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Farnborough Memories by Phil Folwell

Becoming an apprentice at Farnborough almost seemed like a natural progression from the path I was following in a technical school. I started as a craft apprentice, destined for a blue-collar type of job. After the first year at Farnborough I upgraded to become an engineering apprentice. In addition to slightly different classes in the technical college associated with the apprenticeship program, engineering apprentices spent their last two years helping in the technical departments such as wind tunnels, electronics labs, and even flight test work. Since it was difficult for my mother and father to make the journey from Wales, an aunt and uncle accompanied me for my start at Farnborough and a year later attended the first SBAC Air Show to be held there. I believe I was at Farnborough during its glamour years. When our family visited there in 1973, twenty years after I finished my apprenticeship, it did not seem as glamorous or as busy.

The first year of the program had us working in a machine shop and a drawing office just used for our training. In the machine shop, the emphasis was on making tools that would be useful as we worked in various machine shops such as the tool room, the instrumentation department and aircraft maintenance shops. Some of the tools we made were clamps, Vee blocks and even a small surface plate, hand scraped no less! I still have most of the items that I made during those years. The second and third years were devoted to working in the shops. I remember very clearly the work involved in making moulds and casting metal in the foundry. Stan, the shop foreman, even helped me practice golf shots on the lunch hour. In the woodworking shop our main assignment was to make a tool chest with drawers. Mine is in the possession of my grandson and it houses many, many Lego blocks. If there was enough time, a propeller was to be hand carved. I only had time to make the tool chest in the six to eight weeks allocated for each department. Then there was arc and gas welding to be learned in the sheet metal shop, how to run lathes, milling machines and surface grinders in various machine shops, and many other skills in the many specialty shops of Farnborough.

During that first year also, I joined what was at the time a gliding club but which became an integral part of the training. I stayed in for the entire six years I was there and spent most weekends running up and down the runways retrieving the gliders to the launch point, operating the winch with which we launched gliders and sailplanes to about a thousand feet and of course, flying. We performed most of our own maintenance unless our machines were too badly smashed by pilot error. I did my share, by stalling out when the winch cable broke at a low altitude. All of a sudden it was very quiet and then I was going down to damage the wing spars when we hit and for me to go through the deliberately flimsy wooden seat. I am sure that saved me from a bone jarring incident and possibly injury. As it was only my pride was injured.

The club had been founded with gliders and sailplanes taken from Germany as reparations. Later we added new single seat and dual control aircraft built by the Slingsby company. Every year we went on a summer camp to locations more favourable for good gliding. The first couple of years to Detling in Kent, which was a WWII grass field then in later years to the Long Mynd in Shropshire. The latter was a superb ridge soaring site about seven hundred feet high and looking west towards Wales. It was there that I flew a five-hour flight, a prerequisite for one of the gliding qualification certificates. Flying for five hours in a cramped cockpit takes intestinal fortitude and great skill at urinating in a bottle without losing control of the aircraft. One of my cohorts had not planned to stay up for a long flight but conditions changed and he did. Unfortunately he did not have a bottle but he made his boot do when Mother Nature called. It took several days before he was able to wear the boot again.

The same cohort, one Dennis Fielder, managed to get shot in the leg with a .22 while we were at Detling one year. The CO of the station and his daughter used to hunt rabbits at night from their jeep. Some of us thought this would be good fun too and rabbit hunting with clubs was instituted. Soon this was too tame and illegal guns were borrowed and used. The .22 was accidentally discharged while being loaded and that is how Dennis got his wound. Naturally this was the end of hunting because the police were involved. It is believed that light sentences were meted out after the police were entertained in the officers' mess. Detling was also the place where I performed my first full circuit to land back at the launch point. To be that high and to feast on the outstanding view was thrilling. Up until this time I had been doing low altitude straight flights down the runway at Farnborough, some with gentle "S" turns. All our early training was solo due to lack of dual control gliders. We started with being pulled along by the winch on the ground, just learning to keep the wings level. After that one did low hops without releasing the winch cable, then progressed higher and higher, eventually free of the winch cable. The primary gliders used for training were completely open, hardly more than a seat on a frame. Looking down between one's legs to the winch a thousand feet below was quite a thrill. There were no instruments so flying was strictly by the seat of the pants and the feel of the wind on the face.

We had several gliding instructors, an ex-apprentice Spike Minterne, two who were lecturers at the technical college, and two test pilots. Both lecturers had been in the RAF during the war, one as a pilot, the other as a navigator. The one who had been the pilot was Bob Cameron who taught English. Quite naturally, the navigator taught Mathematics. The two test pilots were Bob Smythe and Bill Bedford. I believe that Bill Bedford later became chief test pilot for the Hawker Aircraft company. These were quite illustrious people to have for gliding instruction and they were able to impart a lot of knowledge. Bob Smythe and Bill Bedford aerotowed one of our sailplanes to the Long Mynd from Farnborough. This was so we would have the use of an extra sailplane in addition to the ones available at the Long Mynd location. The tow plane was a Fiesler Storch, a very slow flying aircraft due to specialised flaps and slats. This aircraft was also part of German reparations, like some of our gliders and sailplanes. I have a picture of the Fiesler Storch at the Long Mynd with some of our laundry hung out to dry on it. What little respect we had.

In addition to winching, many of the launches at the Long Mynd were accomplished with elastic bungee cords. Two teams using a rope Vee attached to the bungee cord, ran down the slope until the bungee catapulted the glider into the wind blowing up the slope, The ridge lift was so good, it felt like being in an elevator as the sailplane rose above the ridge. However when the wind got really strong, merely lifting under the wings of a sailplane would launch it. If the wind got any stronger than that, it was time to shut down for the day. One of the Long Mynd memories: Trying to launch one of our members by catapult and having a gust of wind take the glider up. Unfortunately, one of our guys was hanging on a wingtip and did not let go. The wind blew the glider sideways over on its back. Needless to say it needed a lot of repairing. The pilot and others were unhurt and the pilot was sent up right away to avoid losing his nerve. The correct procedure after a launch was to turn parallel to the ridge so as to stay in the rising air. We watched one inexperienced person fail to turn and sail haplessly westward into the sunset going down and down of course and landing in a field at the foot of the ridge. This took a little dexterity at missing cows. A crew had to go and retrieve him and his glider. I believe he learned his lesson and the feat was immortalised in print. Well actually, by being described on the back of a picture postcard.

The accident at the Long Mynd was matched by at least one other incident at Farnborough. In this instance, we were operating on the short cross runway. In order to get enough winch height the launch site and the winch were adjacent to opposite boundary fences. One of our people thought he was going to undershoot the field (he probably was not) and tried to put his sailplane down in the field the other side of the fence. He was going much too fast to do this and ended up by crashing into the barbed wire fence. Fortunately he had the good sense to keep his head down. The barbed wire fence cleanly broke off the clear plastic windscreen. He too was immediately sent up again to avoid losing his nerve (I wonder if that really works?)

Some other good and bad memories at Farnborough: On a clear winter day with snow on the ground and a strong wind, winching a glider higher than usual by letting out the cable with the glider flying like a kite at the end of the winch cable. Then the winch was operated to pull the glider up for a second time. Being one to ride that day in a two-seater with instructor Spike Minterne. Having him do a loop was a brand new experience. The bad memory was having one of the crew approach the winch on a dry day. We were supposed to ground the winch but had not. He was the recipient of a goodly static discharge caused by the sailplane on the end of the cable. I believe it was Jim Tucker who let out a great yell to sniggers from the rest of us. Again, only pride was hurt. Over the six years, nobody was badly hurt except for Dennis' gunshot wound.

Life at Farnborough was not all flying sailplanes and having fun. During the second half of the training, I worked in many of the technical departments. I was in the 11½ foot wind tunnel, the guided weapons department (missiles), flight test, Pyestock which was a location for gas turbine test and development, and numerous other departments filled with interesting projects and people. In those days, wind tunnel instrumentation was very dependent on pressure measurements with manometers (glass tubes filled with water and connected to a wind tunnel model with small plastic hoses.) I learned about servo- mechanisms from Frank Holoubek who had emigrated from Czechoslovakia. He was extremely diligent at passing along this information. While in the guided weapons department I worked on early telemetry systems for passing data from a missile to the ground and attended a missile firing on the Salisbury Plain quite close to Stonehenge.

The most thrilling memories resulted from the flight test activities. The first time I flew was in a WWII four engine Lancaster bomber. This was being used to test power controls and I did not realise that the flight plan included 3G turns and 2G pullups. A little exciting when a plaque on the instrument panel indicated that 2G was supposed to be the maximum. I did feel very sick, so I learned to take pills before flying the next time. When Bob Smythe was at the controls, he was careful to check that everyone in the plane was ready to go. Not many of the other test pilots were that considerate. Of course there were a few jockeys and one of them gave us a thrilling flight, also in a Lancaster. This particular flight involved the use of a chase plane to photograph us from the rear. One of my apprentice friends was in the rear turret with a light that would register a good target on the camera. In the middle of the flight, the chase plane had to return and have its cameras reloaded. Our pilot decided to have fun while we waited. First we visited his home by diving down on it while he pointed out the sights and talked about the person we could see working in a field. Next we went down to the south coast of England and flew along very low and parallel to the beach. My friend in the rear turret had no communications and had no idea what was going on. He later told us that the plane was so low it was leaving a wind wake on the water. Looking out the windows we could see holidaymakers riding donkeys on the beach. Finally, we turned and headed straight for the beach, pulling up and climbing steeply over the heads of the people on the beach. It must have given them quite a thrill (or a fright.) Now it was time to rendezvous with the chase plane and resume a more normal flight test program. I did get a flight in one of the early jet fighters, a Gloster Meteor. It was quite a thrill, tempered by hearing that it was near impossible to get out in flight without being clobbered by the tail surfaces.

There were other activities at Farnborough. Once a year we would organise a parade for charity. Floats of various kinds were improvised and costumes developed for the participants. I had a car during my later years there and it was put to good use one year as the vehicle for the parade queen and her attendants. My Armstrong Siddeley car was as old as I was and needed quite a lot of renovation before everyday use. I had the straight six cylinder engine completely apart and put in new piston rings and did a valve job. Unfortunately I used copper split or cotter pins when reassembling the engine, not realising they would fail. The car lasted for me but the next owner threw a rod and it went through the side of the crankcase. The body style had a soft-top and a rumble or dickey seat in the rear. It had a 12 volt electrical system when most cars used 6 volts. When it needed a new battery, the cost was several times my weekly salary. Of all the activities at Farnborough, playing poker consumed several people including me. We punched out metal chips in the sheet metal shop and they lasted us through six years. A game could be enjoyed just about any night except for the weeks when exams were being held. I had the distinction of actually winning the shirt off a person's back!

Towards the end of the apprenticeship, our thoughts turned towards our future. Some chose to stay at Farnborough, a few to enter National Service in one of the armed forces, and some chose to seek their opportunity in Canada. An apprentice named Pete Wood from a couple of years previous to our class had emigrated to Canada. He seemed quite enthusiastic about the prospects there. Quite a few of our year decided to emigrate, I guess there is safety in numbers. Going by sea was the only practical way to take a reasonable amount of luggage and was cheaper than airfare. There were six of us on the one boat, which turned out to be rather a "tub". One's choice of ship seemed to be decided by the embarkation date, kind of silly considering that the Queen Elizabeth would have cost the same. It turns out that our ship, the Columbia, had been sunk and re-floated twice and they seemed quite proud of that.

The voyage took nine days to Quebec with some rough seas on the way. There were twelve bunks in our cabin and the closest head was one deck up! There were no portholes and the side of the ship had started to curve inward. Also, the hold was across from the cabin door. That's how far down in the ship we were. At one point in the voyage there was an inch or so of water on the floor. The food was very good even though I did not eat too much. Did spend quite a lot of time hanging over the rail.

Our final destination was Toronto where the most likely aerospace employment was to be had. The journey from Quebec to Toronto was by train, with not too much to see except bush. None of us had too much money but fortunately we soon found employment at Avro Aircraft, where CF-100 jet fighters were built. I worked in the flight test department while the chief test pilot was Jan Zurakowski who was previously a test pilot for Gloster in England. Jan had made a name for himself at the SBAC shows. He performed outrageous aerobatics in a Meteor, inventing a manoeuvre that resembled a cartwheel. This was at the peak of a vertical climb with the plane slowed to a low forward speed. Fortunately, I did not volunteer to be a flight observer as the CF-100 acquired a bad reputation because of difficulty in getting out and parachuting to safety.

I hope these memories are enjoyable. They are extracted from an autobiography, which runs for a total of 18 pages. I say I have crammed it all in, other people claim that is all my life has amounted to! If anyone would like to read the whole thing, which includes the many jobs I have held in southern California since 1956, e-mail me at

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