Interviewed by Mike Preston
Ronald Bird was called 'Dicky' Bird for obvious reasons.
A newspaper report of a dogfight printed when Dicky was 10 years old was the start of an interest in aeroplanes. At 12 or 13 years of age there was an announcement in the local newspaper that Percival Aircraft Limited were moving from Kent to an airfield in Luton and when he was 14 years old, Dicky answered an advertisement in the local newspaper for an apprenticeship scheme for Percival Aircraft Limited. The young Dicky answered the advertisement, and after passing an interview, started his apprenticeship and started immediately. He was paid 2p per hour for a 45 our week, thus earning 90p (i.e. 7s 6d) a week. He was to start immediately, and things went on reasonably well. He became friendly with an apprentice, Bernard, who was about a year or so older than him, and who had a pilot's license. Partway through the apprenticeship Dicky and his friend built an aeroplane of their own, so they built a Flying Flea. An article was printed in the Bedford & Herts Newspaper on January 31st 1938 that stated that even though they were of a tender age, their craftsmanship was excellent. The ban on building Flying Fleas had been lifted and they were constructing their aircraft in a shed. The plane was finished in a garage belonging to Bernard's father, Dicky's friend. The picture was taken on the lawn at the back of the garage. The aeroplane was very popular with stores in Luton wanting to advertise and it was not until June 1939 that the aeroplane was almost flown in a field. The boys were both working at Luton Aerodrome and the Flying Flea was taken to one of the sheds where preparations for flying were carried out. They had not got a licence so could not take the Flying Flea from the aerodrome itself. The engine was checked and tried on a Saturday afternoon and Bernard and Dicky tossed a coin to see who would take the first attempt at taxiing along the valley, the plane reached about 10 or 12 feet, was landed and then they decided to take it to the field the next day to give it a better flight. On the Sunday morning, 3rd September 1939, whilst Dicky was working, the announcement that war was declared with Germany on the wireless. Therefore the Flying Flea was never flown again.
Dicky was in the Drawing Office at that time and Bernard was still in the Sheet Metal part at Percival Aircraft. They carried on with their apprenticeships until in 1941 they both volunteered for the Royal Air Force, but as the Drawing Office was a reserved occupation, Dicky was refused. Bernard survived the war and Dicky tried to contact him.
Dicky went to Luton Technical College as part of his apprenticeship and eventually became a Chartered Engineer, a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, a Member of the Institute of American Aircraft Associations, a Fellow of the Institute of Directors and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Whilst at Percivals, Dicky went to Luton Technical College on a part-time basis to study aeronautics. The war was still going on and Dicky stayed in the Design Office until after France fell. The Free French, undercover agents, smuggled damaged aircraft out of France and these were put onto a farm cart, covered with straw, and under cover of darkness a horse drawn carriage took them towards the South Coast until they got the aeroplane to the Mediterranean Coast. It was then put on a boat and then a British Destroyer would come from Gibraltar and pick up the aircraft parts for transportation to Gibraltar. A British Merchant ship would then bring the parts to a port in England.
One Friday afternoon Dicky was called into the office at Percivals and was sacked for allegedly fiddling time sheets. He was accused of altering his finishing time from 7.30 until 8.30 pm. He was not doing anything, and did not tell his parents. Late on the Sunday night he had a telephone call from the Chief Draughtsman, saying that he was not to tell anybody, and that on the Monday morning Dicky would drive down to Brocksborne Aerodrome in Hertfordshire to go to the guards and ask to see Buster Frogley, who was a motor racing driver at one time. The French aircraft were being brought to Brocksborne Aerodrome and Buster Frogley had chosen Dicky to be Head Draughtsman and Technical Liaison Officer. Buster told Dicky he could tell his parents but they had to swear not to tell anybody where he was. Buster was not allowed outside the airfield for four weeks. He was given a single bedroom next to the Commanding Officer's bedroom. Dicky's colleagues at Percivals were stunned to find he had been sacked and were disgusted with the bosses. This was a ploy and Dicky had to be shown to be a crook so he could do this work. Nobody was actually told the truth. In early 1943 the job ended as there were no more aircraft for the French to bring to Britain.
In 1943 Dicky saw an advertisement in a flying magazine that Taylorcraft Aeroplanes (England) Limited needed to employ a Senior Stressman and Aerodynamicist. He was interviewed at The Woodlands in Syston and was given the job. Dicky worked to try to find ways of developing other versions of Auster aircraft. Technology was changing fairly quickly and aircraft needed to be modified to include these changes. Dicky was not the Chief Designer. Mr Bostock was the Chief Designer, who gradually went on to a different side of things and Dicky was not called Chief Designer until 1947, even though he was performing that task. At the end of the war years the company started to develop a cheap economical Auster, the J1. Dicky was involved quite a bit with the development of this aircraft. He was involved how existing components could be used to develop this aircraft. Gradually changes were made to the components.
Dicky had design leadership and worked on the J1B, Aiglet and Aiglet Trainer, the Autocar, the B4, the B3 radio controlled pilot-less aircraft - the Target Drone, the B5, the C6 Atlantic, and the B8 Agricola. Dicky was interested in the helicopter, and did one or two tests on it, but nobody was interested in developing that at that time.
Dicky lived in various places around the Syston area whilst working for the company.
Dicky worked with Ian Haslett, and remembered Ambrose Hitchman who was the Commercial Director.
Dicky was the only person who knew all the technical details of the aircraft and was involved a great deal with Ronald Porteous. Dicky enjoyed flying with Les Letham who was a man who gave particular detail to flight test schedules. Up to 5th April 1944 Dicky had flown 20 hours on various aircraft as an observer. These included the Lynx Avro, the Fox Moth, the Proctor, the Dragon Rapid, the Auster 1, 2, 3 and 4 and Tiger Moths. The pilots included Jeffrey Edwards. Dicky said he flew him around one day, very low over some houses, and there was a lady sunbathing semi-naked in a garden. There was another time where a sheep was lying on its back in a field, Jeffrey landed the aircraft, turned the sheep over, and then took off again. Jeffrey had been trained to fly without any instruments. He was a great pilot. Dicky was also technical observer for A L Wykes who flew an MT 351. He also flew in an Auster 3 with Flying Officer Butler, who was picking up an aircraft which had been modified by the company, and who wanted to see if the recorded details were correct.
Derbyshire was another pilot that Dicky flew with, who was with the company for a short while. He flew a modified Auster 5. Squadron Leader Furlong was another pilot that Dicky flew with, flying a Falcon Mark III Sail Plane, for civilian usage. It had no engine and no power. On 13th October 1945 Dicky observed on an Auster 6.
Dicky was involved in doing strength tests with the aircraft. When Dicky was Assistant Chief Designer different versions were being developed, and when he came back a couple of Austers had been produced with twin seats in the back of the cabin, and this was called a four-seater. Dicky said that he could design a constant width seat for the back of the aircraft. He was told that the company could not afford a new jig, but Dicky said that was not necessary. Dicky made some wooden spacers that would hook on the jig and told the Chief Designer to make them out of metal, and then they would have a complete jig. He showed it could be done. That was how the wider fuselage aircraft was designed.
Ken Sharp was Head of the Manufacturing side and had to be convinced that designs could be commercially viable.
After the war the firm downsized the production and the orders were for the J 1 and Mark VI for the Military. Dicky was at Rearsby and briefly worked at Ratcliffe.
Dicky continued to observe pilots during the rest of the 1940's. In 1948 there were a large number of Auster’s lined up on the airfield, facing away from the hanger, waiting to be taken for delivery, and they were all securely fastened. Suddenly the wind got up during the evening. Dicky was in the area at the time, and suddenly there was a crash and an Auster came down into the roof of the Design Office. The Auster was hardly damaged. The aircraft had been fastened to 5-gallon fuel drums that were buried in the soil and held down by ropes, but this particular Auster had flown backwards and gone into the Design Office.
Dicky remembered that on 8th August 1951 an Auster J4 GAIZT aeroplane, with a Cirrus Minor 1 engine of 90 hp, took off from Rearsby at 17.50 hours and landed at 18.10. It was weekend holiday time and a few Auster employees wanted to fly on that day and Dicky arranged to fly and was told to leave the aircraft alongside the canteen. This he did and, because he was told it was to be pushed in the nearby hanger, he was surprised to hear the engine start and see the plane taxi away. Dicky went out to have a look, and as he did the aircraft turned around and then the engine stopped. The pilot got out, began to swing the propeller backwards, and then went back to the cockpit, made some adjustments. He then swung the propeller in the correct direction, the engine started immediately, and it flung the pilot to the ground, went off and took off. It began to turn in a large diameter circle, and the aircraft pulled very gently to the right due to the slipstream direction, and moved from the airfield. Dicky telephoned the Police who arrived very quickly. The aircraft had climbed to around 4,000 feet and was still going around in a large diameter circle. Dicky drove along the road in the direction the aircraft was taking to alert the local people. Eventually, the engine stopped, and the aircraft turned to the left and came very gently down. It was getting close to Melton Mowbray, and the aircraft turned at around 100 feet up. Dicky drove into Melton Mowbray airfield and by a miracle, the plane came straight down the runway, and went on towards the end of the runway. The wheels just clipped the hedge. There was slight damage to the aircraft but virtually no damage at all. Dicky took a photograph of the plane resting against the hedge for posterity.
Dicky met his wife at Austers. She came to Austers from some other company and they fell in love.
Dicky became involved in the Agricola. The company had a paper from New Zealand giving some idea of an aircraft more suitable than converted Tiger Moths. Dicky went out to New Zealand for a short period to see what they wanted. At the time the Mark 9 was being designed. Dicky came back and sketched out what he thought the best layout would be for the aeroplane. The New Zealanders were very keen on his design but the Mark 9 had priority. The Army kept returning to the company for modifications to military aircraft and had to have top priority. When the aircraft was eventually ready, the Americans had come in with the Fletcher. The Agricola went to New Zealand and Dicky went to see if the aircraft performed properly. They all said it was the perfect aeroplane but the project was dropped due to lots of work on the Mark 9 at the time. Dicky's wife said that the pilot had very good vision in this aircraft, and the load was dropped so quickly that Claude Stephenson, the farmer in New Zealand, thought it was a wonderful aircraft. There was a lot of political pressure in New Zealand at the time. Ambrose Hitchman had a paper from Claude Stephenson pleading that the aircraft be put back into production, but the firm was very busy at the time and could not possibly produce it.
Commercially, the New Zealanders were talking of 100 or more aircraft but: unfortunately they were put further behind because of the military aircraft. The New Zealand crop spraying farmers had reduced interest rates from the Government to purchase Austers. The New Zealand farmers went on to purchase the Fletcher aircraft from the Americans as the Agricola was not available. The subsidies disappeared when the Agricola was close to production, but there were some operators who used the Agricola. The New Zealand farmers came back to Austers as they realised the design of the aircraft was far advanced to the Fletcher. All the load was underneath the pilot's seat, so that the centre of gravity remained in the same place. The visibility was such that the pilot sat at the leading edge of the wing so he could see as much as he wanted to, so no objects could be in front of the aircraft that the pilot couldn't see.
Austers did not pursue other markets other than New Zealand for this particular aeroplane. The Agricola was a sprayer and a duster and at that time high wing Austers were operating in the Sudan and East Africa, but nobody thought to pursue the purchase of Agricola.
Dicky only worked on the Beagle 206X.
Dicky then went on to work at Britton Norman. He knew John Britton very well so when he saw an advertisement for Design staff, he rang John and went to work there. The aircraft were to work on the banana plantations and behave like a twin-engined Auster. The Islander aeroplane was called a Manny Wagon. The Britton Norman Islander was born out of a concept to support the Auster operations in South America. The twin-engined high winged concept was originally derived by Britton Norman but productionised by Dicky and the Beagle Miles team of draughtsman engineers. The aircraft was very successful.
The Auster office in Farnborough opened in the 1950's because there was a lot of secret work that the Government did not want to be scattered all over the country. The work was special aircraft protective insulation. The Buccaneers were some of the aircraft and it was a sub-contract office. Dicky had overall responsibility for this office. Harry Stanton worked there and was from Leicester but had never worked at Rearsby. The office closed late 1950's or early 1960's.