True Story No11

 

High flier? No thanks not me

I was once seconded from the main Liverpool factory to one of our Southern Outposts.

I was away for the best part of a year, Mondays to Fridays, starting sometime in late 1972 until mid 1973.

The place where I worked was called Stoke Park and it used to be a stately home.

We had the floors upstairs whilst on the ground floor was Stoke Poges Golf Club.

Sometimes, on the odd occasion you used it, the lift overshot and you ended up in the golf club restaurant but we normally went to and from work by the back door of the building, where a staircase led directly up to the first floor, so we never mixed with the locals.

My office was on the top floor, probably where the servants used to live, and I could look out over the course, but I never took much notice because we were too busy.

I stayed at a Hotel in Windsor, called "The Hart and Garter", opposite the castle (I believe the place is still there but fashion has dictated a change of name).

Every night I would have either roast duck or fillet steak and this went on for the best part of a year.

We always wined and dined well with our company!

And we were paid extra for working away from home. I think it was something like 20%, and we were re-imbursed for every penny of expenses we spent.

Initially I flew weekly from Liverpool to Heathrow where a Humber Hawk, the company car, would collect me. In the short period I flew on this route there were five incidents.

The first was in a Viscount, the old prop-driven aeroplane. It was dark and we were coming in to land when the Engineer emerged from the cockpit, went to a side locker and fished out a torch. I was sitting in a seat by the starboard wing and he leaned over me and shone his torch out the window. "Can you see a little peg sticking up about there", he said, waving his torch at an area roughly above where the wheel was. "I think so", I said. "Jolly good", he replied, "That means the wheel's down and locked" and he went back, presumably to give the pilot the good news. We landed normally.

The second incident was on a similar plane at roughly the same point on our flight. The Engineer dug around in a locker and produced something that looked like a starting handle. He rolled back the carpet, opened a flap in the floor, poked in the starting handle and proceeded to turn it, occasionally looking up at the bemused passengers and grinning. When he'd finished, he muttered something about winding down the flaps, and we landed and all was well.

The third incident was when we were on our final approach in a BAC111. The cockpit door opened and the Engineer said we were landing at Hawarden to check something before continuing to Liverpool. As this was only a few miles further I can only presume they didn't want to mess up the main runway there! Behind him I saw the instrument panel had lots of red lights. We landed on a very short runway and after a few minutes a large vehicle arrived and a heavy cable was plugged into the aircraft. Through the open cockpit door you could see flashing lights. Finally the pilot announced that he'd had an instrument panel fault but it was really nothing. We took off and landed normally at Liverpool about 20 minutes late.

The fourth problem wasn't that serious. They just couldn't start one of the engines. They tried a couple of times then told us all to get off. After a lot of mechanics had been fiddling he eventually got the engine going. He later explained in a rather garbled way that he wasn't allowed to keep trying to get the engine going. If it didn't work on the second attempt we had to leave the plane and it had to be looked at. It wasn't very re-assuring and we were very late leaving. When we arrived over Heathrow we had to go round and round for ages before we could land. I thought we'd run out of petrol.

The fifth incident was going the other way in a BAC111. Over Birmingham a stewardess came to the back of the aircraft where I was sitting with a colleague. She leaned over and asked Bill, who was in the window seat, in a whisper, if he'd heard anything odd. "Yes he said", very laid back, (he was always laid back about everything; I think it's because he always got up very early and did Canadian Army Exercises), "Come to think of it, there was a bit of a bang from outside and I think the engine stopped". "Oh", she said, "We wondered about that because the pilot thinks the engine might have stopped too". And she went back. The pilot came on the speakers a moment later and said an engine had stopped and we were proceeding to London because we'd gone more than halfway. There was nothing to worry about because the aeroplane was designed to fly on one engine. And it did but at this point, December 1971, I decided, in future if there was an option, to travel by road.

I had saved enough money to buy a new car, and as it had just won the RAC rally, I settled on a Saab 96 for which I paid the princely sum of £1,072, so then I drove down every Monday morning and drove back every Friday afternoon.

We were working on a competitive study for a major Military Project that involved lots of computers for the British Army. As the system was to be implemented many years in the future I couldn't propose the use of any existing hardware. "Find out what will be around", said my boss, "Contact the main manufacturers and see what they've got planned in five years". Typically I did this by ringing up the switchboard of one of the computer companies, such as Ferranti, and asking to be put through to their "Computer Design Department", but not the boss. I then managed to find a design engineer who would be willing to talk about their company's plans. I never had any trouble. No-one ever bothered to check who I was or appeared to worry about confidentiality. I discovered details of all the military computers that were on the drawing boards of the various companies, and even, in two or three instances, made an appointment to visit a firm and actually see prototype hardware.

Of course we had a hidden agenda. Our company was also developing a military computer and it was this we wished to sell to MoD. Details of our competitors' computers were needed so we could explain how much better ours was.

The ploy worked and we ended up winning the contract on the basis of the strengths our own computer and the weaknesses of theirs.

Strangely, once we had started detailed design many years later, the boss of the largest Defence Company in the UK managed to oust our machine and substitute his own. I never understood how he did this because I don't understand politics.

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