Interviewed by Bob Wykes
Bob Wykes is the son of the founder of Austers, Alfred Lance Wykes, who was known as AL to his business colleagues.
Al was a person who had all the qualities that characterised successful entrepreneurs. He was a visionary, a risk-taker and he was an innovator. His interest in flying coupled with his success as a businessman meant that participation in commercial aviation was almost inevitable. His first experience in flying came in World War I as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps and almost 20 years later he became a member of the Leicestershire Flying Club where he was very attracted to an American high winged two-seater aircraft called the Taylorcraft Model A. Al’s background was textiles when he came out of the Army. He studied at Birmingham University and then went to work as a salesman initially, but he met a man called Crowther whilst in the textile industry and together they set up a company in Thurmaston called Crowther Limited. He had no funds to put in the business, but he had an arrangement to buy in the company in time. The company was a firm that specialised in the manufacture and agency of textile machinery, and once this was established AL decided to take a sabbatical and went to America. He went to America to meet the manufacturer of the Taylorcraft aircraft, a man called G C Taylor. Whilst there, he obtained the licence to manufacture Taylorcrafts in Britain. The first thing the people at Crowther Limited knew about where he had gone was when they started getting communications about what he required in the way of factory space and machinery and he started sending drawings over. These drawings had to be converted from American to British Standards so that by the time he returned they were almost ready to start. AL set up Taylorcraft Aeroplanes (England) Limited which had a nominal capital of £15,000 from family and friends.
Percy White came to work with AL as Company Secretary, a job he had done with another company. Another person came into the firm, Frank Bates, who had been a colleague at Crowther Limited. Eventually Frank Bates became Managing Director of the company. Ken Sharpe came in as a member of the skilled labour force and in time he became an influential member of the Board of Directors.
In a short time, between February and May 1939 the first aircraft was built.
Bob became Works Manager many years later, and he was impressed at an early age by the grinding machine. Once the aircraft was built, Bob did fly quite a lot. He flew for example to their holiday home near Skegness sitting in between his father and mother. Bob does not remember much about the journey, but he remembers the journey back as his mother was being sick into brown paper bags. They landed for refuelling somewhere near Grantham, his mother got out of the plane and said that she would return home on the bus. As far as Bob knows, his mother never flew again. Bob flew again and he enjoyed the experience. In September 1939, the war started, Taylorcraft had all its orders cancelled, flying was stopped and the company ran the risk of bankruptcy. Somehow his father found out about the need of the Army for a spotter plane, and the Taylorcraft was considered ideal or so they thought. The wartime production of the Taylorcraft was massive. Bob’s knowledge of the company was nil as he was only a little boy. Bob does remember that his father was a good one, although during the war he worked excessive hours. Bob fought sleep so that he could talk to his father and ask him about what he had been doing during the day. Bob would be taken by his father to the factory at weekends, and he would play around whilst his father did his work. Bob disliked aerobatics and careering around the sky was not his idea of fun at all. He didn’t mind flying in a straight line. Bob first flew in a plane when he was quite tiny, he had numerous cushions so he could reach the pedals. Bob was told about the plane and how he had to keep it straight. This he succeeded in doing while they were going along the aerodrome. After a while his father said ‘didn’t he feel he should pull it off the ground now’ and Bob managed to take off. Bob’s friends loved going up with his father as he would do aerobatics for them.
During Bob’s visits to the factory he got to know his way around and a lot of the people of the time. One of the most significant days in Bob’s life was the day his father died. He can remember the day quite vividly although he was very young.
Al was giving an aerobatic display at Salute the Soldier Week, a savings project where people bought savings stamps to support the country in the war effort. Al had given a trial exhibition to Barrow upon Soar, his home village, a few days before the event. The idea was that he would try the new Auster Mark IV and do aerobatics in it. Jeff Edwards, the test flyer on the Hurricanes, Tiger Moths and Typhoons that were repaired at Rearsby was also giving a display and there was someone else who was also giving a flight in an Auster 1. The family drove from Barrow upon Soar to Rearsby in a Hillman car. On the way the car had a puncture. There was a panic associated with having to give this display and the possibility of being late through this puncture. However, the wheel was changed, they drove to Rearsby and according to a man called John Harvey Smith, a great friend of his father’s, Al ran all the way from the gates of the aerodrome to his plane. Al must have been stressed. The family drove to Abbey Park in Leicester where the exhibition was and the flying display was to take place. The display started, there were thousands of people there, and during one of the manoeuvres the aircraft crashed. Bob didn’t actually see the crash as the plane had crashed into the railway embankment near Abbey Park and was hidden. Bob heard the bells of the fire engines and obviously it was a pretty traumatic time. Bob was with Roger Bates, the son of Frank Bates, and he kept hearing people talk about the crash. After a short while a man called Charlie Thompson who was involved in security at Rearsby found Bob and told him that his father had been involved in an accident and took him to the home of Frank Bates. A lady called Moira, one of the drivers, came to Bob and said she would take him home to Barrow upon Soar. Bob went back to Barrow and the house was obviously very gloomy. Then his mother said something that quite shocked him. She said that his father didn’t feel anything, and Bob said why was he dead as nobody had told Bob that his father had died. Bob’s sister, aged 16 years old, was at school in Yorkshire and the family telephoned the Headteacher to ask her to send her back on the train but not to tell her what had happened. Whilst on the train she bought a newspaper and found out her father had been killed.
Bob’s mother hated aeroplanes but never stopped him flying. Jeff Edwards, the test pilot, was a big hearted fellow and was apparently the kind of man who before the pay check arrived had spent all his money, and went around the factory asking for loans. It got to the stage that near to pay day, when Jeff was around, everyone used to disappear as he had never got any money.
At the funeral of Frank Bates, Jeff Edwards turned up in a chauffer-driven limousine. All the Auster people said that he was showing off in this limousine even though he hadn’t probably got a penny to his name.
Many years later when Bob was going to Egypt he was reading a book about the Saudi Arabian Royal Family. He came across a description of the largest military order ever placed for a complete air defence system, costing millions and millions of pounds, by the Saudi Royal Family on British companies and the arms super salesman who handled this deal was Jeff Edwards who had made a fortune in commission. When Jeff turned up in the limousine at Frank Bates’ funeral, it was a perfectly reasonable thing for him to do as he was a very rich man.
One of the things Bob was asked to was to talk about was the way the Auster aircraft influenced his life. This was considerable. One thing was that Bob studied aeronautical engineering purely because this was the family business. It was an unwise decision, and if Bob had chosen his career, he would have become a musician. However, he didn’t so he studied engineering. The very first lecture he went to was where he was told that to study engineering you had to have engineering acumen, and the second thing was to be able to do maths, which Bob couldn’t do. Whilst at college, Bob joined the Nottingham University Flying Club to learn how to fly. He had been in the Auster Flying Club and went solo with a man called Barnard in a two- seater Arrow, he thinks. The man got out and Bob took the plane up. He was half way across the aerodrome, went around again, went further downwind, and then tried to come down. He couldn’t manage it, so third time around, after leaving Leicestershire, he drove it into the ground. Bob then joined the University air school.
Bob was a lousy pilot as he was very timid. He didn’t really like flying and only did it for the honour of the family. One day he looked in the confidential records and found that nobody thought he was any good. The summer camp came along, Bob had been flying with the University a couple of years, and the Chief Flying Instructor took over with him to see if he could improve. Within an hour and a half, flying had clicked with him, he became confident and loved flying. By the end of the summer camp Bob was flying for the university in a competition.
Bob hoped to join the Air Force as a pilot but they had changed the rules and he decided against it as he thought that he ought to start earning a living by going into the business. Bob went into the Air Force as an Engineering Officer and was just about to leave when he received telephone call to say would he go home as Peter Maysfield and the Bristol Aeroplane Company were going to buy Austers. It would not affect his position, but he wouldn’t own the business any more. Bob joined Beagle and had a job in the Planning Office under Herbert Thompson. The office was superb to work in and it was a pleasure to go to work. Alan Wallace, Nick Nicholls, a German ex-Luffwaffe pilot called Baron Nicholas von Barr all worked in there. They used to work extremely long hours in the development of the Airedale although Bob’s particular responsibility was the development of military modifications, one of which was the Mark 11 aircraft.
This was a great project to work on as the only people who were interested were the men working on it. There was a draughtsman called Bernard Thatcher, his assistant called Steinsberg, Bob and Dennis Neal. They had a free hand on this project and were told what to produce. Bob’s job was to pull everything together. This involved fitting a modified Mark 9 with an engine from the Auster Auvicular. He used to go to Leicester Forest East and rob the Auvicular. He was very good at taking things off, but not so good at putting things back together. As long as he removed the bits, Dennis would deal with them at Rearsby. So the Mark 9 was built. Nobody took any interest in it until it started to look like a real aircraft.
The Managing Director, Peter Maysfield’s visits to Rearsby were quite something. People on the whole were terrified of him. Bob can remember when he was on one of his visits, they hadn’t been developing the Airedale Wing so they got a fitter to thread ribs onto the wing, so that it looked as if the wings were on the way. Peter Maysfield didn’t notice that there was nothing there. Bob learnt something that the Works Director, Ken Sharpe, was deposed as his work was given to someone else and he had nothing to do. He had devoted his life to Austers and it was a shattering experience to see that. He just left in the end.
When Peter Mayfield started to have a look at the Mark 11 which looked like an aeroplane there were some silly changes made. For instance, the inside of the aircraft was all black and it was changed to grey that made no consequence whatsoever. It was a time when they were building aircraft for airshows like Farnborough and the Paris Air Show, and the silly changes infuriated Bob. There was only one person who would stand up to him and that was Tom Simmons. If Tom said it couldn’t be done, it was accepted but the rest of the managers were yes men. The Mark 11 was eventually made and flew as a reward for their services. The team were flown down to Shoreham so they could see their plane fly.
Bob worked for Ranald Porteus for a time in the Sales Office and he was quite shocked at the negative letters that would come from dealers and customers about the old fashioned Auster. It really depressed Bob so much that he wrote a letter to Frank Bates. He showed this to his uncle before he gave it to Frank Bates who told him that it could cause eruptions so the letter was never handed over. The thoughts that were expressed were thoughts of customers and really needed to be said. Bob went in to Frank one day and said he would like to join the team of pilots. Frank said that he lost his best friend, his son and would not give Bob permission and would not be responsible for his death. It showed Bob that Frank’s heart was not in aeroplanes and was the Managing Director of an aircraft company. It was not surprising therefore that developments which could have meant commercial success against the Americans never took place.
At the press day in Shoreham, Bob went with Ranald to the Mark 11 and to his amazement, Ranald turned to him and said he could not remember how to start the aircraft. Bob thinks he had stage fright and some time later he chickened out of a delivery flight due to psychological problems which he had in the future. This resulted in the end of Ranald’s flying career.
Bob had a reputation as a troublemaker whilst he was working in the office. They had to work extremely long hours. What used to happen was that Herbert Thompson would go around the department and ask the men to work overtime, and then at 5 pm he would go home and have an early night. What used to make Bob mad was that the company was spending hundreds of thousands of pounds to make the Airedale quiet and comfortable, and their office had no ventilation whatsoever. The office was situated near the roof of No 4 hangar and the temperature was unbearable as there were no outside windows. Bob got fed up with this and said to the other men that they should refuse to work overtime until there was some form of air conditioning put in the place. It was all agreed and so it was decided to work to rule. So immediately there was a response, the joiners came in and ducts were fitted. Bob left the company and saw his old mates. It turned out that the moment the work to rule ceased, the work on the ventilation system was stopped and it was never put in.
The Planning Office was a place of great humour and sometimes a little anguish. One day when a Polish former fighter pilot was selling flags for the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund. It was Battle of Britain week. He went up to the desk of Baron von Barr and tried to sell him a flag. There was an explosion as Nick was shot down and became a prisoner of war. Nick didn’t find it funny. He was a very interesting character. Nick was a very fine artist. He was a member of the German nobility and he came over here as a Luftwaffe pilot, a member of the Hitler Youth and was shot down and imprisoned. Towards the end of the war when the situation was relaxed for German prisoners of war, they were able to go under guard for walks. He was going for a walk one day and he fell in love with the niece of Earl Russell, the philosopher. Nick decided to escape, went to their large mansion, where he married this girl and they lived in the mansion. They had to be very secretive about this because he was still a prisoner of war. The servants were bound to know this because of the amount of food that was consumed and one of the Russell family obviously got to know about this, let the cat out of the bag, and arrested the whole family and put them in prison. Eventually he was released and carried on as a civilian.
One particularly important person was a man on the production line called Eric Shepherd. He was on primary assembly and a lot of the skilled men did not like people like me to be put with them because they were expected to show them the ropes and this adversely affected their bonus. Eric put up with the fact that he would be teaching me for a week or so, but after a week or so Bob started to do the jobs that he was doing so the time for primary assembly was dramatically reduced and Eric benefited financially by the investment he had made in Bob. Bob had a good time with Eric.
Peter Harris, the accountant, was also impressive, and when Bob was working on his own and needed a Company Secretary, the first person who came to mind was Peter and he was invited to work with me. He was a first class person and showed the qualities of so many of the managers who worked with Austers. There was 100% loyalty, a solid practical approach to work, a good sense of humour and in the case of Peter an ideal person to handle the finances of the business.
The Beagle was failing and Anthony Wedgewood Benn who was the Minister of Technology involved the Government and was determined to develop it as a state company. Bob was furious when he read this. So Bob wrote to his MP and pointed out the investment the country was making in this company was unwise and suggested certain questions to be asked in the House of Commons. This the MP did and the reply from Anthony Wedgewood Benn was that he was confident that within a reasonable space of time the Beagle would make a substantial contribution to the financial benefit of the country. Within six months the firm had folded to the tune of six and a half million pounds.
One other person who affected the company was Peter Maysfield. He first came across Peter when Bob was a student, and a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society. Bob used to get the Royal Aeronautical Journal and used to attend lectures in college once a month. Peter Maysfield became President of the Royal Aeronautical Society and his lectures were on the development of speed, sort of from walking, riding a horse, etc. It was a fascinating article and well presented. Many years later, after the demise of Beagle, Bob heard that Peter Maysfield was speaking at the University in Loughborough so he went along to hear him. Again he gave a superb presentation, this time going forward and projecting forward that we would be flying to Australia in a rocket/plane and his projections have been proved to be wrong, but the way in which he presented this was so good. Peter Maysfield had qualities that should have made the Beagle a success. He was a visionary, a superb communicator and he knew the right sort of people. His problem was that he was not particularly practical and that he did not have people around him who could restrain him when he needed restraining, especially in financial terms. If he had had that, Bob thinks that Beagle could have been a great success but in Bob’s opinion he was given too much of a free hand and his weaknesses overcame his very considerable strengths.
Austers had an enormous influence on Bob’s life. Working at Austers gave him great job satisfaction even though the conditions in Planning Office at No 4 were not brilliant. The people were great and most of them seemed to stay there. he money was not brilliant but the good working relations and the humour of the place made up for it.