Hopefully you have already worked your way through my start in BAe by way of the Space back door. I did think that maybe I should move that section to here, but maybe not. It was a great place to be, but I didn't really belong there, so I think that history should stay with the other jobs I was just passing through. I dunno...I'll get this bit written and worry about it later. Not that I have the slightest idea why anyone should be interested in all this. I'm just here to exercise and exorcise my memory. Still, it will be interesting to see what Google searches turn it up.
Back then, BAe was more or less three main parts. BAe Commercial Aircraft, BAe Spacecraft and BAe Dynamics which was a slightly more PC renaming of the old Guided Weapons division. There was way more to it than that, there was a Jet subsidiary down in Weston, Bristol Cars and other odd and sods I can't remember. All under the British Aerospace Welfare Association (BAWA) umbrella which was both a social club, retirement plan and welfare group. BAe was big, big for Filton, big at all the other sites around the UK and a big global defense contractor. BAe Filton was like a small town in itself, in fact the small village of Charlton was demolished just to extend the runway. Rolls Royce was more or less on the same site, though mainly on the other side of the dual carriageway, both companies shared a lot of resources, such as the canteens, buses and the runways.
This is supposed to be about my time at British Aerospace Dynamics, Filton, from about August 1979 until May 1985. In many ways this is my recovery period, making up for failing my A Levels and having to start over again. I wouldn't recommend this as the way to do things, but like doing anything the long way, you get a whole different set of experiences and perspectives you might not have gotten otherwise. For better or worse, sometimes the long way is more character building. Yeah, right.
I really don't think I was fated to take the conventional O, A Level and University route. Maybe it would have been better to have left school at 16, grow up a bit and then more or less do the same as I did, but as a proper plan instead of veering about from one setback to another. Just without the wasted A Level years. Who knows. Doing it the way I did has left me permanently trailing by about 5 years. I would be 30 before I finally got my Engineering degree, which, I am glad I did, because I don't know I could have done it back when I was 18.
So, "Non, je ne regrette rien", as Édith Piaf would say.
There is no getting away from the fact that I was once the oldest apprentice in Aerospace. I was the old fart then and it's stayed that way ever since.
10th August 1979, Rolls Royce Technical College
I love the smell of swarfega in the morning.
Now I was inducted into the Apprentice program, I had to follow the same trail as all the others, and that led through Basic Craft training at Rolls Royce Technical College. This was the place where 2000 buzzing mopeds would converge every day, each bearing a spotty teenager either from Rolls Royce, Green overalls, or British Aerospace, Blue overalls. Everyone was there to learn the basics of factory production techniques, Welding, Milling, Drilling, Turning, Sheet Metal, Fitting, Grinding, Lapping & Polishing, Soldering, Hydraulics and taking apart jet engines. If your hair was longer than two inches, you wore a hairnet but on the bright side, you got a free pair of steel toe capped boots.
Not all apprentices were created equal. I remember there being three main types. The Craft Apprentices were the vast majority, both from Rolls Royce and BAe. Mainly about 16 and there to learn a trade and become skilled workers in the factories, they were in for two years with good behavior. The days were often punctuated by the thunk of a forgotten chuck key thudding into the guard around the lathe, if they were lucky. As you can imagine with that many hormones in one place, end of day cleanup in the massive changing rooms and toilets could get a bit rowdy, especially with handy 40 gallon swarfega drums laid out everywhere for dunking your mates head first into.
Technical Apprentices were a very small subset, incarcerated at RR Tech for just 3 months, I think. They would be doing their City and Guilds, ONC's or HNC's. I had actually missed the start date for these guys so they couldn't put me in with them, but these were really my new team mates. There were only two in what should have been my year, Simon Atwood and Paul Helps. I did my best to try to stay in touch with them, even though we never actually ended up in sync. I was always in some sort of gap between everyone else.44
I was placed temporarily with the second biggest population, the undergraduate apprentices. These were people to whom BAe was giving financial support to go through University. When not at campus they came back to work in various BAe departments or do their initial hated but mandatory Craft training. Since they were all just taking time out from getting their degree, they were actually more or less the same age group as me. Ironically the people maybe I should have been with had I not blown my A Levels. Fate rubbing it in as usual. I was the cuckoo with the students for the next 12 weeks.
Actually, they were a nice bunch and much to the amazement of the majority of spotty Crafties, we even had two girls, very attractive in their hairnets, safety glasses and oily overalls, which was very rare in the industry back then. I really should be able to remember names, but sadly I can't.
I did learn the basics here, although it has all leaked out of my ears now. At one point I could weld, turn and solder a perfect cubic sculpture. We only had a week in each skill, which tended to cheese of the instructors who preferred teaching the Crafties who could spend months doing something substantial for their masterpiece. As it was, we just had time to take a piece of metal, bend it, file it, make it round, smooth or my favorite, so flat it would bond to a similar test flat like a magnet.
This being Aerospace we did get to do some fun stuff. The school had three jet engines they felt students should know how to completely disassemble and rebuild; A Thor ramjet from a bloodhound missile, something from an executive jet I can't remember what, and the coveted Olympus as used in one of Bristol's most famous achievements, The Concorde. Split into teams, we were chuffed to get the Olympus to take apart but bloody hell that was a lot of nuts to unscrew. To cheer us up, after getting it all in one piece again, the instructor took us over the road to Rolls Royce to Fly the Concorde Simulator. Now bearing mind this is 1980, so this isn't some virtual reality game, this is a whole Concorde cockpit inside a room mounted on massive hydraulics. Imagine a Portakabin on moving stilts. When you miss the simulated runway in Hong Kong the whole hangar feels your pain. Even though all you are actually flying is a camera flying over miniature painted scenery and twinkly lights, the whole cockpit moves and shudders alarmingly accurately, it is perfectly possible to dramatically crash it..
Disassembling Maxaret units, when ABS was only for bloody big airliners, and installing hydraulic pipes...ah, the fun.
I can only remember two of the instructors names, Mr Fisher who did sheet metal and Mr Newth who taught me proper soldering. If I find my logbook, which we were required to have signed off on presentation of our masterpiece, I will fill in some more for posterity.
RR Tech had a small but comfy library which most lunchtimes I had to myself. As my day release got started in September I spent a lot of time there avoiding the swarfega wars and trying to teach myself electronics.
November 1979 Procurement Dept
I'm not 100% sure on these dates, or even necessarily the order, but after basic training I was supposed to do the rounds, being placed in various different departments to get work experience. I think the first place I was put was Procurement, or purchasing or some other department that had to do with buying things. I notice this isn't listed on my training indentures and suspect this is because I was a last minute addition to the program, my first assignment was probably anywhere that wasn't already stuffed full of Apprentices.
I wasn't very happy to find myself here, the engineering content was near zero. Nobody working here had any technical background. I had a real panic that I had made the wrong decision. I was acutely embarrassed about where I was. I was irrationally scared I would get stuck there. Not that they weren't a nice bunch of people. In fact, a lot of the apprentices liked being there for it's proximity to the lovely Michelle who was something of a legend amongst them. You would have to understand just how few women there were in industry back then to get any idea of why this was a big deal to a certain spotty generation.
I learned that departments who had apprentices sprung on them acted differently depending on if they saw it as an opportunity or a burden. Some would use you for all the menial tasks they just didn't want to do themselves. If they had been apprentices themselves or were otherwise particularly enlightened, they could give you some really quite cool things to do, to the envy of your colleagues. Often though, they just didn't know what the hell to do with you. Procurement was one of those. Once again, going to the boss too many times to get something to do could earn you their wrath. I filed, I read manuals, I even made the tea (which I was still not really qualified to do) but mainly I walked.
The nice thing about Filton was its hugeness, like a small town and chock full of apprentices dispersed all over the palace that I could now go visit. Nobody seemed to care if you mumbled something about having to pop over to the training department and vanished for a few hours. I never got tired of taking a stroll over to where Bristol Cars were hand made and having a peep. It was essential to check out the Brabazon hangar every few weeks to see who was hangering out in it, from US F111 Bombers to Arab commercial airliners being repainted. Of course, the 501 Squadron sleeping beauty village was a wonderland deserving of it's own chapter, which it may well get.
As for procurement, there's not much more that I can remember about it. I think it was coming up to Christmas. I was already missing Richard's festive flashing Page 3 calendar and all the hilarity of being with a bunch of under sexed, under matured and over qualified engineers.
Jan 1980, Experimental Engineering
OK, maybe I can pin the date down on this one. The lab I worked in had music all day courtesy of the bored wireman also hanging out there. I can clearly Remember Joe Jackson and It's Different for Girls so, according to www.chartstats.com it was rising up in the charts in Aug 79 and dropping in Sept 79. So I might be wrong on my dates or he was listening to radio 2. Hang on, second opinion, I also listened to The Regents - Seventeen, and the chart arc for that was apparently Jan - March 1980. There you go then, just after Christmas. I moved into my first Technical team secondment (Yay!).
So, I was given to Mike, a tall thin bloke with a beard. Nice enough guy if a bit full of himself and enjoying the near management experience of having an apprentice to give work to. I do remember him as one of the good guys though. He kept me busy with Real Work for the TOW missile project.
My first project for him was building a device for stopping the clock when a shaft had stopped spinning. This was part of a piece of test equipment. Experimental Engineering department designed unique electronics and were kind of a partner to The Model Shop, who manufactured one off machines and fabrications of any sort. I'll come back to the model shop in a minute because I have something to say about the denizens of that place. The shaft rotation detector was no satellite but I thought it was clever enough for analogue electronics. A white square on the shaft reflected back to a photo-detector that created pulses as the square passed in front of it. The pulses were integrated into a DC signal which recorded the time when the signal dropped to zero. It worked well enough for what was needed.
Now, the Model Shop. Another place apprentices dreaded going due to the unwanted attentions of Ken P (I won't say his full name though I am pretty sure he is dead by now). Ken would be constantly trying to grab the crotch of any male youth visitors and making some bloody joke about the now bruised contents of their Y-Fronts. I don't know what his orientation or agenda was, but it was bloody annoying. This is going back a bit though, nobody was suing for harassment yet, even the poor old secretaries surrounded by Page 3 snippings had to put up and shut up. It just wasn't talked about. It only happened to me personally once but Chris told me not to take it personally, he made a grab for anyone slow enough to get in range.
This was also the source of my first industrial dispute. I was given something to do by Mike, I think it was putting a prototype circuit into a metal box, that the grumpy wireman in his brown coat really felt was his job by rights. A caricature of a Union rep showed up at my elbow a bit later, mackintosh and flat cap, demanding to know why I (Brother) was taking work away from his Comrade. Now this was a bit silly, I was in a Union too, just not with a collar his colour. Aerospace was big on Unions but cunningly made sure everyone had complete choice about which one they joined to keep them all in perpetual battle for turf with each other.
Everyone gave a big sigh, especially the eye rolling Mr Cripps, who I worried was wondering whether he had done the right thing in taking me on as an apprentice. I was suspended, on pay, until the adults had stopped behaving like children. There was an enquiry where everyone finally agreed that putting prototype circuits into metal boxes was entirely suitable work for apprentices. Had it been a "production" circuit it would have been a different matter. Oh, yes.
I was somewhat reassured by Mr Cripps who told me this came up every other month with some Union or other. He gave me valuable advice in being careful around wireman, fitters and electricians if I wanted to get any real work done.
The electricians especially were a nightmare. Their one job it seemed was to put 240v Mains plugs on leads. It didn't matter what you were, even if you had a PhD in Circuitosity, once you got to the stage where your equipment need a wall plug, ONLY an electrician was qualified to fit one. If any equipment arrived with molded plugs, they would be snipped off and an electrician begged to come and fit an official one - complete with BAe raised gold lettering. Yep, I regularly used to nick them because they were quite nice looking, at one point half the appliances in our house had special British Aerospace logoed plugs.
Mind the Memory Gap
I was hoping to use the Departments noted on my Training indentures and my department change notifications, of which I have kept many, to piece the order of this all together. Trouble is, I think the indentures are generic and even though I am a sad anorak who keeps almost everything, I don't have all the memo's. Another barrier is that the memo's only give the department numbers and it was all too long ago for me to remember what the numbers mean any more. So this is what I have:
Dept Change Memos:
Why should you care? No reason at all, I just wish I could be accurate with it all even though that wouldn't make it any more interesting. I am sure you would rather be reading bus timetables than this lark.
March 1980, Number 1 Drawing Office
I'm going to go with the indentures on this one and say this was next. Assignments were anything from 9 to 16 weeks but DO time was seen as a very important training step so this would be a long one. No radio activity dating on this one because No. 1 DO was quiet as the grave. Imagine a sea of A0 slanted drawing desks and stooped heads, each separated just two feet from the next, pastel institutional colors and the subdued but despairing rustle of T-Squares moving over paper. Well, rolls of drawing film actually. Whatever, it was the rustling silence of dead ends and the damned as far as I was concerned.
I desperately was not looking forward to my assignment at No. 1 DO. I'd been there before to draw plans of tank turrets from microfiche for projects, I knew what to expect. It wasn't a very welcoming place and it was hard to be social there, it was like being in a library all day. I was also aware it was somewhere that was a final resting place for a lot of apprentices, it was one of the easier places to get an offer of a job. It could be a default, if nobody else made you an offer the DO would usually take you. I reckon I was going to be pushing it to come out sane after 4 months, I would open a vein if I ended up there permanently.
Luckily, I wasn't very good at drawing. Actually, that's not quite true, my drawing was fine and I quite got into buying myself an array of 5mm and 7mm clutch pencils with the plastic leads for working on film. Along with the Rotring pens, I still have them around somewhere. What I was really not good at was the lettering, which was a pity because that's what they generally gave raw apprentices to do. They paired me up with an apprentice for whom this was a more long term assignment, who was, it has to be said, very content to be there and quite a skilled draughtsman already. Unfortunately, they were reluctant to trust me with many jobs once they saw the hieroglyphics I claimed were letters.
So, they gave up on giving me much to do and just left me to it. It wasn't the kind of place you could wander away from your desk for very long though. So what could I possibly do to entertain myself? There was no chance of building myself a quick electronics project for home. I had no work area other than a drawing board. I wasn't burning to knock of any quick plans for home renovation that I could get drawn, copied and microfiched for my own amusement. Anyway, it wasn't the kind of place where you could be too obvious you were wasting time. So, in small writing accompanied by the occasional big lines for effect, I started teaching myself the Math's I needed in day release. Using a bloody great sheet of 33x47 inch A0, I took weeks covering it all with formulas, calculations and random lines and boxes. I actually learned quite a lot that way and when I finally ran out of space it, it looked like the plans for a Death Star.
Although the DO didn't add to my growing clutter of home electronics projects, I did get to try one experiment. If you wanted a blue print or copy from an original film drawing, there was some special paper and a machine for doing it. The paper was A0, same as the film original, but had a yellow coating which was photo-sensitive. You made a sandwich of the film and paper and put both into a pair of rollers feeding it under a UV Light, This made a positive copy of the original, which was then developed and fixed by passing it through another machine. Back home, I managed to persuade my girlfriend to pose topless sideways in front of a sheet of the photo UV paper pinned up in my bedroom, then irradiated her with my parents Ultraviolet tanning lamp. I was happy to get an accurate and pleasingly life-size silhouette clear on the yellow photo paper. I intended to run it through the developing and fixing machine next day. Sadly, I forgot to take it in to work and left it exposed to daylight, reducing it to just a plain big ol' piece of white paper by the time I came home. I tried to get her to do it again but she couldn't believe she had agreed to it once, never mind give me another shot.
June 1980, Dept 829 Factory Test Equipment
I really liked these guys. I got on like a house on fire with the engineer I was assigned to but whose name I of course can't remember. Tall, thin, moderately long greasy hair, moustache and glasses, he was a right laugh. Our home was an office right behind the Brabazon Hangar and I think he may have been the first guy to show me how to walk in confidently like you belonged there to go and ogle some US Bombers.
If you had lots of oil and had just bought yourself some nice shiny Rapier missile systems, well you might want to test they were still working every now and then without shooting one of the expensive little darlings off. That was the kind of thing these guys designed and built, diagnostic equipment to plug into your missile or whatever and check it was still hunky dory. Just like they do with your BMW now, but once again, remember this was early 80's, it was all analog, no microprocessors. If something was up, a red bulb might light up, a bulb, not an LED, or maybe some Nixie Tubes would display a cryptic neon glowing code number which you would look up in the 3 inch owners manual.
The team leader who I was assigned to was a good bloke, he would wax lyrical about all sort of engineering subjects. It was the first I heard of the Golden Rectangle and that so many natural shapes are a derivative of e, like the catena of a sagging chain. Real geek stuff that gave me some reassurance I really was being reared by proper engineers.
Let's see, I got my first 240 electric shock here, prodding about with live equipment. I pretended of course that nothing had happened, much to the amusement of the real engineers watching me twitch.
August 1980, Data Processing and Transmission, 1220 Labs
This was my first visit to 1220 Labs, other than to the Lab stores downstairs. I was assigned to two young graduates working on Swiss Rapier, they were doing a high reliability pressure sensitive joystick control and software. Yet again, I can't remember their names though I can roughly picture them. They were always playing pranks on each other and a pretty good laugh but they could never think of anything to give me to do. They were also the first proper software engineers I'd met.
There were two reason why this place was exciting . One, it had a computer, some Texas Instruments model with an A and B 5 1/4 Floppy drive. I know, sounds as exciting as toe jam but it was a big deal back then. For my engineering development this was great, I learned something about DOS and that there was more to life than BASIC.
The second interesting thing happened on Thursday Afternoons.
As an apprentice, where to sit was always a problem. People got grumpy and territorial if you sat at their Desks. Bearing in mind a department usually had exactly the right number of desks for the people working there, no spares. A visiting apprentice was either given "Charlie's Desk, he's out this week..." which was a pain because you never felt settled, or an undesirable work area to haunt. The work area was always better in my opinion. You were never about to be evicted by Charlie when his back got better and you weren't being watched too closely so you could knock out some foreigners. In the odd territorial battle in 1220, DP was sharing a room with another department. To divide one from the other, since the room had two entrance doors, they had placed workbenches with high backs as a wall going across the middle of the room.
Well, on Thursday afternoons, something very strange happened on the other side of those workbenches, a friendly and perky young blond showed up. I would later find out that this was Susan, a teenager from Pen Park School doing work experience. I never spoke to her though she was always quite friendly, but the two guys I worked for would always make a point of spending more time with me at the workbench on a Thursday. You can spot Susan on the left in a BAe Dynamics News feature, for once not wearing her trademark powder blue low cut t-shirt, the flash of color behind the bench that caused so much distraction.
The other thing I would always do once the hosting department gave me somewhere to sit, was have a bloody good root around in any drawers to see if there was anything worth having. Generally a part for one of my many g-jobs that kept me busy. My reward in this lab was to find a strip of black and white negatives, which looked a lot to me like they had a naked woman on them. Now come on, who leaves this kind of thing in a workbench drawer? Well, I was hardly going to ask around for an owner...So, I of course did the decent thing, and gave them to amateur photographer Chris to make prints from them. Again, early 80's, no Internet, no MILF's, I don't even think Readers Wives was going yet, but these were clearly amateur pici's of someone's wife or girlfriend. You could tell by the slightly annoyed look on her face as she posed. Well, it wasn't anyone we knew, so both Chris and I kept a copy and then I placed the negatives back in the drawer where I'd found them. For the next visiting apprentice.
September 1980, 501 Site
As far as most apprentices were concerned, there were two really sought after postings, one was Space and the other was 501 Site. This was named for the 501 Squadron, heroes of the Battle of Britain, whose buildings were still there on the other side of the runway. It was a great place to be: you got a temporary car pass to drive onto the main site and - gasp - park next to where you worked! This was a big change to the long walk from the Gypsy Patch car park. I was still using that very same but sun bleached temp car pass, with the expiry date perpetually erased and amended, right up until I left in 1985.
I used to go down there a lot on the bus before I was posted there, to burn up time by visiting my mate Kim, a big Thin Lizzy fan who definitely had the Lynot look going. He worked for a bloke called Ken who really blew his lid with me for pretty much spending the whole morning once yammering away with Kim about bands. After that, I was a bit too spooked to go down there again. Well, guess what? Kim was posted out to somewhere new eventually and guess who took his place working for the irascible Ken?
Ken was a little taken aback when I showed up and I had been dreading it, but it all settled pretty quickly, he had a good sense of humor. He was a great engineer and to this day I have never seen anybody work like him. He would build a complicated analog electronic circuit straight from his head by just soldering components to each other as he went. No PCB, no circuit diagram, no breadboard, just start soldering leads of devices together. They would work brilliantly, though you had to stand well clear of the intricate 3 dimensional structures, as they literally grew out of his desk, to avoid shorting anything. My job was to reverse engineer the circuit diagram using my eyeballs and a buzzer, document it, then seal the whole structure in a box with suitable inputs and set it in a potting compound. From glistening silver scaffold to mysterious but functional brick, amazing. Without an apprentice to document his work, Ken would just keep building and stacking up Brick Electronic Devices but nobody would know how they worked, the place was littered with them.
The 501 buildings looked like something out of a Battle of Britain movie because, well, they were. Huts with verandah's on the front where we would sit for tea breaks watching the F111's, airliners or Guppy transporters take off. There was always something going on down 501 that was nothing to do with work. The Bristol University Flying School was there in their Chipmunks and a BAWA Caving club would disappear down mysterious holes in the ground. As well as the Squadron buildings, some of Charlton village was still visible, that which wasn't demolished to extend the runway. A lot of it was overgrown like sleeping beauty's home town. I managed to find a way in to the main Squadron Mess hall, still with a big regimental banner on the wall then and a bunch of 60's newspapers strewn about. I had such a great time exploring 501 in my lunch hours. My best memory was managing to clamber into a high up broken window of the small church or chapel. So amazingly overgrown it was like archaeology until you were inside, there were all the pews stills standing there in the dust. I really wish I had a camera with me, it was all otherworldly stuff down on 501.
My memory is even flakier than usual on this location, as far as the actual work goes, I think I served in two different areas. One was with Ken, the brilliant but ineffable engineer and the other was...not sure. I do know that I worked in one of the huts with a fitter, an electrician and two wiremen. I think it was Sea Dart we were working on. The fitter was a touchy psycho with a moustache, the electrician was an older guy spinning it out until his retirement, one of the wiremen I am sure was called Kevin and was the size of a house, the other was Irish and kept farting every two minutes. The good thing about being with the workers was that the walls were floor to ceiling covered in pin-ups and topless calendars. You wouldn't believe how in your face it was back then but nobody thought anything of it. They also took tea breaks religiously and I strongly approved of that. We had chairs out on the verandah of the hut and would watch the planes coming and going every day at 11am, which they would spin out until 12:00 when they went off for dinner.
BAe Wage Packet, told you I keep a lot of crud
Concorde Simulator Cockpit - Photo from University of Surrey web
You can see the projected view in the Simulated Landing from here
Filton from the air in the 70's. Pic originally from here.
While working in the evil arms industry I was a sucker for all things shiny and pointy
Here's one I prepared earlier...
Duxford dummy and the missiles not real either
|The "women in industry" edition of BAe News had this picture.|
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|Do You Remember the 80s?||Vroom, Brummm and Whee!|
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