Saturday, 30 April 2016

S649 - The End, Memories from Maurice Henderson

During the 70's RAF Saxa Vord was largely re-engineered with the aid of £10 Million of NATO funding. The Type 13 height-finder was finally retired and replaced by a Plessey HF200. After more than 20 years of service the Type 80 search radar was replaced by a new Marconi S649, with back-to back reflectors mounted on the same turntable. One reflector was for a D band radar and the other for an E/F band radar (for those of you as old as me the radars were L & S band). Both the HF200 and the S649 were enclosed in radomes from the beginning.

In the late 80's it was decided to add a tactical, transportable radar, enclosed in its own radome.  This was to be the Type 93, which was a 3D radar, capable of finding range, bearing and height with a single head, doing away with the need for a separate height-finder. During construction the Type 93 radome collapsed twice, in Jun '89 and again in Sep '89. The "golf ball" was completed in 1990  but the new radar was not ready for delivery to Unst.
As many of you will know Shetland and particularly the radar site suffered severely in the gales at New Year 1991/92:  The only operational search radar at the time, the S649, was badly damaged and its 65' diameter radome was a total write off. Pictures from before and after the gale:
The wind also totally destroyed the 110' diameter radome which had been erected to house the, as yet undelivered , Type 93. Saxa Vord, a major link it the NATO air defence chain was non-operational.
With the cooperation of the civilian authorities, a number of operations personnel were detached to Sumburgh Airport on the Shetland Mainland, where spare Air Traffic facilities were used to provide some radar cover in Saxas area of responsibility. In the meantime, senior officers, engineers & contractors got together to see what could be done to permit the Unit to resume its full operational role.  On the plus side the Type 93 radar would be coming, though work on building  a radome for it would have to start again. In January 1992 probably few realised it would be nearly 2 years before the Type 93 would be operational.
In order to provide a search radar as quickly as possible it was decided  to recover the S649 without a radome. The damage to the E/F Band side of the radar was so severe it was agreed not to repair that part of the equipment but to concentrate all efforts on making the D Band radar operational. The main Contractors (Marconi) and RAF personnel had a busy time before the S649 became serviceable again in November 1992, ten months after the storm.
For a year, until November 1993 when the Type 93 was accepted,  the S649 enabled the Unit to meet its NATO commitment. A new radar on site - surely time to retire the old equipment? Unfortunately, new equipment frequently has teething problems and personnel can take a while to get used to new technology.  It wasn't until April 1995 that the S649 was finally decommissioned. The contract for removing the  radar and it's plinth was awarded to Malakoff & Wm Moore Ltd, a Lerwick based company which had been in the engineering business for around a hundred years.
In the summer of 1995 Maurice Henderson, a Shetlander, got a job with Malakoff in his University holidays . He was one of a small number of people  sent to Unst to demolish the S649 and, fortunately for us, he took his camera with him. It would be best to let him tell the story in his own words:
"We spent almost 6 weeks taking down the radar.  Much of that was waiting for calm enough weather to use the crane on top of the hill. Danny Arthur, Harry Ratter, Sydney Sinclair and myself were based up there.  Michael Jacobson came up near the end with a digger to use the rock breaker to chip out the base blocks.  The stone was incredibly hard and said to be bomb proof concrete.  We also had a second crane hired from OIL at one point to do a tandem lift to take out the heavy gear box.  About 8 or 9 tonnes if I recall correct.
The huge bottle screws were a couple of hundred weight each that held on the dish bit of the radar and Danny Arthur walked along the top of the pipe cutting them as he went the whole structure shaking under his feet when the cut through.  He was harnessed on but I wouldn’t have fancied it.  I remember it quite dramatic at night,  I had the escort van tied on to the corner to keep the strain against the wind. Felt a bit like being in a thunderbirds episode ha ha!
It ended up we had to get another crane up the hill and do a tandem lift for the gear box and motors, which were much heavier than estimated and at quite a reach for the crane.  It took a number of weeks to get a day when the wind dropped to a safe level to remove the large bits of the structure. 
We had to get in a JCB rock breaker to chip away the last of the concrete base which seemed to be particularly tough, bomb proof they said.  Made from special stone shipped in from near Inverness, and a serious lot of reinforcing.  Whether that was true or not it was a tough pick even for the JCB rock breaker, our pneumatic windipicks were of no use. We took the whole structure down and left the place with a clean concrete base.
The centre pipe went to Uyeasound where someone was hoping to use the sections to build a bit of a pier - not sure if he did or not.  We got a few folk looking to scran stuff but the wave guides and a lot of the materials were some fancy alloys that did not cut easily (Note: up in Shetland Scran means to acquire cast-off materials, unlike some parts where it's another word for food - particularly in the Royal Navy)
We stayed with Nancy Hughson at Ordale and were extremely well catered for, and all put on a fair bit of weight!  Never seen grub like it. A fantastic time we had in Unst a very memorable job, got to know the island quite well.  Still one of the most enjoyable summers I have spent, loved it in Unst."
The following pictures all belong to Maurice and they illustrate his summer perfectly:-


I would like to thank Maurice for allowing ne to use his anecdotes and excellent photos. Before finishing, a couple of notes:
 1. One of Maurice's grandparents, Maurice Gould (an accomplished musician), served at RAF Skaw on Unst during WWII. He will be mentioned in a piece I plan to write about the Chain Home radar station.
 2. Maurice Henderson himself is also an accomplished musician and is a member of the well known Shetland group Fiddlers' Bid :