Interviewed by Dave Gladdish
John worked for Auster Aircraft for a number of years from 1954. Where shall we start?
John was in the RAF and upon demobilisation decided to try for a job at the Auster Aircraft Company. His first job was working on Devenham Dub Noses at No 4 subcontract division of the company. He did a variety of jobs in the early days as Auster did the complete engine houses for all the Percival airplanes. John built thousands of rubber bars, from the early ones for the piston engine provost with the leather straps, through to the later models with the Dunlop units.
Living conditions were different to today, and he enjoyed working for the company. John enjoyed working at Auster’s as the jobs was very variable. John worked mostly on aircraft fitting, traveling from Syston on a pushbike! John moved to Rearsby in 1959 when he was married, still traveling on pushbike s there was little traffic.
The people John remembered were Howard Derby who was in charge, Arthur Pickett was the boss upstairs, Sid Hancock and Bill Lee, mother of Jack Lee who played football for Leicester and England. Another colleague, Cliff Howard, now lives in Cambridge and John is still in touch with him. He built all the small pieces.
Jobs are too numerous to mention, but some of the problems were with the pistol bloodhound rockets, the fins on the tail planes on the rockets, clad both sides and skimmed milled rivets both sides. The people from Bristol came up and wanted to know how they had done such a good job as their job was quite messy. Ball pane hammers and a block of rubber were bought and were held over the rivets to make a good job and not damage the outer skin around the countersink It looked a beautiful finish. Les Storer and John Tomlin worked with John at that time, along with Cliff Storer.
John could not remember anything about the Scimitar, but he remembered that two chemicals were mixed together to glue the parts on the VC10 and it would not part company if you ever tried to take it apart! The Redux bonding went over to Wymeswold. Some of the worst components John ever saw were on the Mark Agricola. The gauges of the skim were about 30 gauge and you could go out of the door to have them blown with vinyl polystyrene, but if the wind caught you outside the door it bent it in two and a fixture had to be made in the end to slot the pieces in. They were riveted together with Shobert rivets, and there was an over-zealous lad on the inspection who used a pin tester on the Shobert rivets which were holding into tissue paper, and knocking the Shoberts out, so it was a waste of time. John remembers on the Agricola, the crop sprayer, he used to take his Stanley jack plane and used to cut the booms down and plane them. He reversed the cutter on the jack plane from the normal position, and planed it to the graded taper on the wings. The Agricola was a revolutionary plane. All the controls were external and accessible to them, but it was different from the usual Auster as that was built with a proper metal wooden structure. John remembers building five sets of elevators a week, working on Saturday and Sunday morning on the Mark 9. Alan Walker and John worked on the wings, the torsion box and then the wing stage. A good fellow was needed on the other side of the dolly so you had a good pair on the solid side riveting up. When you touched the rivet on the tail, he gunned it or you were through to each other!
This is putting rivets through from one side of the metal structure, with your partner standing the other side holding a heavy weight against the shank of the rivet. Then both actions had to be co-ordinated to make sure the rivet had to be the right length and just right. Sometimes it didn't work in practice, you had '/2 inch sticking out the back when you needed 3/16ths. John loaded all the rivets on the start and sellotaped them all on so they didn't bounce out before you started. Sometimes Duralac yellow chromate was needed but that was a bit sticky. Another one of John's jobs was fitting the three doors, all individually fitted to each plane. The doors were Redux bonded, one piece shaped to a flat piece and cupped around the welded tube of the door frame. They had to be lined up and then they would go across to Elsie Elthorpe for fabricing and doping. Then you would get the door back, drill all the Perspex, making sure you had a negative rake on the drill or it would be splitting and cracking everywhere. Then you had to put a rubber grommet in the hole which was about 3/8th of an inch. You put a grommet in the centre of each of the holes and then cushioned it when you screwed it all up. The clinch nuts were put in with an upsetting tool and these were keyed into the tube so it couldn't turn around as you drew each one up just enough so you didn't pull the thread out. Then the Perspex window was ready to be attached. The doors were individually fitted (an understatement) to each airplane as the door apertures were not all the same size.
The piece for the release mechanism was the final piece to put in and it was a guessing game as the tubular structure had to be drilled opposite as the drawing office had positioned the holes first so you didn't know where they were from the outside. Thinking back John never got a bonus for fitting the doors as they were a hit and miss game.
John worked on the bench in No 4 works. He worked odd times around the experimental. John also worked in No 6 when the frames were first set up for the Pup's fuselage. John used to cut the loft plates for the Beagle components. The loft plates were full sized accurately drawn drawings put on the metal plate. Electric shears could not be used as they sent things out of shape. All the cord lines were there so the jig could be set up accurately.
The working environment was very friendly and everyone got on well. John tried to get the rivet lengths, he went straight to Dickie Room bypassing the boss and the drawing office. The rivets had to be heat treated on the VC10, but were normalised on the fins and the tail planes for the Bloodhound rocket. Mainly all the rivets on the solid side were aluminum, purple colored. Magnesium was very rarely used.
No 4 had a good name for sub-contract work. The rudder pedals used to go to Luton, bolted down on a fixture to transport them on a regular run each week. When they were produced on the shop floor, and they had to pull 1.08 ounce Salter balance and you were satisfied with them as six A or B fit points all had to pull under 6 ounce, and you were satisfied on the shop floor, but when they reached Stan Seville in the Inspection it was warmer and you had a better chance of them working and at least they did work under the 8 ounce. Frank Berry, Jack Robinson and Stan Seville were excellent men in Inspection. There was a man called Figaro the Barber in Inspection, John didn't know why he was called that.
John had memories of the canteen. The Drawing Office had their first choice of seating in the canteen, and then they all piled in. The Drawing Office went 10 minutes earlier than the shop floor. Rosie was in the Canteen down at the Station House, her husband is still alive. Cliff Storer used to tease Rosie that he hadn't had his sweet, as he had given it to the man sitting next to him.
John worked on the twin-engined Beagle. Roy Goodwin and John built the forward fuselage. Those were the days. John thinks about 20 were built.
There were so many jobs undertaken on No 4. Navigation Lights for Percival Prentices, Perspex pieces were put in a bucket of hot water as they had a better chance of riveting them together while they were warm so they didn't crack. At times the hanger was not warm, like most hangers.
John remembered the problems with the fuel tanks on the Beagle Pup. They used to drive him mad, stitch welded to aluminum and they used to leak and crack when landing. Then when the wing flexed so did the tank, as opposed to the old Auster. Roy Goodwin told John that three tanks had been changed. PRC was flushed inside the tanks so it sealed.
The Mark 9 was thought to be a well-built plane. The workmanship was thought to be quite good and not flimsy. The Auster Atlantic did not do very well. The nose wheel in polished aluminum. It had problems and never got off the ground. It was going to be a very well fitted airplane.
Ken Sharp was a little dapper man who smoked Woodbines. Gerian Wood was Personnel Manager and Frank Bates was the Managing Director. He had two sons, one was tragically killed in an Auster, and Roger was interested in the Crowther side of the business in Thurmaston. Things went wrong on the private side of the company when Cessna wanted to buy in to the company. Cessna moved to Reims in France when they could not get a foothold in the company.