Friday, 20 May 2016

Plane and simple

When I walked away from the aircraft industry in January 1996 to begin working at the University, it was the end of an era that I was only too glad to wave goodbye to.
I was sick and tired of being given the shitty jobs because I wasn't a company 'yes-man' who was happy to do 50-60 hour weeks, and I was fed up with the petty stupidity of the managers who made it feel like you were constantly working beneath the sword of Damocles.
To give you some idea of what they were like, consider the following:-

In the hangar was a tea/coffee vending machine, and if you wanted a drink while you were doing a job at your bench you'd grab one from the machine and leave it to cool on your bench while you got on with the job. Nobody took drinks onto the aircraft because that simply wasn't the done thing - a spilt drink could cause all sorts of trouble.
However, the bosses in their infinite wisdom had a yellow line painted around the vending machines and declared that if you bought a drink from the machine you had to drink it while standing within the yellow box. What was this? Kindergarten?
To make it all the more uncomfortable, the bosses would stand outside their office glaring at anyone who dared get a cup of tea, so the only solution was to empty a third of your brew down the drain, top it up with cold water from the fountain, and knock back the insipid result double-quick to avoid being hauled in for a bollocking.

This wasn't at all how I'd expected things to go when I'd started my apprenticeship nine years earlier as an innocent wide-eyed sixteen year-old with a long-established passion for aircraft.
Like most boys I had a fascination with planes and helicopters - an interest which was fuelled by presents of assorted books including 'Janes World Aircraft Recognition Handbook', and 'Thunder and Lightnings' by Jan Mark.
I became a bit of an anorak really, being able to recognise and quote specifications on a vast array of planes, and getting overexcited whenever anything flew over.
As a kid, the most common sightings were F4 Phantoms, Jaguars, A10s and the odd Tornado. I even remember experiencing a 'sonic boom' occasionally (before supersonic flight over built-up areas was banned) which was awesome, so it seems strange to me that people these days get so confused and upset on the rare occasions that they're heard - the only time it happens now is if fighters get scrambled urgently to intercept a potential enemy, when I guess the subsonic-only rule goes out of the window.

My sister used to go and watch the speedway at the circuit at Mildenhall when I was a kid, and sometimes she'd take me along. I enjoyed the racing with the dirt flying as the riders sped around the oval circuit with their foot on the floor and the bike drifting sideways through the turns accompanied by the smell of burning methanol, but after a while watching bikes going around in circles lost a bit of its appeal and I'd wander off to the nearby playground.
I wasn't too fussed about the swings and whatever, but because that playground was directly under the flight path for Mildenhall USAF base, when you stood at the top of the slide it almost felt like you could reach out and touch the gigantic C5 Galaxy transports coming in to land.
One summer at school, while out doing athletics (that's a laugh - me doing running and discus etc) an SR71 Blackbird flew over low and slow. That really made my day and I couldn't understand why the other kids weren't in the least bit interested that the world's fastest plane - something that usually flew at the edge of space - had just passed by.

So when I left school all I wanted to do was work on planes, and as I was fortunate enough to secure an apprenticeship at Marshall Aerospace I thought I was set for life.
Indeed, the first few years were a huge adventure. Assigned to Hangar 17 to work on Lockheed Tristars, I embarked upon an immensely steep learning curve which I thoroughly enjoyed.
OK, so it was more often than not a dirty job - I don't think my hands were ever truly clean for all the years I was there, but I was getting in there and doing the sort of practical mechanical job that I loved and I was doing it on things that had been an object of fascination thoughout my childhood.
I was living the dream.
Admittedly the dream hadn't included such activities as climbing around inside fuel tanks, replacing depleted uranium counterweights that had started to corrode, getting chemical burns from the hydraulic fluid, using assorted sealants that have since been banned due to being major carcinogens, and endless hours spent riveting skin panels, but on the whole it was a good job.
During my time there I worked on Tristars including the RAF tanker/transport fleet, King Hussain of Jordan's personal Tristar, and the Orbital Sciences Corporation 'Stargazer' launch platform for the Pegasus rocket which was for putting satellites into orbit.
Then there were assorted short-term periods on Gulfstream, Boeing 727, Boeing 707, Sentry, and Andover, before ending up on C130 Hercules which was when the rot started to set in.
Hercs were not a fun thing to work on, and I rapidly became disillusioned with the whole job - not helped by the attitude of the management.
Eventually it got to the stage where I dreaded going to work each day and at that point I knew I had to move on.

I've now not been an airframe fitter for more than twice as long as I was one, and I've never looked back with any fondness of that time until recently.
Memories of the shitty aspects have become somewhat blurred, as tends to happen as the years pass, but even if I was desperate I wouldn't go back to it.
I may have times when I get fed up in my current job, but I just have to tell myself that it could be worse - I could be squashed into an outer wing fuel tank with just a rivet gun for company and a head woozy from the effects of methyl ethyl ketone. Then things suddenly don't seem quite so bad.

OSC Stargazer Tristar - made in the USA, converted in Cambridge UK
by a bunch of hair-arsed fitters including yours truly.