Keith Hobbs remembers his career in the aeronautical industry….
In 1958 I graduated from Bristol University with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. It was in that year that the then Defence Minister, Duncan Sands, stated that there would be no more manned military aircraft. That was the first quandary for me at the start of an aeronautical career and I decided to opt for the manufacturing side of aviation thinking that if you could build aircraft you could turn your hand to washing machines!
So I started a graduate apprenticeship with Folland Aircraft at Hamble. A rude awakening after a student life style was that work started at 7.30am and I had an eleven mile cycle ride to get there.
I started in the training workshop and then progressed to the shop floor departments: sheet metal shop, machine shop, aircraft assembly, tool room, jig boring room and then on to the test house and pre-production departments.
It was thought that we manufacturing students should then go on to sample the design departments. After I had had a short spell in the drawing office it was decided that my next stop would be the flight test department – little did I know they were short staffed and needed more people.
Here I was allocated to Engineering under John Lewendon who reported
to the Chief Flight Development Engineer, Maurice Carlile. My job
included briefing and debriefing the pilots and the reading and
analysis of paper trace and auto-observer records as well as reporting
on engineering systems such as air conditioning, liquid oxygen and
electrical, and specialist trials on rate gyros. These trials were
undertaken on both the Gnat fighter and trainer aircraft.
On the trainer I also became involved with flutter and vibration tests. The airfield was at Chilbolton, twenty miles from my home, so investment was needed in a Vespa scooter, fine transport in summer but a different matter in winter.
During this period I was despatched to Boscombe Down to liaise with
the Ministry staff who undertook confirmatory trials on the aircraft.
Then came my second quandary with the announcement that Chilbolton was
to close and that the Department would move to Hawker’s airfield at
Dunsfold, forty miles away.
The Vespa took me there where the Gnat trainer trials continued. Shortly afterwards Folland was amalgamated with the Hawker Siddeley Aviation whose Chief Flight Development Engineer, Fred Sutton, was put in charge of both the Hawker and Folland flight test teams. There I was lucky enough to witness the first transitions of the P1127.
In 1964 development of the Gnat finished and Maurice Carlile advised
that I should apply for a job in the new Programme Control Department
at Kingston, set up for the P1154 project. The head was John Cotes who
had come from Fairey Aviation. Fortunately I was successful in my
application and I started to commute to Kingston in my recently
acquired Mini Van.
The P1154 progressed to the metal-cutting stage but was cancelled by the Labour Government in 1965. After a short hiatus the Ministry of Defence (MoD) placed a contract for the P1127(RAF); we were back in business and I became Deputy Programme Control Manager
Apart from programme monitoring and reporting, using a recently
introduced technique called PERT (Programme Evaluation and Review
Technique), a contractual requirement, the job included setting up a
close interface with the customer, the MoD, and covered the supply of
Government Furnished Equipment. This activity continued throughout the
various phases of what had become the Harrier programme.
During this period I had a phone call from Stan Rymel, the Production Director at Hamble, enquiring where I had been for the last few years and inviting me to Hamble on the following Saturday. From this arose a good job offer in the manufacturing organisation at Hamble. Shortly afterwards I was summoned to the office of the Divisional Production Director, Peter Jefferson, where I was advised that they wanted to keep me at Kingston and the job offer from Hamble was withdrawn.
During the late ’70s the US Marine Corps showed a great interest in the Harrier and this led, in 1979, to my first visit to the USA to agree the flight test programme with the customer. Also on the visit was Chris Farara, then of the Flight Development Department. The meetings took place in the Pentagon and at the Marine Corps base at Patuxent River.
The next aircraft was the P1182, later to become the Hawk. The Programme Control Department was reorganised to take on board this latest project. For my part I was the Deputy Programme Manager (P1182) reporting to Peter Wildhaber. Peter saw the Hawk through its early days with much toing and froing between the Procurement Executive of the MoD and the Company. Sadly Peter died and shortly afterwards I was promoted to his position.
Overseas interest in the Hawk then took off. My first trip in the export field took me to Beirut and Cairo for meetings with the Egyptian Ministry of War Production. Hawk proposals were submitted and meetings also took place at the Helwan aircraft plant to see if we could support the Egyptian Air Force MiG aircraft. After many visits we had limited success in the MiG programme but the Hawk was not purchased. However, interest was soon shown by Finland and Kenya and shortly afterwards by Indonesia. Our General Manager, Colin Chandler, headed a team, of which I was an active member, to negotiate the Finnish deal.
In September 1979 I got married but then spent the next three months more away from home than with my new wife. Meetings in Finland with the Finnish Air force, our agents in Finland and with the Finnish manufacturing company, Valmet Oy, took up much of the time and in between I ran the pre-contract conference at Kingston with the Kenyan authorities, followed by logistics discussions in Kenya. I then headed to Longbeach, California, to the Douglas plant to obtain a RFP (Request for Proposal) for a jet trainer for the US Navy. During all of this Indonesia could not be forgotten but with all the other discussions taking place my deputy, Eddie Hunt, ably took on my responsibilities for this .
The New Year came and I returned to Longbeach in a team from Kingston with the task of writing a proposal for a Navy jet trainer based on the Hawk. Proposals were submitted by the main US aircraft manufacturers including our host Douglas Aircraft. The team was headed by Roger Dabbs and our proposal was submitted after three months hard work. Our bid was short listed and we were invited to submit in the next round of proposals. McDonnell-Douglas then decided to join forces with us in a joint Hawk submission. As our new partner had much experience of supplying US Navy aircraft this was good for us and we now found ourselves resident in St Louis with another team from Kingston, directed by Gordon Hodson. The HSA/McDonnell-Douglas proposal won the competition and the T-45 Hawk was launched.
I was in for a surprise when I returned to Kingston. I was told that the programme management organisation was to be changed; Programme Control was to be disbanded and a Project Management group set up. Subsequently Chris Farara became Hawk Project manager and I was advised that there was a job for me in Purchasing.
Surprise was probably a bit of an understatement as my previous purchasing experience was personal shopping in Bentalls and the like. However I had two superb trainers, Maurice Lomas and Ken Alexander, who soon taught me the ways of the commercial world.
I became the Purchasing Manager (Hawk) with significant budget
responsibility for each mark. This brought me into the field of
negotiation, into dealing with suppliers and the trials and
tribulations of getting the parts to specification at the right price
and available to the shops at the right time. Moving to purchasing did
not bring my travelling to a halt. A multi-disciplined team set off for
the USA to source a radar for the Single Seat Hawk. This saw us
oscillating between Baltimore and St Louis to obtain the best deal.
Another memorable trip was to Algeria with representatives from most of the major UK aircraft equipment suppliers to see if UK industry could support their fleet of Russian military aircraft - and of course determine the Hawk potential in Algeria. One morning we found ourselves clambering on board a paratrooper-equipped Hercules aircraft at Boufarik. We climbed out over the Atlas mountains and headed south into the Sahara and on to an isolated air force base to view a squadron of Su 7 aircraft and some rather ancient MiGs. The visit ended with a meal, the contents of which I would rather forget. Also on this trip we reviewed the manufacturing capabilities of the base at Maison Blanche
Life changed yet again when Maurice Lomas moved on and I was promoted to Purchasing Manager. Not only did this give me the responsibility for Harrier/AV-8B purchasing but also for all commercial purchasing to keep the Kingston and Dunsfold sites running. I also now was responsible for the Stores and for purchasing for the Bitteswell and Hamble sites. As time progressed purchasing on behalf of Brough was added to my remit.
At this point I was invited to join the Management Committee for the
Kingston site. The peak purchasing year saw us with a purchase order
book approaching one hundred million pounds. But things were to change
again; Purchasing was to move to Warton and it was announced that
Kingston would close.
This was the saddest part of my career. I had a staff approaching 250 strong and most were to be made redundant. Each Friday the list came out naming those who were to go over the following period. On top of this all the plant and machinery was up for disposal. An auction was arranged and many contracts were raised for the dispersal of equipment and cleaning up of the site.
Aircraft manufacture was in progress when the closure was announced;
this necessitated the orderly transfer of parts and stock to the sites
to which the work was now allocated, a complex task for my Material
Control and Stores organisations.
At this time I thought that it would be an opportune moment to take
early retirement myself but this was not to be and I was requested to
set up a local purchasing department at Dunsfold, a return for me to
the site which I had left some thirty years earlier.
The organisation established at Dunsfold provided off-load manufacturing support for the manufacturing departments using sub-contractors and enabled the Works Engineering Department to use outside contractors for essential work around the site. More integration between the Purchasing staff and the Stores took place. Warton kept a close eye on these changes and most Mondays I flew up to Warton to report progress on this and other logistic targets they had set.
This situation continued until 1998 when out of the blue I received
a phone call from Roger Roberts, the Purchasing Director at Warton, to
say that he would now back my early retirement. Included in this
conversation was a thank-you for the way I handled the Kingston closure
for my part of the organisation with next to no, if any, involvement by
Warton purchasing. Praise indeed!
So ended my forty year career in the Aviation Industry. A Journey with many twists and turns on a path which had no preplanning by me which took me in many different directions and disciplines. I never had time to get bored and thoroughly enjoyed myself in the process.