Two plates, a bowl, and a chicken parmigiana

When I’m not researching the story of B for Baker, I’m an air traffic controller based in Melbourne. After almost a decade as what we call an ‘enroute’ or area controller working regional airspace, in recent months I’ve begun training with an approach unit serving a major capital city airport.

In my so-far limited experience, the primary task of approach control – apart from keeping everyone safely separated – is to take arriving aircraft from all points of the compass and organise them into that nice, evenly-spaced line of aeroplanes that you might see flying down the approach to the runway at any major airport around the world. A big part of the job revolves around managing this ‘arrivals sequence,’ using vectors – directed turns to delay aircraft by increasing the distance that they must fly before they reach the runway – or speed control instructions. There’s less space to work with than in the enroute world, and everything is either climbing (on departure from the runway) or descending (to land on the runway), so everything happens a lot quicker than I’ve been used to. Learning all of this stuff, and integrating it all into the local procedures and rules I need to learn, has been quite a challenge.

 With all the technology that we’ve got at our disposal, in good weather conditions the maximum rate of arrivals that we can accept to the airport I’ll be working is 24 every hour. That spacing, admittedly, also allows the tower controllers to get departures away, off the same runway, in the gaps between arrivals. But even so, when I was looking at 467 and 463 Squadron operational records recently, I was staggered to find examples where in 1944, aircraft landed at RAF Waddington after operations at a much higher rate than we achieve today.

Take, for example, the operation on Frankfurt on the night of 18/19 March 1944. Forty bombers took off from Waddington, 22 of which were from 467 Squadron (“Considering our establishment is 16+4 aircraft,” the Operational Record Book boasted, “tonight […] should be nearly a record for a two-flight Squadron”). One returned early, one failed to return at all and the landing time of a third is illegible in my copy of the documents, but the first of the aircraft for which I have a landing time touched down at 00:38, and the final one at 01:44.

That’s 37 aircraft in 66 minutes: one every minute and three-quarters, which works out to a landing rate of a little over 33 landings an hour, to a single runway, under wartime conditions and with 1940s technology.

Not a bad effort at all, I reckon. But how on earth did they achieve it? I’ve learnt a little bit previously about the system that was used, particularly the so-called ‘Quick Landing Scheme’ in use at 5 Group airfields like Waddington. But given I recently had lunch with a former bomber pilot, I figured it was a good opportunity to ask him about what he could remember.

Don McDonald has appeared in these pages before (here, here and, in most detail, here). He turned 100 in October last year. Sadly the coronavirus pandemic robbed him of the big party he’d been looking forward to for a long time, though a bagpiper visiting his care home in his honour and a personal phone call from a former Chief of Defence went a little way towards making up for it. This week my partner and I decided it was time for a catch-up, so we arranged to pick Don up and go to the local RSL for lunch.

He’s visibly aged since we last saw him and these days gets around with a walking frame, but he’s still the same old Don and he still has that twinkle in his eye. We spent nearly three hours with him, Don tucking into a big plate of oysters (a bowl nearby for the shells), Rach with a ginormous chicken parma and myself hoeing into a thick and fancy steak sandwich.

The time flew by, as it often does with Don. Among other things he told us about how he’s been invited to lay a wreath at the Sorrento-Portsea RSL on Anzac Day and asked how Rachel’s PhD research was going. We told him about our visit to the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre. The mention of the Link Trainer we found there got Don chuckling; he told us about a prank that un-named members of his initial flying training course pulled on a disliked drill instructor. Apparently they convinced the man to sit inside the trainer and close the hatch – whereupon someone set fire to a copy of The Age newspaper and held it under the air vent in the front of the machine, while two burly members of the course held the lid down so he couldn’t escape.

“There was hell to pay after that,” Don remembered.

Later on, I was telling him about how my approach training was going. And that’s what brought me to ask Don what he could remember about the way bombers were organised when they arrived back at base after an operation.

“The memory isn’t so strong these days,” he warned. But it was strong enough. Don said the aircraft would call the control tower on the radio as they approached the base, and the operator would give them a height to circle at, 500 feet above the highest bomber to keep them separated. (At this point the air traffic controller in me shuddered – heavy bombers vertically separated by only 500 feet?! Our current vertical standard is twice that!). As each bomber landed, it would vacate the level it had been holding at, enabling the next one to safely step down above it. In turn, each bomber would do the same, one step at a time, until everyone had landed.

Where did they circle, I asked? Over the field, or somewhere else?

Our meals were finished by this stage, but the plates hadn’t been collected yet. Don saw an opportunity for a demonstration. He picked up his small bowl, full of empty oyster shells, and placed it in the middle of the larger plate. The bowl, he explained, was the airfield. A thousand yards around the runway – the edge of the big plate – was a series of lights on poles. These were called Drem lights and, visible from the air, they marked the ‘standard’ circuit; bombers flew around from one to the next around the runway until they lined up on final approach – ‘funnels’, named after the lead-in lights that ‘funnelled’ aircraft towards the runway threshold – and landed. When they were holding in the stack, they followed the same lights, around and around, without landing.

Fair enough, I said. It’s pretty different to how it’s done now, but it seems like a reasonably safe and efficient system to recover large numbers of bombers quickly.

Don chuckled again. ‘Safe’ for the time, perhaps… but not really safe as we’d know it today. There were so many airfields in England, he said, picking up Rachel’s plate. Suddenly it was another Drem system, the remains of the parma in the middle the neighbouring airfield. Sometimes airfields were so close to each other, he told us – moving the plate into position, one edge over the top of his own – that the Drem lights, and therefore the airfield’s circuits, actually overlapped. And while there was some form of flying control for individual airfields (which is why I have the detail I have for Waddington after the Frankfurt raid), it wasn’t really coordinated with any other airfields, no matter how close they were.

We kept talking for another couple of hours before we took Don back. And as we drove home, I couldn’t stop chuckling at the memory of learning from a one-hundred-year-old about how air traffic control worked in the Second World War with the aid of two plates, a bowl and a chicken parmigiana.

Adam Purcell with Don McDonald, 17 April 2021

© 2021 Adam Purcell

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