John Charnley: Farnborough's A-Shed in the 1950s and 2011

Aeronautical Engineer Sir John Charnley discusses working practices at Farnbrough in the 1950s and describes the contrast between 'A' shed in the 1950s and 2011.

It’s so different. This hangar that we’re in, I remember it, as far as I can remember, in two parts. One was called A Shed, and the other was called F1-E; why I don’t know. But A Shed was used for servicing aircraft, F1-E was for putting experimental installations in. So there were a range of aircraft here, four engines, two engines, single engine. I have to say, with the best will in the world, it wasn’t as clean as it is now, now dare I say it, it looks as if we did some work in it. We didn’t have polished floors, for instance. There were instruments, there were things, measuring gadgets over the floor. You’d often find heavy balances, because all the little aircraft that we flew, that were flown, were weighed and where was the CG, because the centre of gravity would have an effect on the performance, the stability and control of the aircraft upstairs. So there was that sort of thing over the floor. There were drip trays under the aircraft, hopefully to stop the oil but, you know, the drip trays got kicked or whatever, and with the best will in the world it was never – can I turn round? It was never like this. But, a lot of work was done in it, without any doubt at all. There were risks in the flying, so you had to be very, very careful how you introduced experimental equipment into an aeroplane. And you worked very closely with the fitters that would actually do the work. You weren’t eligible really … qualified, to actually undertake the installations, the fitters in the hangar here had got all their qualifications for doing that. But you worked with them, and at times you had to persuade them to do what they thought were stupid things. And that was quite a job in itself. I can remember one particular fitter, who was an electrical fitter and very involved with the instrumentation that I was putting in behind the pilot’s seat, and again, erm, I used to tuck my head in behind the pilot’s seat to adjust this, that or the other, or calibrate an instrument, and he’d be sitting in the pilot’s seat itself and doing things there while I was behind him. And he’d be muttering away about this sod behind me, what the hell’s he up to, di da, di da, di da, that sort of thing. So on the one hand you’ve got this close cooperation with the pilots themselves, but here on the ground there was the same sort of thing, experimentally, with fitters very skilled and willing to accept that you knew what you were talking about. If they didn’t think you did know what you were talking about, in no short time they’d let you know pretty forcibly that they thought you di da, di da, di da, di da. And that was the sort of standard language on the floor here, without any doubt at all. There were offices around the back there, as there are now, and sometimes you’d take them into the offices to try to explain a little more clearly why you were doing what you thought you were doing, you see. And you’d have a little discussion with them, and I can remember this same chap that was with me on the Spitfire, saying, ‘Oh bloody stupid, John, oh bloody stupid,’ you know, that was the limit of the language just about, but good enough, good enough. And so it went on for, yeah, yeah, a good atmosphere, you had to absorb yourself in it and be part of it, there’s no doubt about that, in gaining trust, gaining confidence, on the one hand with the pilots and on the other hand with the chaps on the hangar floor.

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