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THE MIGHTY BENDERS OF SPANNERS : tales from a hill in Hampshire

Not many airline stories get written by personnel managers, so this could be a first.

Established in 1954, until its acquisition by FLS Aerospace in 1991, Dan-Air Engineering, headquartered at Lasham in Hampshire, was one half of the twin heart-beats of Britain’s biggest independent and second largest airline.

From 1975 to 1977 I was Lasham’s first Personnel Manager. Two-and-a-half years may not seem like a long time, but one year at this fascinating, friendly, frustrating, parsimonious, chaotic and incredibly hard-working company was like five years experience anywhere else.

In January 1975, as the stock-market sank to its lowest-ever level, post oil-crisis gloom swept Britain the same way that horizontal rain lashed the concrete hardstandings as I was led into the main T2 hangar on the Hampshire plateau by Harry Tait, the Production Manager. It was my first day.

In front of me was a Boeing 727-100 series looking definitely down-at-heel. This was G-BAEF which, a few months previously, had demonstrated its affinity for Luton Airport by taking most of the approach lighting and the localiser array with it on take-off.

A rolling start at 0700 on the short downhill runway with the wrong EPR and a tailwind had not really been the recipe for flying speed by the end of the piano keys.  ‘EF disappeared into the valley and the ATC hit the Crash button, certain of impending disaster. The Upholstery shift at Vauxhall Motors, no doubt stitching HB Viva seats in cirrhosis red vinyl, looked up to see the blurred outline of one of Seattle’s finest much closer than expected and shaking the rats out of the glass workshop roof.

It was a close call: ‘EF had a rather fetching 4-foot gash in the keel of the pressure hull, and a severely-battered undercarriage. Harry mentioned that we had given Luton their radar back  -   by now in CKD form.

Harry Tait and the rest of the hangar team weren’t entirely sure they needed a Personnel Manager, but as long as I did no active damage, there was every chance I would be tolerated.  I did not then know the difference between a Boeing 707, 727 and 737. I had to learn fast.

I was taking on bits and pieces of work previously carried out by the heavy-set, incorruptible and perpetually tweed-clad Brummie, Arthur Beeton, who also doubled as Air Traffic Controller. Arthur’s priority was, not surprisingly, the ATC side of his duties and many an interviewee had been left in limbo while Arthur charged over to a tiny shed containing an approach radar set of such antiquity and unreliability that only he could interpret the muddy flickers on the tiny CRT.

To sit behind Arthur while he guided in a Canadair CL-44 flying on three engines (the RR Tynes were a byword for unserviceability at the time) was to be transported back to Ventnor’s Chain Home radar during the Battle of Britain. A wobbly green horizontal baseline gave an occasional flicker : Arthur, whose voice had only one volume-setting  -  foghorn  -  gave forth :  “Whisky Papa yowr roight uv centreline”, while the aircrew grappled with the idiosyncratic S-line approach which avoided the country mansions of two High Court judges who were prone to vexatious litigating complaint every time we landed one on.

Arthur had bequeathed me two of his prized possessions  -  first, a secretary of such stupendous passivity that she looked as if she needed a reminder to breathe regularly, and his collection of ten years back-issues of ‘Flight’ magazine which I read at home avidly. Very soon, in possession of this surrogate knowledge, I could hold my own in any conversation about Check Ds on a 707-321C, providing no-one asked me a question. I was on my way to becoming a Roger Bacon-certified Total Aviation Person.

One week after starting, I came in bright and cheery on the Monday : my boss, Ted Evans, Administrative Director, possessed of the then-fashionable Colin Chapman-style pencil moustache, viewed me quizzically. “Where were you on Saturday ?” Thinking this was the opening shot in a sociable exchange, I described mind-bendingly boring trips to Sainsbury, Mothercare and Halfords in Basingstoke.  Life didn’t get much better than that in the dreary Seventies. Ted looked unimpressed :   “ We work on Saturdays”  he said with a laser-like stare and stalked off. I was chastened, and after that DAE became a 6-day a week job.

Lasham Airfield had been built in 1942 to home Mosquito and Typhoon squadrons on intruder duty. With the usual triangular runway layout, the main runway (09/27) is 5,700 feet (1790 m) long : to the south of the main runway is the old DAE base, surrounded by a network of pan shaped hardstandings. DAE shared a wary, sometimes quarrelsome, relationship with Lasham Gliding Society, from whom it sub-let the site.

In my first few weeks, as the almost perpetual rain gradually let-up and I explored the perimeter, it became obvious that whoever owned Dan-Air had developed a serious DH Comet habit. Doing a tot-up later, it appeared that Dan-Air at one time or another possessed 44 Comet 4s of various marques. There were at least two dozen airworthy or otherwise at Lasham at any time I was there.

Whereas the take-off runs of Dan-Air’s two B707s were mostly a bit marginal, those of the DH Comet, vastly over-powered with four RR Avons, were always a treat. The noise was stupendous, so much so that complaints would flow like a babbling brook whenever there were a departure or late engine runs. The most complaints we ever received was when we flattened the eulogy at Monty’s funeral nearby : Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, war-hero and world-class egotist lived closer to Lasham than Alton. Finally, in 1976 he went to meet the Reaper: his funeral was to be attended by an enormous crew of the Great and the Good (some of whom just wanted to make sure he’d definitively gone).

Unfortunately for the somewhat feeble-voiced vicar, hangar foreman Pete Stansfield had authorised Comet engine runs for final certification before re-entering service. After all, the aircrew lurking outside my office were running out of duty-hours and 110 pax at Gatwick had already been delayed since early morning. We didn’t go in for engine-mufflers at Lasham, just a high earth bank which had been eroded from its original 20-foot height to about 15-ft over the years.

Four Avons at cruising power make a happy song and while bits of the deflector bank pelted toward any glider getting too close, the padre was hard at it on the encomium. Little was heard above the din and back at Lasham the fan was prepared for ordure service.

Poor old Pete got it in the neck, mainly because DAE Managing Director Bryn Williams had an uncomfortable phone call from Chairman Fred Newman (ex-Guards, decorated with an MC and authentic hero) with whom one of his old Regimental chums had lodged a fizzer. It was Confined to Barracks and bread-and-water only for Pete until the congregation cooled down.

Bryn Williams, in his late-fifties at that time, was a peppery florid-faced white-haired Welshman who was a Berlin Airlift veteran. Men screamed and women turned pale at his approach. He was hard, and a bollocking from Bryn was typically in the megaton range, not to be forgotten.

He was a Halton apprentice who, when his squadron was over-run by the Wehrmacht, had escaped by bundling himself into the equipment bay of one of the squadron’s aircraft. After the war, demobbed, he got a job working for AVM Bennett on Avro Tudors in the Airlift. Even Bryn described Don Bennett as tough which probably signified 5000 on the Brinell scale. After the fatal Avro Tudor crash at Llandow, Bennett got Bryn to recover all the blood-stained life-jackets from the wreck to put them back into service : “So what ? they’re under the seat  -  no-one will notice”.

DAE had a permanent base at Berlin-Tegel during the era when only aircraft of the Four Powers could fly in and out of Berlin. Holiday charters with two B727s were extraordinarily lucrative, and one day Bryn announced that we were going to Berlin to re-negotiate pay-rates with the local engineers.

To someone like me, whose teenage reading diet had been Len Deighton and John le Carre, Berlin in the 1970s was impossibly glamorous.  One evening, pay negotiations settled to everyone’s satisfaction, Bryn decided I should be shown the night-sights. West Berlin was pretty much moribund at 2100 hrs, but livelier than a bucket of maggots at 0100. The ambience was showy and seedy, serious and superficial but loaded with history and a slightly pop-eyed suppressed hysteria . It was  -  and is - a wonderful place to visit and my favourite European city.

The places Bryn knew were all ex-Airlift joints  -  cellar bars and villainous haunts. Every place we visited some tousled old bat would surge out of the gloom and plant a smothering kiss on Bryn’s rosy cheeks. When Bryn was happy, his moustache would twitch and he never seemed happier than when enveloped in the smoky gloom of some Ku’damm dive.

The Tegel Base Engineer, John Beech, I think, used to take me to see the tourist sights, (The Wall, Reichstag etc) and talk about the Berlin Blues. He had a few expat Brit aircraft engineers among the locals and these men would bank their salary at home and live in Berlin off the per diem Allowance, eating left-over flight catering and staring at the wall of their Dan-Air flat, never setting a foot outside apart from going to work. This in the middle of the liveliest piece of real estate for 500 miles in any direction . No wonder they got the Berlin Blues : every so often I would ship them home for rehab, never to return.

John himself at least got out a bit, but like most of his Base Engineer compatriots, a world-weary aura of impending doom surrounded him. This was Dan-Air and he was never given remotely enough investment to do a good job. It was, like Lasham and elsewhere, endless make-do-and-mend : he had been doing so much for so for so long with so little, that he was told to do everything forever for nothing. He had The Grim. It went with the job.

A day later I was back in my office at Lasham, tastefully furnished with surplus triple seats from some long-forgotten cabin refurb. Bryn and Ted Evans had some luxury leather triples inherited from the BOAC Comets, but apart from the seat behind your desk, every seat at Lasham came in threes.

The buildings were all huts  -  Nissen, Quonset or Maycrete I did not know, but all left over from service use. We never rose to the luxury of portakabins at Lasham, and when we acquired one from a Police murder enquiry on opening the HS 748 maintenance base at Manchester Airport we marvelled how weatherproof it was and how the windows and doors fitted properly.

Sitting opposite me was the newly-recruited Roy Philips, our replacement Production Manager, ex-BEA and late of Court Line where he had been Technical Director. Later he would move to Air Europe with Dan-Air’s Errol Cossey and Martin O’Regan where the mercurial and unpredictable Harry Goodman eventually -  much to Roy’s surprise  -  made him Managing Director.

Roy possessed a fine line in self-deprecating irony. “You know”, he said, “when I was at Luton with Court, I would look out the window at our brand-new DC 10s and say ‘if there was only one job left in the world and it was at Dan-Air, I’d turn it down’.”

“So here I am”. Court Line’s demise and the recession gave him little choice.

Roy had been recruited by Ted Evans to shake up the hangar operation, always victim of bad planning, always running behind schedule, always over-committed and under-resourced. Mild-mannered Harry Tait had been gently shunted into a Planning job, possibly an even worse billet than the one he had relinquished. Roy was now in charge, a tall and authoritative figure. He knew his stuff.

I took him round the hangers. In the oldest T2, there was a large circular hole in the scarred concrete , plugged by an enormous pole sawn off flush with the floor. In the infamous winter of 1947/48 the hangar had been rented for close-season stabling by Billy Smart’s circus and elephants had reputedly been tethered to the pole in the middle of the T2. Roy looked round at aircraft engineers swarming over a particularly shabby Comet 4, probably recognising some faces from Luton and elsewhere. Certainly, a few characters were avoiding direct eye contact and his arrival that morning was clearly about as welcome as a cockroach on the collecting plate.

“Billy Smart ?” said Roy, absorbing the item of trivia I’d just fed him, “It Iooks like he left a few of the clowns behind ….”

While Roy Philips was sorting out the hangar throughput, Ted Evans would be scouring the underworld of third-level cargo carriers and airlines for contract work to spread Lasham’s costs. Mike Bishop, British Midland’s Managing Director when it was still mainly owned by Minster Assets, was a frequent visitor, dickering endlessly over price and rarely giving us business. More often than not, the sole proprietor and Chief Pilot of some bush-bashing Swiss tramp operator would turn up with a CL-44 and a holdall full of dollars for an oil and igniter change. Occasionally the dollars required vis-a-vis the work done on the aircraft would not quite be co-ordinated, at which point   -  spattering paint-scorching profanity at the clouds  -  DAE’s Transport Foreman, Frank Turk, would back up a Morris 1000 van in front of the aircraft and an ancient truck behind, blockading it until the cash miraculously appeared.

At last light one evening, when the rest of Britain was watching the final desperate US withdrawal from Saigon on the TV news, a World Airways Boeing 727 bulleted into Lasham barely under control and obviously lacking some essential flight authority from the vertical and horizontal stabilisers. A hangar had already been cleared, and the 727 was behind closed doors in just a few minutes, engines crackling as they cooled.

The pilot and Airline President, a weather-beaten 50-something year-old, assured us that our engineers could ship their ass outa there, as a team from Boeing would be on the spot shortly. No records would be kept, he’d square the FAA (from which we had repair-station certification that we could not afford to lose), and would these lolly-gaggers just git the hell out.

A little later, a surreptitious gang of us accessed the hangar through the Engine Rebuild Bay. Ed Daly’s 727 stood in solitary splendour under a subdued light. The tail empennage sported a number of interesting entry holes and pock-marks that didn’t look much like a Honolulu hoopla welcome, but more probably the less-than-admiring attention of the VietCong. Many hair-raising stories emerged later as to how it had received this damage, almost none of them true. Shortly after, a team of stern-faced Boeing Seattle engineers turned up in half-a-dozen cabs with one man who looked at lot more like a Langley, Virginia, East Coast resident than the North-West Coast crew. He definitely didn’t lift a spanner, but very possibly packed a tool.

Speed and secrecy was of the essence, and when the repair schedule had been completed in short order a crew turned up ready to fly their bird. Arthur processed to his radar apparatus.  Suddenly he halted : where was the fire-crew? To comply with airfield licensing, Lasham had its own fire-engine and crew. Being Dan-Air, the vehicle was an antediluvian ex-WD Bedford not far off qualified to be an entrant on the Historic Commercial Vehicle London-to-Brighton Run.

Never normally known for running more than two miles without a breakdown, on this day the fire-truck had set off at dawn for a stately trundle to Chairman Fred Newman’s country house to fill his swimming-pool. It had not returned. No truck, no take-off.

Everyone hid except Arthur. Our American chums ran the spectrum from disbelief and nonpluss to window-putty loosening fury in a commendably short period. Even Arthur’s stolid tweeds were no defence. Eventually, struck by the obvious distress of the pilots, Arthur rang the Alton Fire Brigade who viewed crewing a foam-truck as a welcome change from rescuing old ladies up trees.

Trailing a nitric cloud of frankly-expressed opinion about Lasham, Dan-Air, goddam England, moral bankruptcy and the Empire, our friends departed. Silence and the oppressive summer heat settled on the Lasham hilltop as the E & I engineers dossed out under a shady wing for some Egyptian PT.  Now was no time to jeopardise the anticipated weekend’s overtime pay.

After a year or so, a gradual hangar concensus emerged that I had completed my apprenticeship and earned the passing-out parade. A conversation with the engineers would no longer commence with one of them dropping a heavy wrench on my foot. I started to think about what a grown-up airline might look like. BCAL  -  now that sounded promising.

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