Tropical storm on New Year's Eve - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Tropical storm on New Year's Eve

 
Above: This is my own pic of the station, taken from the aerial (antenna) farm. The tall lattice mast in the centre was the T1131 VHF antenna used to carry emergency comms between Gangodawila and the Signals Centre in Negombo.

About 10pm on New Year's Eve a tremendous monsoon storm started outside. The combined noise of the torrential rain hammering on the roof and the very frequent fortissimo thunder claps, made it impossible to hear the soundtrack of the 16mm film being shown in the barrack room. Suddenly all the lights went out so we all moved into the operations room to see what impact the storm was having on our operations. Several of my colleagues carried torches: apparently mains electrical outages were a regular occurrence. The monsoon drains alongside the covered walkways were already overflowing and the central area, in which stood the stores hut, looked like a lake. On the plus side, the outside air temperature had already gone down by several degrees C.

The duty watch keeper, holding his head in one hand and a torch in the other, told us that he thought one of our 18 rhombic aerials had been struck by lightning. The rhombics were so-called because each was in the shape of a rhombus suspended between four 100-foot high masts. The lone watch-worker told us that a bolt of lightning had flashed across the room from the aerial patch board, where the feeders from the aerials terminated, to the control desk just in front of him and had just missed his head and then all the lights had gone out - literally. The watch worker had a severe headache and was, unsurprisingly, in a state of physical shock. Someone really should have summoned a doctor to examine him but no-one did.

On all the internal walkways around the living areas there were monsoon drains like the one on the left. In monsoon conditions the draíns soon overflowed.

Once the diesel-driven emergency generator had been started up, we had light. Practically every fuse and circuit breaker inside the station had blown. All our receivers, teleprinters and ancillary equipment were off-line. By midnight things were getting back to something like normal and by about 2am the monsoon storm had passed by and everything was calm and peaceful. Outside the sky was clear and brilliantly lit with countless thousands of stars. "So that is what a monsoon storm is like.", I wrote in my diary before I went to bed.

I was woken early in the morning to be told that the T1509 short wave medium-powered transmitter, used for emergency data transfers from Gangodawila to the Signals Control Centre at Negombo, was out of action. It was thought that it had probably been damaged during the previous evening’s storm when one or more of the HF rhombic aerials had been struck by lightning. “At last,” I thought. “I can put some of my training to good use.”

After working through the technical manual’s instructions, I was unable to locate a fault, so my next step was to test various components inside the transmitter using the unofficial technique as taught by the Locking sergeant instructor: stand on the cork mat, keep my right hand in my pocket, and keep the HT live by putting one foot on the micro switch at the base of the transmitter. Unfortunately, while reaching into the depths of the transmitter to check that the output power valves were correctly seated, the fingers and wrist of my ‘working’ hand (my left hand) managed to form a short circuit to ground (earth) between a 1,200 volt terminal and the metal chassis of the transmitter. There was a flash and I was hurled back against a wall. I slithered to the floor unconscious.

As I fell, the base micro-switch would have sprung open and automatically cut off the power to the transmitter. No-one saw what had happened because there was no-one else in the transmitter room at the time, and that would doubtless be against the Health & Safety rules these days. After what I believe was probably just a few seconds, I regained consciousness, sat up, shook my head to clear my vision, and resumed work on the transmitter. I then saw that the fault was caused by what was clearly a burnt out transformer and it would require the services of the specialist team who were always on hand at Negombo for any major unserviceability.

The specialist team turned up a day later with a new power transformer. “I’ve never known one of these to burn out before,” said the sergeant, “and I’ve been working on T1509s for the past 10 years.” Only some days later did it occur to me that the original fault on the transmitter might not have been the transformer after all. Perhaps the transformer had burnt out when I accidentally shorted out the main HT supply with my wrist! I never mentioned that incident to anyone but to this day I have a blue scar, now faded but still discernible, on my left wrist as a memento of it.

Soon after arriving at Gangodawila I took the opportunity to read Station Routine Orders (SROs) which came to us once a week in the official mail bag from Negombo. There was a lot of the usual routine stuff that always found its way into SROs but one particular order immediately caught my attention. I can still remember it word for word, partly because of its curious syntax, but mainly because it was one that was republished at regular intervals so that no airman could claim not to be aware of the contents. This is exactly how the unpunctuated order was written: "Shorts the bottom of the legs of which are more than two inches above the knees are not to be worn." Since the khaki uniform long stockings were supposed to be worn pulled right up to the lower edge of the knees, that meant that only two inches of leg would be exposed.

I learned later that uniform shorts of the prescribed length were known colloquially as Empire Builders because that was the style traditionally worn by British males in the years of the British Raj and other British 'possessions' in tropical climates around the world, when it was considered too hot to wear slacks but undignified to display too much white leg. Our uniform khaki shorts always came back from the dhobi (laundry) starched and pressed which meant that as the wearer's legs moved backwards and forwards when walking or marching, the shorts remained stationary. If you have ever seen film of British military personnel of all three services wearing uniform with starched shorts in the colonial days you will know how ridiculous it looked.

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