Great days – John Saxon

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Stop me if I get too long-winded. Unlike most other BS’ers, my memory of those crazy days at Woodford and SA is very patchy. I definitely tend to remember the fun times. Work - not a lot. This is also horribly auto-biographical, so feel free to skip!

Elliott Bros (London) Ltd, Borehamwood:

In early 1960 I was Works Manager of a firm called "Seismic Instruments" in Borehamwood. Sounds a grandiose title but we only employed about 20 people making Geophones as a subsidiary of an American company. Despite the fact that we were the only European plant actually making money, the parent company suddenly shut us down. So off I went to the CES (or equivalent Gov employment office). They in turn sent me to Elliotts for an interview. Don’t remember too much about it, except remarking that I knew absolutely nothing about Inertial Navigation equipment – "No problem" came the reply, "no-one knows anything about it", and they gave me a job in the development lab. Nothing can beat low unemployment! I was put to work on the design of some high stability amplifier and I was decidedly unsuccessful at making much improvement. So they quickly sent me off to Woodford to join the Trials team – talk about a life changing decision.

AVROs at Woodford:

What a blast! Woodford was a great place, working with a super bunch of guys! I had (for it’s time) a sexy looking fibreglass Ford special car at the time. Actually it was a total heap, running on a hotted up Ford side-valve engine. But it looked vaguely like an AstonMy Ford fibreglass special Martin DB2/4 (or so I thought) and as I fancied myself as a bit of a James Bond type, the car was ideal for me. When we got some snow it was great to drive around the Airfield on full reverse lock using the throttle to steer – got up to 70mph sideways on more than one occasion. The Data Analysis section used a hut out on the airfield with a car park covered in cinders out front. My big thing was to come screaming into the car park and do a nice handbrake induced slide though 180 deg with the object of being neatly parked at the end of it. Unfortunately I overcooked it one day and side swiped Doug Harris’s Rover. As he was also my boss he was definitely entitled to take a dim view of this. I remember that Doug was remarkably good about it, but I know what I’d say to my son if he indulged in such behaviour!

I can remember the Vulcan production line – very impressive and very noisy – all those air drills and rivet guns, and various wooden mock-up and real Blue Steel components lying around.

Mostly I remember the pubs! The Hanging Gate at Macclesfield, and some great ones in Prestbury and the Derbyshire hills. There was also a club in Prestbury where you could dance upstairs – rock and roll was the "in thing" and one could really get moving to Buddy Holly or "The King". Then finally the great day came and it was time to move down-under.

The way south:

We stayed overnight at RAF Lyneham on Salisbury plain. There was a light covering of snow on the ground, and the coke braziers in the Nissan huts hardly made a dent on the clammy interiors. But we survived the night and were herded in a large shivering bunch out to the waiting Comet 4. Rearward facing seats and cardboard lunch boxes. The RAF really did things in style! But first stop was El Adam? in the middle of the Sahara desert. What a contrast! Hot as heck and camels wandering about, etc. The next night Aden, even more of a culture shock. Then the two night lay over at RAF Changi. Some may remember the downwind landing leg in the evening and seeing all the small fires burning in the main village street. The fires were lit by the shop keepers staying up waiting for the RAF plane to land, and wanting to make sure that we realised that they were still open for business! A little different from the Singapore International airport at Changi today. I also remember bribing the rickshaw drivers to race into town – totally politically incorrect and not something one should admit to these days. Bargaining in the Changi shops was great! One would know in advance what to buy, and get them all at the same shop. They would sit you down with several beers (Tiger of course) and send all the kids out to get items that they did not stock. Finally the bill would be totalled and about 1/3rd would be offered. Then a walk out and drag back, followed by more calculating. Finally after several walk outs, displays of wives, kids and aged dependants, they would despair and let you go. At that point you returned and suggested a couple of extra shirts and an 8mm film and all was smiles! Took several trips and consultations with old hands to work out the technique.

Then the bumpy ride to Darwin – always hot and humid as heck, finally the long drag over the incredibly ancient and ground down red landscape, and touch down at Edinburgh field Salisbury. Took a week or so, but an extremely civilised way to fly. No jet lag!

Impressions of Adelaide:

Initially not good. Everything seemed to be hung on poles! Could those be gas mains as well as electricity, phones, and innumerable signs? Amazing those wooden poles – why didn’t they collapse under all that junk? The corner shops with peeling paint and crazy laws about what you could and could not (legally) buy on Sundays. No one seemed to take much notice of the laws – the "right of way from the right" rule seemed to be a game of bluff. Each driver pretending not to look at the other! As for the 6 o’clock swill – madness! Traffic speed doubled around 6:30 pm! I remember we used to eat at a Greek restaurant in Rundle? street. The owner would bring around some potent illegal brew in coffee cups, and after a furtive over the shoulder look would announce – "when I say drink, you drink"! But the Largs Pier pub was great and later we moved a couple of doors away to number 179, The Esplanade, Largs Bay. Over the road to the beach, and a ramshackle garage behind to keep the various cars and the 50hp outboard motor boat that we conned Elliotts social club into buying for us.

Me water skiingWe got reasonably fit pretty quickly. I remember going water skiing in Port Adelaide (around the mangrove swamps and cargo boats – apparently a breeding ground for sharks and sting rays) at around 4am. Non stop action with the water like glass and a thin layer of warm water on the surface. Then back to number 179 for a huge breakfast fry-up, then off to work, back home after a few quick games of Squash, then out to dinner followed by 10 pin bowling. No problem for us young, single, types!

Brought one of the very first Ford Falcons – Ken Quinn has already described the seat conversion job! Got almost written off waiting for someone to come out from the right on the long Port road near the bone factory. The road was dead straight East /West, lethal in the evening with a low sun which was the undoing of the guy who hit me from behind at quite high speed. Suddenly I was doing 30mph down the road, flat on my back (the lay back seats couldn’t cope with that!), and all the doors could not be opened when I finally got it stopped – don’t think the build quality was too good. But the only physical damage was a bruised arm where I had been making the old "I am slowing down, stopping, or turning left " signal! Got the car rebuilt – but it was never the same.

Fiat 1500So then brought the great little Fiat 1500 in British racing green – loved that car! I won’t describe the slow roll that Ken and I did – Ken’s description is much better that mine. But I brought the car Tax and Duty free and eventually shipped it back to U.K. The only trouble was that it was an all alloy motor with a huge "export" radiator. In U.K. I used to drive with the radiator blocked off, the thermostatic fan switched off, and it would still go off the dial on the cold side when driving down motorways!

Of course as many of us were young, single and primarily hormone driven, there were plenty of parties! Number 179 was often the venue and getting rid of the empties was quite a chore. As we had a decent sized mantelpiece in the kitchen we piled many of the empty beer bottles there, eventually reaching a towering triangle 12 or so rows high. Then someone discovered that JohnIson & Fred Whitedue to uneven stresses, many of the bottles could be removed. All was well for a few days, then perhaps there was a small earthquake or John Ison jumped or something, but the roar of bottles flying in all directions was very impressive, and there was hardly a room in the house without it’s share of broken glass. Somewhat to our surprise, no one got cut.


I believe we did occasionally go to work in between the social activities. My primary job was in the trials data analysis group. I don’t remember too much except I guess we used to compare tracking data from the range, to telemetry and recorder data from the Inertial navigator system. We got fairly proficient at error curve filling by solving 4th and 5th order simultaneous equations by hand! We did have some motor driven mechanical calculators to help with the multiplication and division, but the noise of the calculators got a bit much on the days after a trial. I was lucky enough to fly as observer and navigator operator on many of the trials. In the early days we flew in Valiants (I believe there were 3 of those aircraft). Someone can remind me if we actually did any launches from Valiants? Or were they just carry over trials to test missile systems, launch procedures, navigation accuracy, etc? Either way I enjoyed the operational aspects. Setting up the next fix points, gradually compensating for gyro drift errors, keeping detailed written logs in sometimes difficult conditions, taking photos of the instruments at specific times, starting recorders. We often compared launching a Blue Steel to launching an ICBM or large rocket, but from a moving launch platform travelling 5 miles up.

Victor Blue Steel launchThe countdown was a real team effort, everything had to be completed perfectly by each crew member, and no countdown holds were allowed with the launch point which had to be met accurately in position and time approaching at 600+ mph! Most of the technology was fairly new and so it was not really surprising that many of the earlier launches were aborted at some stage of the flight – no one wanted to be responsible for letting loose a million (plus) missile in less than optimum shape!

When not flying on trials we often travelled up to the Woomera range to observe the instruments on the ground and return with the records for intensive analysis before the next launch. Mostly we flew on the regular service between Edinburgh (or was it Adelaide airport?) and Woomera village, and we often stayed overnight at the Senior Mess – the parties there were legendary! Standard Vanguard sixBut sometimes we drove up in the firm’s Standard Vanguard station wagons – those cars were really tough. The 6 cylinder one often cruising at an indicated 100mph or so on dirt roads, and getting airborne for substantial distances over the railway crossings! I just re-read a letter where I mention that we averaged over 74 mph for the 300 plus miles from Adelaide to the range and arrived with 20 mins to spare before the launch. Apparently we missed the plane after stopping in to John Evans’s flat for "a couple of drinks" the evening before. Then we drove back the same day to start the analysis. Over 700miles round trip – we had to be fairly tough as well as the cars!

Eventually I was asked to return to U.K to get trained for the higher altitude flying in the B.2 Vulcan and Victor Aircraft.

Back in the cold and wet:

Back up to Woodford again and renewed many old friendships – but by this time I was missing the weather and easy living down under. Went down to Farnborough (or was it Boscombe Down?) to do the training for the B2 aircraft operations. Learning how to "pressure breathe" where oxygen is forced into your lungs at altitudes above 46,000 ft – hard work, the reverse of normal breathing. The highlight was a spell in the decompression chamber where we got subjected to "explosive decompressions" from approx 20,000 ft up to 56,000 ft in a couple of seconds. The air goes white with condensation and life jackets and things inflate as any remaining gasses expand to 10 times (or so) their normal volume. But they didn’t warn us that all our internal bodily gasses also expand by the same ratio. Didn’t seem too bad in the chamber, but one certainly realised just how bad it was when we eventually got a sniff of the outside air!

Did some Vulcan flights out of Woodford and learnt a bit about star sights and other Navigational techniques. On one night flight the AVRO airfield was "socked in" so we had to land at the Manchester Ringway domestic airport. The pilots had great fun trying to find their way in the maze of taxiways. Eventually we had to walk through the passenger terminal in full flight gear. Got a few sideways looks from the airport staff and passengers!


Back to Australia:

It seemed familiar and comfortable to get back into the swing down-under. Work went on with more launches and a hairy incident in a Victor which I have described in another article. During that period I believe I held the record for the most accurate launch – only 59 ft 6.5 inches from "the pin" – but I am not sure really what that meant as usually the "target" was a nominated point some 10,000ft up. But more importantly the social life was as good as ever! I learnt to fly light aircraft and after getting my licence and night rating, did some nice long distance flights up to Ayres rock and various other interesting spots. Learnt to snow ski at Falls Creek and loved it so much that I did 10 weeks skiing in Austria when I went back! Travelled to NZ and visited numerous relatives as well as a good portion of the country. When I eventually married my Australian girl friend back in U.K. we had no savings but I never regretted doing all the things that would be impossible with a young family. The whole experience of living in Australia was superb and like many others on the Trials – never regretted returning to settle permanently.

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