grass, weaving his way through as he intersected with the arriving traffic in the circuit. Trying to follow the full pattern of who was coming and going was beyond my understanding with very little visual cues. I listened to planes being told “You are number three” and watched the dots in the sky get nearer and nearer. It did cross my mind that perhaps the touch and go’s could wait so the rest of us could just go, but it’s not often you get to listen to live ATC radio chatter for an intensive half an hour.
I was reminded of a lot, learnt a lot and had growing admiration for the people who can stay calm on the radio, sound friendly and welcoming, interpret the most dreadful diction and mutterings they hear and keep a constantly changing 3-D pattern in control. If you ever have one snap at you, no doubt you are simply the final straw. These folk have a lot to cope with and deserve a round of applause.
Eventually we inched forward to be holding on the runway, confident we would be next. No-one could land until we had cleared the runway, so I was a little confused to hear another, “Cleared to land!”, until I realised that there were another two planes approaching on our right for 06. As we finally got the all-clear to take off into the clear blue skies, I didn’t know that the entertainment levels on the flight were soon going to reach a different order of excitement, but that’s for another tale.