Norman Hayler remembers life in Dunsfold’s Experimental Department working with Jimpy Sollis…..

    During my time at Hawker from 1951 to 1959 I spent five years as an apprentice being moved around various departments to gain experience of aircraft manufacture. In 1954 I did a year in the Experimental Instrumentation Laboratory at Dunsfold. This was a small department formed with partitions inside the Experimental hangar with a workshop at ground level and the instrument test and photographic laboratories upstairs. The hangar itself was divided into two sections with ‘Erection’ at the east end and ‘Flights’ at the west. It was here in ‘Flights’ that Jimpy worked as one of a team or around a dozen  men maintaining Hunters during flight trials.
An Experimental Life

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    After a spell in the Service School, where RAF crews were taught about the Hunter, I was moved back to ‘Flights’ and worked with Jimpy and the crew for another year. He was called Jimpy because he looked similar to a cartoon character of that name, a small, round faced lad who appeared in newspapers and magazines, including the Daily Mirror, during the 1940s and 50s. Our Jimpy was all of 5 feet tall but as far as work went he was just as tall as any of us. He could get his hand in the Hunter aileron hydro booster access panel whereas I, among others, could not, so he got the job if adjustments were required.
    When we loaded 1000 lb ballast bombs, in those days before ‘health and safety’, we had to lever them along the floor from the side of the hangar where they lived, onto a porters’ trolley. It took six of us to do this with one to put a jack handle behind the bomb to stop it rolling back as we manhandled it onto the trolley forks.

Then came the hard bit, getting the load on the wheels whilst keeping the bomb still with the jack handle. Four of us used all our might to pull the trolley shafts back and this is where Jimpy came in. He was small enough to climb up the cross bars on the trolley shafts which added enough weight to tip the balance and get the bomb on board. He then leapt off while two men pushed down and two men pushed up to stop the load from overwhelming us, making the trolley fall flat. Next we had to move the trolley across the hangar floor to under the aircraft wing. This was more of a drag than a roll because the cast iron trolley wheels had poor bearings and were reluctant to rotate, scoring the concrete hangar floor.

Once under the aircraft we had a sling on which to place the bomb and a pair of Tirfor hand operated winches hooked on each side of the pylon to hoist the bomb into place where it was held by the pilot-operated bomb release. Loading four bombs took a couple of hours - so much for technology, or lack of it! 

    Jimpy always had a straight face and must have been a little hard if hearing because whenever spoken to he always said “Wazzat Shag?” and you had to repeat. He called everyone Shag without exception, it was just his way and we took it with amusement. We often had visits from the armed forces top brass. Once an admiral said something to Jimpy who replied with his usual “Wazzat  Shag?” We all had to suppress our laughter, but the Admiral didn’t seem very amused.
    Jimpy and the lads in ‘Flights’ prepared Hunter WB188 for the world speed record flight by Neville Duke. You can see the aircraft at the Tangmere museum. They also worked on ‘the big Hunter shoot’ to prove that the four 30 mm Aden guns were reliable. First of all we ground tested the guns firing into the butts which was a large gravel and earth hummock to take the shells. In front were two wooden posts about 10 ft apart holding a stack of 2 inch thick timber boards to keep the gravel in. The aircraft was parked facing the butts about 30 yards back with its nose wheel in a concrete groove and a jacked up cradle under the rear fuselage to stop the aircraft bucking with the guns firing. We had no ear plugs and the noise was terrific and is probably why I’m hard of hearing today.
    The tests started in late summer and continued through a very cold winter, dawn to dusk. We had two small Nissen huts, one for making up the belts, the other for tea breaks. The ammo came in steel boxes, thirty rounds apiece, already fitted with links. These we joined up in fives, removing the last three rounds as the gun pack took 147 rounds per gun. When winter came there was powder snow and with the wind blowing towards us it drifted over all our outside equipment. Our hut had a pot-bellied stove but our requests for fuel were turned down as we were deemed to be ‘outside crew’. So we took our hacksaws with us to the butts and soon branches began to disappear from nearby trees up to height of around 8 feet, as far as we could reach. With Jimpy on our shoulders we could reach a few feet more.
    In the mornings some got a lift in our van down to the butts, the rest walked - past the fire station, behind the control tower, past the three production hangar bays and the dope shop, the hangar used for safety equipment and servicing, several Nissen huts used as the telephone exchange, the service training school and the pilots’ mess, across the road from the Stovolds Hill entrance, past the armoury to arrive frozen stiff at the butts. We took to passing behind the production hangar to collect a few lumps of fuel from the pile outside the boiler house….until an accidental solution to our fuel problem was found. After we had shot the butt timbers to pieces we called the Maintenance Department to come and renew them. Naturally we grabbed the old boards for fuel. “Just let us know when you want them replaced again”, said the maintenance crew - problem solved.
    The guns were harmonised at 1000 yards using a barrel scope and a sighting board and could be adjusted vertically and laterally with worm gears. The next time our heating fuel ran out we set the guns wide apart, removed the rear fuselage jack and fired. The Hunter bucked up and down and the butt boards were cut from top to bottom almost to each end. Guns reset, problem solved again, more fuel.
    Meanwhile the in-flight firing had started with Neville Duke using sea targets off Ford in Sussex. On his first trip the nose leg dropped on firing so the locks were tightened. The same thing happened on the next two flights so the locks were tightened even more and the nose leg stayed put. Unfortunately the leg failed to extend for landing so Neville had to land without it, holding the nose up as long as he could then gently lowering it. The runway ground through the base of the first three nose frames which were repaired later after solving the up-lock problem. In another Hunter after a full fire-out the windscreen de-icer system shook apart and the nose wheel bay was awash with alcohol. Ron Selley, the charge hand, told me to remove the system. A tall and slim physique was necessary to work in the confines of the bay. As the aircraft was still hot from its flight the alcohol had vaporised and after breathing the vapour for a few minutes I nearly passed out blind drunk. I was lent up against a wall to recover and the nose bay slowly drained and dried.
    During the flight trials it took us just seven minutes to rearm and turn the aircraft round. Neville didn’t even get out of the cockpit. His flight to the range and back did not take much longer. We all had different jobs for the turn-round. Two men kept about six gun packs loaded and ready for use, Jimpy and three others removed and replaced the packs and every three flights I saw to refuelling and topping up the IPN (iso propyl nitrate) starter tank. We did this without any hurry or urgency, the jobs just needed seven minutes. When things got a bit more intense we borrowed a second aircraft from Production which Bill Bedford flew. On his first run he flew into a shell ricochet which took a lump out of his port wing; another job to sort out. Eventually we ironed out all the problems and got the system going.
    On my earlier posting to Instrumentation I only had occasional contact with armaments. One day a high speed Paillard-Bolex 16mm cine camera arrived. After loading a film in the dark room my boss, Gordon Nuttall, and I went to the gun butts where I had to kneel a yard from the cartridge ejector tubes and when Gordon said “fire” the chap in the cockpit pulled the trigger and I started the camera. We needed to film the trajectory of the cartridge cases so the curvature of the ejector tubes could altered to ensure the cases cleared the aircraft to avoid the damage that was being caused at the time.
    Often we would have three 8 mm cine cameras set in the wing, fuselage and tail bullet to record store releases and rocket firing and a 35 mm cine camera filming a panel of duplicate cockpit instruments. The camera was mounted in the instrument panel filming the panel through a mirror opposite to gain distance so the complete panel was in view and focused. This set-up was mounted in place of the ammunition tanks. We also had a Hussenot photographic paper trace recorder which provided time histories of additional parameters.
    As soon as the aircraft landed after a test flight the bods in Flight Development in the control tower wanted the results. I had to remove the cameras and unload and develop the films in the darkroom. Fortunately photography had been one of my hobbies since I was ten years old. In the totally blacked out darkroom I took the cine films out of the cameras and put them in the developer which I had premixed from basic chemicals; no bought-in stuff ready for use. Unfortunately the 8 ft by 3 ft room was not only airless but all I had for the films was a Dallon tank designed for old fashioned glass whole plates used in the Victorian era. It was about 6 ins square in plan and 8 ins deep. Into this went four cine films and a paper roll from the Hussenot. An alarm clock told me when to take the paper roll out and put the lid back on. With the red safe light on the paper was rinsed and put in the fixer. With the red light off I took the tank lid off again, rotated and opened each roll of film, fed them through the fixer and when fixed opened the dark room door and rinsed the films and paper in the lab sink. After a few breaths of fresh air I strung the films over my outstretched arms, climbed down the steep staircase to the hangar floor and then ran over to the control tower where the still wet films were taken from arms and the door closed on me without a word being said or a chance of knowing the results - only a quick glance to see that the development was OK. 
    Thinking back on this ill-equipped outfit at the forefront of fighter aircraft production, we performed wonders in spite of the Company’s tight purse strings.
    An event worth mentioning happened one day, when I was calibrating instruments which we did on all aircraft each month. A group of men came in with an instrument wanting to know if it was accurate. One of them was an American. I knew we had visitors as there was an F-86 Sabre on the hard standing and a car load of people. After testing the instrument, which was alright, I had a few words about it with the American and some of the others, and off they went. Gordon Nuttall then said “Do you know who you were talking to?” I didn’t so Gordon told me it was Chuck Yeager who was here to evaluate the Hunter for NATO with a view to America financing it to re-equip European air forces. He had been flying the first Hunter Mk 6 in dog fights against another American pilot in the Sabre. I got to develop the gyro gun sight camera film and there was a lot of Sabre on it!