“I Remember... The Mass Diversion of Christmas 1958” – Personal memories of John Brown
For some time Southend Airport had acquired a good reputation for its weather – its absence of fog in the autumn and winter months. As a result British European Airways (BEA) – the state airline – each autumn would station some ground handling equipment and staff from the end of September until early March. This avoided the need to bring staff down to Southend should an aircraft divert, thereby reducing delays because of the two–hour drive from London Airport. In turn, BEA staff could handle other airlines so diverted, such as Lufthansa, KLM and Air France, who had nominated Southend as their number one diversion. It should be remembered that, at this time, Stansted was a remote, charter–only airfield and Gatwick had a poor weather record. Passengers landing at Southend could be in Central London within one hour.
On Christmas Eve 1958, the day was sunny with haze: London and Manchester and most of the south of England was in fog. At about 10am. Southend ATC was advised by Southern Air Traffic Control Centre at Heathrow to standby for possible diversions. At 10.30 am. they were advised that two Lufthansa Viscount 400s were leaving airways at Matching for diversion to Southend. Hardly had this occurred than a KLM Super Constellation, which had heard that Southend was open, also announced it was diverting. From then on Southend was announced by London Volmet (The Meteorological Service) as being the only airport open – Runway 06 in use.
As it was a holiday for me, I was over at the airport planning to go flying. At around mid–morning. Bernard Collins, the Airport Commandant, came across to the School and asked if we could help by being baggage–handlers, as it was obvious to him that the small number of staff would be overwhelmed by this unplanned influx of passengers. One problem, as the number of flight arrivals built up was the lack of aircraft steps. Apart from Viscounts, most aircraft of that era did not have integral steps. Most of the arrivals in the afternoon needed our steps – DC4s, DC6s. Constellations and Vikings. Later on it was 80% Viscounts of BEA. Hunting–Clan and Eaglet (from Blackbushe) and the problem over the steps eased.
As the sky darkened, one could see, circling over Southend, to the north, east, and south, the winking lights of aircraft waiting their turn to land. By now SATCC had established an airway leading to Southend; this helped speed up the landing rate and the job of the Southend controllers.
Although one might have imagined that the congestion in the passenger halls was leading to frayed nerves, it was remarkable composed. Bernard Collins made an announcement apologising for the congestion, pointing out that Southend did not normally handle this amount of traffic. In general, people were fairly good humoured as they waited their turn to be put on a stream of coaches that were ferrying them up to London. At one point, Paul Robeson, the singer, who had arrived from Paris, entertained passengers with an impromptu rendering in the Arrivals lounge. By 10pm. most people were away for their Christmas; most of them were only too glad to have made it into the UK at all, because of the fog.
On Christmas day at SATCC’s special request Southend Airport remained open (although scheduled to close for the holiday) and further diversions were accepted. The final arrival was a Pan Am Boeing 707 from New York, which, because the airfield was filled with aircraft, had to be left on the main runway. Just as this aircraft had landed, the fog, which had blanketed the southern part of England, finally closed in. By this time Southend had done its job; every one was home for Christmas, and the Airport staff could now celebrate Christmas with the warm glow of doing an unbelievable job. The Municipal Airport had handled all Southern England’s Air Traffic arrivals, as well as departures. For this service Southend ATC won the Guild of Air Traffic Controller’s Award for 1958. – John Brown