Interviewed by Mike Preston
Gordon’s childhood home was a farm near Queniborough, the rear of which abutted onto Rearsby aerodrome - and that is where his interest in aircraft began. He recalls being fascinated as a 9/10 year old by the aeroplanes flying over from Rearsby. On one occasion, lying by the brookside idly observing the flights, while several pilots enjoyed a swim, one of the airmen decided to dry his trousers by tying them to the bracing wires of a tailplane and took off, circling around the airfield until they were dry - in retrospect, rather a hazardous thing to do!
On leaving Roundhill School in Thurmaston, at the age of 14, Gordon sought outdoor employment. His father had since given up the farm and the best solution to Gordon seemed to be to apply to the aerodrome. The war by then being well under way, Taylorcraft Aeroplanes occupied the airfield where they assembled planes for military use. Gordon managed to secure his first job there, earning about 17 shillings a week and working in the flight hanger, which involved helping with the odd jobs associated with the final assembly of aeroplanes before test flying. Gordon recalls that the fuselage parts were made in Syston, the wings at Thurmaston, and various other parts made in other local factories. During his work, he became well acquainted with the test pilots and senior management who came to inspect from time to time, along with Mr Frank Bates and Mr Ken Sharpe, who was the production director. This was back in 1944, when the Auster aircraft (Mk IV`s) were fitted with [Lycoming] engines, which were shipped from America. Unfortunately, due to U-boat action, a number of the engines were lost in transit and Gordon recalls the sight of approximately fifty Austers, lined up at the side of the airfield, awaiting engines. There were a number of Mk III`s around at that time also, having been damaged and returned for repairs, and later the Mk V`s came into being.
The names of two of his colleagues at that time come to mind - George Cobley, who was a charge hand and Colin Whittaker, who was around the same age as Gordon and still resides in Queniborough.
Gordon recalls Ken Sharpe suggesting that he attend an engineering course at `night school` to improve his prospects with Auster, and he duly enrolled at technical college in the Newarkes, Leicester. He attended the course for three nights a week, dashing home from work with ten minutes to spare before catching the bus into Leicester and only just arriving in time for the start of lectures. The return journey stopped short at Syston on the third night of each week, Gordon having to walk the rest of the way home, reaching Queniborough at 10.00pm and falling exhausted into bed - needless to say, there was very little of a `social` life for him at that time!
Gordon used to cycle to work from Queniborough, one exception being during the `great freeze` of 1947 when he had to walk over the snow drifts from Queniborough, over the bottom of the airfield, the drifts along the Rearsby Road being about 8 feet high. After several weeks of such conditions, Italian prisoners of war were recruited to cut a path through.
After several years working in the flight hanger, Ken Sharpe suggested that Gordon had a change, and he was transferred to the tool room at Syston, managed at that time by Bert Cooper. Gordon remembers Bert as being something of a disciplinarian but who taught him a great deal about working with steel, making machine tools mostly for operation in the press room at Rearsby. At that time, because of the post-war fuel shortages, power cuts, etc. Auster began to manufacture car components and therefore a considerable amount of the work done at Syston involved the production of gear shift levers, steering mechanisms, etc. Still continuing with his evening classes, Gordon eventually gained his national certificate in mechanical engineering and was deferred from military service in order that he could go on to gain the higher national certificate and, in June 1951, he was then called up for national conscription for two years at the age of 21.
Gordon went into the Airforce to do basic training and was fortunate in being recommended for commissioning. He was sent over to Spitalgate, near Grantham, for training and then moved on to the Royal Airforce college at Henlow for three months technical training, subsequently being posted to number 58 maintenance unit in Honington, Suffolk where he enjoyed what he remembers as being a marvellous job, travelling mainly around the south-east, inspecting damaged or crashed aircraft and assessing them for repair.
After the two years` national service, Gordon returned to Rearsby, joining the planning department. His work involved deciding how particular components should be manufactured, timing and costing the production of such components, thereby producing the goods in the most efficient and economical manner possible. Gordon spent approximately two years working in that department, under Bernard Higgins, before being transferred to the drawing office in 1953, which was housed in a prefab building adjacent to the canteen, to assist with the design work and modification of small components - initially on military aircraft but later incorporating civilian aircraft. The section leader at that time was believed to be a Mr Thompson, the chief designer being a Mr Bostock who was succeeded by Dickie Bird.
Gordon found, on returning to Austers after two years` absence, that the company had grown somewhat and, with the benefit of his increased knowledge, could begin to see the overall `picture`. The flying club was in operation at this time, although Gordon was not a member mainly due to the fact that he did not drive a motor car and felt that being able to fly a plane but not drive a car seemed somewhat ridiculous to him! He did, however, undertake a certain amount of test flying as part of his job where, for instance, he had been involved with a change in cabin design, and was required to see for himself how that would work. Participation was very much in force at Austers, everyone knowing everyone else regardless of status; Gordon remembers a sense of `belonging` within the company. Around this time, circa 1955, the Ministry issued a specification for a helicopter to be used for army observation post work, which would inevitably displace the Auster aircraft from that position. The company formed a helicopter project team, a Mr P Payne and Mr Reg Austin joining the company from Bristol Helicopters. Gordon, along with two other colleagues, was seconded to this new section and they spent two years developing a [ramjet] helicopter, the ramjets being designed and made exclusively at Austers with the assistance of a newly employed specialist heat engineer who did all the basic design work. Gordon was involved in the making of the rotor blades, consisting of stainless steel and glass fibre, and the [ramjets] Gordon believes were made from [`mnemonic ninety`]. A fuselage `mock-up` was made, being a two-seater aimed specifically for the a.o.p market. A specification was submitted to the Ministry but unfortunately this was not successful. A rival specification for the [Skeeter] was favoured as being more conventional, as opposed to the Auster project’s design which had the ramjets mounted onto the tips of the rotors. They never functioned satisfactorily, and fuel consumption would have been so great as to render the operation unviable - the idea of fuselage and rotor together never really `took off`. The introduction of the [Skeeter], the `Mk VII, was considered to be the `beginning of the end` for the a.o.p. Auster.
Gordon then went on to assist with `fixed wing` design. He was responsible for the adaptation of the standard Auster (the Mk VI) which was used for the Antarctic [Vivien Foukes] survey, the engine of which had to have special equipment fitted to heat the oil, extra radio equipment was required, skis, floats, special navigation aids etc. to cope with the extreme arctic conditions. Two such aircraft were adapted. Gordon recalls going to London Docks to assess the [Magadam] which he believes was a whaling vessel, the interior of which was completely devoid of structure and therefore had plenty of space to accommodate an aircraft. Gordon was the project leader, with Dickie Bird overseeing, in the design of a packing case which contained one Auster, which was also convertible for living accommodation, and the people involved in the expedition came to Rearsby, giving Gordon the opportunity to meet and talk with them. This was an interesting and enjoyable time for him, as was another relatively small design project a year or two earlier, when Austers decided they could do something with crop spraying. Gordon was given the task of arranging the spray bars on the Auster, believed to be the Mk V, along with the designing of the tanks, and the buyers (Britain Northern of the Isle of Wight) came up for the trials, both projects attracting media attention and giving Gordon a sense of being `part of the team`.
In 1957, the company decided to try something new -wishing to break the `stranglehold` of the American Pipers and Cessnas. The manufacture of a new aircraft with a tricycle undercarriage was proposed which had to be more comfortable, with a larger cabin and the same standard of upholstery and furnishing as the inside of a motor car. This was to be called the `Atlantic` and Gordon’s role was to design the cockpit area, in particular the instrument panel, flying controls and the seating arrangement, thus creating an attractive interior. The new aircraft was rushed through production to appear at the SPAC show at Farnborough. A much larger stowage area for luggage was created and as a `gimmick` luggage was specially made to exactly fit the available space. The aircraft was exhibited just as a fuselage, not having an engine installed as Gordon recalls that it had not yet arrived from America. In spite of favourable comments, however, the company decided not to go ahead with manufacture, due to development costs and their decreasing confidence in their ability to sell the aircraft as against the American competition. To Gordon, the company seemed to be `fighting a losing battle` as regards the production of a cost-efficient aircraft, with the continuing use of steel tubing, [woodspar] wings, light alloy with fabric covering, etc., which was an expensive way of making an aircraft by today`s standards. The company persisted for a while with the [Gypsum Major] engines, which Gordon recalls were rather heavy - the [Licomins] were considered better - and then went onto the continental engines when more `horsepower` was required. These proved very satisfactory and were used by most of the American competition, as opposed to the rather heavily structured aircraft which Auster were known for.
Gordon recalls that for the last 4/5 years that he was employed by Auster, helping with the design work, he was accompanied to the Farnborough shows by Eddie Worrall. They would take a large white van, packed with advertising material, display boards, brochures, etc. and it was their responsibility to set up the stand, ready for inspection by Mr Bates, the then Managing Director, in preparation for when the demonstration aircraft flew in.
After this period, sales of light aircraft were getting more and more difficult, with companies chasing the few contracts available, and Gordon felt that the time was right to move on into general engineering; in fact a number of his contempories from Rearsby emigrated to America to work with the Pipers and Cessnas in order to enable them to stay in the light aircraft industry.
Gordon has kept in touch with a few of his colleagues from those days, such as Dickie Bird and Les Letham. Les holds a keen interest in the history of Austers, and when he had a book published on the subject, Gordon helped in securing the services of a local bookshop to promote sales.
After leaving Austers in 1958, Gordon worked for a while at [Freeman Terry Machines] in Syston, before moving to Crowthers, working with textile and electrical mahinery. This in effect brought him back to his roots, as Frank Bates was the Managing Director, and Gordon also worked with Roger Bates for the next 23 years or so, until the company closed. Gordon and Roger still manage to meet up 2-3 times a year.