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24 May 2013

Top Ten Amazing Air Traffic Control Towers

When I’m not flying, I like to look at all the places around the world I could go, if I were flying. And today, that led me towards looking at Air Traffic Control towers around the world. These are my ten favourite towers, along with one bonus disused tower which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

10. Bangkok

The easy place to start is the towering tower at Suvarnabhumi International Airport. This is the tallest free-standing control tower in the world at 135 metres (445 feet). But if the lift breaks, wow, that’s a whole lot of stairs to climb.

9. Lossiemouth

The caravan you can see on the right of this photograph is a “mobile air traffic control tower”. At RAF Lossimouth air base, the far western end is not in sight of the air traffic control tower, so they use this mobile tower to keep an eye on the western runway.

8. Dubai

This beautiful tower at Al Maktoum International Airport isn’t as tall as Bangkok’s, but it is the tallest freestanding tower in the Middle East. It isn’t officially open for passenger flights until October of this year but it’s planned to be the world’s largest passenger and cargo hub.

7. Aberporth

I admit it, I seem to have a thing for Air Traffic Control Towers that look nothing like Air Traffic Control towers. This one is in West Wales, at Aberporth airport, which is focused on drone research. The caption says that the tower is the home of John, the friendliest controller in the UK.

6. Anywhere

Need an Air Traffic Control Tower in a hurry? These Rapid Deployable ATC Towers look really useful! These self-contained units are transported by C-130 and C-17s and can be set up within an hour.

5. Antwerp

This beautiful twisting air traffic control doesn’t actually exist yet. In fact, it’s not an air traffic control tower at all. It was designed for the port of Antwerp by UN Studio. I don’t know that ships actually need such a high control tower, but once it is in place, I bet it’ll attract planes.

4. Milan

OK, this isn’t beautiful by any stretch of the imagination but I love it anyway. It looks like a giant robot. Also, this video of the window cleaners made me think that would be the funnest job ever.

3. Mumbai

This gorgeous red and white checked tower was designed to be visible from a distance. They sure have achieved that – it’s stunning! It’s also the highest tower in India at 83 metres / 272 feet.

2. Vancouver

The actual tallest-in-the-world control tower (not freestanding) is this one at Vancouver Harbour in Canada. It’s actually a relatively small tower …placed on top of the 142 metre / 466 foot skyscraper. Very clever!

1. Prestwick

I love this tower at RAF Prestwick more than any other tower in the world. Sadly it is gone: it was in use from 1943 to 1962 and then torn down when Prestwick Airport expanded.

Wingleigh

And finally, in the “seen better days” department, we have Wingleigh. This ATC tower in North Devon doesn’t seem like it would be very useful for plane spotting. The aerodrome closed in 1945. Apparently the tower is now being used as a sheep pen.

07 December 2012

A Visit to Blackpool ATC

Coming into Blackpool

Visit ATC Day is an annual event coordinated by the Airspace and Safety Initiative in the US, allowing pilots to sign up for tours at Air Traffic Control units around the country. This year, the event was held with events in October and November. I couldn’t make the Prestwick date but I was lucky enough to score a personal tour around the Radar and ATC units at Blackpool.

Sadly, I was not flying in on this occasion. Last time I came in over the sea and had a stunning view of the promenade and the roller coaster at Blackpool Pleasure Beach before landing on the 1,869 metre (6,131 feet) runway.

This year’s visit was by car and we discovered that finding a parking place was much more difficult on four wheels than it had been when we arrived at the airport on three.

Security is a priority at any large airfield these days and Blackpool was no exception. We ran our bags through the metal detector and were given badges to wear around our necks. I was rather amused to see that my badge identified me as representing Fear of Flying.

A man in a Landrover picked us up. He also had to go through security as he had crossed the red line in order to get us into his car. Suddenly, a bird of prey swooped low over the nearby taxiway as if to check us out. Our driver made a radio call. A professional female voice responded on his radio – ATC were clearing us to the Tower! – and we were on our way.

On our arrival, a friendly blonde woman took us into the Radar room and showed us around. She was quick to reassure us that she loved General Aviation aircraft, even if they didn’t always make her life easy. Blackpool is very generous with airspace: aircraft are in Class G airspace until they climb into Class A, which means that Blackpool ATC needs to direct traffic around General Aviation traffic flying through the area.

The radar room had no view of the outside, everything was focused around the equipment. She showed us the monitors and explained the difference between her primary data, showing the range and bearing of objects through basic radar object detection and the secondary data, including aircraft identity and altitude as reported by the aircraft’s transponder. She apologised for the fact that her equipment was a bit outdated.

“I went to a museum,” she said, “where they had a display on airport radar and the equipment, there on display, was more recent than our equipment. We could trade ours in, I told them. Get an upgrade!” She laughed but was quick to point out that new technology has its own issues. The easiest way to demonstrate this was to show us a strip. This is not as exciting as it might sound.

A flight progress strip is a piece of paper which has the details of a specific aircraft in the area. It is held in a coloured strip-holder which identifies the aircraft based on its relationship to the airfield: one colour for inbound, one for outbound and a third for local traffic. This strip in its holder acts as a physical representation of the flight in her sector. The strips position on her desk represents the current situation of the aircraft in terms of level, altitude and clearance.

The room filled with a buzz and an aircraft called in. I was amazed at the change in her demeanour and speech – she was the professional clipped voice we’d heard earlier. As she spoke, she picked up a strip, scribbled something onto it and placed it to the left of where it had been.

On a computer screen, she said, the planes were just a list of data, which was less easy to manage. “It’s a physical thing,” she said, once the call was finished. “I have this aircraft, I know where it is, I know what I last told him. If I end up with too many planes at once, I can use more of the desk. If that happens on the computer, I get a scroll bar. Now some of the data is out of my line of sight. It means I could lose a plane.”

She then took us up a narrow spiral staircase to the top. The view was amazing! The Tower didn’t look particularly high as we drove up but now I realised I could see for miles. The flying aircraft which had been just blips on a screen downstairs were easy to spot and I had a clear view of the entire airfield: the hangars behind us and the taxiways either side with the runways straight ahead. I missed the entire first few minutes of our introduction to the upstairs as I stared out the windows.

The controller rose from his seat and invited us to take a look around. On his right was a woman who he introduced as an Assistant Controller who, to my surprise, had been at Blackpool longer than any of them. She had her own comms and a computer and printer to her right. He had a radar display with the same data as we’d seen below but the display was set off out of the way, to the left side of a monitor showing the runway and surrounds. “This is the lights,” he explained. He was able to check and control any of the taxi-way and runway lights individually from this unit. Next to it was a meteorological unit and wind display showing the direction, average knots, gusting and current crosswind component for the runway (“I wish I could get that data when up in the air,” grumbled Cliff).

In front of the two controllers was a grand view of the runway and various buttons and displays and comms – including a traditional telephone. The flat area of the desk was made up of separate recesses filled with strips.

Up here, it was easier to understand how the separate areas on the desk represented aircraft situations. There was a bay for the ground, the runway and the air. The position of the strip (and whether it was flat or tilted) signified the clearance and location of the aircraft. He pointed out that the system meant that anyone could see what the current status was. “If something happens to me, even if it is sudden, it is immediately clear to any other controller what I’ve done, what is going on and what needs to be dealt with”

One of the strips did not have aircraft details but instead simply said FALCON in big black letters. I remembered the bird of prey we’d seen earlier – but surely it didn’t need ATC clearance? “That’s our bird control guy,” the controller explained. “He does a little bit of everything to keep the gulls away from the runway. You saw his peregrine falcon. He also uses scarecrows, lights and noise-makers, you name it.” He pointed out to a small boxy vehicle near the threshold of Runway 28. “That’s him there.” In between flights, the controller moved the FALCON strip onto the runway bay as the Assistant Controller spoke to the man on her radio. The vehicle zipped along the runway and then cleared it at the far end, at which point his strip was moved to the left.

Our blonde friend from downstairs came up the stairs and the controller stood up to get out of the way – it was time for his lunch break. As she took over the left-hand seat with a quick glance across the bays, the radio buzzed into life. “It’s like buses,” the now off-duty controller told us. “Nothing and then four at once.”

He showed us the aircraft that she was dealing with: a 737 ready for push-back, two single engine aircraft taxing from the flight school towards the runway, and three aircraft in the air of varying sizes. We gathered around to watch her sort out the mess. I struggled to keep up with the different aircraft but she took it in stride. As a GA aircraft came in, I watched its strip move from approach bay to the runway bay (once cleared) to the taxiway bay and then finally, once the aircraft was parked, the strip was handed off to the Assistant Controller for data entry. Meanwhile, I’d lost track of all the other aircraft.

“Cleared for take-off,” she said to the 737 which was at the threshold. She stared at the runway and muttered under her breath, “Come on, hurry up.” She flushed pink when she saw that I’d heard. “It’s just I can juggle all this lot if he moves quickly,” she explained, waving a hand at the aircraft she was dealing with on the ground and in the air. I couldn’t keep up with the list of concerns she was tracking: wake vortex, holding patterns, and then there was the falcon vehicle who wanted another race down the runway. Three minutes later, she had all the pieces aligned and everyone moved on. She handed off another strip and gave a contented sigh. It was quiet, if only for a short time.

The visit was fascinating and gave me a wonderful view of the people on the other side of the radio. Thank you so much to all the staff at Blackpool who made us feel so welcome and took the time to answer all our questions.

The annual Visit ATC dates scheduled by NATS have finished for this year but if you get a chance, do try to sign up next year when I’m sure a number of ATC units will be opening their doors to pilots and interested parties again.

And hey, if any other airfields would like to offer me a tour, please let me know. I would love to come visit!

13 April 2012

Narrowly Avoiding Mad Cows

I shouldn’t have hopped the fence.

It was shut with a big padlock and surrounded by barbed wire so I can’t exactly claim that I hadn’t noticed it.

Locked
But I’d walked such a long way – 5 miles! – just to take some photographs for my blog, it seemed such a shame to give up at the last hurdle. There was no one else there so it wasn’t like I was getting in anyone’s way. And it wasn’t like there was anyone to tell me off – just me and some cows off in the distance.

I didn’t know that they were guard cattle.

But let me start at the beginning…

Brookmans Park is a small village in Hertfordshire, population 3,475. There isn’t much exciting to say about the place: the locals are friendly, the Indian restaurant is divine, the village green is pleasant in nice weather.

However, pilots who fly around southeast England will recognise the name as home to the Brookmans Park VOR (BPK) which is used by aircraft flying in and out of the London area.

When I found out that I was going to be trapped visiting family staying locally for a few days, I immediately thought of BPK and wondered if I could actually visit a VOR and find out what they look like.

A VOR (VHF Omni-directional Radio) beacon is a navigational aid which broadcasts on a specific radio frequency in such a way that a pilot can get a bearing from the VOR to her aircraft.

Note: Patrick Flannigan has a better explanation of this on Aviation Chatter: How VORs Really Work and you can even test it out yourself on his VOR / ADF Navigation Simulator.

If you want to know the detail, the Wikipedia article on VORs is probably the best single reference:VHF omnidirectional range

You can also read about how pilots use VOR’s on Plastic Pilot’s guide: Flying VORs For Dummies

Path to Brookman's Park VOR
It turned out that the Brookman’s Park VOR is not actually located in the village but a few miles east near Epping Green. The weather was glorious and I needed an excuse to get out of the house thought a walk would do me good, so I made my way there, walking along the country roads and enjoying the mild weather.

I used a hand-held GPS and reached the location after about 2 hours gentle strolling.

That’s when I discovered that the VOR was in a field, surrounded by a fence with two padlocked gates.

Fence around Brookman's Park VOR
It seemed so sad. I could see the field and the VOR and a herd of cattle grazing in the distance. I considered my situation for a few moments and then convinced myself that the fence was merely to keep the cattle in, surely not to keep me out. Besides, I wasn’t going to do any harm. I just wanted a closer look at the VOR.

So I clambered over the fence with my camera in hand.

Brookman's Park VOR
The ground was firm beneath my feet and the sun warmed my shoulders. A light breeze carried the scent of freshly-cut grass to me. The bird song was only interrupted by the roar of the engines overhead. If I had any chance of forgetting my purpose in coming to this lovely location, the air traffic would make sure I was reminded.

Jet Traffic into London
I was taught to avoid routing directly overhead popular VORs and VRPs when flying visually. The issue is that flying directly over the VOR effectively concentrates the traffic into a single place. This was the first time I had a visual.

There was never any question of danger, the separation was more than enough but it did feel a bit like Grand Central Station above my head as various low planes from all directions flew straight towards the VOR.

Traffic Overhead
I admit it: I regularly plug a route into the GPS, jumping from VOR to VOR in a dot-to-dot pattern to ensure I don’t get lost. Max Trescott recently wrote about flight safety and indentifying local hotspots and standing at the VOR, I could see exactly what he meant.

This was one.

Despite the traffic overhead, it was a pastoral scene, the golden colours of September all around me, the cattle lowing and a blackbird singing in the distance. I walked closer to the VOR.

It was much bigger than I expected. I stepped around the cow pats and peered up at the phased array antenna. BPK looked both old-fashioned and futuristic, like something I might see in a 1950s sci-fi film.

Close-up of Brookman's Park VOR
I walked up to the fencing surrounding the structure and began talking close-up photographs when I realised that the cows were getting louder.

The two clumps of cattle I’d seen off in the distance had joined forces and come to deal with the intruder.

Of course, I didn’t realise this immediately. I simply thought that they happened to be wandering my way. I took a few more photographs, thinking the juxaposition of the cattle and the VOR would make for an interesting contrast.

Curious Cattle
The cows kept on coming. Now in my defence, I’m very much a city girl. I grew up in Los Angeles where there is not a lot of wildlife to be found, unless you count pigeons.

So I still did not realise that there was an issue. I thought the cows were interesting and I was pleased for the great opportunity for some nature shots. I looked for a clean bit of grass and knelt down, taking a few more photographs before I realised …

Attack Cattle
…that they were coming after me.

I smiled nervously and gave the cows a little wave. This had no effect at all. I decided that perhaps I had outstayed my welcome. I assured them that I was on my way and that I hoped they had a pleasant afternoon.

I turned my back. Mistake. Never turn your back on a herd of guard cows.

I heard the trotting of running cattle behind me.

I spun around and they screeched to a halt, a few yards behind me, chewing in a melancholy way, pretending that they weren’t after me.

Killer Fast Running Attack Cattle
I turned to continue walking to the gate. I heard the hooves thud against the grass. I whirled towards them and they stopped again, blinking innocently.

I began walking backwards, keeping an eye on what I now knew were killer attack cattle, ready to defend the VOR against all intruders.

They stumbled forward, slowly closing the gap between us. When I felt the cool touch of shade of the trees, I knew I was close to the gate. I turned around and made a run for it.

Cattle at the Fence
I had no idea I was capable of hopping a fence in a single bound but I’m glad for it.

The cows clustered at the fence and stared at me. They didn’t make a sound but the message was clear:

AND STAY OUT
“AND STAY OUT.”

I assured the guard cattle that I had every intention of respecting fences in the future. Then I edged my way backwards until I was safe on the main road and I made my way back to civilisation.

And people tell me general aviation is dangerous!


This was originally posted in September, 2009. I can vouch for the fact that the Killer Cattle Protection System works: I have not trespassed on CAA land since.

23 March 2012

Flying Dutchman Hoax

This flying like a bird video was released on Monday and swiftly shared around the aviation community. In this two minute video, Janos Smeets shares the success of his 8 month long project to fly with “human bird wings” that he developed based on principles from Leonardo DaVinci. Last August he wrote that he was inspired by sketches that his grandfather drew of a flying bicycle which his mother found in the attic. Last week, he posted to the blog to say that his dream had finally saw reality:

I did it! This weekend I brought out my wings again for a second test. And here it is. Do I need to say more? Just watch the video

Jarno Smeets was hailed as the Flying Dutchman in the mainstream press including US, the UK, Germany, Belgium and others. Note that these articles have been updated to relate to the hoax but originally reported the story as news.

Meanwhile, the YouTube video had over four million views and twelve thousand comments, many arguing that the video was a hoax.

There were key issues with verification: the video itself does not show any detail of how the wings work and the blog itself never shares project details.

Various sites supported Jarno, with detailed explanations of the physics behind the wings and graphs from video analysis tools. Even Mythbuster’s weighed in with Thoughts on The Mechanics of Assisted Human Flight – Tested.

Meanwhile, the arguments in the YouTube comments continued. The Register updated their article with some suspicions:

Man FLIES with Android-powered homemade bird wings • The Register

We do note that there seems no reason for the ground cameras to stay so far away from the intrepid birdman during launch, and that the wings show no signs of the loading they would be under during such a flight. Furthermore the hardware doesn’t appear to contain a battery of the sort which would be required – bearing in mind that this would be a very large battery even for a flight technology more efficient than an ornithopter.

We strongly suspect that this has no more validity than certain other exotic personal-flight inventions which have been known to entrap journalists in the past.

However we would stand by our statements above “it still looks like a marvellous way to fly” and “it’s still an admirable achievement”.

Wired Science, having defended the physics, posted to state that they could not find “the man who identifies himself as Jarno Smeets”.

Bird-Man’s Resume Doesn’t Check Out: ‘Nobody Knows Him’ | Wired Science | Wired.com

A LinkedIn page for Jarno Smeets, which is linked from Smeets’ website, says that he worked at Pailton Steering Systems from 2008 to 2010. John Nollett, the group managing director for Pailton Engineering Limited, said there is no record of anyone by such a name.
Wired also contacted Coventry University in the UK, where Smeets’ online profiles claim he attended school from 2001 to 2005.
The university’s student records staff searched their full digital records database, which contains students’ names who attended from 1986 to the present. They told Wired they found only one entry for anyone by the last name of Smeets: Alexandra Smeets, who attended from 1999 to 2000. No record for Jarno Smeets could be found.

Last night, filmmaker and animator Floris Kaayk admitted on Dutch national television that the project was a hoax. (If you don’t see the English subtitles, click on the CC button.)

Kaayk admitted that he never expected to get so much attention for what he called an art media project as an experiment in online media. He created the persona “Jarno Smeets” for the project eight months ago as a means of telling a story via a blog. “It’s about the dream [of flying] that so many people have,” he said.

To be precise, Human Birdwings was an online adventure and invention story in which fictional character Jarno Smeets developed wings in a do-it-yourself manner. The intention of this project was to share a personal, yet universal dream about flying like a bird.

Kaayk posted on his personal site that he plans to distribute a “making-of” documentary about this project next month.

Meanwhile, the argument in the comments on YouTube continues…

10 June 2011

Southbridge Tornado

On the 1st of June, a tornado touched down in Southbridge in the late afternoon. It left a 39-mile path of damage behind it, the second longest track in Massachusetts’ history.

Tornado – Wikipedia

There are several different scales for rating the strength of tornadoes. The Fujita scale rates tornadoes by damage caused, and has been replaced in some countries by the updated Enhanced Fujita Scale. An F0 or EF0 tornado, the weakest category, damages trees, but not substantial structures. An F5 or EF5 tornado, the strongest category, rips buildings off their foundations and can deform large skyscrapers.

The Southbridge tornado was ranked as F3, with winds at 135-160 mph (220-260kph).

(There’s another Youtube video which shows the devastation directly after the tornado with, in my opinion, a much better commentary but the language is not safe for work: YouTube – Tornado in Brimfield MA.)

I first heard about the devastation from Dan Collins, who has a beautiful SR22 hangared at Southbridge Municipal, which was right on the end of the path of the twister.

This is Dan:

And this is his SR22:

MassDOT Aeronatics reported extensive storm damage to the airport:

The six t-hangar building was destroyed as well as the aircraft inside. The airport’s maintenance building suffered moderate damage. The airport’s office building suffered significant damage. Several sections of the airport security fencing is destroyed. There are approximately 15 aircraft significantly damaged. The aircraft have been thrown across the ramp, and into wooded areas and adjacent swamp. The runway and taxiway pavement are intact with some debris.

Bill Schillhammer of Avidyne was on the scene as a part of the search and rescue operation.

I was one of the CAP personnel tasked to silence the numerous ELTs that obviously were activated. These aircraft were tied down properly and many hangared.

He shared these photographs which were taken by the US Search and Rescue group:

There was another SR22 which was on the site, in the hanger that backs onto Dan’s. That aircraft lies in weeds about 100 yards from the hanger with a crushed cockpit and chute deployed.

Out of 35 aircraft at Southbridge, only 3 survived

And where was Dan’s plane?

Where is my aircraft? It is less than 10 minutes flying time away undergoing its annual inspection. I was annoyed it had taken a week longer than expected. I am not annoyed any more.

20 May 2011

In Deep Shit

This post is nothing to do with aviation. I was as far away from flying as I could possibly get, being underground and all. But pilots are adventurers and this was an adventure and so I hope that you will find this as interesting as I did.

I have been researching the original rivers of London, specifically the Fleet, which is a part of the famous Victorian sewer system designed by Bazalgette in the 1860s and 70s. I found photographs on various websites: dark brick curved walls with a trickle of grey water pooling at the centre, all edges fuzzy in the low light. I wondered if there was a way to see them for myself and, on a whim, I sent a message to Thames Water asking if that might be possible.

You could have knocked me over with a feather when they said yes.

They were kind enough to allow me to join them for an afternoon out at the Abbey Mills Pumping Station in West Ham, an industry event that included a descent into the sewers at the Wick Lane Depot. “Wear comfortable clothes,” they told me. “We’ll provide protective clothing including a harness and oxygen masks.”

It was raining as the bus pulled up to the pumping station and I dashed in, not paying much attention to the outside of Station A which was covered with scaffolding. The Grade II listed building has apparently been in need of a tidy-up for a while but now with the London Olympics bringing crowds walking directly past, the Victorian brickwork is receiving some attention. I know very little about architecture and I was not particularly interested in structural details.

Those of us who had no connection to the industry huddled together, discussing what had brought us on this tour and what we were most looking forward to. Many others, I discovered, were there specifically for the tour of the pumping station and one woman had already decided she was most definitely not going down into the sewer at all. I began to pay more attention to my surroundings.

Jokes were made about how long the speaker, Ben Nithsdale, would bore us about the history of London’s sewers. I squirmed in my seat. I shouldn’t have sat in the front row where the speaker would see if I dozed.

He began by telling us about the sewers at Wick Lane, of serious interest to us because we would soon be traipsing along them. They are 3 metres in diameter, he told us, and the water flow limited for our visit, so that we would only have about a foot of water to wade through. That didn’t sound like very much.

The water would normally go up to his chin, he told us, and if it rained, the tunnels would fill. This is what causes the pollution in the Thames. And with that, he took us back to the old rivers of London and the evolution of the water supply. We started in the 13th century and by 1730 and the creation of the New River, I was scribbling frantically, wishing there was some way I could take a copy of his speech with me.

I wrote three pages of notes before he even touched on the Bazalgette sewers and the work which began at Wick. But all too soon, it was over and we were led on a tour of the pumping station, affectionately referred to as the “Cathedral of Sewage.”

Thames Water staff speak about the architecture (Neogothic Italianate, apparently) and brick work (simply gorgeous) with clear admiration and affection. A heated argument was in progress as to whether the carved plants on the far side of the building were strawberries (the leaves, we were told by one adamant gentleman, were all wrong) or some other plant and he admitted that they had only just positively identified the peonies carved near the main entrance. The detail in the building is amazing, especially when you consider that it was built as a pumping station in the middle of the marshes. Even the drain pipes were beautiful.

“When you go down into the sewer, look at where the two tunnels meet. They didn’t just cut away the bricks to make the join, they formed them for the junction. It’s the finest quality brickwork down there. Breathtaking.”

Our tour guide was that perfect combination of informative and amusing, interspersing architectural details with anecdotes about the works and brief asides about office politics. He told us that the sun rises in the south because the wind vane was reattached to the roof by a man dangling by his ankles, who was not too fussed about making sure the directional markers were set correctly.

With a smile, he pointed out where the Luftwaffe had bombed the coal storage of station during World War 2. “If we were still using the coal, it would have been a disaster. However, the station was completely electrified by then. So thank you, Mr Goering, for our car park.”

He led us into the main pumping station and my mouth fell open. It was brilliant, a perfect Steampunk Fantasy. Disney could not have done it better. Robotic looking devices, gleaming brass, moulded stone around the pillars and twisted iron rails along catwalks, all towered over by ornamental arches.

This is a working station which kicks in when it rains. I felt like I had walked onto a movie set. I missed half the descriptions. I was wandering between the machines in a daze, reading oversized dials and trying to make sense of the pure glamour of this place which was built to pump sewage, for gods sake.

And they let us touch things.

I think I must have three dozen photographs of the the electrical motors, affectionately known as Daleks. And the high ceiling, the roof lantern surrounded by arched windows, well… I don’t know enough about architecture to explain it but this should be on your life list of things to see.

When I signed up, I thought I would “put up with” the tours of the buildings in anticipation of going down to the sewers. I was wrong. They had to drag me out with promises of the archive.

And oh, the archive! I’ve never been so close to such ancient books. Detailed maps of London were spread on broad tables. The modern maps were explicit: streets were marked with the pipelines detailed underneath with their diameter and depth. As we stepped back in time, we saw the maps with the pipelines marked but without an overlaying roadmap and with no information as to how deep the pipes were laid. The version before that looked like something from a teenager’s science project: brightly coloured lines and very little hard information. The bookshelves were stuffed with large leather-bound books. A further display of photographs showed the sewer workers – we were told they are called flushers – over the past century. I could have spent a day in that tiny little room alone. I tried to dawdle.

“The bus is going to leave without you. You’ll miss the sewer tour.”

Oh yes, the sewer tour. The whole reason that I came here today! I ran.

We were taken to the Wick Lane depot where the Wastewater Operatives – the flushers – were waiting. They confirmed that the sewer had been prepared for us. “We reduced the water flow for you,” said one man with a smile. “But don’t worry. We left all the good stuff in there.”

Oh, thanks.

First, we had to don our protective gear: thick woollen socks, disposable latex gloves and a white jumpsuit which fit easily over my clothes. Our escort looked at my long hair with dismay. “Do you have a hair band? Anything to tie it up with? Well, put your hood up, that will have to do.”

Have to do? I was only expecting to get my feet wet, not dive in!

We were then fitted with a harness and handed thigh-high waders. The man looked at my feet. “Size 5? Hah! This is a Size 7 Fits All.” I pulled them on and tried to get them up to my hips, as directed by the three Thames Water workers who, to their credit, never burst out laughing once, even when I tugged too hard and tipped myself over. The boots were too long for me (I’m only 153cm / 5-foot tall!) and I could not get the bunched up rubber to come up to the top of my thighs. I gave up and waddled to pick up my gloves: huge red Mickey Mouse gloves which I still don’t understand the purpose of. Finally, a bright blue helmet was gently placed over my hooded head.

Then they took a photograph of the group of us in all our glory. You can stop laughing now.

“You need to pull those boots up.”

“I know.” I tried not to whine. “I tried to.” I tugged ineffectually at them again.

The third person to inform me of this gave up and knelt in front of me to help. “I’m really sorry about this,” he said as he grasped the boots at my mid-thighs, “but it has to be better than getting sewage in your boots.” He tugged, hard, just about lifting me off the ground.

“Best time I’ve had all week,” I countered, genuinely grateful that he was helping me out. He grinned and called over a chaperone.

We were given a set of instructions including basics such as don’t splash and don’t panic. “And when you are ready to climb out? Don’t look up. Remember the person above you is dripping wet having just vacated the sewer.” We laughed nervously. I discovered one of the flushers, Daniel, writes The Sewerman’s Log which was a primary resource for me when I first started writing fictional scenes taking place under the city.

Finally, it was time. We queued up to be attached to the shiny metal hook, a winch to catch us if we slipped off the thin metal ladder as we climbed down 10 metres into the barrel below.

I worried about how thin and slippery the rungs were as I stepped on. I was petrified that my feet – encased in huge rubber boots – would slip out from under me. I stepped down carefully and then looked up. My gut clenched. Don’t look up! I panicked, trying to remember why. One by one, I brought my hands down and then carefully inched the next foot down a rung.

At the bottom, a soothing voice told me to step down one more time. “There’s a rung under the water level, just step down onto that, then step back off the ladder and turn to your left.”

I nodded but my fingers clenched the ladder even tighter. Step down then turn left, I thought, but I had no idea which way was left. I realised I was panicking over nothing and took a deep breath.

I lowered my foot into the liquid until I felt the last rung. I twisted to the left. The man put a hand on my shoulder. “Stop! Step off the ladder first and then turn left.”

I stepped back into the liquid, the quick current snatching at my rubber heels. I was thigh high in green-grey water streaming past me at a fast rate. I’d done it! I stared at the darkness around me spotlit by the helmet lights of the flushers. I was in a real Bazalgette tunnel, wading through real sewage. The rubber of the thigh-high wading boots felt chilly against my calves and I realised that although it was warm in the tunnels, the water was cold. I felt like I had entered some other world, an underground labryninth. An evil dungeon full of hate and bile.

“Turn left, love,” said the man. I apologised and released my grip on the rungs.

He handed me a bright orange sack holding 10 minutes of oxygen and an oxygen mask. The grit crunched beneath my feet as I shuffled up to the others. The next person quickly descended the ladder.

We edged along the middle of the barrel in single file, feet sliding against the rough ground of silt and gravel below. The water came up over my knees. I stared at the water as if I could see the ground beneath, fighting off the fear that I was about to get tipped off my feet and dragged along the tunnel, my helmet swirling in an eddy behind me. I expected to step through sludge, not wade through fast-moving sewage. I felt off-balance and out of sorts.

We shuffled forward, the flushers alongside us making sure we were steady.

I wasn’t. I’m of a shape that naturally bobs to the surface and I was wearing rubber waders that were two sizes too big for me. The current dragged at my legs. Every step I took, I worried that I was going to slip backwards and over. The flushers were vigilant and I regularly felt a hand at my elbow. Piles of grit crunched beneath my feet. I peered at the muck unhappily.

A bright smile appeared at my side. “Everything OK?”

“Just fine.” My tone was defensive. Certainly I could walk a few feet along a sewer without making a fool of myself. Bazalgette’s sewers! The excitement filled me. I was finally here!

Knowing I couldn’t handle a notebook in the sewers, I planned to rely on memorisation tricks. I would focus on the different senses and recite keywords to help me to remember the scents and sounds of the tunnels, the feel of the underground breezes, the spotlit views. I wanted to be able to write about London below convincingly.

I took a deep breath and focused on the warm air around me. Musty, dank, sweet, cloying… too many words to try to remember the sharp scent of the air. Even as I sniffed, it shifted to something different. My foot slid against a slick brick. My arm flailed towards the brickwork, one small part of my mind remembering that it was exquisite and I needed to take a better look. A strong arm came around me before I was even aware that I was slipping. I gasped, the sewer bouquet forgotten.

“You’re all right,” the flusher said, holding me steady. Then he smiled reassuringly. “Are you all right?”

“Yes.” And then, aware that I had been precariously close to slipping into a fast moving sewage stream, I smiled back. “Thank you.”

I slithered my feet forward, feeling for the gravel and slippery rocks through the rubber boots and woolen socks. The flusher, also known as the kindest person in the entire universe, took my hand and the hand of the woman behind me, making soothing noises as he walked alongside us. I tried not to clutch, my eyes firmly on the running water coming well past my knees now.

The tunnel (sorry, barrel) widened out and I could see streams of grey daylight reflecting against the green-grey water ahead. My best friend led me to another flusher, passing my hand over as if it were a Scottish country dance. “Look after her,” he told him.

My new best friend looked at me. “You need to pull those boots up,” he said.

“I’ve tried!” I must have sounded almost tearful. He bent over, face precariously close to the running water, and tugged.

“Well, that will have to do,” he said with a sigh. “Wade very carefully across and grab the rope.”

I slithered forward again, trying desperately not to splash. The water lapped at the top of my waders but didn’t quite make it over the edge. Then another flusher splashed through, water streaming behind him. I held my breath and stood on my tiptoes, trying not to think about woolly socks infused with raw sewage.

We lined up along the rope, weak beams of light streaming through gaps in the ceiling. I could see a modern metal catwalk above us and wondered if that was for rescuing people who fainted into the muck. Then our cameras were passed out so that we could take photographs.

The water only came up to my knees here and the current was less swift. However, the additional light and security of the rope were cancelled out by my fear of dropping my camera. I gulped and began taking photographs. It was difficult to get clear images in the low light without blasting the area with flash. I have a number of murky green/grey photographs with soft edges, exactly the type of image I complained about seeing on the web.

The Chief Flusher offered to answer any questions we might have but I couldn’t think of a single one.

He told us about the mounds of fat that gather in tunnels. “A tree passed through the sewers without causing any blockage but the fat gathers. You can see it at the edges here. We end up with mountains of fat blocking the sewers and they trap all the other detritus passing through.” He scowled. “Fat and baby wipes. They’re the worst.”

He spoke with some regret about overflowing untreated sewage into the river a few winters ago. “It was that or flood people’s houses with raw sewage,” he said with a sigh. “These sewers just aren’t quite up to the job.”

Bazalgette, he tells us, was a visionary. The size of the tunnels and the usage of Portland cement have meant the his sewers have taken care of London’s sewage for over 150 years despite rising populations. But it is a combined system, mixing rain water and natural run off with the foul water from our drains and toilets, so after heavy rain fall when the flow rises even more, the system becomes overloaded and there is nowhere for the sewage to go.

The Thames Tunnel will be the solution to this problem: a thirty-two kilometre storage tunnel which will run underneath the Thames.

Daniel of the The Sewerman’s Log offered to take a photograph of me and I happily handed over my camera, knowing it was more secure in his hands than mine. It turns out that a mix of fear and excitement cause me to grin like a loon.

And then, sadly, it was time to leave. We were led out through a parallel barrel which was slightly higher. The flusher spread themselves along the way. As I reached the first one, he held my elbows loosely and told me to reach forward with my foot until I felt the step up. I found the slick edge of a brick that would have had me sprawling if I’d encountered it without warning. Each flusher took us past the next few steps where the sewage level was lower but the footing much more treacherous. I was encouraged again to ask questions but I was already reeling with information. I had to get it written down for processing before I could think of anything new! I made it to the ladder where they connected me to the winch and bade me be careful climbing up, especially now that my boots were slick with … well, it might be slippery.

I made it to the top without incident, the dreary rainclouds seeming vibrantly bright after the dark of the tunnel. I stomped around in the tray of disinfectant they’d put out for us and then walked across to the changing rooms, where I promptly tripped over my oversized boots and stumbled to the ground. Thank god for that, I said, so relieved that it hadn’t happened down below.

That was the end of the most marvelous day out I could possibly imagine. I know this was an extra-ordinarily long post but it was an extraordinary day. Thames Water were unbelievably awesome for letting me go on this tour and everyone I met was so friendly and informative and so visibly proud of the Victorian enterprise that they worked in. Never was there a sense of resenting the old technology or wishing to avoid the issues of working in listed buildings (in fact, there were some snide comments about how ugly the newer buildings at the station were compared to their Victorian counterparts). Everyone was enthusiastic about the pumping stations and the sewers and pleased to be able to share some of that history. I cannot speak highly enough of the Thames Water representatives I met on my tour.

I have a Certificate of Completion from Thames Water Utilities which certifies that I have entered a J.W. Bazalgette sewer. I never thought I’d be so proud of being in deep shit.

03 December 2010

UK Snow Day on Webcams

Our flight to Gatwick was cancelled so I spent the day peering at webcams all over the UK to see the status of the airfields. It’s great to see how many UK airfields have web cams showing the apron and the runway and even more so when you get to look at snow whilst sitting in sunny Spain. A couple of the cams were dark – either in the midst of a snowstorm or simply broken – but most of them showed blankets of snow across the landscape.

I took screenshots of each of the webcams, so you’ll see what I saw today. If you click through, you’ll get to the airfield site with the live webcam so you can see the current conditions.

Enjoy:

Bembridge, Isle of Wight

Cambridge

Cotswold (Kemble)

Aboyne, Aberdeenshire

Enstone

Glenforsa, Isle of Mull

Headcorn, Kent

Heathrow, London

Hollym, Withernsea

Jersey

Kirkwall, Orkney Islands

Leicestershire

Dunstable, Bedfordshire

Lydd, Kent

Milfield, Northumberland

Oxford

Portmoak, Scotlandwell

Sherburn, Yorkshire

Shoreham, West Sussex

Shropshire, West Midlands

Sumburgh, Shetland Isles

Ulster

Wellesbourne, Warwickshire

White Waltham, Berkshire

I’ve been sipping hot chocolate to warm myself just from looking at these webcams. Then I picked up my camera and went out to take photographs of the sun setting over the Spanish coast:

It’s a shame about the missed flight but I think I’ll live.

If you know of other airfield webcams that I’ve missed, leave them in the comments!