Avro Apprentice

Whilst Mr Ewans was hard at work in the design office, a certain David Thirlby was equally hard at it on the factory floor! The Following is an account of the ‘other end’ of the ladder in Avro’s Woodford complex, birthplace of the mighty delta.

Many thanks to David Thirlby, Thirlby Publicity, Northwich and to Mr. Richard Riding, Aeroplane Monthly, Reed Business Publishing, Sutton, Surrey.

I was born in 1930 , so the formative years of my youth were during the war. I lived with my parents in Warwick Road , Hale, Altrincham, Cheshire, only a stone’s throw away from a notable personality . I did not know at the time how important he was, but I knew he was an aircraft designer at Avro from conversations with his younger daughter, Rosemary.

The man’s name was Roy Chadwick, and very occasionally I used to see him. He once drew me a sketch, so that I could redesign a balsa glider to make it more airworthy. When I was 17, in the run-up for Higher School Certificate, I knew how important a man Roy Chadwick was; but I did not realise his pre-eminence until I read the obituaries following the Avro Tudor 2 crash in August 1947 at Woodford.

My father and his father before him had been farmers, but my stepfather was the managing director of Russell Newbery, diesel engine manufacturers, in Altrincham. I used to enjoy going to the works as a schoolboy on Sunday mornings, when perfect peace reigned. It was impossible to keep my stepfather away from the place.

A significant point in my life was a cocktail party in November 1947 when Mrs Chadwick introduced my mother to Roy Dobson, managing director of A. V. Roe & Co. Ltd. She idly told him that her eldest son was interested in aircraft, and, after making a polite enquiry into my age and education, he said, “The new apprentice year has started, but if he makes the interview then I am sure we can slot him in.”

My mother rang me at Rydal in Colwyn Bay the next morning, a Saturday, and on Monday morning I was in Chadderton for my interview. Years later I was told that the then apprentice supervisor had a telephone call that Monday morning: “Dobson here. There’s a possible new apprentice going to get in touch with you. I don’t know his name, but his parents live in Hale. See him, will you?” I was at the front gate being repulsed from the interview, which my mother had assured me she had set up, when suddenly it seemed it was AOK. I endeavoured to make as good an impression as I could. I gathered I was in.

A. V. Roe as a company was going through a bad patch at the time: the Tudor 1 was too small, the Mk 2 had crashed, killing Chadwick, and the first of the Tudor 4s had disappeared in the fabled “Bermuda Triangle”. It was not that much later that BOAC cancelled the order for the Tudor, and for a long time these aircraft gathered dust in the Chadderton factory. This led to the immortal Dobson quote that he would never do business again with BOAC unless the contract was hewn out of “something” concrete.

The confidence in Avro as a firm was represented in the aero apprentice intake; for the 13 of us that started in 1947 there were only seven in 1948; but after that, and in the days of the Shackleton and Vulcan, the intake soared. The morning after I started work, a week after the interview, I signed on as a day release student at Stretford Tech for ONC in mechanical engineering at S2 level. I never worked hard there, nor at Salford Tech which followed. One year I even failed an exam in structures. This was because the day for the release students in mechanical engineering always seemed to be on a Thursday, when the green’un, Motor Cycling; and the blue’un, Motor Cycle; were published. On the back row for the first lecture I would sit with Peter Wraith, who drove sidecar outfits for Ariel in the Six-day Trials of that period. A large amount of an aero apprentice’s time was dominated by motorcycle talk and actuality of fettling, improving and cadmium plating everything in sight. At that time I met an apprentice from Norton who had got into fearsome troubles because he had been found during works time working on a camera!

The first six months of the apprenticeship were spent in the Apprentice School where the correct use of tools were taught and various exercises in filing, marking out and drilling a square of metal had to be completed before you were allowed to progress to lathes and milling machines. I remember making a scribing block with associated carburising heat treatment and tempering, a tap holder and various other small tools, all at a wage of 27s 3d (£1.36) a week, after deductions. As my stepfather said, “It’s good money but there’s not much of it!”

I do not know whether it was due to the general laxity of apprentice supervision at that time, or whether I had some pull, but after leaving the training school I more or less determined my route through the works departments for the next 2 years, and for a further 2 and a half years in the design offi ces. I did all my fitting in the experimental department on benches and aircraft because this attracted a bonus of 85 per cent (it was not that amount but a percentage on the pre-war national rate) which meant in practice that I was a third richer for working in “Experimental” . The work was altogether much more varied than production fitting. I think in total I spent a year in Experimental, fitting the windscreen wipers onto the first Shackleton, a lot of work on the Athena, and working on the Type 707s which were one-third scale models of the Type 698, later to be named the Vulcan.

On my first day in Experimental I was asked where I lived, and when I explained that Hale was next to Altrincham there was a cry of, “We all know about Altrincham, that’s where if you drop your sandwich packet you have to kick it to the town boundary before you pick it up.” Thence followed much mortification when I was told, as a public schoolboy with a toffee-apple voice, that I had to know about it. My mother was horrified that evening when I asked what they meant, and my stepfather had to grudgingly explain what had happened in Altrincham in the Thirties – I gathered that the local paper never sold a greater number of copies than at that time, when a number of local luminaries and educationalists were cross-examined about their deviances.

One of the Experimental fitters, Albert Galloway, had ridden the wall of death before the war at Belle Vue Fun Fair in Manchester with an elderly lion known as Leo in the sidecar. My mother despaired of my gullibility in accepting such stories.

As I became accepted, I asked about Chadwick, as the man of aircraft, to find that this polite, pleasant, relaxed man I had met was regarded by most of the workforce as a tyrant, a man who would not brook anyone modifying his ideas. To draughtsmen, he was a figure of demoniac intensity, as he would lean over their boards and castigate them for not interpreting his wishes correctly.

One story that I liked was of the design of the Lancaster. One day Chadwick appeared on the Experimental shop floor assembly area, which was an area capable of holding two or three Shackletons, from my memory, and said, “Clear this area”. The superintendent, looking at the jigs and fixtures, asked him if he meant the whole area, whereupon Chadwick turned and said, “If I say the whole area, then I mean the whole area”. Everything was towed outside and into this space Chadwick installed a brand new Manchester which had to be dismantled to be brought back from Ringway, where it had just been about to start its flying programme. Chadwick had it reassembled and then with a team of draughtsmen standing behind him in a queue, and with the top echelon of Avro designers, listening,, he dismantled the Manchester and – sketching on a giant sketch pad – showed the changes he wanted to change a Manchester into a Lancaster. Each draughtsman was then sent off back to the DO with his sketch and the next draughtsman took his place.

One draughtsman told me that his turn finally came to be at the head of the queue and that Chadwick, sensing fear in a young man, gave him a simple control-run redesign. It was said that the whole process lasted for days, and that Chadwick catnapped occasionally on a truckle bed in the superintendent’s office but carried on, day and night, until the job was done.

The boss labourer in the experimental department at Chadderton was well past his 65th birthday, and I asked him why he had not retired. He indicated that he knew no life other than Avro, and that he had been with the firm since the First World War. He had a fine memory about people but a poor memory about aviation. One of his better stories was how in 1922 or thereabouts they had no orders for aircraft whatsoever , but they manufactured anything that would make a crust. One large order for coffins even had Dobson and Chadwick turning their hands to carpentry. They produced windscreens at that time for sale to individuals and also for the light aircraft like the Baby and Avian that they were making. These screens had the Avro triangular crest cast into the aluminium base. As Raymond Chandler has it in a Philip Marlowe novel, the envy that I feel for a fellow vintage car owner who has one of these devices would make a woman’s wish for new curtains seem a poor thing.

The old labourer remembered Hinkler and the landing on the side of Helvellyn, and he also remembered Redrup, who he said designed the company’s aero engines. I had never heard of the Avro Alpha and Beta engines up to that time, so I asked him about it. He did not know very much, but due to a coincidence knew that Redrup was alive and living on the north side of Stockport. The telephone book did not list a Redrup , and the Stockport police suggested the electoral register. Fortunately I knew a girl in the local Tory offices and she located C. B. Redrup for me. The interview with Redrup was the first historically-orientated interview that I had ever undertaken. Unfortunately, although he told me a lot of things, I did not record them properly; so his great cause, the swash-plate engine, I am unable to relate. However, Redrup had an interesting story about the company’s engines.

In 1926, A. V. Roe himself was particularly interested in the new light aeroplanes which were being built, of which the Moth was the prime example. These aeroplanes were going to take away from Avro the training aircraft market which it had dominated since the 504. The replacement and spare parts market for the 504 was about the only steady profitable business the firm was involved in. A number of Avians had been built, but Roe wanted a three-cylinder and a five-cylinder air-cooled radial engine for these aircraft. Some years previously the firm had tried to protect its long-term interests with a share exchange with the Crossley car company, just down the road; as an investment this had proved disastrous, as the car business was even worse than aviation. However, there were major machining and foundry capabilities at the Crossleys that would work at cost. Redrup was employed by A. V. Roe as a designer and manufacturing co-ordinator. In 1928 John Siddeley (later Lord Kenilworth) took over the firm . Redrup was sure this was because Armstrong-Siddeley saw the danger in Avro producing their own engines and wanted to protect their own interests. Redrup may well have been right, for the very next day he was fired. As he was leaving the works , he saw a labourer, under supervision , throwing the first assembled batch of production five-cylinder engines from a first floor doorway onto the cobbled ground beneath. One of the engines had already been fitted to a Crossley chassis and had been subjected to many miles of hard driving.

After my time in Experimental I had to do the purgatory of the production machine shop with six weeks on automatic lathes, six weeks on capstans, then jigged-up milling machines, but not true one-off milling or centre lathe work. The only major mistake I ever made was in the milling section, where some routing on a long circular spar had to be carried out. In locking up the spar into the jig I had not correctly located it. To my horror I saw the straight line I was milling suddenly start to curve away. I quaked, because this spar was of a special alloy, had been specially extruded to an Avro design, and Thirlby had wrecked it. I thought I would be fired, but the only thing that was said, by the foreman, was, “That’s a pity”, and I never heard anything about it again.

The heat treatment shop was always a prized part of the apprentices’ tour for it was here that he could get his foreigners nickel plated and then chromed. The boss of the heat treatment department was named Mr. Hall, and Mr. Hall was well aware of what the aero apprentices were up to. One apprentice called Roy Mills had a mid-Thirties Triumph motorcylce which, by dint of much hard work, had many of its components cadmium plated. One afternoon, when Mr. Hall was known to be away, Mills brought in some major items – and when Mr. Hall suddenly returned, he walked straight up to the cadmium bath. He lifted each item out of the cubbling brew at the end of its wire before replacing it. When he came to a motorcycle oiltank, toolbox and rear wheel stand, all of these items had ther wires cut and were allowed to fall to the bottom of the tank.

The list of departments where one spent a minimum of three weeks and sometimes up to three months included the tool room, press shop, jigs and inspection.

After two and a half years the aero apprentice started his time in the offices. In the drawing office I carried out detailing of the bracketry of the Vulcan radio support. I worked in the stress office and in research , where all sorts of marvellous work was being carried out on autoclave bonding of honeycomb structures for the Avro 720 rocket-powered interceptor.

I spent a long time in the aerodynamics office; a visitor from Convair commented that there were only five men, one woman and a boy while back in California they had over a hundred. Roy Ewans dismissed this by saying that they must be all working to proforma calculations, while each one of his staff was carrying out original work. I remember that night in a pub somebody asked what I was doing for a living. I said I was an aerodynamicist.

Shortly afterwards I was moved to Avro’s aerodrome at Woodford on the other side of Manchester, and worked for a short time in the assembly sheds and for about three months as a technician in the wind tunnel department. I then wangled myself into the Flight Research Unit (FRU) under Zbgnievw Olenski. He had flown in the Battle of Britain for a short time before it was discovered that he was an aerodynamicist, and he was then put to work with a slide rule at RAE Farnborough. He was splendidly eccentric but had a gift of interpreting flight test reports into structural terms.

The FRU was a small group of only six to eight men, and unkind people said that its abbreviated name was from the work “frustration”. I joined it just as the legendary Roly Falk arrived on contract to fly the second Avro 707, the B, at such an enormous rate of pay per hour that, when it was whispered to me, I flatly refused to believe it. Surely no man could be paid so much. The whole of the FRU went to Boscombe Down for the 707B’s first flight and subsequent test programme. It was a jewel of an aircraft. A bank of instruments was read by cine camera at the rate of five frames per second and, since Falk could and did roll the aircraft in 2 and a half seconds, the pointers on the instruments often made a blur on the developed film. In one test flight he applied and held, for a very short time, 98Ib at the end of the rudder bar.

The 7078 was a marvellous aircraft spoilt only by air intake starvation at steep angles of attack. It was believed that “Red” Esler’s operation of the airbrakes at a steep angle caused the fatal crash of the first 707.

Those were marvellous days at Boscombe. I remember a hot summer of 1951 spent watching other experimental aircraft from other manufacturers being flow. The Fairey F.D.1. had the same Derwent engine as the 707s, but significantly less wing area, and the drum brakes would have been right for a BSA Bantam motorcycle. The braking parachute was miniscule. The F.D.1s take-off and landing speed had to be in excess of 120kt and, with no power for acceleration or deceleration, it needed all of Boscombe’s runway to take off and to land.

Everybody turned out to watch the few times the aircraft flew at Boscombe. The runway at Farnborough was so short that it could not fly there!

By this time my salary as an apprentice was up to £3.1Os (£.50) a week and I got a further £3 for expenses while living in Salisbury. Roly Falk one day saw me filling in my expense form for the week and oversigned it £10 “for special delivery service” to the instruction of R. J. Falk” – with that my then girlfriend and I had a marvellous weekend in London in Festival of Britain year on my Triumph Tiger 100 motorbike.

It was while I was at Boscombe Down that I met for the first time apprentices from other aircraft firms. One D. H. technical apprentice said that all other aero apprentices were like dross compared to them. I think that , at the time, I found difficulty in accepting this point of view; and I think my Tiger 100, which I had brought up to GP Triumph standard as regards the engine, game me a valuable edge in argument.

I had to come back in September because the new technical school year was going to start and there was no way I could transfer to Salisbury in the middle of my Higher National. I had to request a transfer back to Woodford from the new apprentice supervisor. They had lost my files and there was a row. Fortunately I suggested that the previous apprentice supervisor was at fault, got my way and transferred temporarily to Flight Test Engineering until the team came back and the flight testing of the 707A started.

All through my career at Avro the 707s were present. In every department in which I worked there was some component of a 707. I tried more than once to get a flight in the 707C, the two­ seater version , but never achieved it. In 1952 the 707’s big brother, the prototype 698, was ever present. FRU, for whom I was working again, were evaluating the most bizarre aerodynamic cases on the 707A before the 698’s first flight. Marvellous days.

Farnborough Air Show was approaching and Falk said to me, “The 698 will take off like nobody’s business, and if you position yourself at the ring road crossing I should think it would unstick there.” It did, and a few days later I issued a report on the first flight take-off.

I finished my apprenticeship, temporarily back at Chadderton, in the late summer of 1952. But I still had two years of night school to go through to obtain the necessary endorsements to my HNC Mechanical, and the necessary exemptions to qualify as a graduate member of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers . I returned to Woodford , doing the same work as before. My salary was now up to £6 a week.

Midway through 1953 I reluctantly came to the conclusion that aerodynamics, day in and day out, was not an exciting prospect. Having prepared the ground, I asked Elenski if he would mind my transferring to the Engineering Section offices only 10 yards away under Norman Nahs. He turned to me and said, “The other day I looked up your file in Personnel , and I noted that your apprenticeship periods in each department were presumably determined by you rather than by the wishes of the apprentice supervisor.”

I indicated that I had managed to get myself contracted out of the system. He went on to say that he saw no reasoning in the periods of time I had spent. “I see that it is excellent training for a managing director, if that is your aim.” I signified that it might be.

He let me go, and then followed a year and a half of bliss in development engineering in hydraulics, pressurisation systems, and prototyping generally.

During this time the second 698 with Olympus engines was being brought together in good time for Farnborough, and with two weeks or so to go it was brought out onto the apron and the engines started. Sensation. An Olympus went into a surge – a sort of noise like a giant hobble gobble – and it was clear that, since the engines were new, the pressure tapping on the second stage of the compressors to permanently pressurise the 698 crew compartment was the cause. A full-size test rig with an Olympus had been built at Woodford with the associated ducting and controls, and it had been invaluable. It was obvious that some change had been introduced which was creating back surge condition. We had two weeks to find it and put it right.

In those days Farnborough was the mecca, and aircraft manufacturers would do anything to get their prototypes there. There followed a night and day endeavour to put matters right. The concentrated effort involved working a day and a night, with the next 8 hours off, before another 16 hour stint with the most marvellous overtime payments adding up.

One night the buzzer went at two in the morning to signify that a meal was ready in the canteen. That night the food was diabolical – cold, greasy and inedible. A technician called Jack Wignall said in a loud, clear voice, “If Sir Roy Dobson had cooked this then it couldn’t be any ‘something’ worse” . The door leading to the kitchens had opened behind him as he was speaking, and Sir Roy issued forth, wearing a chef’s hat to show that he too was doing his bit to get the Vulcan – because I think that was the first day we had heard of its new name – to Farnborough. Sir Roy said, “I heard that, Wignall, but I am not going to do anything about it until after Farnborough.” The whole canteen erupted in laughter. It was a splendid firm. The defect was found and the Vulcan flew straight to Farnborough on its first flight.

I spent most of that next week at Farnborough, and on the Saturday asked for time off as I had had a windfall of £150 from an American aunt. I wanted to buy a pre-war Aston Martin or a chain-drive Frazer Nash, as I had seen them both perform at Vintage Sports Car Club Silverstone race meetings. I bought a 1927 Anzani-engined Frazer Nash in Balham and within the year I became the historian for the marque. I have written two books on the subject and still own that car. The next Easter, in 1954 when ducking out of work half an hour early ont he Thursday night to get the ‘Nash ready for a trip, I was caught in the act by the site superintendent , Rex Reynolds. After Easter he said, “I don’t want to reprimand you or take stronger action, but if you have thought of leaving then this will be a solution.”

I said, “In two weeks’ time I take my last exams, I hope, and then I have to do my National Service.” I failed my medical due to the aftermath of a motorcycling injury and went to Napier at Acton to become a gas turbine performance technician on the Eland, Oryx and Gazelle.

Napier’s personnel manager said to me a couple of weeks later, “Oh, by the way, why did you leave Avros? I have never seen a more adultory reference in all of my life.” I asked who had written it and he said, “A Mr. Reynolds.”

Marvellous days, and a marvellous firm.

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