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Airwork Services (Oman) 1979-1982. A Survivor's Story

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  • Paul O'Grady
    Rank 1 Registered User
    • Aug 2008
    • 2

    Airwork Services (Oman) 1979-1982. A Survivor's Story

    I joined Airwork Services Limited in April of 1979. I was one of the few ex-civvies employed by Airwork. I use the term ex-civvy since it was a military set-up ran by mostly ex-military people. I had heard of Airwork through a friend who used the same pub as me on Sunday lunchtimes. He was working in Masirah a small airbase just off the coast of Oman. I was called for an interview in Airworks head office in Bournemouth, UK. A full day the interview lasted and I got the impression it was carried out back to front. I was given a medical examination and told what to expect in Oman before being asked about my previous experience. Any way, some time later I got the call and in no time I was on my way.

    Life in Oman was hot, hard and hazardous, at times. At other times it was marvellous. The best four years of my life were those spent in Oman. At that time in 1979, Oman was a country somewhat closed to the outside world. Tourists just didnt exist, entry visas were not easy to obtain, newspapers arrived days, and sometimes weeks late and censored. Things were happening around the world and we were the last to know.

    Oman is a hot country, apparently it held the world record for daytime temperatures at some time in the past - the temperature had exceeded 60 degrees Centigrade! although officially it was less.

    Working in an airport with vast expanses of concrete surfaces acting as reflectors, you could feel the heat burning through the soles of your shoes. The typical desert boot type of footwear we used would last a couple of months only since the perspiration from your body rotted the stitching of the boots which finally fell apart. On the wings of aircraft which were left standing in the sun all day you could literally fry an egg. When the strong breezes whipped up from the adjacent Indian Ocean, it was like standing in front of an industrial hot air blower.

    The early shift started at 6.30 a.m after a hearty breakfast in the mess and a short journey to the airport in the mini-bus. During particularly humid periods of the year, around February and March, by 6.45 a.m. your clothes (the Airworkee uniform of light blue shirt and dark blue shorts) were drenched with perspiration. At this time of the year the flies were a problem. The aircraft cockpits, while on the ground, would fill with huge flies and to be able to check the aircraft systems before a flight, you had to hold your breath, do what you could, leave the cockpit, hold your breath again and repeat the procedure until you finished the check.

    Water was drunk by the gallon and even though we were vaccinated against diseases attributed to contaminated water, most people suffered a bout of severe diarrhoea at least once. In my case I was 24 hours in the toilet! Afterwards the body adapted to the situation and there were no further problems of that nature.

    I made the mistake once of driving out into the desert without checking the fuel tank of the vehicle, which was nearly empty. I drove further than I had intended to and when I realized that the fuel tank was nearly empty, and that my water supply had run out, I quickly turned around and headed back to base. My throat started to dry up, dehydration was setting in and the more I panicked, the worse it became. Thankfully, the reserve fuel was enough to get me back but Ill never forget the feeling that had I not realized when I did that the fuel was short, it could have been a different story. Bear in mind that the temperature was approximately 120 degrees F!

    Life was hard at times, to what degree depended on each person. Harder for some, not so hard for others. I dont mean hard in the sense physically since the work was no harder than anywhere else (if you take away the climatic problem). The hard part was being separated from your family and friends for long stretches in a country where visitors, at that time, were not allowed in. Newspapers, as I said previously, were censored, as were films. Telephone calls to and from UK were limited to urgent calls (and even then it was hard to get through) and were expensive. When you live on a military style base with a few hundred guys all in the same boat, and you dont receive the much appreciated letter from your family, wives, children etc., tempers could be found on a short fuse, especially after a session in the bar, and the odd fight would break out. Female company was very limited. When occasionally there was a female in the bar it was like bees around the honey pot. For some it made them realize even more what they were missing back home. It wasnt exactly a place to be for the emotionally weak. I think I missed both my grandmother and my grandfathers funerals when I was in Oman - that for me was one of the harder spells.

    Life was also hazardous. Not that Oman was at war with anyone, except the occasional problem of the rebels hiding in the nearby Yemen and still faithful to the old Sultan who was forced into exile by his own son, the present Sultan. However I did spend a couple of interesting days hiding in the desert with a couple of aircraft when the Iran-Irak war broke out. More of that later. No, life was hazardous because nearly everything we did, socially, was taken to the limits. Drinking, water-skiing, diving, driving, partying, etc., were all taken to dangerous levels.

    Although Oman is supposed to be a dry country, and true enough there arent any bars or pubs (alcohol was available only in the international hotels - and then only for non-Arabs) but overseas contract companies such as Wimpey, Laing, Pan-Am and my company (Airwork) were allowed to have and run their own bars, and believe me they were very well stocked. Drinking sessions were very frequent, some of which went on for 36 hours. Beer cans would form pyramids from the floor to the ceiling. Spirits were served from gallon bottles. The bar, of which I took a turn as manager during six months, was a non-profit making concern and all profits were used either to improve the facilities or on free booze nights. The place had many characters, which was very useful for some of the shows we organized. Singers, musicians, comedians abounded. Even I sang and played the guitar on some occasions. Other characters were more well known for their drinking habits. One of the guys was a fellow we called Squadron Leader Jacko because many times he was to be found wearing a pilots helmet while sat at the bar. This was to prevent him hurting himself when he eventually fell off the bar stool, invariably banging his head on the floor! There were days when you would wake up to go down for breakfast only to find it was 11 oclock at night!

    We had our own beach club (called Blackpool Beach) with a bar and all the water sports facilities you could want. I belonged to the water skiing club. We were only a dozen or so regular skiers, had our own skis shipped in from the U.S. and reached quite a high standard of mono-skiing (one ski only). Accidents were frequent but not normally serious. Enemas were painful if you entered the water bum first after a spectacular fall.

    We also did quite a lot of snorkelling and sea fishing. We often used the bridge of an old cargo ship which had sunk about a half a mile off the beach. One day, during a break from fishing, and since the water level was below the deck of the ship, we decided to explore the inside of the ship, snorkelling on top of the water. I was well inside the ship when I decided to look up to see where I was. To my horror, my head hit the ceiling of the galley which I was exploring. Knowing that the tide was on its way in, I realized that it only needed one big wave to fill the ship with water and leave me without air. It took me three long minutes to get out of there, praying all the time that that big wave would not come. Within a couple of minutes of reaching the bridge the ships deck was under the water level!

    Apart from football and squash, another activity was bondu bashing. This consisted of driving a Toyota Land Cruiser (we had the use of many) down a dried up river bed at high speed. The river bed was shin high with pebbles and control of the vehicle was extremely difficult. Accidents did happen occasionally and sometimes the jeep would sink in the pebbles up to the floor level and had to be towed out.

    At times we would sleep overnight, in cargo nets, at the side of the river bed. One morning I woke up to find I had been bitten 31 times in the head by mosquitoes. Luckily they must have been male mosquitoes which dont carry the feared Malaria disease.

    Generally, the people who lasted any length of time in the Middle East were those who involved themselves in social and sports activities. This obviously meant spending money. Those who went out there to save money and not spend anything invariably lasted only a year or so. During my years there I had two cars and a motorbike, a 750 c.c Honda. On weekends when we perhaps had extra time off, the big bike club would go off somewhere, even as far as Dubai. I wrote an article about one particular trip which was published, along with a photograph, in the UK Motor Cycle News magazine.

    One night, on the way back to the base from a party in town, I was following a friend of mine, who just happened to be my ex-wifes cousin, and who had a very fast Ducatti 900 c.c. Mike Hailwood replica. He went out of control going through a roundabout and ended up, along with the bike, bouncing down the road. With me coming up fast behind I had no alternative but to steer off the road. My front wheel went into what was probably the only hole for miles around and I came flying off and slammed into the surface with my shoulder. My friend and his Ducatti were able to continue home but I had a tremendous dislocation of the arm from the shoulder. This happened at 11 oclock at night. It wasnt until 10 oclock the next morning when they operated on me. The pain was terrible during those 11 hours.

    About a year later I had another accident which was to prove very costly. An Arab ran out in front of me on the motorway attempting to jump over the central barrier to cross the road. He didnt see me. I hit him head on. He went flying up in the air and was dead before he hit the ground. I fell off the bike and bounced down the motorway, with the obvious consequences - cuts and bruises all over the place, and shock. Initially the police wanted to take me to get patched up and then to jail. Friends who had now arrived on the scene explained that we had our own military hospital and that I should go there. I was in hospital a couple of days, the first day under hospital arrest. My passport was taken away but I continued working once out of hospital. Eventually I ended up in court and was ordered to pay the Arabs family what out there they call blood money - three thousand Rials (approximately five thousand pounds)! Although it was proved not to be my fault (the Arab only had one eye) their interpretation of the Koran is that, more or less, as a foreigner, if I hadnt been there it wouldnt have happened! An amount of money was collected by friends and given to me, a gesture I will always remember, but the majority I had to pay back by staying in the Middle East approximately nine months more than I had anticipated.

    The only serious conflict which occurred while I was in Oman, and which affected us, was the Iran - Iraq war. I had flown into Teheran as flight mechanic on one of our aircraft the previous year not long after the Shah was booted out and all the Americans had left the country leaving it virtually paralyzed.

    One Friday lunchtime (Friday being the day off) we were in the bar having a drink when the Chief Engineer came in all excited saying that we were at war. The Iranians had threatened to bomb our airport and we had to get all the aircraft away from Muscat. The previous night on television Sultan Qaboos had declared that Oman was remaining neutral with regard the Iran-Iraq conflict. Whilst he was talking on television, Iraqi helicopter gunships were in our hangers being armed up for an attack on Bander Abbas, a military base in Iran across from the Straits of Hormuz in northern Oman. Somehow the Iranians found out - hence the threat to bomb us. In the evacuation, I was given the responsibility of looking after two aircraft. One pilot and myself flew out in one of them (me in the co-pilots seat) and the other followed behind. We went to a historic village in the desert called Nizwa and remained there a couple of days until the threat was over. I had a great time since also based in the village was an SAS (Special Air Services) sqaudron who were training Omani troops in anti-terrorist tactics. We stayed in their mess an spent a lot of time drinking and listening to some great tales. You would never believe, looking at these SAS guys that they are trained killers.

    Part of my job was to go on trips as flight engineer more aptly known as a flying spanner (we took it in turns) on the BAC 1-11s. During my time there I went to Bombay, Teheran, Southern Oman (Salalah), UK, Pakistan, etc. If people knew some of the things that happen on the flight deck, some would probably never fly again!

    My holidays, which initially were one month off every six months, but which later changed to three weeks every four and a half months, were mainly spent abroad. I went to the Phillipines twice, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Thailand, United States (Texas). In Texas I got my aircraft engineers licence and even had some flying lessons. Generally there were three or four of us that went everywhere together so we had a good time. Once we got chased by a bunch of Triad henchmen in Hong Kong after refusing to pay for drinks we didnt have and ended up seeking refuge in a brothel!

    One of the highlights of the week, or fortnight, was the arrival of the British Airways jumbos en route to, or coming from, Australia. As our military airport used the same runway as the civil airport, we saw all the flights coming and going.The crew invariably stayed in Muscat for two or three days, so it was a case of Splash it all over Henry and down to the hotel discotheque to chat up the stewardesses. It was like bees around a honey pot. Sometimes the crew put on parties in the hotel. Booze and cannabis flowed freely. The only time I ever smoked marihuana or hachis was in Oman - just as well we were never caught. The Arabs lock you up for the smallest of things. I once (being bar manager at the time and having use of bar funds) had to bail out my ex-wifes cousin from jail. He had been picked up by the police for riding a small motorbike without the relevant licence! One of the men he was locked up with that night, an Arab, had been there several months without trial for fornicating with a donkey!

    Hardly a week went by without something happening. There are still many stories I could tell of incidents at the airport, on the beach, in the bar, etc, etc. All in all unforgettable.

    Eventually, having by now paid off the blood money from the accident, I made the decision to leave Oman. I had to get back to the real world. It was good while it lasted and I made many friends although weve almost completely lost contact now. I told the company I was leaving, one final goodbye party, a few days in Cyprus on the way home, and in October of 1982 I was back in UK. My Arabian adventure was over.

    Best regards to all my friends from those days. Ill be seeing some of you at Snookys ex-Airworkees (1979-1982) Reunion party shortly.

    Hasta Luego

    Paul OGrady (now in Madrid)
  • allan e
    Registered User
    • May 2009
    • 1

    #2
    general

    DEAR PAUL
    I DONT KNOW IF YOU WILL REMEMBER ME MY NAME IS ALLAN ELLIS AND I TO WAS IN THE OMAN STARTING IN SEPT 1979 I WAS PUT ON THE SKYVAN SECTION AND JOHN TANKER WAS THE THEN CHIEF ENGINEER AND THINGS WERE PRETTY MUCH AS YOU DESCRIBED THEM, I ALSO REMEMBER THE START OF THE IRAQ IRAN CONFRONTATION AND EVERY NOW AND THEN THE ALARM WOULD SOUND TO GO BLOCK THE RUNWAY WITH ANYTHING WE COULD GET OUR HANDS ON AS SOME IRANIAN PILOT WOULD BE DEFECTING AND LANDING THERE WANTING ASYLUM AND I GUESS THE OMANIS DIDNT WANT TO GET INVOLVED. I AM NOW RETIRED AND LIVE IN AMERICA

    Comment

    • T13
      T13
      Rank 2 Registered User
      • May 2010
      • 2

      #3
      Some people say...if you can remember it,..... you were'nt there.

      Comment

      • pagen01
        St Mawganphile
        • Aug 2007
        • 10711

        #4
        What on earth has this got to do with flightsims, bizarre one off posts!
        http://www.abpic.co.uk/search.php?q=...t=most_popular

        Comment

        • T13
          T13
          Rank 2 Registered User
          • May 2010
          • 2

          #5
          Ah Ha.....you....obviously...were not there...

          Comment

          • tufty
            Rank 1 Registered User
            • Jun 2016
            • 1

            #6
            Hi Pog, came accross this remarkable story. what are you up to these days? I am now retired if you ever see Snooky give him my regards. Jim

            Comment

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