Questions & Answers
Q. You first discovered an interest in aircraft at the age of eight. Was there a formative experience that kindled your passion?
A. Making model aircraft at the age of eight at school, and around that time seeing the then mighty Bristol Brabazon flying low over the school. Writing to Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Pugh Lloyd then AOC Bomber Command, and he replying by sending me a fine set of large black and white photographs of all the bomber aircraft in RAF operation at the time. Later, in the autumn of 1956 when I was 13, going up to the London Gliding Club with my father who was intending to take up gliding. He died six months later, and in the following year, when I was 15, I went to Dunstable and took it up.
Q. How did you find your very first lesson?
A. At the risk of sounding trite, enormously exciting and exhilarating - a feeling of breaking free from the shackles holding one down to the ground, the two dimensional constraints of the earth and its roads and boundaries - being free as a bird - using the elements - hill lift and thermals, to stay airborne without an engine - the feel of the rush of air on the face in an open cockpit.
Q. What prompted you to take aviation from being just a hobby to setting up the Air Foyle Group?
A. I had hankerings to start a commercial aviation company for many years - just a small air taxi company - but even that takes money, and I had none.
However, by 1977, with a modest amount I had earned from another business, and with part of a small inheritance, I started an aviation leasing business, and then a year later formed Air Foyle to operate as an air taxi company based at Luton Airport. I chose Luton because it served the north London conurbation and part of the south east and south Midlands, and local towns such as Luton itself, Dunstable, Bedford, Stevenage, Letchworth, Hitchin, Baldock, Milton Keynes etc. Luton, like the other major London airports, operated and had radar, customs and immigration facilities 24/7, but was significantly cheaper than Heathrow and Gatwick, and had a better catchment area than Stansted.
In those days, there were few if any scheduled airline services to destinations in Europe other than the capital and major cities, so it made sense for local companies to charter aircraft to cities not served.
I managed to obtain a bank overdraft, and also aircraft finance (like car HP), with which I bought a used Piper Aztec twin engined six seat aircraft.
The director of Luton Airport at that time was Bernard Collins, a tough humorous old veteran of the airline and airport business, and for the first eighteen months he would not allow me office accommodation at the airport, as he had become fed up with light aircraft blocking valuable parking space for his large passenger airliners, although he was unable to prevent me from basing the Aztec there.
This resulted in my turning the two bedroomed house on a housing estate near the airport which had become my home, into the office too. My first Chief Pilot was a magnificent 57 year old Czech who had flown Liberators for the RAF in the war. He and his English wife (who did the accounts) and their dog and cat, also lived in the house.
Further discussions with Bernard Collins over eighteen months, which took place in the mornings in his office over several cups of coffee laced with triple Scotches, resulted in his agreeing to lease us office accommodation at the airport.
The Aztec was used to carry passengers, usually by day, and cargo, usually at night, and was also equipped to carry out aerial surveys carrying large specialist cameras.
Over a period of seven years we gained contracts, overnight cargo for Datapost and courier and express parcel companies such as Skypak and TNT, and aerial survey in the UK, Berlin and central and east Africa. On the back of these we acquired more Aztecs and larger aircraft such as the Navajo and Chieftain.
When I started, I fondly imagined that with imaginative and innovative marketing, keeping a tight control of costs and working 12 hours a day 6 or 7 days a week, profit would follow, unlike most of the competitors. This was not to be. The company lost money in each of its first seven years. This was challenging. Willpower, the bank, creditors and my credit cards kept it going - just.
I diversified - into air charter broking, banner towing, specialist up-market tour operating and incentive travel, and into managing larger cargo aircraft on behalf of existing clients such as TNT, and it was the latter that broke the loss making mould. Starting in 1987, by 1991, we were operating a fleet of ten BAe 146 cargo jets for TNT on a schedule five nights a week from various points in the UK and Europe to their hub in Cologne. Employing this principle, we diversified into the passenger airline business and operated a variety of Boeing and Airbus passenger aircraft for a variety of clients including all easyJet's aircraft for their first two years of operation.
In 1985 I took delivery of the first production Edgley Optica spotting and surveillance aircraft. Sadly, this aircraft was lost soon after in a fatal accident whilst being operated by a UK police force. The accident report was inconclusive.
In 1986, I became interested in the giant Soviet AN-124 cargo aircraft and its capabilities, then the largest cargo aircraft in the world. I made initial contact with the Soviets and after two years of negotiations in Moscow and Kiev, I signed a contract with the Antonov Design Bureau of Kiev which made Air Foyle their exclusive worldwide general sales agent for the charter of their AN-124 aircraft to customers outside the Soviet Union We also became responsible for the commercial and operational management of Antonov's growing fleet of aircraft ,which included the even larger six-engined AN-225 Mriya aircraft capable of carrying 250 tonnes or 5 main battle tanks, compared to the Boeing C-17, operated by the United States Air Force and RAF, capable of carrying one. We operated for the defence departments of most Western governments during all the conflicts over the last twenty years, relief supplies for most United Nations and NGO operations, and major industrial manufacturing companies carrying cargoes as diverse as railway locomotives and carriages, tanks, ostriches, racing yachts, pressure vessels, aircraft engines and wings, helicopters, generators, computers, space vehicles, giant cactus. We broke many world records.
In 1994 we won the prestigious contract for Oil Spill Response Ltd to provide a Lockheed Hercules spray aircraft and Ilyushin IL-76 heavy cargo aircraft, to provide 24/7 standby cover, in the event of an oil spillage anywhere in the world.
In 1999 I purchased a controlling interest in CityJet the Irish scheduled passenger airline, and sold this in the following year to Air France.
Q. Was there a golden era for British aeronautic engineering?
A. It started in 1935 with designs like R J Mitchell's Spitfire, and the Hurricane, and the elegant Flamingo airliner and the Empire flying boats, and then with war-inducing aircraft such as the Lancaster, but the real golden age was from 1945 to 1970. Bearing in mind that following the end of the Second World War, Britain was bankrupt, amazingly it succeeded in designing and building a whole plethora of new military and civil types, some of them very ahead of their time: the Comet, the world's first commercial jet airliner; the Viscount turboprop airliner; the Hawker Hunter jet fighter; the three V bombers; the Avro 748 turboprop airliner; the Harrier vertical take off fighter; Concorde supersonic airliner; TSR2 bomber, and many others. Rolls Royce and others designed and produced the advanced power plants for these aircraft.
Q. What do you feel were the major factors in Britain losing its position as an industry leader?
A. By focusing on winning the war with military types, we did fall behind the USA in designing and building conventional piston-engined civil airliners. The Avro York and Tudor did not match up to the Douglas DC4 and DC6 and Lockheed Constellation airliners. However, we did, for a while get ahead again, but there were then several factors that weakened the industry.
There were, following the end of the war, a large number of aircraft design and production companies in existence - too many. This resulted in the government commissioning too many competing designs to two or more aircraft companies for the same spec, resulting in some only producing prototypes while others were ordered to manufacture just 10 of this or 15 of that - i.e. not in commercial quantities, just to try and keep this over-abundance of companies in existence. It was Prime Minister Harold Macmillan who said we couldn't carry on with so many small companies in existence.
The two State owned airlines - British Overseas Airways Corp. (BOAC) and British European Airways (BEA) had a lot to answer for.
De Havilland designed the DH121 three-engined jet airliner at Hatfield. It was a phenomenal concept supposed to have a new Rolls Royce engine to match the Pratt and Whitney engine and accommodate 140 passengers. Along came BEA, then the sole customer for this aircraft named the Trident. BEA said it was much too big and had it redesigned with 100 seats and the Rolls Royce Spey, which made it under-powered. Boeing had been talking to De Havilland as a possible partner, and so Boeing went away, having learned a lot, and built the Boeing 727 similar to De Havilland's original spec and swept the world market with it, selling approximately 2,300. De Havilland sold about 135 of the Trident, emasculated by BEA. BEA ordered larger versions of the Trident but it was so under-powered that they had to install an additional fourth engine to assist at take-off!
BOAC demanded a 'hot and high' design that could operate Nairobi-London the - Vickers VC10. Thus Vickers had to design it with a larger and therefore heavier wing, which made it less suitable and economic for the longer routes to USA, the Far East and Australia. So BOAC ordered few VC10s, the British design that they themselves had specified, and, instead ordered a large quantity of the American Boeing 707.
The rear-engined twin jet BAC111 was a very good aircraft. However, Sir George Edwards got it wrong. He insisted that it had to have a British engine and refused to install the American Pratt and Whitney JT8D. Instead it was installed with the Rolls Royce Spey, which like the Trident, made it underpowered. Quite a number were sold to various airlines around the world as a result of the sterling efforts of BAC's charming and highly effective sales director Geoffrey Knight, but far more would have been sold instead of its rival the Douglas DC9, if it had not been underpowered.
The Vickers Viscount four-engined turboprop airliner (450 sold) and the Avro/HS 748 twin- engined turboprop airliners were commercial successes worldwide, but if these and other excellent British products had been built by American companies, two or three times as many would have been sold. This points to the massive advantage that their huge home market gives to US industry compared to British and European industry.
The Vickers Vanguard and Bristol Britannia four-engined turboprop airliners were simply too late into the market, both aircraft being overtaken by the jet airliners becoming available. The Vanguard with merely 40 being built and only sold to BEA and Trans Canada was a massive commercial failure. Even though jet airliners like the Caravelle were coming into service, Sir George Edwards at BAC still thought that the superior operating economics of the Vanguard would make the difference - they didn't. Passengers wanted jet speed and comfort, even on short haul. In the end BEA ordered the Comet 4B to replace the Vanguard on many European routes. A pity they didn't do that from the start and maybe more Comet 4Bs might then have been sold to others
The last purely British jet airliner design was the Avro, later British Aerospace 146. Quite a number were sold but far more would have been if it had been designed with a larger wing and only two engines instead of the more expensive and less economical four.
One of the principal issues disadvantaging the industry was political. There was a ridiculous desire to keep the multiplicity of aircraft companies in business, instead of rationalising the industry.
For example, the government ordered a four-engined jet bomber from three manufacturers. Trying to spread the jam thinly was bad news. The same was true of fighters. The Hawker Hunter was excellent. It was not necessary to get Supermarine to produce the Swift as well.
Similarly, it was not necessary to have ordered both the Gloster Javelin as well as the De Havilland 110/Sea Vixen. It should have been just the DH110.
Tough decisions should have been taken earlier.
A wrong decision was taken to cancel the Armstrong Whitworth 681 a military jet transport aircraft with short take-off and landing ability, considerably in advance of the American Lockheed C130 Hercules.
Denis Healey cancelled the very advanced TSR2 jet bomber, which horrified most commentators at the time, though, ironically, this cancellation resulted in the Tornado being built and then operated by the RAF. British Aerospace sold this aircraft to Saudi Arabia in a 20 billion deal. Without this deal, many think that British Aerospace would have gone out of business.
A personal observation. It has struck me over the years, that during the 20th century at least, regarding manufacturing industry, Britain has excelled in innovation, been strong in lateral thinking, eccentricity, invention, originality and individuality, but weak in turning the inventions into well-marketed high volume produced commercial successes, compared with say USA, Japan, Korea and Germany. Maybe it's something to do with the British psyche. There have been exceptions, e.g. Dyson. Some nations seem to have talent or expertise in some areas, more than others. For example, most of the great world-renowned popular music over the last 50 years, has almost exclusively emanated from the USA and UK. Much British manufacturing capacity has disappeared, unless taken over and run by Japanese, German or American companies.
Q. In which aspects of aircraft design and production does Britain still play a leading role?
A. Whilst no longer designing and producing whole aircraft independently, Britain still has the second largest aerospace industry in the world.
It retains significant expertise in wing design and produces the wings for the Airbus aircraft.
Rolls Royce is a world leader in the design and manufacture of large aero engines, and under the leadership of Sir Ralph Robins moved from supplying approximately 2% to approximately 30% of the world's large jet engine market.
Britain is strong in the manufacture of avionics and electronic systems with companies such as Smiths, as well as aircraft undercarriages e.g. Dowty Messier.
Britain is strong in joint manufacture projects. 25% of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is produced in the UK, whilst it produces significant elements of the Eurofighter Typhoon, which some would say is the world's best fighter, better than the F22 Raptor and the F35, but half the price or less of the Raptor.
BAE Systems produces very advanced unmanned air vehicles.
Q. Why is British expertise still so important to the future of the aviation industry?
A. Some of the expertise needed by the world aviation industry and where Britain has expertise is described above. However, it is extremely important to the UK economy that this expertise is retained and developed further, as our aerospace industry employs a large work force, is a big exporter and generator of significant tax revenues for Britain. Many of us believe that an important component of national wealth is making things. The UK's aerospace industry has an annual turnover of some 20 billion and employs some 115,000 people in high value jobs: 40% are graduate engineers or managers, 30% are highly skilled technicians. Exports are valued at 12 billion. The UK defence industry as a whole, which includes a very significant aerospace element, generates a 35 billion turnover with 305,000 jobs. This represents 10% of the manufacturing jobs in the UK. The UK can boast world-beating, leading edge technology in engines, aerostructures, solid state airborne radars and defensive aids. The previous government did not appear to believe in this very strongly. Indeed, shortly before the Northern Rock fiasco and the world financial meltdown, one of Gordon Brown's closest economic advisors was telling him to forget about manufacturing industry, and that the future for Britain was the financial services sector and tourism! It is also important to have an aerospace engineering ability in the UK, and to have the ability to develop and maintain our aircraft in the UK and not depend on foreign suppliers for our own specialist strategic national requirements.
Q. Given the likelihood of oil running out or becoming prohibitively expensive in the medium-term, is the aeronautics industry investing in new technology to keep the world flying?
A. The aerospace industry has been investing heavily and consistently in new technology to make aircraft quieter and more fuel-efficient and to reduce emissions, and this is an ongoing effort. The industry is investing in new technology and air traffic systems. However, if landings and slots and more intelligent routings were employed, up to 50% of aviation fuel could be saved. This challenge has been ongoing for a long time, but national sensitivities and pride have to be overcome.
Q. Of the planes featured in Pioneers to Partners, which have you most enjoyed flying and which of those that you haven't flown would you most like to?
A. As has been normal for the last 30-40 years, the bulk of light aircraft available to train on and fly in the UK have been American or French. However, I have flown the Tiger Moth, the Beagle 206, both very enjoyable in their own ways, and the Edgley Optica. With a Tiger Moth you are at one with the elements and the B206 is a solid, stable gentleman's cabin class aeroplane. The Optica was a unique aircraft. The cockpit consists of a big glass bubble through which you can see in all directions, while the engine is mounted behind the cockpit driving a ducted fan propeller, with a twin boom tail. The unique visibility and its slow flying ability made it a uniquely enjoyable aircraft to fly.
As a boy I flew in the Airspeed Ambassador, called the Elizabethan by BEA, a wonderfully elegant high wing twin-engined airliner, and the Comet, when operated by BEA, and last but not least of course, Concorde, which I flew twice across the Atlantic and twice to Finnish Lapland. On one of the flights to Lapland I sat in the jump seat in the cockpit for the flight and the landing.
Of those I haven't flown, I would love to fly in any of the fighters such as the Hunter, Tornado and Typhoon.
Q. Like any industry, aeronautics has its fair share of white elephants. Do you have a secret fondness for any model which perhaps should never had made it past the drawing board stage?
A. Concorde never made money, but what a magnificent beast it was - the only supersonic civil airliner in the world, apart from the Russian TU-144, which was a technical failure. Concorde was a triumph of advanced design and engineering, particularly when you think that it first flew nearly 40 years ago. However, the odds were stacked against Concorde. During its existence the oil price rose eighteen fold and most countries would not allow it to overfly supersonically because of its sonic boom. A great pity.