Alexandra's Notebook

Get a Move On

In the military there is no such thing as weekends off. As I have said, you are, to put it bluntly, on call 24/7. And in my line of work, trained as an assistant air traffic controller, I was expected to work shifts whether that was in the Controller Tower itself, or in Flight Ops, or the Operations building.

Shifts was not something I was ready for, not on any level. So when I got my first posting to Plymouth, in Devon (UK) I was in for a rude awakening at just how demanding a boring job could be. While my childhood had prepped me for so many aspects of military life, these kinds of working conditions were a whole other ball game, and one I wasn’t prepared for.

A day after I arrived on camp with only hours of orientation and briefing on where I was working I was handed a shift schedule for not the next week or month, but the next 3 months. They were short handed due to early out going postings with new recruits, like myself, still to arrive direct from training and, as such, I was about to find myself working what they called a 3-watch.

That mean the day after I arrived I had to be up at 6am, dressed, showered and breakfasted by 7:25am and on the transport to work by not later than 7:30 sharp, as that was the departure time. Miss that and you were stranded and, in BIG trouble. The RCC centre was on the other side of the bay which, at one point in the history of the camp was reached by boat direct from a landing on base. A 20 minute ride in whatever the seas threw at you. But, because of the obvious inherent problems, this was changed to staff being bused to work from camp to the other side of Plymouth.

Leaving me always wondering why they hadn’t built our camp closer to our base of operations. But hey, that’s a whole other story.

That first day I was on shift from 7:50 (for a ten minute hand over) to start work at 8am through till 12 noon. Staff were then bused back to camp to do what they wished until the evening shift, which started at 8pm. And yes, you guessed it. We had to muster for the bus again at 7:25pm sharp for a 7:30 departure. With our shift starting at 8pm through till 8am the following morning.

After a long, long night of little or no sleep (after all, we were on duty) we’d be bused (once again) back to base for what was laughingly called our day off. It was, in fact, a sleep day. And let me tell you, after a meagre breakfast and unable to coordinate I slept right through till 5pm that evening, waking in time to be able to stumble to the mess hall for dinner.

It took me the best part of a month to get this routine down pat, in working out how long it took me to wake in a lukewarm shower, how quick I could do breakfast (aboard the bus to work) and save myself an extra ½ hour in bed. How I managed to squeeze anything else in became an art in time management, but yes, I did it.

It’s funny how on that ‘sleep day off’ I found the energy to stay awake and not only do some of the voluntary things I signed up for (search and rescue anyone?) plus go sight seeing about the city of Plymouth, drive out into the countryside of Devon, and at times, go on a pub crawl for charity. Yes, really. This was, after all, why the gods invented caffeine right?

The job itself was endless hours of routine boredom punctuated by emergency call outs and adrenaline rushes that could last minutes to an entire shift length in subdued panic. While most of our daily routine was covering Nimrod flights out of RAF St Mawgen, our primary mandate was the coordination of Search and Rescue for the southern UK area.

We could be coordinating anything from a kid on a blow-up beach raft floating out to sea, to someone dangling off a cliff face, to a US nuclear submarine in distress in the English Channel. We saw it all and then some.

Some how I managed to survive the gruelling shift schedule and, before my first year was up, got a coveted posting to Germany.