Geoff in the cockpit of the Comet
Blog 05/04/2019 Achievements

My life in aircraft engineering...and the beauty of Concorde

By Geoff, an Anchor Hanover customer

Sitting here at the age of 93, and what is also the 50th anniversary year of Concorde, I think it’s safe to say that the aircraft industry has always been in my blood in one way or another. It touched my life in a hugely sad way when I was a young man, and in much happier ways later on as I progressed through the years.

Beginnings

I was born in Luton in 1926. I had one sibling, my brother Brian who was 18 months older than me. Like many children, we loved making model aeroplanes. Brian and I made a set of the ones we had built and took photos of them. Here’s one of them:

When we went to get the film roll developed, the shop owner questioned what we were doing with photos of aircraft. We had quite a job explaining to him that they weren’t real planes. We must have made a really good job of that set!

After leaving grammar school in 1943, I took an apprenticeship at Percival Aircraft in Luton. Within nine months I had “taken the King’s Shilling” and volunteered as air crew with the RAF. I was accepted and thought I was on my way to active duty in WWII – until I was promptly told to go back to my civilian job and wait to be called up when they needed me. Beyond my job at Percivals I was a messenger for the Luton Air Raid Precautions Scheme. Messengers travelled around on bicycles and were trained in anti-gas measures, elementary methods against H.E. bombs, and incendiary bomb control.

Meanwhile, my brother was on active service in the war as a Rear Gunner in 576 Squadron. On the night of 14 January 1944, their Lancaster plane was blown up in mid-air by a German fighter plane. The pilot and flight engineer were thrown clear and parachuted to earth. They spent the rest of the war as prisoners. The aircraft and the remaining five crew members crashed at Kollerbeck, a village in northern Germany. There were no survivors. And thus my parents tragically lost their first born child, and I, my only sibling. I was to return to look in detail at the events of that night much later in life.

Building blocks

The war ended before the call-up came for me, and I was discharged. So on I went with my apprenticeship. However, in 1946 I was called up for national service and, of course, I jumped at the chance to apply for the RAF. I was delighted to be accepted as an aircraft fitter. Here I am doing one of my daily checks of the Spitfire MK-19:

At the end of my national service in 1948, I went back to work at Percival Aircraft. The following year I got married and started working in the family grocery business. But I wasn’t really cut out for it, and in 1951 I joined Eagle Aviation for a couple of years. In 1953 I went back to Percival Aircraft, where I was part of a working party going around modifying aircraft that the company had built for the RAF.

British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC)

In 1955 I joined BOAC (later to become British Airways). I was working on the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, a lovely, solid “double bubble” aircraft. It had seats and bunks on the top deck, and stairs down to a lower lounge with a cocktail bar. There are some lovely old black and white photos online of the exterior and the  interior. The family in front of the Stratocruiser below are my wife and two children, and my brother-in-law and his wife.

In 1957 I began working on the Comet. My knowledge had really grown by this time due to my experience with older wooden aircraft and the newer metal planes.

But my overriding ambition had always been to get my Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) aircraft maintenance (airframe and engine) licence. This basically entitled you as an engineer to sign an aircraft out for serviceability. Without this sign-off, an aircraft wasn't allowed to fly. The licence involved a very difficult exam, followed by an interview with a CAA surveyor, a person who carried a great deal of authority. And what a grilling it was, covering the airframes and engines of the Comet, the De Havilland 106 and the Vickers VC10. But I passed and was thrilled to finally be awarded the licence I had dreamed of since I was young.

In 1966 I was seconded to Singapore to train local staff in the maintenance of the Comet. I stayed there for four very enjoyable years. I was part of what they called a “crash gang”. We would go to work with just a briefcase, a camera and a change of underwear because we could be sent to another country at any time and at very short notice (sometimes within the hour). This was the last Comet to leave Singapore, in 1969:

I remember one highly unusual incident at Singapore airport. A colleague came in and quite casually said to me: “There’s a plane outside on the tarmac. Can you go and pick it up and bring it back to the hangar?” When I got there, I could hardly believe my eyes. The plane had been taxiing away from the stand towards the runway when its nose suddenly fell forward onto the ground. And there it stayed, absolutely stuck. We had to evacuate the passengers and defuel straightaway. The man in the foreground in the second photo is me, taking stock and working out how to solve the conundrum.

          

We did manage to get the plane back into the hangar, but then had to wait for a special repair manual to be written by the manufacturers as they had never seen such a thing happen before. The incident made it into Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper.

The birth of Concorde

I remember how the idea of Concorde grew and took shape over time. It was developed with the help of other makers of triangular aircraft, such as Farers. Funding to keep the project going was a key problem. At the time, Rt Hon Tony Benn was MP for Bristol and Minister for Technology. Since many of his constituents worked for companies involved in Concorde, he was directly involved in keeping the project going. A link-up with the French led to the signature of an Anglo-French treaty on 29 November 1962 and from this partnership, Concorde was born.

I went back to work at Heathrow in 1970. I was working on the VC10 because British Airways were no longer using the Comet. Then one day they asked me if I’d like to train in Concorde. Can you imagine? I was over the moon. There were three courses to complete, each lasting six weeks. We stayed in a hotel and each day were taught the many complex aspects of Concorde - hydraulics, wheels, tyres, brakes, structure and so on.

During the training course we lived, breathed and dreamed Concorde all the time.

Geoff

The engine selected for Concorde was incredible: the huge Rolls Royce Olympus that had been used in the V-Bomber during WWII. As the Olympus had been built for subsonic flight (that is, with normal airspeeds going into the engine), the designers had to make a device that would be able to cope with the significant change in air density that comes with supersonic speeds.

In the evenings we'd drive to a pub for our evening meal and chat about the day’s training, and any information we had struggled to understand. But not so for one ex-apprentice in our group, whose father was a managerial engineer. This exceptionally bright young 24-year-old would sit and patiently explain the complexities of the day’s training to our group of forty-plus-year-olds. I’m proud to say that I passed the courses successfully – and now it was time to put the theory into practice.

It was mandatory to spend lots of time in the hangar where various parts of the aircraft were being designed and tested. There were huge rigs, each one the size of a room, for testing technology such as ducts and the famous “droop snoot” nose:

 

The design engineers had various specialisms, such as hydraulics, pneumatics and so on, and were all very nice to us. They were the “boffin boys” - I guess today we'd call them “whizz kids”.

With a cruising speed of 1,654 mph and the ability to outfly a fighter jet, Concorde generated huge levels of excitement, with huge crowds turning out to see it wherever it went.

Geoff

Concorde took its first flight on 2 March 1969. From a maintenance point of view, it was a technically demanding aircraft, requiring three senior supervisors to check the airframe, engine and electronics. Each senior supervisor was in charge of a crew of five. We all wore white overalls, but as senior supervisors we also had to wear a special cap and display our gold bars on our lapels. This came about at the request of senior staff who needed to identify us easily when they came to the hangar with specific questions. This is me today, having some fun wearing my Concorde tie and displaying my gold bars on my jacket!

My crew hadn’t done the Concorde courses that I had taken and instead were sent to Fairford for their training. Ironically, as this was where the test flights took off from, they all got to fly in Concorde, whereas I - being based in Bristol - never actually got to fly in it...ever. I did get to sit in the cockpit a lot though!

I worked nights and lived in Camberley near Heathrow. When Concorde flew into Heathrow at 9pm each evening, this was basically my alarm clock to get ready for work. We always had quite a wait for the aircraft to be brought to the hangar, due to the tight security around the “Queen of the Fleet”. It was our duty as senior engineers to discuss with the captain whether there had been any problems during the flight, and to agree any work that needed to be done.

We would then spend the entire night working on what could be described as a sort of highly technical “MOT” to turn the aircraft around for its flight the next day. In modern aircraft today everything is computerised, but back then you really had to know the system and document so much information by hand. Here’s one of my notebooks:

    

Just imagine: the information that would have taken up a whole rack of aircraft black boxes to store back then, could probably fit into your average smartphone today.

I love this photo of my wife Thelma at the controls (but not in flight!) on a visit during my night shift:

Beyond British Airways

I left British Airways in 1978 and moved to Cromer to join Air Anglia in Norwich. At first I was working on the Dutch Fokker friendship aircraft. Later on I was put in charge of the Embraer EMB 110 Bandeirante, a light transport plane that had been designed for Brazil and took its first flight in 1968. It carried between 15 and 21 passengers and was used for both civil and military flight. Photos of the Bandeirante can be found online here.

Air Anglia had a contract with Shell and asked me if I’d like to go to Borneo for eight months. Well, I said yes of course, especially as they allowed my wife to come along. I was the only engineer there, and the crew would fly the workers down to Shell’s oil platform and then fly back with the workers who were coming off for their break.

One day the crew invited me to fly to the oil platform with them. They sat me on the flight deck. It was very exciting because we were flying over the jungle of Borneo. 

Onwards into retirement

After spending a very enjoyable 12 years with Air Anglia, I decided to take early retirement in 1990.

After I retired, I decided to research what had happened that fateful night of my brother’s death in 1944. This turned out to be a huge project. My parents had always kept my brother’s diaries and letters, and after 12 years of research (including locating and visiting the graves of the crew in Germany) I documented the events in an illustrated book. I wanted to pay tribute to my brother and to the bravery of 576 Squadron. My son and daughter were a great help to me with this project.

I’m so lucky to have had such an inspiring career in aircraft engineering and to have been a part of the sheer technical beauty that was Concorde. I was very sad to see it decommissioned, but with the running costs, high fares (£8,000 New York-London return), plus the arrival of the Boeing 747, it was ultimately destined to become unsustainable as a commercial passenger jet.

When people ask me what I think of the future of air travel today, I always say that the supersonic stuff has gone – although I hear there are some start-up companies that want to bring it back. In any event, I remain as fascinated as ever by the genius of flight, and by what is to come next.