Dave Lee, who recently joined the Association, remembers his time at Hawker, starting in the mid 1950s….

I am afraid that this collection of some of my remembered experiences is not particularly exciting as I was a mere craft apprentice, but it may stir the memories of others who were there in those times. I would also add that this is written from memory of times long ago and some of the dates and names may not be strictly accurate.

I went to the Richmond Road factory straight from school, Twickenham Technical College, in 1955. I worked as a shop boy from about September until the December or January while waiting for the next apprentice intake. I cycled from Isleworth to the factory and I could easily cross the Chertsey Road; try that now on a bike! The hours came as a bit of a shock after the nine till four at school; I think we started at eight in the morning and finished at six in the evening.

There were about ten of us that sat at a bench visually inspecting small parts for defects and we were supervised by a strict overseer who stood at the end of the bench keeping a very close eye on us. His name was Jim and he also worked part time as a steward in the Social Club, the same one that is now the venue for the Hawker Association meetings. We had to use a metal punch to stamp “HAL” on each part that passed.

Apprentice Peregrinations

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The factory was extremely noisy because Hunter wings and centre fuselages were being constructed. The main noise came from the compressed air riveting guns on the sheet metal but this was supplemented by the whine of the ‘windy’ drills and the high pitched scream of the routers that were milling out the centre fuselage spars from solid aluminium alloy. I don’t remember seeing any ear defenders; what would modern health and safety exponents make of that!

I started my apprenticeship as an aircraft electrician in the winter of 1955/56 and was immediately posted from Richmond Road, where no wiring was being carried out at that time, to Langley, where Hunter rear fuselages, front fuselages and centre fuselages were separately wired then joined together to form the complete fuselage. During this period there was a coach laid on that took us from Kingston to Langley. This made for an even longer day because we had to start at the normal time at Langley so the coach left Kingston very early in the morning. I can’t remember how long I was at Langley but eventually wiring operations were transferred to Richmond Road and production at Langley was run down. A group of us apprentices was apparently forgotten because we were left in the empty factory after the workforce had gone.

One incident of note occurred during this twilight period. Hawker had their private fleet of historic aircraft at Langley, among them the Hurricane “The last of the Many”, an Anson, a Tomtit, and in one corner of a hangar a light aircraft, possibly a Prentice. One day a man arrived in a small car and promptly flew it off the hard apron in front of the hangar. We watched this with interest and when he landed he told us he was in trouble with Air Traffic Control because the flight was not authorised. This seemed to amuse him rather than worry him. We found out later that he was Air Vice Marshal Donald Bennett CB CBE DSO, the leader of the wartime Pathfinder squadrons.

I was eventually transferred from Langley to the Drawing Office in the Apprentice Training School at Richmond Road. After a relatively short period there I was moved to Dunsfold. My time there was most happy. Now the coach transport didn’t leave Richmond Road until normal start time, 8:00 or 8:30am, and didn’t arrive at Dunsfold until mid morning, just in time for tea break! It left Dunsfold at about 4:00pm: a short day. I was in a group of apprentices that sat at the back of the coach and I am now ashamed to say that we were the cause of annoyance to other, more staid, passengers. I remember one particular chap, who I think was a rather senior member of staff, who regularly told us off. One day, one of our group brought his guitar along and played it on the coach. This senior chap came to the back of the coach and gave us a ticking off using words such as “What do you think this is, a Teddy Boys’ outing to Brighton?” That afternoon, when we went to the coach, some of the apprentices had stuck a large banner on the side of the coach with his name on it followed by “Teddy Boys’ Outing to Brighton”. To his credit, the senior chap smiled at this. I must add that if I was on a coach now with such a group, I too would be very annoyed.

I was involved in the final wiring operations on the finished Hunters and of course saw the aircraft test flown then finally flown off for delivery. I seem to remember Swiss Air Force aircraft flown out by Swiss pilots directly to Switzerland and Indian Air Force aircraft flown out to Aden by RAF ferry pilots en route to India.

I remember several interesting incidents at Dunsfold, some quite dramatic. For its initial engine run the Hunter was tethered in the sound baffled ground running pen and one of the tasks for the electricians was to set the output voltage of the generators. To do this, the electrician had to crawl under the aircraft while the engine was running, wriggle past the nose wheel then finally stand upright with his torso in the bay where the generator adjustment screws were. When the adjustment was made, I think at 3000 rpm, he had to signal to the Rolls Royce engineer in the cockpit to raise the revs to 6000 and then check the generator output again. You could feel the aircraft kick forward at this point. Although I wasn’t present on the occasion, I was told that one day the electrician carrying out this operation had his clothing sucked up towards the engine air intake and a pair of pliers in his pocket was ingested into the engine doing a great deal of damage. Apparently, there were some very white faces among the crew that had to report the incident.

On another occasion, a group of us apprentices was having lunch in the canteen when a Hunter on a test flight flew low over the runway with the airbrake fully extended and the undercarriage down. One of the mechanical apprentices said, “He can’t do that”. We went out to watch the pilot carry out a very flat successful landing with little damage to the air brake. I think the pilot was Frank Bullen.

Although I spent time at the various Hawker factories, I used the Richmond Road Social Club throughout. On Saturday evenings a group of us played snooker in the games room, then later in the evening moved into the dance area where there was a small band playing. We danced the waltz, the quickstep and the foxtrot, which enabled us to “chat up” the girls. In the periods that I worked at Richmond Road, I frequently used the Social Club at lunchtime, too.

After a very interesting time at Dunsfold I was transferred back to Richmond Road where I came to the end of my apprenticeship. I had aspirations to go into the Drawing Office but apparently it wasn’t on for craft apprentices to graduate to the Hawker DO so, in 1960, I left to join Dewhurst & Partner, who designed switchgear for lifts and cranes, as a circuit draughtsman. After two years, I left there to join Page Engineering, Sunbury, who designed and made aircraft instruments. I remember being involved in the design of instruments for aircraft such as the Trident, BAC 111, VC 10 and several others including Concorde and the TSR2.

I left there, and the aircraft industry, in 1964 to join The Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell as a design draughtsman. I worked my way through the ranks until I retired in 2003, in charge of my own Drawing Office.