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Interview of Mr Les Leetham, 7th January 20011

Interviewed by Mike Preston

After gaining experience as a wireless operator and then re-training as a pilot during the Second World War, Les was de-mobbed in December 1945 and looked for work as a pilot to put to good use his experiences. He approached Auster (then named `Taylorcraft`) but at that time the only position available to him was in the experimental department based at Syston. He took up that position on 1st January 1946, which he held for some time until the Flying Club was established. As he already had flying training, George Snare [?] who was the test pilot at the time, obtained a Royal Aero Club Certificate for Les. He spent some time `fetching and carrying` on a civilian basis until he obtained military approval to fly the `Mk VIs and VIIs`. He won his private pilot’s licence (recalled without hesitation as being number 23777!) on the 17th August of that year.

His home was in Leicester, himself and his wife living at that time with his mother-in-law in Colin Place, off Gipsy Lane. Les’s working day started at 8.30am. He used to cycle from home to his workplace in Syston, the site of which he recalls was a disused shoe factory based near the brook. The experimental department was subsequently re-sited to Rearsby which Les considered to be a little too far for a cycle ride and he therefore opted for travel on the Midland Red `Special`, failure to catch that bus on the return journey resulting in having to use the facilities of the nearby `Horse and Groom` until a service bus passed by, which quite frequently meant missing the next bus if one was in the middle of a good pint!

Les`s career at Auster really took off from there, with George Snare giving him help in obtaining more flying time until George’s departure. Ronald Porteus [?] then took over from George, Ronald`s main interests lying in sales. Les gradually took over more on the development and production testing, leaving Ronald in charge of trying to sell the aircraft. There came a point when Les was spending more and more time away from experimental work in order to fly, sometimes being absent for 1-2 days, and the decision was taken to transfer Les onto the repair side of the business, managed by Arthur Pickett, which suited Arthur as he then had his own `personal pilot` and could call upon Les when something needed testing, rather than having to wait for someone else to become available to fly the aircraft. In fact, Les frequently piloted Arthur Pickett around, giving estimates to bring more repair work in.

Les recalled when a full-scale `mock-up` of the A245 was built in the experimental hanger to enable workers to more easily visualise where things would be placed. When a new hanger was built nearer to the design area, the model needed to be moved. To their dismay they realised that the heating pipes in the old hanger were situated about 6` from the ground, halfway across the doors, resulting in them having to remove the under-carriage of the model in order to get it out of the hanger, welding it back together outside!. Les was then re-located to the new hanger, along with a couple of colleagues, in order to build stress rigs for the `A245``s. Bill Weston was in charge at the time. The new hanger was not in fact complete, canvas covering one end, which proved rather cold. Les recalls that on arriving for work on one particularly frosty morning, they discovered a dead sheep on the rig! Whether its demise was due to the cold remains a mystery.

Les’s first flight on the A245 was in April 1946. He remembers the aircraft as being heavy and sluggish to pilot. On that first (solo) flight, as Les prepared to land, in error he put on `full flap` which almost felt as if the aircraft had stopped in mid-air. The aircraft came down like a bullet, landing with a bump and hopping on to finally rest several feet away. Instead of a reprimand, ground staff were delighted to see how far the under-carriage was capable of being compressed without damage! Needless to say, Les did not use `full flap` on the A245 again!

On the 16th December of that year, Les recalls that Auster wanted to get the `F517` down to Cowes for floats to be fitted. He had to obtain permission from the Military to fly it. He, along with Joe Wardell, took the aircraft to Cowes, rigged up the floats and left it there, going backwards and forwards using the model `D GHCH`. Les subsequently went over to Desford in the Club Auster, volunteering to join the RAF PR. The media were apparently quite keen to see someone arrive in an Auster. He then obtained approval from Jimmy Hart at Desford to pass him as the first reservist in a Tiger Moth.

On one occasion, Les was given the job of ferrying Captain Tony Everard to and from Yarmouth. Captain Everard had purchased a `J4` Auster.

During the interview, Les produced a remnant from the `Avis Ambulance`, being the centre boss of a propeller. The aircraft had a removable panel at the side, the length of a full-size stretcher, in order to safely board any injured passengers. This was an improvement on the `contortion` fitted in the Mk V, which probably resulted in further injuries being sustained on boarding!. Attempts were made to sell the Avis to the Army for casualty evacuation, but this was not successful, maybe due to the fact that on a demonstration run the afore-mentioned propeller dropped off at about 800 feet! With the RAF training under their belts, the crew managed to turn back, found a field to land, albeit with a considerable slope, and proceeded to land on the far side of a hedge, unaware that a barbed wire fence had been erected beyond the hedge. As the aircraft came down to land, the fence tripped the front of the Avis, tearing off the under-carriage and forcing it to land on its belly, thankfully with no casualties!

Les recalled that back in June 1948, he was instructed to take out a two-seater `J3`, to fly to London Airport to pick up visitors. They had to first fly to Croydon, where they were instructed to wait at the end of the runway whilst permission was obtained to fly to London.

Once they were given the `green light`, they flew on to London but upon landing the little Auster was quickly ushered to a nearby car park as it was feared that the `big` aircraft sitting on the runways could threaten their safety. The visitors were amazed to see their transport waiting in the car park! and were quickly whisked away.

The company were known to work on a `hire and fire` basis, depending on the amount of work available at any one time. As more work came in, those who had been dismissed previously were asked to return, and they were happy to do so. The wages were not remembered as being particularly good but there was good camaraderie among the workers and many friends were made. Les was happy to be employed as a fitter-cum-pilot as he had the opportunities to fly and be paid for it, rather than having to pay the £1 an hour fee for the privilege through the Flying Club!

The works canteen was managed by Jimmy Allgood who, according to legend, could eke out a tin of corned beef between the hungry masses like no other. His slices were so thin that, placed on a warm plate, would dissolve before the vegetables were added! The members of the Flying Club were allowed to take their refreshments in the canteen when not in use. They took in their own tea and sandwiches and Les recalls that on one occasion the wives and girlfriends of the members went in to have a look around, peered into the chip pans and to their horror discovered little footprints in the solidified fat, surrounded by nibbled remnants of chips. From that day on, Les took his own packed lunch to work!.

Les worked on the Mk V (`floatplane`), both as a fitter and pilot, helping to rig up the floats for a mission to the Antarctic to rescue a ship stranded with scientists on board. A build-up of ice prevented the ship from reaching a nearby island, and the Mk V was used to `guide` the vessel through. The marine crew were very surprised to see Les, after helping to fit the floats, climb aboard and proceed to take over the controls. The Mk V was subsequently used in the Falklands as a rescue aircraft and did in fact save the life of one young girl, being the only means of transporting her to a neighbouring island for treatment.

Over a number of years, the management at Auster organised flying displays at Rearsby, with the help of the Flying Club, the first one taking place in about 1946, which attracted great interest from the public. Les recalls in particular when `spot landing` competitions were held, in which a pilot had to fly over a rope (`spot`) and land as short a distance as possible from the spot. Two crew in a Club Auster came down and managed to wipe off the under-carriage on the spot. Needless to say, they were the winners on that occasion! Management were understandably not amused at the damage but Les and colleagues offered to repair the aircraft in their spare time. They de-rigged the aircraft and mounted it on a trestle ready for repair work. Unfortunately, it fell off the trestle which did more damage than was originally sustained - the task of further repairs was transferred to another team! `Flour bag` bombing proved very popular at these events, with a jeep driving around whilst overhead planes, several homing in at all angles, attempted to hit the target. Les was amazed that they did not actually collide with each other, as the pilots seemed to be concentrating more on hitting the target than avoiding each other!

Subsequently the Flying Club organised their own displays at Rearsby, competing for various trophies, such as the Auster [Ragazine] trophy. These competitions were open to Auster owners and Club members. They proved to be a very popular social event, not only with the company and Flying Club members, but also with their families. The locals often turned up to spend a pleasant summer day watching the proceedings too.

Les talked about the `Atlantic` - Les was asked to fly this aircraft but, with his experience as a fitter as well as a pilot, was not confident in the aircraft - he merely `taxied` it In his opinion it didn’t `feel right`. He had previous experience with a tricycle undercarriage - the [Miles Aerovan] - but that didn’t feel unsafe, as was the case with the `Atlantic` which he speculated could have been due to weight distribution, geometry, etc. The `Atlantic` was displayed at the Farnborough Air Show, sporting a padded dashboard and smart seat cushions, but Les never flew it. The aircraft did in fact fly but suffered a nose wheel accident. Les holds a photograph of the plane and remembers being surprised at the number of fabric `patches` on the fuselage - maybe due to reinforcing or a number of adaptations - which he felt spoke for itself!

The introduction of the [bomb martini] undercarriage was recollected. This was fitted to the [Pipers] aircraft in America and Les was asked to undertake a demonstration flight here, during which he performed a `loop`, the `drag` of which on taking off and landing reminded him of the float planes. Les remembers that the craft worked well on soft or broken ground but was not favoured by Ronald Porteus, who on one occasion forced the tyre off on landing which resulted in a 12-14 foot tyre disappearing down the runway! Due to the lack of shock absorption, being set on solid struts as were the float planes, the aircraft worked best on undeveloped ground and it was hoped that it could be used in the Falklands where the ground was stony and could not be developed, but this never came to fruition. Les recalls the [bomb martini] as being fun to fly and was sent a fine wristwatch by the manufacturers as a gratuity for his efforts, which unfortunately was stolen whilst Les was in Malaya.

Staying with the subject of undercarriages, Les remembers taxiing `Wobbly Wheels` straight into a pile of steps and trestles at Farnborough, the debris from which seemed to rain down for a good ten minutes! Les was trying to impress the crowds by taxiing sideways to demonstrate the wheels and mistakenly followed a signal which was in fact meant for someone waiting behind him. His aircraft was fitted with a new (Gemini) propellor and tests had to be carried out on the engine. As a result of the accident, the viewing and flying areas were quickly reorganised in an effort to avoid a repeat performance!.

At the time of leaving Auster in 1958, Les logged up approximately 2,000 flying hours, visiting 170 airfields and 11 countries. He later became a sales representative with Armstrong Patents who supplied [helicoils]. He remembers the Manager, a Mr Clarke, as being a person who "knew his stuff" as regards the business and at that time Les earned four times the salary gained at Austers!. Of course, he missed the flying but still enjoyed watching the planes, regarding the airspace around Rearsby as his own! The local areas in different seasons are a strong memory - particularly the Wreake Valley in flood and Charnwood Forest with its array of autumn colours, the sight of which Les would find any excuse to view. Swithland Reservoir also comes to mind, there being a narrow gap where the railway bridge goes across, which was referred to among the pilots as the "wingspan check". As one dived towards it, there was always the feeling that there would not be enough room to get through, but in reality there were feet to spare! There was often a little fun to be had, another memory being that of Tommy Hunt, who was responsible for the altimeters. He was having trouble with the base settings and asked Les to take him up for a test, where they could go down and re-set to zero - Les suggested a quick test by flying him to Groby quarry where he dropped down very sharply, rising up equally sharply and calmly asking the shaken passenger "well, did you set it Tommy?". The lighter moments were remembered with much amusement.

In sharp contrast, Les tells of a tragedy involving a young apprentice Irishman, Jimmy O`Connor and Cliff Haywood, who was a line inspector at Auster. They had flown up in the Club Auster to get a better view of a particularly spectacular sunset. They had been in the air for some time and, on descending, clipped the top of a tree on the approach, presumably, through lack of experience, not realising how quickly darkness had fallen below them - they were both killed. Les believes this was the only fatality on the airfield.

All of these transcripts are available in a single file in several formats.

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