Legacy project: adapting

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Zachary Bumpus
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs
Nearly 50 years ago RAF Alconbury, United Kingdom, was a very different place. RF-4C reconnaissance planes took off at a blistering tempo and the Cold War was in full swing.

Today the flightline has long been silent, and one of the last links from that era has retired.

Philip Shailer, of the 423rd Civil Engineer Squadron, sat behind his desk, surrounded by the trappings collected over his years of service and the numerous files needed to keep the base running smoothly. With the hint of a smile crossing his lips, he began to recall his time at RAF Alconbury.

"I first started working on RAF Alconbury in September of 1968," said Shailer. "There have been so many changes to the base. You always have to be able to adapt to change. If you aren't prepared to adapt you can't do your job."

After more than 47 years of service Shailer's time as an electrician on RAF Alconbury has come to a close. His memories of time gone by serve as evidence of the truth in his advice.

"Coming to terms with the closure of the Northside in '95 was tough," said Shailer. "At the time, I was in charge of the personnel that looked after the maintenance of the airfield and all of the hardened facilities and shelters on that side. When they announced the closure of that side, I had to accept the fact that everything we worked on would change."

As the Northside drew down and the mission of the base changed, Shailer was left with responsibilities far different from what he had grown accustomed too, as well as the challenge of guiding his workers into their new positions.

"Once we moved over, my role was technically the same," said Shailer. "I was still looking after a group of trades persons, to maintain the buildings and the infrastructure, but the type of buildings had changed. We were doing airfield lighting and hardened facilities, now we were looking after offices, warehouses, shops, the cinema, the chapel. The principle was the same but you had to adapt because the work requirements were different."

Not every challenge Shailer would face would be about the kind of work he performed however.

"The worst day I had while working here was when we had a death of one of our electricians on site," said Shailer. "He went to building 562 where they were putting in an additional outlet. We don't know what really happened but he left to go get something and then went back, and whether he didn't fully check, or what happened, he cut into the wire again without realizing it was live. He couldn't let go and it killed him."

Shailer leaned back in his chair, as though recalling the details of that day still weighed heavily on him.

"March 2nd marked 10 years since it happened," said Shailer, his voice tired and soft. "I think you have to be aware of it, how just a simple job can turn out to be dangerous when you're working with electricity, be extremely mindful of that, but just carry on working. Continue to do your job and make sure that everybody else does theirs correctly to stay safe."

He paused a moment before speaking again.

"I don't think there's any other way to cope," said Shailer. "If you keep thinking about it you'd never get over it. You've got to try to, not forget it, but put it to the back of your mind. That's really the only way of dealing with it."

Pushing through adversity and adapting to his circumstances has been a theme for Shailer since before he even considered a career as an electrician.

"I never really wanted to be an electrician," said Shailer with a small smile, returning. "I wanted to be an artist. I'd been offered a position at the arts college at Cambridge, where I wanted to study to be a commercial artist. Basically, I was unlucky. I lost my father on my 15th birthday, so when I finished school I really needed to find a job to help out with my mother and two younger brothers. Family pressure said I'd be better off getting a trade because they didn't think there was a future in commercial arts. I became an electrician and the rest is history."

Smiling as he glanced over the small doodles that covered his desk, his contentment with his career seemed to have an aftertaste of what could have been.

"I think I'll always have some degree of regret because I don't know whether I would have been a successful artist or not," said Shailer. "But I just looked forward and made the most of the career that I got."