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The Early Days and the Last Days of Auster Aircraft

A talk given by Bob Wykes son the firm's founder, A. L. Wykes, May 2012

Philosophy of life ( 1 ALW in 1940's)

Alfred Launcelot Wykes was born in 1898 and brought up with his sister Dorothy in Rothley, Leicestershire. His father was the manager of a factory. Although middle class, the family had a heart for working class folk. This reflected their view that Jesus was a great moral and ethical teacher whose life, words and work illustrated His concern for ordinary people. However, my grandfather and father regarded Jesus as the son of a man but not the Son of God. They called themselves Christian Socialists who, it seems, didn't accept the spiritual teaching of Christ and never got to know Jesus in a personal way. They were active members of the Labour Party but not the church. It was in this environment that I grew up as an atheist until I became a student. Then I put my faith in Christ myself, something it appears my Grandpa and Dad were unable or unwilling to do.

My father was known as Lance to family and friends. Later, in the world of business, he became known to colleagues and employees as AL which is how I will refer to him.

Early background

He was educated at Quorn Grammar School and later, after WW1, he studied at Birmingham University where he qualified as a Batchelor of Commerce. He joined the Royal Flying Corps (2 ALW in RFC uniform) predecessor of the Royal Air Force, as a September 1917, flew solo after 7 hours and crashed without injury in France. (3 Crashed Sopwoth)

Leaving the RFC, he obtained a job in the textile trade as a sales representative. Eventually, his boss, a Mr Crowther, financed a firm in of agents and distributor of textile machinery based in the Britannia Works, Thumaston. AL bought himself into the business and became Managing Director of Crowther Limited.

Plane Maker

Because of his love for flying, he did two things. He started to build a French microlight, as it would be known today, the 'Flying Fea'. (4 Flea) He also joined the County Flying Club which had acquired a side-by-side two-seat Taylorcraft A, designed and built by a firm run by an English ex-patriot, George Taylor, in America. The flea project ended when it was banned as being dangerous. The beneficiary was me, who played in it as my plane.

AL was very impressed with the Taylorcraft. Once the Crowther business was well- established, he took a sabbatical and went to America. There he met George Taylor, (5 Taylor) obtained a licence to build his planes in the UK, started sending drawings and instructions to his colleague & friend Frank Bates and his uncle Percy, who had joined the firm to be involved in the project. They knew nothing about building aeroplanes, so he arrived back with a Taylorcraft engineer, Ray Carlson (6 Carlson) who did, and who supervised construction in a works behind Crowther's Britannia Works.

Taylorcraft Aeroplanes (England) Limited was formed with a nominal capital of £15,000 funds being obtained from family, friends and contacts with wealth. Production was started on March 28th 1939 and in the remarkably short time of 5 weeks and 3 days the first machine was ready to be towed to Ratcliffe Airfield to be test flown. (7 the tow). I remember AL's comment about one of the senior technicians, who shall remain nameless, who said, just before the flight, “If anything goes wrong, Mr Wykes, I accepted no responsibility!” It says a lot for my father's benevolence that this man stayed on the company's payroll for many years after that. After the professional test pilot, Wynne Eyton, had flown and pronounced the plane satisfactory, AL got in to pilot it accompanied by Uncle Percy (8 Griiff' William's picture). Having flown around for a while he said, ”Shall I loop it, uncle?”. “Not bloody likely” was the reply. Uncle Percy rarely flew again after that as far as I know. Over the next few months, a number of orders were received for this 'people's plane'. AL used one to commute from our holiday cottage to work. The flights out and back are imprinted on my mind by the fact that my mother was airsick into brown paper bags. Her dislike of flying was increased on the way home when we got a puncture landing for fuel. She got out to travel the rest of the journey by bus, never to take to the air again!

The War Sales of the Taylorcraft were being achieved until World War 2 started in September, 1939. Private flying was banned. Orders were cancelled. The firm faced bankruptcy and closure. However, the Army required a light aircraft for target spotting and liaison duties. It needed good ground visibility, the ability to land and take off from short unprepared landing strips, easy to be repaired and maintained. It appeared that the Taylorcraft would be most suitable for the job apart from one thing. It had an American engine. The British manufactured Cirrus Minor seemed appropriate, so one plane was fitted with this power unit. (9 UK engine).

Ministry officials and senior military staff were invited to Thurmaston to discuss the matter. Numerous personnel arrived which overwhelmed the accommodation and transport available. The visitors said what they wanted and what they expected of the plane. AL said, “Now you have told us what you want, we'll show you what we have got”. Squeezing in the cars which were available, they were taken to Ratcliffe Aerodrome to view the plane and witness its flying qualities with an impressive display by AL. (9A Banking plane) To cut a long story short, orders were received. The company was saved.

Named the Taylorcraft Auster, the aircraft became 'the eyes of the army' for spotting enemy positions and directing allied gunfire. The demand from the military was sufficiently high for Auster's to be mass produced. By the end of the war, 10 factories and workshops were requisitioned to meet the demand for components and complete planes. A shoe factory in Syston was obtained for the installation of one of the few conveyorised aircraft production lines in the country. The Auster's were built in simple stages by the workforce which was largely female and unskilled. The power of the ministry to requisition property needed for the war effort was considerable. Owners of buildings who opposed requisition could face immediate arrest and imprisonment. In this way Rearsby was acquired as the operational base for the aircraft.

A requirement to repair non-Auster planes was placed on the company's shoulders. (10 Rearsby line) Large numbers of Tiger Moths, Hurricanes and Typhoons as well as damaged Auster,were restored to active service. The speed with which things happened during the war was quite staggering. Within weeks of a decision that Hurricanes were to be repaired at Rearsby, two large hangars had been built, staff recruited and trained and the rebuilt aircraft started flying. AL did much of the flight testing himself. However, he wasn't qualified to fly modern fighters and, for this reason, Geoff Edwards was taken on as the firm's chief test pilot.

Relevant experiences In spite of the pressure of war work, AL was thinking about the future peacetime. Traveling to our holiday destinations in crowded trains, he prepared brochures for post war planes based on the sales literature of pre-war cars. Always keen on publicity, he invited the press to photograph him demonstrating the short take-off characteristics of the Auster. His car, a gray Hillman Minx, was parked on the airstrip. Then he aimed at the car and, after a short take-off run, he hopped over it. At least, that was the plan. After several rehearsals getting nearer and nearer the car, the press arrived. Unfortunately for the big event, he selected landing rather than take-off flap, reached flying speed too late, and crashed into his car, wrecking the Auster's undercarriage. (11 One- wheel) Landing on one wheel, he gave the press photographers better pictures than they had been expecting.

AL normally arrived home after a long day at work. I used to fight sleep so that I could talk to him when he came to see me, which he always did. After an absence of some days, he told me that he had been to fly an Auster to and from the deck of an aircraft carrier. (12 Carrier) The fuselage had been equipped at the tail end with a hook which would catch arrestor wires on the deck of the ship to stop the plane when it had landed. When AL found the ship, it was sailing into a strong head wind and travelling fast through the sea. It took him an age to catch up with it even though he was flying at full throttle. He had to literally fly the plane into the deck. The arrestor hook wasn't needed. He said he needed a hook on the front of the plane for the ship to pull him aboard!

I had an alarming experience about that time. Rearsby aerodrome was chosen for a trial landing of troop-carrying gliders prior to the D-Day landings. I was taken to witness the exercise. Horse and Hadrian gliders arrived being pulled by Dakotas and other troop carriers in an air armada The sky was dark with them. One by one they were released to land on our small field. It wasn't long before the field was full of them . I looked up and, to my horror, another armada was approaching. There was nowhere for the gliders to go. They crashed into and onto the gliders already there causing destruction, injuries and death.

AL's death

The Auster Mk4 (13 Mk 5) was a prototype and a significant development of the plane. Previous models had been, in effect, single seaters due to the large radio which was mounted on the passenger seat. The Mk 4 and the production types ,Mk 5s, were fitted with powerful American Lycoming engines which had become available with the improved security of trans-Atlantic shipping. These models were fitted with a rear seat for a flight observer. The prototype became AL's personal plane. Initial plans were prepared for a low wing model (14 Low winged model). I used to play with a model of this design. Following AL's death, the project was dropped.

It was in the Mk4 that AL gave an aerobatic display at an event in Abbey Park, Leicester (14A AL in plane) when I was 9 years old.The stress running a business in wartime was considerable. Added stress was caused to my father on that day when we got a puncture as he was driving to Rearsby to collect the plane. More stress was caused when he found the airfield gate locked and had to run a considerable distance to the hanger to get to his plane. No doubt further stress was caused by having to give a display before thousands of people, without the opportunity to relax before the event. During his display he failed to recover from a manoeuvre, crashed and was killed. A heart attack was the possible cause. AL was a heavy smoker. There was nothing wrong with the plane.

I was at the event with my friend Roger Bates. As we walked around the exhibition tents we heard people say “He didn't stand a chance”. Security man Charlie Thompson found us and arranged for Moira, a driver, to take us to our homes. When I arrived, I found the lounge crowded with friends and relations. Cigarette smoke filled the room. I went over to my mother who said, “He didn't feel a thing you know”. I replied “Is he dead?” Nobody had told me! It was very much worse for my sister, Margot. Aged 15, she was away at school in Yorkshire. A family member phoned the head teacher, told her what had happened, asked her to put my sister on a train but not tell her the reason she was going home. On the way, she bought a newspaper and read about her father's crash and death. My sister never forgave my mother for this.

AL's friend, Frank Bates, became Managing Director. He told me when I became an adult, his heart wasn't in aeroplanes. This wasn't surprising. Not only did he lose his best friend, AL, in the Mk 4 crash but his son, Tony, was killed flying an Auster some year's later. He refused to let me fly the company's planes when I joined the company.

My experiences at Auster

I started working at Auster's in various departments when I was a teenager during summer school holidays and college vacations Two periods of work were particularly memorable and useful. In the production line I worked with Eric Shepherd on preliminary assembly. Initially Eric's bonus was adversely affected as he taught me what to do. But after a week or so, as he then had four hands not two, his bonus rapidly increased to his financial benefit. I thoroughly enjoyed his company too. Another year, I worked in the engine shop where ex-War Department Gipsy Major engines were rebuilt. There were five other men in that place of work. One was a young man who was about to be married. The others taught him the 'facts of life' and I, as an interested listener, learned them too.

After going solo in the Club's Auster J4, I had most of my flying training as a member of the Nottingham University Air Squadron, gaining the Preliminary Flying Badge Wings. Being called up for National Service, this gave me two choices. One, to be an engineer officer for two years, or two, to be a pilot for four years I chose the former so that I could get into the Auster business a.s.a.p, but this was a mistake as I loved flying and two more years wouldn't have made any difference.

Near the end of my National Service, I was shocked to be told that the firm had been sold to Pressed Steel to become one of the BEAGLE companies. (15 Provost) One of my pilot friends flew me to Rearsby to meet Works Director Ken Sharp to discuss employment. I was given a job working on military modification projects in the planning department of No 4 Experimental under Herbert Thomson.

Peter Masefield, the new Chairman, was a visionary, a brilliant lecturer, writer and salesman but one who lacked an understanding of practical issues and had little commercial foresight. The result was a disaster of mammoth proportions due to his decisions and the fact that nobody seemed willing to challenge and guide him or, if they did, he wouldn't listen.

Tim Vigors was importing hundreds of Piper Tripacers at a time when ,with the incorporation of a tricycle undercarriage, the Auster D6 would have been a serious competitor. But such were the massive changes made to this plane that it became it heavier and heavier, more costly and noisy. Many months of development time were consumed before it became the Airdale, (16 Airedale) by which time, much of the market had been lost.

The main project I was involved in was the Mk XI. (17 Eddie Worral's painting) The team to build the prototype consisted of designer Bernard Thacker, draughtsman Alan Stenfalt, fitter Ron Neal and myself as project engineer. It was a wonderful team who were a pleasure to work with. Everything was against us. Few people in the firm had time to take an interest in this military plane as the civilian projects had priority. So, thankfully, we were left to our own devices. To get parts made I would drive around with lumps of metal in the car to get sub-contractors to machine the parts we needed. May approach to them was almost “The cost doesn't matter, it's the delivery time that counts”.

The Mk XI was basically a Mk IX with a large engine – the type which was fitted to the Agricola. We owned an Agricola which was kept at Leicester East. I would take tools over there and rob this machine for the parts we needed at Rearsby. When the prototype was complete, the team were rewarded by being flown to Shoreham for the Beagle Press Day in the company's executive aircraft. Ranald Porteus gave an impressive display in the Mk XI, taking only the short time allowed for his Farnborough display later that year.

The military weren't interested in the Mk XI, only in helicopters. Basic market research would have shown the project to be unviable.

Trouble maker

Working long hours in an office with no air conditioning, situated just below the uninsulated roof of No 4 hangar, was no joke, when hundreds of thousand of pounds were being spent on the passenger comfort of the Airedale. I became very much at odds with the management when I recommended, and the other planning engineers agreed, to 'work to rule' and refuse to do overtime until air conditioning was installed. Poor Herbert Thomson. His requests for volunteers to do overtime was met with silence. But it seemed to work. Carpenters arrived from the joinery section. A hole was cut in the ceiling as an indication that air conditioning was on its way. So overtime re-started.

By this time, I had concluded that the firm had no future because of its profligate spending on what I saw as valueless investments. No doubt to the relief of the management, I got another job and I left. Six months, later I was driving past Rearsby so I called in to renew friendship with my former colleagues. I entered the office and looked up. There was the hole in the ceiling but that was all. The air conditioning installation ceased the moment overtime was resumed and I left.

My flying ends

(18 Club's D4) It was in the club's D4 that I did my last flight. Like all qualified pilots, I had to have an air test before my licence was renewed. Taking off, my instructor, as expected, cut the throttle for “Simulated engine failure”. I chose a spot to land just over the airfield fence. When told, “OK, you'll get in, climb away” I opened the throttle wide & climbed steeply. But there was a problem. There were trees either side of us and a house straight ahead.. I realised that I was trapped, I couldn't get over house or the trees. Quick decision: “Should I try and get over the house which was lower – if I hit it, I could kill ourselves and any people in the house. or... should I try and get over the trees which were higher but softer?” I chose the trees and, right on the stall, I scraped over them to safety. The watching club members heaved a sigh of relief. So did my instructor who had been silent during this trauma. My pregnant wife didn't – she thought this sought of thing was normal.

So ended my life with and in Auster's apart from occasional flights in the UK, (19) in Australia, (20) in New Zealand and very appropriately (21) in a Taylorcraft A restored by Chester Peek of Oklahoma. And that ends my Auster story.

Photographs - click on an image to view full size

ALW in 1940's ALW in RFC uniform Crashed Sopworth Flying Flea George Taylor
ALW in 1940's ALW in RFC uniform Crashed Sopworth Flying Flea George Taylor
Ray Carlson Taylorcraft being towed Griff's painting Cirrus engined plane Banking plane
Ray Carlson Taylorcraft being towed Griff's painting Cirrus engined plane Banking plane
One wheeled landing Aircraft carrier Mk 4/5 Low winged model Provost
One wheeled landing Aircraft carrier Mk 4/5 Low winged model Provost
Airedale Mk XI Club Auster    
Airedale Mk XI Club Auster    


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