Belfast during IRA times – an account of a BEA stewardess

A  Hot Cup of Coffee

We continue the series of the experiences of Anne Woods during her time as cabin crew with BEA(BOAC) back in the 1960’s/70’s and this is an account of a flight from London Heathrow to Belfast. Anne - Cabin Crew It makes me wonder if people have really thought about the danger which existed for airline staff and still does today.

Anne is a member of a writing group and we are so pleased to receive the accounts of her many flights around the world as cabin crew and hope there will be many more to come.

A Hot Cup of Coffee

By Anne Woods

I thought to myself this is going to be a long, long night.  Little did I know what lay ahead of us. 

Having checked in for the Belfast flight at the Duty Desk I headed to the Briefing Room to meet up with the rest of the crew. I was amazed to see there were 4 Stewards and I was the only Stewardess but then quickly realised because of the heightened security for Belfast at the height of the problems in N. Ireland we were given the opportunity to refuse to fly on that route and many of our Stewardesses and Stewards said no thanks. I couldn’t blame them. I guess my attitude was I was not going to give into the Baskets!!!

Joe shouted across the tea bar ‘Where are you off to at this late hour’ ‘Belfast where else’ ‘Don’t fancy your chances on a night like this’ ’Oh you know us, only the brave’, and the usual banter ensued. In fact the night was damp and foggy at Heathrow but we had been assured that Belfast was good with reasonably clear visibility (that phrase was always somewhat suspect).

Our flight was called so we left our warm and cosy corner of the Tea Bar and headed down to our transport grabbing our overnight bags on route with all our necessary paraphernalia for the flight. Hilary, coming up the stairway on a returning flight shouted ‘don’t forget we are playing squash tomorrow Anne. ’I’ll try, I will give you a call” and shrugged.

MapThe Belfast flights were always parked out in the boon docks away from all the activities of an airport just in case. The Redcap was ready for us when we arrived and a Special Branch Officer was there keeping an eye on any unusual activities and the comings and goings of any Sinn Fein or the Ulster Unionists both on arrivals and departures.

The Flight Deck Crew arrived and we had a brief chat with them before they started all their checks. Threats from the IRA were growing and now they were threatening, on a daily basis, to bring down one of our jets with Sam Missiles.  Passengers started to board.  Having gone through the very rigid Israeli style ELAL security checks which the Israeli’s had long used ,for good reason, and that BEA had recently adopted specifically for the Belfast route. Which I have to admit was infinitely better from our point of view – now we did not have to frisk our own passengers – very embarrassing!

The new procedures which involved passengers walking through a long narrow corridor, luggage X-Rayed, everyone frisked, the use of metal detectors on passengers and many questions asked until they were released to board the aircraft.  All happening under the watchful eye of armed police. We always dreaded the baggage numbers not tallying with the passenger numbers because then the loaders had to be recalled to off-load all the bags and for the passengers to be released in small numbers back onto the tarmac to point out their baggage to staff.  So that always caused long delays. Any baggage not claimed was dealt with by the security services.

There were the usual Parliamentary faces on board heading home after a long and usually frustrating week of argument and counter argument wondering whether the N. Irish Problem would ever end!

So far it was an uneventful flight and we were nearing the end of the service when suddenly the Captain’s emergency light came on which meant the Chief Steward was to report to the flight deck immediately.

‘Brian we have a bit of a problem, it seems weBA Trident Crew have a light showing us that the undercarriage is down but not locked. Of course it might just be a faulty light but we just don’t know. That’s the problem. We have alerted the emergency services and they have laid foam. However I now need you and your crew to prepare for an immediate evacuation. Blimey that’s all we needed on a Belfast!

I left the rest of the crew to tidy up and I went into my Emergency Announcement – Ladies & Gentlemen we have an emergency situation and you are requested to follow carefully the instructions given to you by the Cabin Crew etc. etc…………

In situations like that we always had to have alternatives just in case ……. So I walked through the aircraft with pen and paper hand picking alternative help just in case we, the cabin crew, were incapacitated. The most likely people to bring about a successful evacuation in those circumstances would be young able bodied men and, on a Belfast, that was not difficult to find, as we often carried a number of British soldiers to and from Belfast, wearing civvies for obvious reasons.  We got them positioned as near to the doors as possible by moving passengers around (we always seemed to be full on domestic flights).

We showed the soldiers how to open the aircraft doors, how to attach the chutes, and how to climb down the chutes and hold them whilst passengers came down.  We had no inflatable chutes in those days. I think our soldiers felt quite proud to have been chosen for their unexpected tasks.

Fortunately as luck would have it we got down safely and all was well, and we sighed a collective sigh of relief.

I found myself needing to get some fresh air, so I stepped out onto the top of the aircraft steps, and no sooner did I do that than the first passenger appeared and said. May I please shake your hand and will you please pass this on to the rest of your crew. We all know that you are volunteers only on this route, and I would like to thank you for continuing to keep this route open otherwise we would never get off this damn stupid island. All this was said with tears streaming down her face. I said, please don’t cry, I will start and I still have a lot of passengers to say goodbye to and a lot of hands to shake. I often wonder if that lady survived the worst that N. Ireland had to give.

I could not believe it the following week I was rostered for Standby Duty at the Airport which meant sitting for 6 hours in the Standby room (so took plenty of reading matter with me) just in case. I need not have bothered. I had just sat down when my name was called. ‘Stewardess Douglas to the Duty Desk’ I went back to the Duty Desk , ‘Yes Bill’  ‘Sorry Anne’   It’s  a Belfast again I know you were on one last week but the other standby’s are all out of hours, and, I’ve just heard from the police that the girl rostered for this has been involved in a car accident on the M4. Needless to say I was not very happy about it but at least it was an uneventful trip.

We always made sure we had extra meals on board for our soldiers who did an excellent job guarding us whilst we were on the ground, and they never asked, but always waited to be offered a hot breakfast, lunch, or dinner and a hot cup of coffee and they took it in turns to come on board, take their helmets off and their weapons and enjoyed a good  hot meal. Every time we landed and took off from Belfast we knew that the British Army were also protecting us in their tanks 2 miles back from the runway and 2 miles forward of the runway keeping an eye open for those Sam Missiles which never materialised thank goodness.Caffe Nero

Just a couple of weeks ago we were out doing our usual grocery shopping and spotted a new grocery shop in the town and decided to check it out. The vegetables looked good so  we decided to buy, and then we got into conversation with the owner. He said he had been in the British Army in N. Ireland  in the 60s/70s, and I said what a small world, and I told him about the troops coming on board for hot meals and coffee.  With that he said ‘I remember you‘, ‘I knew I’d catch up with you one day – my coffee was cold.’  With that I said ’Hang on wait a second’ I ran across the road ordered the biggest cup of Neros’ take-away coffee I could find. Ran back and said here you are, British Airways Coffee was never that good anyway. So have this one on me.

It just goes to show it all comes to those who wait………..   

These were bad times and many people will remember the fear and distress caused by the IRA, one of which was the Hyde Park Corner Bombing which I believe was the last bombing to take place in London by the IRA.  It occurred opposite my parents’ house and my childhood home which always brings back sad memories.  I remember the Life Guards coming up to go to Buckingham Palace each morning on their magnificent jet black horses with their brasses jingling and catching the sunlight which was always a sight to behold. I saw that at the same time every day when I crossed the park to go to school.  The Hyde Park Corner bombing will always remain with me as a dreadful memory of the past.

To see a previous article by Anne regarding Cyprus click here