Member Story: Colin Blobel, Retiring member, Bureau of Meterology, Vic

Storm front
When I started training, 150 Lonsdale Street still had a tea lady who visited every floor at morning smoko (and it really was a smoko).
Colin Blobel, Retiring member
Bureau of Meterology, Vic

Today is my last day with the Bureau after 31 years of observing. I’ve crunched the 54/11 numbers and it provides me with an opportunity I’d be crazy to pass up on.

If it wasn’t for 54/11 I would continue working however the timing of my departure is probably quite good given the uncertainty that observers are now facing about their futures. I remember when I joined I was told we’d have about 5 years before we became redundant. We’ve managed to move with the times but I think that 5 year figure may be closer to reality now.

When I joined the Bureau in 1984 on Observer course No. 69 weather observing was a different game to what it is now. The whole Bureau was. I’m only a spring chicken compared to some who’ve worked with the Bureau for over 40 years but I have seen a total transformation in the way we do things in just my time.

When I started training 150 Lonsdale St still had a tea lady who visited every floor at morning smoko (and it really was a smoko). Everything was done manually. Old Phillips radiosonde transmissions were received on graph paper that inched its way continuously out of a big black cabinet. You couldn’t pause the papers progress so if you couldn’t keep up with it then you were in trouble. Pencils and rulers were kings and level selections were pushed to the criteria limits in order to keep up. We were still taught how to use slide rules to calculate wind flights on our training course. Those big slide rules were quite cumbersome to use inside a WF2 radar but luckily the first calculators were brought into use by the time I hit the field so I never had to use one for real.

My first posting was to Darwin RFC and the famous Darwin plotting desk. What a baptism of fire that was. Four poor sods all in a row plotting furiously before the next pile of telexed obs were shoved through the window by the Comms Officers next door. As well as having to deal with hand plotters RSI you also had to put up with the smoke from Charles Prince’s pipe which he had constantly on the go. In this day and age it’s hard to imagine an office where you could legally smoke but that’s the way it was until I guess the late 80’s.

I saw a few fresh faced Mets arrive in Darwin RFC straight off training course and without naming them a couple are now high up in the executive level. Meanwhile I’m still a TO2 Observer at a field observing office. Needless to say progressing up the ranks wasn’t high on my priority list. Life experiences and remote postings were and I was lucky enough to work at all the Antarctic stations and Giles and Willis Island numerous times during my career.

I was very lucky to be in the right spot at the right time in ’97 when the big spill occurred and was fortunate to get one of the prized Perth Airport postings. Having grown up in Victoria I always wanted to get back to the east coast sometime and it took 20 years before I was able to get one of the tightly held postings at Melbourne Airport in 2006. I’ve been there ever since apart from a stint in NMOC and some Giles and Willis Island postings.

When I was hand plotting in Darwin they told us about a new plotting machine that wasn’t far away. It was hard to imagine a machine that could possibly plot all those little squiggly figures that we painstakingly drew. I arrived back in Darwin from Casey in ’88 to watch in awe the AROS plotter do its thing. It could plot the international gradient wind chart in 35 minutes when it had taken us 4 hours of solid hand plotting to complete. From that point on computers were introduced in the field and today we take it for granted what they can do. Level selection and manual coding that took us an hour can now be done with a few clicks of a mouse. It has made our job a lot easier and I’m sure every observer appreciates that until power is lost and the feeling of panic sets in when you realise you can’t do anything. Thank god for UPS's.

So I come to my last day at Melbourne Airport and it’s quite appropriate that I’m here on my own because that’s the way it’s been for most of my career. You have to enjoy your own company as a weather observer. The television and the radio in the office become the observer's friend. Night shifts are particularly difficult so the advent of 'Rage' on the ABC on Friday nights in 1987 was a boon to all those shift workers trying to stay awake. It's quite amazing to think that 'Rage' has been on air almost as long as my career and is still going strong.

I’ve ridden my last shift and have avoided running into that security officer for the last time who has a problem with bicycles being ridden airside at YMML. I’ll miss the rides but maybe not after night shifts and so ridiculously early in the mornings on day shifts during the cold and darkness of a Melbourne winter. I also won't miss the traffic jams on the Ring road when I chose to drive.

I won't miss Metars and particularly Specis! I've got to admit I've led a charmed life with mostly good weather on night shifts but in my last few shifts I've had some doozies. I had a funnel cloud sighted at Melbourne Airport that I apparently missed because I was too busy inside sending Specis by the minute and my second last night shift had some of the most spectacular lightning seen in Melbourne for some time from high based storms.

30 years of night shifts is enough for the body to take and I look forward to getting into a more regular pattern of sleeping. All the studies published about the harm shift work does to the body are concerning and I hope it doesn't come back to bite me in the future. No matter how much preparation sleep you get before a night shift, the human body is just not designed to be awake all night and they are tough to get through. I also look forward to being able to participate in regular team sports and activities which shift work makes difficult.

I bid all my friends farewell in the Bureau but I certainly hope to keep in touch with as many as possible. I wish all observers in the field the best and hope that the current negotiations especially for those in remote localities result in a better outcome than it currently appears. It would be nice if my departure opens up a vacancy for someone trying to get back to a capital city posting.

Cheers, Col