Wednesday, 26 November 2014

A time of reflection (been there, done that)

It was recently brought to my attention that the RAF had scrapped its fleet of Lockheed TriStars and I have to admit to having felt rather sad about it, especially seeing videos on YouTube of them being broken up for scrap like this one:


I started my apprenticeship at Marshall Aerospace in 1987 to train as an airframe fitter, and after spending the first year in the training centre honing vital practical skills under the tuition of two amazing guys who worked the 'good cop, bad cop' routine like seasoned veterans, I ended up out on the shop floor - specifically Hangar 17 which was the TriStar service centre.
During my time there (through my apprenticeship and beyond) I got to work on all aspects of the airframe and systems (apart from electrics, 'cos that's a sparky's job), developing the sort of familiarity with the aircraft that you have with a car that you've had to bits on a regular basis over an extended period of time - and I've had a few cars that have needed that level of love and attention...
There were many TriStars passing through that place - some for relatively quick jobs, and some for extensive major servicing involving a total stripdown back to virtually a bare airframe. The occasional commercial one came in, such as those operated by Air Canada and Air Transat, and from time to time we got to work on King Hussein of Jordan's personal TriStar which was an incredible piece of kit; a flying palace which beggared belief. The first time it came in was rather unnerving though, because the King's security guys were constantly wandering around, looking over your shoulder to make sure you weren't trying to steal the gold fixtures and fittings, with pistols hanging in shoulder rigs under their jackets. Eventually the amount of complaints of feeling intimidated led to airport security taking away the guns until they left which made us feel about as good as one can with a muscle-bound meatball with no sense of humour glaring menacingly at you while you're repairing the motorised table in the state room. As undeniably cool as that plane was, we were always glad to see it go.


 Another interesting TriStar was the one bought by Orbital Sciences Corporation which was converted to an airborne launch platform for the Pegasus rocket. The Pegasus is used to deploy satellites into orbit.
The conversion was a major feat, because apart from the modifications needed to hang the rocket from the belly there was an immense amount of weight that had to be shed from the plane to enable it to get off the ground with a fully fuelled and equipped Pegasus mounted underneath.


For the most part though, the TriStars that came through that hangar were those belonging to the RAF, and you'll have to forgive me getting my anorak on at this point. There were nine in total - six were ex-British Airways and were converted to tanker/transport planes (ZD948 - ZD953), and the other three were ex-PanAm (ZE704 - ZE706).
ZE706 spent years sitting on the pan outside the hangar being robbed for spare parts and generally rotting away. It was known amongst the fitters as the 'DeathStar', because if someone was sent to work on it their next stop was often the personnel office to collect their P45. The trouble with 706 was that it had been purchased in error. It was intended that it would be converted to a tanker, but the conversion couldn't be carried out due it being the wrong variant which lacked the necessary third cargo door.
So there it sat, sad and unwanted while the MOD decided what they were going to do with it.
Eventually, they decided to simply use it as a troop transporter, and so began the arduous project of reviving that sorry state of an aircraft from a corroded piece of crap into what ended up as probably the best TriStar on the fleet. There was a distinct feeling of pride amongst those of us who worked on ZE706 during this phase of its life, and all thoughts of the 'DeathStar' were banished when we watched it take off again, which made it all the more sad for me to know that at the end of its service life it was just ripped apart to be weighed in for scrap metal.
By the time I left Marshall Aerospace in 1996 I had spent my time on TriStars, C-130 Hercules, Boeing 727 (royal Bahrain), Boeing 707, Gulfstream G2, Andover, and HS125. I knew I had to get out of there because as much as I liked the fact that I was doing the job I'd dreamt about throughout my childhood, the way the company operated was sucking away my very soul, leaving me in a permanent state of misery.

Even though there were some seriously unpleasant aspects to being an airframe fitter like crawling around in wet fuel tanks, decorroding the internal skin of a TriStar's s-duct (the number two engine's intake) with a vacu-blast machine, stripping out a filthy bullet-ridden Hercules from some war-torn African shit-hole, getting smeared with all sorts of sealants and chemicals that have since been found to be highly carcinogenic, and getting your head addled by methyl-ether-ketone fumes, I can still look back at that period of my life and smile to myself.
It wasn't all bad. There were a lot of good blokes (and a few wankers of course but that's the same everywhere), I got to spend a few years doing what I thought I wanted to do with my life, and I learned a hell of a lot of skills including the ability to swear profusely which I never did before I left school, and like all bad habits has proved to be impossible to shake off.

Now I work in aerodynamics at Cambridge University's Department of Engineering - a world away from the demands and unreasonable behaviour of industry and I know that the only reason I'd go back to working on planes is if I'd retired on a big lottery win and wanted to do aircraft restoration at a museum as a means of preventing myself going insane with boredom.

ZE706 - rest in pieces.