True Story No15

 

Your TV's OK, how's the Air Defence System?

At one time Africa was going through a period of unrest, you might say. Anyway a couple or more countries were looking to improve their defence capability and had put out a Request for Tender for the supply of Air Defence Radars.

After lots of head scratching and a lot of clever things being written, proposals were issued to the two potential customers.

After all we had this fantastic new radar on the drawing board and this would do admirably, if it worked!

Proposals of this kind tended to be long-term things and not thought of as being that imminent by the Marketing Department. Perhaps the mere threat of getting such a facility put would-be aggressors off, and for the aggressed, a kind of insurance. It came as a bit of a surprise then, when not only one, but two countries in Africa suddenly decided to go ahead, and not only that, but confirmatory telexes from both arrived on the very same day.

Panic struck the Company and people, who were normally quite reserved, started running around like headless chickens.

To start off with, it was not that easy to find a couple of hundred people to staff a major project, because everyone was ostensibly busy (otherwise they'd have been made redundant), and to staff two projects was well nigh impossible… not to mention the fact that we hadn't tried out the radar properly.

The two jobs had to be aligned in some way.

The 3-D radar definitely needed developing.

The communications systems were also just paper ideas and needed specifying in detail, designing and breadboarding before manufacturing drawings could be produced, but as each customer wanted both of these, the obvious thing to do was design a common radar and a common communications system that would do for both.

There were difficulties. One country had been allied to the Eastern Block; the other to the West.

Their standards were different; one wanted the systems to be fitted into Russian Standard Containers; the other into British Standard Containers. The reason being; handling equipment and aircraft were designed for carrying specific container sizes and not only were the latter to be collected, but because the requirement was for mobile equipment, they had to be deployed by the countries aircraft and lorries.

To add to the difficulty, the containers were to be filled by radios supplied by the customers. Russian types, from one, looking decidedly several generations older, in comparison with the American and Israeli ones supplied by the other.

On the left a bit of "Lion" and on the right a bit of "Rodent"


Although the two jobs were separate, they were run in parallel and not at one factory, but at three, each separated from the others by nearly 200 miles.

There were lots of common bits and, of course two lots of unique bits, and completion dates were roughly the same.

Funnily enough, although Equipment Acceptance dates were only roughly the same, at the end of three years development and manufacturing, fate dictated that the acceptance of the first communications system for one customer was on precisely the same day as that for the other.

It was surely pretty obvious to either group of visitors that something was up as the two communications containers selected for acceptance stood side-by-side on the factory floor. One was painted dark brown and the other desert sand. Although the factory was full of them, fate had dictated that the two containers randomly selected were, of course, adjacent.

As I recall, both groups ignored each other and probably just pretended the other wasn't there.

Both systems were accepted that day and I remember the only glitch was when one customer opened his document, no doubt supplied by QA, to see the words "SYRIA SECRET" across the top of the page. Suffice it to say that neither customer came from anywhere near Syria! They were due next week!

Our site was looking after the communications bits, and the manufacturing and integration of the systems was carried out on the second floor of the factory.

Why was this, when each container weighed more than ten tons and there were dozens of them, surely it would have been simpler to do it on the ground floor?

The problem was their size, each measured over 30 feet long and they needed a lot of manoeuvring to get them all in. The factory, being fairly old, had large pillars to support the floors. Downstairs there were more pillars because they had to support the weight of the four floors above but at each floor the weight got less so there were less pillars.

On the second floor there was just enough space between the pillars to park the containers.

Whenever one was ready for delivery they were all juggled about until it was next to the outside wall. To get the containers in and out we had knocked out some of the windows and a bit of wall and fitted a wind-up door. The City Centre street outside was very narrow, dating back to the 1700s, and we needed a special giant crane to do the lifting.

This was always arranged on a Sunday when this part of the City was deserted.

Suffice it to say; the exercise wouldn't have been possible if the wall of the building, above the first floor, hadn't been set back about ten feet or so. This had been done to preserve the "right of ancient light" for the building opposite. Without this feature the job would have been impossible as it allowed the containers, which came out endways, to be twisted round before being lowered to street level. Although it was a tight fit it worked smoothly and dozens of the things came and went in this way and I don't believe anyone ever noticed.

The local paper had their offices only a stones throw away and to the best of my knowledge they never found out what was going on.

Neither did anyone notice the large foreign aircraft shuttling in and out of Hurn Airport. This was a very quiet airport in those days and it was probably most convenient for the three manufacturing sites involved, although our containers had to travel about 250 miles to get there.

If news had got out about the identity of the customers, there would have been more than a bit of bother!

I was a bit amazed at the time that we'd even got export licenses.

An article appeared in The Mirror the best part of a year after the last delivery of one of the systems but only because an ex-employee spilled the beans..

The projects were known by codewords chosen by the customers; "Rodent" and "Lion" and the former, according to one or two people (collecting their repaired TV sets), and who have since moved to the UK to live, worked OK.

It's a small world isn't it! That was Rodent, all I know about the other was that we got a job a few years later to replace the Russian radios with American ones so that must have been OK as well.

Oh yes I forgot to say, as the theme is computers and I haven't mentioned them yet. We used milititarised PDP11 computers in the containers to handle the comms. We had touch-input MMI and computer controlled reed relay switching matrices to handle radio voice traffic. It wasn't half complicated!

 

Return to stories page