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Noel K Fletcher

Freebee to Australia

How could anyone get bored with living in Singapore? Well, perhaps bored is too strong a word, I was in love, or thought I was. I had been going out with a lovely girl in the UK for a couple of years before being posted out to Singapore in January 1966.
  Oh did I mention that I was in the RAF? No? Well I was. A mere lad of 19, I was stationed at RAF Changi, now the international airport surrounded by a vast expanse of reclaimed land and supporting industry; but then it was a standard operational RAF station with resident aircraft of character like Shackletons, Argosys, Javelins, Royal New Zealand Air Force Bristol Freighters (they were usually known as frighteners or vibrators), and Royal Naval Blackburn Buccaneers. There were visiting aircraft too: Britannias, Hercules, Dan Air Argonauts (which dripped oil all over the parking apron), Belfasts and the occasional VIP Comet. At that time the international airport was at Paya Leba in the centre of the island, so any aircraft that came into Changi was military or contracted to it.

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I digress, but it gives you some idea of where I was and why. Like I said, before I left the UK, my girlfriend Jackie, had emigrated to Australia with her parents and sisters, and at that age it left something of a hollow in the pit of my stomach. Anyway, my posting came through and by way of solace I wrote to her and her family, regularly, from the time I arrived, right up to the time I made my monumental decision to take a trip to see her. Mind you, letter writing wasn’t my strong point as my father would have told you. Having not heard from me for some time he sent me a form to the effect of “I am/am not in work / hospital / prison / continent – please delete as necessary’; then after another long period of silence from me, he wrote to my Flight Commander, who interviewed me and ordered me to write home and insisted on seeing the letter before I posted it. Ah, those were the days!
  I’d been enjoying the relaxed life of a single guy on the island for just over a year, with cheap booze, loose girls and motor racing, and I was due some leave. I had previously spent some time on detachment up in Penang at the Royal Australian Air Force base Butterworth with the RAAF and had got to know one or two of them pretty well – they enjoyed the occasional beer too! I was chatting to the Sergeant in charge of our photographic section – did I say that I was a photographer - well that’s what Her Majesty’s government paid me to do for my daily crust.
  Where was I? Oh yes. I was chatting to Sgt Dave Wilkes about the prospects of getting down to Aus’ to see my girl, the cost of civil airline flights was prohibitive to me as a lowly SAC (senior aircraftsman), I was only paid S$100 per fortnight (a Singapore dollar then was worth 3 shillings and 4 pence in old money, that’s about 17p in today’s money – figure that out!) in cash, which generally went to pay the barman, bearer (there were local bearers to sweep out or eight-man rooms, clean our shoes and organise our laundry (dhoby); other payments went to fuel for my motorcycle, repairs to same – because, in reality, it was a wreck – taxi fares, cinema tickets and the occasional meal out. So, civil air tickets were out of the equation.
  Dave suggested I tried to get on an RAF indulgence flight. This was a system (which probably still operates today) whereby members of the armed forces could get a spare seat on an RAF transport aircraft, free of charge – I think there is a charge these days.
“Good idea” I thought.
  I asked. Dave “What about the Royal Australian Air Force? They’ve got aircraft heading south almost every day” He told me that from his own experience, he found that if you wanted to get an indulgence flight with the RAAF, your reason had to be compassionate; i.e. make it as heart-rending as possible and travel light. I remembered his advice and a few weeks after returning to Changi, put in my leave pass and requested an indulgence seat for a trip to RAAF Base Richmond, just outside Sydney in Australia.
  As it happened, on of the new Comets was due in to collect the Air Officer Commanding and take him and his entourage to Richmond on the first day of my leave. I was allocated a seat and given my joining instructions – what time to be at the trooping terminal, how much luggage I could take, what to wear etc. etc. The morning of my flight arrived. I was up, dressed, luggage in hand and at the trooping terminal an hour before my due time. The aircraft hadn’t even arrived. I approached the Corporal Air Movements Clerk, with his red arm band of authority, told him my name and service number and that I was reporting for my indulgence seat on the AOC’s comet to Richmond. He picked up his clip-board and ran his finger slowly down the passenger list, flicked the page up and continued down the list on the second page. He checked my name again and I spelt it out for him – slowly.
  “You’re not on this list mate” he told me.
  “But I’ve got the paperwork from the P2 Admin clerk” I said rather squeakily.
  “Hang on, I’ll check with the sarg’.” And he strolled off to find his sergeant. I stood at the desk waiting as other potential passengers arrived and queued up behind me, a growing feeling of embarrassment engulfing me and increasing each time someone else joined the queue. Then the Comet taxied in and shut down just outside the glass doors to my right. As all went quiet, the Sergeant arrived at the other side of the desk and announced in a loud but not unsympathetic voice “Fletcher? Sorry son, your indulgence seat has been reallocated to a duty passenger.
  “What?!” I breathed, I was shattered, “but what about my leave, my arrangements?”
“Sorry son, that’s the way it is, there’s never a guarantee on indulgence seats. They did tell you that at P2 didn’t they?”
  “Well, yes but…”
  “Sorry lad.” He was beginning to repeat himself “better luck next time. Next please.”
  The person behind me in the queue was a Squadron leader and his wife and two small kids, also booked on indulgence seats; I learned later that as a junior rank, I had actually got a higher priority than them, but even if I had known that at the time, would I have had the bottle to tell a sergeant that I was more entitled to go than a squadron leader – I doubt it.

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