Interview with Robert Andrew Percival


Interview with Robert Andrew Percival


Robert Percival was the son of a Second World War pilot and so grew up with an interest in aviation. His application to join the RAF as aircrew was not successful so he chose the engineering / technician route in to the service. He was seconded to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight where he worked on the aircraft and took part in displays. He had the difficulty of finding spares and new engines for the aircraft but also had the pleasure of meeting veterans from the Second World War who came to visit the Flight.




Temporal Coverage




01:22:17 audio recording


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CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and today is the 6th of October 2016 and we’re in the home of Robert Percival to talk about his times in the RAF which is much later than wartime but it’s significant for the reasons that will come out as we talk. First of all though Rob what are you first earliest recollections of family life? And —
RP: Family life?
CB: Where you went to school and so on.
RP: Well, I grew up in a place, in a village, called Lymm in Cheshire. L Y M M. And that’s where my father was brought up as well. And I grew up there, went to the usual primary school and then to Lymm Grammar School. I was one of only seven pupils from the primary school that actually qualified, or passed the eleven plus as it was and went to Lymm Grammar School. And had some very happy years there. How much detail do you want me to go into?
CB: Yeah. So then what did, what did you specialize in then? In education.
RP: Oh, well my chosen, well what I specialized in or loved the most was maths and geography. Those were my favourite subjects. Passed a string of O levels and when my friends and fellow pupils at grammar school were thinking about university and what their next moves were I was unusual in that that didn’t really appeal to me to be honest with you. Largely because my hobbies, my main hobby at the time was that of car rallying. I was one of the youngest qualified rally navigators in the country. But in order to do that I had to contribute some of the costs. So my priority at the time was to, rather than go to university go for an income somewhere so that I could continue my passion for rallying. Ok. So, much to my parent’s, what’s the word, displeasure. My motivation was that I’d always loved aeroplanes and always wanted to be a pilot. My father was a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm. And I’ve a photograph of him in his uniform on his wedding day in the lounge. But he used to fly. He was on carriers. He did eighty two deck landings. He’s passed away now, bless his soul but I have his flying log books. And he used to fly Fireflies primarily and Avengers on HMS Centaur. And he was my role model in terms of discussions and conversations about aeroplanes. And that’s what I wanted to do. And I actually applied to be a pilot and went to the Aircrew Selection Centre at Biggin Hill when I was seventeen. Passed all the tests with the exception of the medical because I’m colour blind. Now, I actually knew I was colour blind but my father, who I think was also a little bit colour blind, he was, he was a pilot. And in his naïve, my naïve way we thought we could blag our way through it. He said, ‘You’ll be fine.’ And of course the tests were a bit more, what’s the word? Involved and substantial than when he applied to be a pilot and they said sorry sunshine but you’re not flying one of our aeroplanes. You’re colour blind. Big disappointment. So, you know, I was thinking well what do I do now? And I decided to go down the engineering and this is why my chosen path was the, was the ATechP. Technician propulsion. Because to do the traditional apprenticeship at RAF Halton again one needed to be not colour blind. So that was my chosen route and that’s, that was where my parents were not very pleased with me because they said, ‘Well you ought to be going in as an officer, you know. Otherwise it’s like working in a car garage.’ And me being a bit pig headed at the time and seventeen years old nobody’s going to tell me what to do, I joined anyway. So, in spite of their displeasure. So, that’s how I came about joining the RAF in the trade that, as I say, I did. I have to say I enjoyed the work in the RAF. I enjoyed my time there. I wasn’t, I didn’t have the right, looking back I didn’t have the right personality to be in that type of environment. You know, I wasn’t one to take orders lightly. And I was a bit of a, was a bit of a maverick I have to say. But I went to Swinderby, did the training, went to Halton. Qualified as a technician. Was posted to Coningsby.
CB: Tell us a bit about the training.
RP: The training at — well I did, the normal square bashing at Swinderby was my first insight into that. Which was, that was fine. I just went through the motions. From what I can remember I think it was only a matter of weeks at Swinderby anyway. I can’t remember exactly how long but I don’t think it was more than about three months at Halton. That was fine. I enjoyed that. And I enjoyed obviously my first time away from home. So, looking back at some of the things we did. I had a girlfriend at the time in Cheshire when I left. So I went home most weekends when I could. And my normal, to start with my normal thing was to thumb it home from Halton. And then back on a Sunday night. My parents were a bit worried about that but I could always gauge within ten minutes what time I was going to arrive home. And it was, you know, a good three hour trip. And likewise going back on a Sunday night. Set up my first business whilst I was at Halton actually and that was trading in cars. So I used to thumb it home on a Friday. Buy a car over the weekend in Cheshire or Warrington where they were cheaper. Drive it back on the Sunday. Do whatever needed doing to it and sell it. So that was, that was my life split between Cheshire and RAF Halton.
CB: And how did the training course run? What did they actually do to teach you aero engineering?
RP: It started off with basic engineering first and time spent in the workshop just seeing how cut out we were to be an engineer. I remember vividly having to file bits of sheet metal and mild steel flat within tolerances to see whether, you know you had the patience for doing that sort of thing. And then it was, got gradually got more and more complex. Introduction to the, you know the jet engines and propeller engines. Going through modules where you’d take parts off, strip them down, rebuild them, put them back on the engines. And got to the point where, if I remember right, we were doing a lot of work on the Jet Provost at the time. But yes it was quite, quite an intense twelve month course. Because as I say that was a fairly new category where you could do, you know the, it wasn’t quite an apprenticeship but you could do your specialist engines or airframes, and I chose engines.
CB: The Jet Provost was the standard basic trainer then. What balance did you have of activity between classroom and practical?
RP: As one would expect, to start with a lot of it was theory and classroom based and as we progressed through that course it gradually became more and more practical. And towards the end most of it was practical indeed. Yeah.
CB: So were you stripping down engines and reassembling them?
RP: Yeah.
CB: What were you doing and how did that work?
RP: You’re testing my memory now. But no, it was about exactly as you say. Stripping down engines and rebuilding them but it was very much in accordance with the manual. The manual was the, was the thing that you had to do everything in accordance with. And half the test was about could you stick to the manual and, because what we didn’t want was to build an engine and have some bits left over [laughs] So, so, no it’s all about the discipline of following the procedures as set out in, in the manual at the time.
CB: And there are a huge range of tools used in the RAF. How did they deal with that from a safety point of view?
RP: Well, it was drummed into us at the start that as you say there’s a lot of specialist and general tools and they were all on tool boards with shadow stickers behind them. So at the end of each, not just the end of each working day but the end of each job as well you had to make sure that all the tools were back in its dedicated position. And it was immediately obvious when any of them weren’t because you had this dayglo sticker gazing at you thinking there is a space here where there should be a tool. So that was how they were managed.
CB: And who were the instructors? Were some of them civilians or air force.
RP: Yes. Yeah.
CB: Or what were they?
RP: Yeah. It was a mix of civilian instructors who were usually ex-RAF and serving air force instructors at the time.
CB: And how did you know if the engine was going to work after you’d reassembled it?
RP: Well, we refitted it into the Jet Provost at the time and did the ground test. And I think having built the engine, sat in the cockpit, started it and ran through a series of ground tests. So —
CB: So the ground test would be running up the engine as though the pilot was doing it was it?
RP: Well, yeah but in every —
CB: With a checklist.
RP: That’s right. With every engine and aeroplane then any major job that has been done then it’s up to the technicians to go through those tests anyway so that’s even after training at Coningsby on the Phantoms and so on that, you know we went through a checklist of checks that we would go through to make sure that the engine was fully exercised at all states. From idle to max RPM. And reheat on the Phantoms to make sure that everything was within tolerances. Temperature, pressure and all the other indications.
CB: Now this was very much the jet age for the RAF and it still used Chipmunks. So how did you deal with the ordinary reciprocating engines? What was the process you went through there?
RP: Well, again we had a basic level of instruction on piston engines on Chipmunks that, you know we did some work on those and on propeller engines of all shapes anyway because a lot of, obviously the propeller engines were gas turbine jet engines. So we had an exposure to all of the different ranges of engines and, and styles. And of course with my time at Coningsby and on the Battle of Britain Flight I flew many times in Chipmunks anyway as a, on air experience. So that was quite enjoyable.
CB: What flying did you get at Halton?
RP: None. Because there is, at Halton there was a part of the course was an air experience flight in a VC10. But that happened to clash with my eighteenth birthday party back in Cheshire so I chose the birthday party [laughs] So I had to give up my place on the VC10.
CB: Right.
RP: Which was disappointing but I was —
CB: You’ve got to get your priorities haven’t you?
RP: Absolutely.
CB: Yeah. And at the end, how long was the training at Halton?
RP: If I remember right it was just over a year. It may have been twelve or thirteen months. It wasn’t a long course at all.
CB: And how did you know that you’d finished the course?
RP: Well, there was a pass out parade.
CB: Right.
RP: I was actually taken ill during my course. So the course I think was thirteen months. I was there a little longer because I developed a condition called quinsy. Which was a throat, where it was highly inflamed and because I was forced to take three weeks sickness I was actually back coursed.
CB: Re-coursed.
RP: Re-coursed on to, on to the next available one. Yeah. So that was an irritation.
CB: So, at the end of the course was there an exam? How did they do?
RP: Oh yeah. There were exams throughout but at the end of the course there was like a, you know final exams. Several final exams which, if I remember right some people failed to pass. No. That’s the wrong word. They didn’t pass. But thankfully I did. So yeah there was, you know, a celebration. A passing out parade. And then everybody got together in the classroom to be told where they would be posted to. And as you said nine hundred posted to Coningsby. And I thought where’s Coningsby?
CB: You came in as an AC2.
RP: AC2?
CB: Air craftsman second class.
RP: Well, I came in as a, the actual rank at the time was a junior technician.
CB: When you started?
RP: Yes.
CB: Was it? Right.
RP: So I left Halton with the rank of junior technician.
CB: No. No. I meant when you joined the RAF. You came in at what rank? At Swinderby.
RP: Well, that was trainee junior technician.
CB: Oh it was.
RP: That was always going to be the case.
CB: Right.
RP: Yeah.
CB: Excellent.
RP: Because I know that the lower ranks there was the SAC and, sorry LAC then SAC. And then they brought out this new category of junior technician.
CB: Right.
RP: Which did cause quite a lot of discontent among some of the existing ones. Largely because the technicians at the time previously had had to go through the ranks of LAC and SAC whereas myself and my colleagues went straight to technician grade and were actually paid considerably more. And that was what caused them to be quite upset about it.
CB: So you received your posting to Coningsby. Then what?
RP: Arrived at Coningsby and my posting was to a division called the ASF — Aircraft Servicing Flight which was, we had a couple of squadrons of Phantoms at Coningsby and then the Aircraft Servicing Flight was for more in depth maintenance and engineering work. So that we took the aeroplanes from 29 Squadron and the OCU, Operational Conversion Unit and, I think it was 43 Squadron at the time. We brought them in for, as I say the bigger services that the squadron couldn’t handle themselves. And that was my time there. I also, whilst I was there at the Aircraft Servicing Flight moved, or did a spell in engine records. And that was purely because the, I wanted to, I recognised that I’d left school with a string of O levels but I left before I did A levels and I thought maybe that was a bit of a decision made too quickly. So whilst I was at Coningsby [pause] sorry. I’m getting mixed up now. It was when I was at Wattisham. What I did was day release at the local college. Sorry it wasn’t at Coningsby. It was at Wattisham that I was in engine records.
CB: We’ll come to that in a minute then.
RP: Yeah. That’s fine.
CB: Right. So you went into engine records.
RP: Sorry, engine records. Just wind that back.
CB: Yeah.
RP: No, that was later on in Wattisham.
CB: Oh, it was. Ok.
RP: I came to it. Yeah.
CB: Right. So ASF is not the first line servicing.
RP: No. That’s, that’s second line servicing.
CB: Exactly. Yeah.
RP: Where we were doing engine changes and yeah when the squadrons went on detachment to Cyprus, Germany, where ever, they always took some personnel from ASF because they’d got the more in depth experience of, and not just actually doing the work but more in depth experience of judgements as well. When an engine had to be removed for instance.
CB: Right.
RP: The biggest example was you’re obviously aware of foreign object damage going down the air intake and damaging the compressor blades and turbines.
CB: Particularly birds.
RP: Birds. Yeah.
CB: Clothing.
RP: Bits of grit, bits of clothing and they always, and that happened regularly. Some of it was in, within tolerances and allowable but they always called on us and quite often me at the time to say whether it was outside limits and actually the engine had to be removed and, and repaired.
CB: So the Phantoms had what engine in?
RP: They had the Rolls Royce Spey. Well, as I said, yeah the Phantom had the Rolls Royce Spey but I also did the detachment to the Falklands. I was actually in the Falklands for seven months. And we had to send a squadron of Phantoms to the Falklands. But then that left a gap at home and they had to be replaced. So what happened then was we bought a squadron of American Phantoms which had the General Electric engine. So in a roundabout way I worked, I was, I was in charge of the Rolls Royce Spey engines to start with and then the General Electric engines for the, for the squadron. American ones which had been sat in the Nevada desert I believe for many years since Vietnam.
CB: So it was dry and they were ok.
RP: It was but the stories of, I’m glad I wasn’t there but I remember one particular guy who had a look at these and went down. Because the Phantom you could just crawl down the air intake. Go right down to see the, you know the compressor.
CB: Right.
RP: And the engine. And there were a lot of stories of guys going down there at the Nevada desert to check on these engines. Then appearing at a rapid rates of knots because there were rattle snakes.
CB: Oh really.
RP: Nesting in the air intakes because it was in the shade.
CB: Right. What was the performance of the planes and the reliability between Spey and General Electric engines?
RP: There were fors and against for both. Reliability was pretty much the same. The Spey apparently if I remember right was the pilots used to say was a bit faster at low level. The downside of the American ones with the General Electric, the downside was that you could see them for miles away because they did leave a trail of black smoke behind them whereas the Rolls Royce didn’t. So in those days you know the missiles were sort of fire and forget but as long as you aimed at the black smoke then —
CB: [laughs] Right.
RP: You know, the missile would find its target whereas the Rolls Royce ones didn’t present such a visual target.
CB: Ok. So how long were you at Coningsby?
RP: Coningsby. Six years in total.
CB: Were you?
RP: Including the detachments obviously and including my seven months in the Falklands.
CB: So what years are we talking about? We’re talking about you started in —
RP: Well, I joined the air force in ’78. So I would have gone to Coningsby the end of ‘79. Very end of 1979.
CB: Ok.
RP: Yeah.
CB: So you left there in ‘85/6
RP: Yeah. And then did —
CB: Then where?
RP: The remainder of my time at RAF Wattisham, Suffolk.
CB: Right.
RP: Again, that was on Phantoms.
CB: Yeah.
RP: And in Wattisham as I say, a chunk of that time was in engine records and that’s purely because I wanted to go to college and do a day release and gained a Diploma in Business and Finance.
CB: Oh.
RP: Which was —
CB: Which — where did you do that?
RP: Quite unusual. Which was what? Sorry?
CB: Which college?
RP: West Suffolk College in Bury St Edmunds.
CB: Diploma in — ?
RP: Business and Finance.
CB: Business and Finance.
RP: Yeah. Because it was clear to me that apart from the Battle of Britain Flight the most enjoyable time I had in the air force was in the Falklands. And it was clear that I wasn’t a career person for the forces. And that’s largely because of my personality. I didn’t like taking orders too much and also because my friends from grammar school were going in their direction and I was thinking well, hang on a minute they’re making lots of money and making a thing for themselves and my best mate at school was doing very well in business and I thought well I can. I was better than him. So, you know, I’ve done my time playing at it. Now, I’ll come out and get a proper job. And, and the fact is that nowadays things are much more serious with Afghanistan and Iraq and all the other conflicts that are going on whereas then, you know there was, ok they had the QRA Quick Reaction Alert because of the Russian incursions.
CB: Yeah.
RP: Every couple of days. But other than that there wasn’t any real threat other than the obvious the Falklands.
CB: Yeah.
RP: So, I think we were just, we were going through a period at the time. Looking back I think we were just playing at it. And the usual exercises. Sirens going off in the middle of the night. And all the old soaks who used to work in Germany saying, ‘Well, that’s not like real life in Germany. You’re just playing at it.’ [laughs] So, so —
CB: Tell us more about the Falklands. There you were still flying out of Port Stanley were you?
RP: Yes. Yeah. I, I spent a week at Ascension Island waiting until the Royal Engineers had extended the runway and then flew down on the air bridge on a Hercules from Ascension down to Port Stanley. Very exciting times they were. We refuelled twice on the way down. And, and then with the Phantoms we set up the air defence ring. I thoroughly enjoyed it actually in the Falklands.
CB: How long were you there?
RP: Seven months.
CB: Seven months.
RP: It’s only designed to be, I was told it was going to be four months but it turned out to be seven months. But no. I enjoyed that. And then [pause] yes.
CB: And that was when? This, this is ’83 or —
RP: ’83.
CB: Yeah.
RP: Yeah. ’83.
CB: After the conflict in other words.
RP: It was after the conflict. Because obviously, you know the Phantoms couldn’t use the runway until it had been extended. So, you know, the first couple of months was spent on an old ship that was moored in the harbour. That’s where I lived. Which I’ve got photographs of that. And then the remainder we actually lived on what was an ex-prison. Floating prison. Again, in the harbour. The Coastell they called it.
CB: What was the comfort like there?
RP: Not great. It was better than the ship. A lot of it, a lot of the discomfort was created by the angst between the army and the air force.
CB: In what way?
RP: A lot of the usual banter because the army squaddies at the time weren’t particularly bright and we used to take the mickey out of them and wind them up which made them very angry and they were fitter than the average RAF. So some of the things they used to do to wind us up were not very nice.
CB: It was a double wind up.
RP: It was. And for example, for example when, when I left the Falklands I sailed back to Ascension Island on the SS Uganda.
CB: Yes.
RP: An ex-hospital ship. And that was a really nice trip actually because I don’t know how long it could have taken us to get there but it, we took a lot longer than we needed to just to coincide our arrival at Ascension Island with the VC10 flight home. We only left Port Stanley on the 1st of January. I remember that. We left into a raging storm in the roaring forties.
CB: Yeah.
RP: Which lasted a couple of days. As soon as we got out of that into the sunshine mid-South Atlantic we throttled right back on the Uganda and then just cruised up at 4 knots up to Ascension Island. But going through the roaring forties I put a note on the notice board saying there was a snooker competition. When the ship was pitching and rolling all over the place. And yeah, I got a dozen army guys signed up for a snooker competition.
CB: [laughs] Well it fits doesn’t it? Yes.
RP: So, and then we got to Ascension Island and lots of stories there and even when we were just anchored at Ascension on the ship for a couple of days before I picked up the VC10. And you could, looking over the side of the side of the ship you could see the sea water piranhas. You weren’t allowed to go swimming off the ship because they were quite dangerous piranhas. The standard thing at the time was to get a bucket with an apple, drop it over the side. All these piranhas would go into it and then you’d pull it back up, pull the rope back up. And there was one Polish army guy who [laughs] I don’t know why I used to wind these guys up but I know he went down to the toilet to use the, and he was sat on, and I got this piranha, razor teeth and I’ve got a picture of one of them there and I just threw it over the top of the toilet door and this thing’s flapping around the toilet. ‘That’s it. I’m going to kill you.’ Usual antics that you know.
CB: Yeah.
RP: When you go.
CB: That forces people do.
RP: That forces people do.
CB: Disgraceful behaviour [laughs]
RP: Yeah.
CB: Yeah.
RP: And then he was doubly upset because when we left the ship to get on to the VC10 we left via helicopter. Whirlwind. And all the bags were in the net that was underslung under this Whirlwind. And when it, the army, they took the army’s luggage to be taken off the underslung net actually split and all their luggage dropped into the sea never to be seen again.
CB: Oh dear.
RP: Yeah.
CB: The piranhas ate the lot.
RP: We didn’t really laugh.
CB: No.
RP: So, so that was, yeah I enjoyed the Falklands. It was an eye opener for me.
CB: What was so distinctive about the Falklands from your point of view?
RP: Real life. It was, we weren’t playing at anything. It was real life and I went on a long weekend of what we called R & R because it was so noisy. Constantly noisy because the runway was made of PSP matting.
CB: Oh was it? Right.
RP: And it just vibrated every time —
CB: Right.
RP: Anything landed or took off.
CB: Pierced Steel Planking.
RP: Yeah.
CB: Just so — yeah.
RP: That’s right. And I took a team out because, because of the noise. There was one particular day off we had and I said, ‘Let’s, you know, let’s go and explore some of the Falklands.’ So we had to get permission at the time because of all the minefields that were around. And that’s what we did. And I’ve got pictures here of coming across Argentinian ambulances that had been riddled with bullet holes and I’ve seen, actually it was our guys that did that. And there was the deal at the time was you find anything, any debris from the war, you know, to come back and report it to the authorities there. Which we did. Went back a week later and it had all been removed. So yeah it was the fact that this was suddenly real life and you know.
CB: And were the Argentinians actually trying to probe in the air?
RP: Oh yes.
CB: All the time were they? So the Phantoms were busy.
RP: Oh yes. Yeah. And, and yeah and it actually taught me a lot about people as well. About how, how, what’s the different, how people can turn into something different in that type of situation where, you know there were a lot of people were actually hoping it would start up again to give them some action. And I was thinking you know this isn’t, this isn’t something to be proud of. But a lot of people were actually so bloodthirsty and so — what’s the word? Geared up to get back involved.
CB: What about the locals? What was their, what was the relationship with the Falklanders?
RP: That was fine. Yeah. That was all, they were all very grateful obviously. And just going on just my long weekend away to West Falkland. You know we flew there in a little puddle jumper plane and met a lot of the locals. And I remember we flew there, then a helicopter took us to some remote part of West Falkland and dropped us there and gave us a map and said, ‘Your nearest bit of civilisation is twelve miles that direction. We’ll see you there at dinner.’ It was great fun. It really was. Are you warm enough? Are you cold?
Other: I’m alright.
CB: Yeah.
RP: So I distinctly remember that being great fun. And suddenly the, that’s what it was. Rest and recuperation. A break from the noise and the vibration. So yeah I loved that. But —
CB: In the meantime they were building the new airfield were they?
RP: Yeah. At —
CB: Mount Pleasant.
RP: Mount Pleasant. Yeah. Well that, work on it had just started there when I was there. We were still operating from Port Stanley.
CB: So fast forward now. You come back on the VC10. Then what? Back to the grind.
RP: Back the grind, yeah. And back to Coningsby. And I was only there another few months at Coningsby before being posted to Wattisham. So my time on the Battle of Britain of Britain Flight was actually before. Just before going to the Falklands.
CB: Ok. So let’s just talk about that. So the Battle of Britain Flight had been formed a few years before. It was stationed at Coningsby.
RP: Yeah.
CB: What did you do for it? What? How was, how was it manned from an engineering point of view?
RP: Well, what happened was I worked for the Aircraft Servicing Flight which was positioned at the next hangar to the Battle of Britain flight. And I was always interested in the aircraft of the Battle of Britain Flight. Largely because again, you know through discussions with my father and the propeller aircraft that he used to fly in and so on. So I had good friends who worked on the Battle of Britain flight. So what clinched it for me was me pleading to actually get a joy ride on the Lancaster. Which, you know, I did. It allowed me to, in fact coincidentally that was flying to Wattisham to do a display and then flying back again. So yeah, I just went along to enjoy the ride if you like and got hooked there and then. And made it well known that I’d like to be either seconded or posted to the BBMF and it worked because when this role became apparent they came to me and said, ‘Would you like to do it?’ Which is, obviously I said yes. And that was to rebuild a number of, or strip down and rebuild a number of Merlin engines [coughs] pardon me, that came back from Spain. Then they could be spare engines for the Hurricane, the Spitfire and the Lancaster that all used the same engine.
CB: You mention Spain. So how does that come into the equation?
RP: Well, these engines were found in a cave in Spain. Each one. They were crated up and the story was that these were Merlin, Rolls Royce Merlin engines and the original intention was for them to be used in Messerschmitt airframes.
CB: Which they were. The Bouchon.
RP: Yeah.
CB: Yeah.
RP: So that’s how these engines became, were found in Spain.
CB: Who found the engines?
RP: I don’t know to be honest with you. I don’t know.
CB: And why were they in a cave?
RP: Well, they were hidden there. I think, from memory I think it was the Spanish Air Force that were looking to acquire Messerschmitt airframes and put the Rolls Royce Merlins in to them.
CB: Or they built the air frames under licence with Merlin engines but just curious how the engines came to be in a cave.
RP: I don’t know the history of that to be honest. I don’t know.
CB: Where was the cave?
RP: I didn’t actually go to the Spanish location.
CB: Ah.
RP: So I’m not sure where it was.
CB: Right.
RP: These were just brought back.
CB: What condition were they in? How were they packed?
RP: Visually, visually they looked in really good condition.
CB: In crates or what were they?
RP: In crates, yeah. They were crated up. Lots and lots of grease on them. Protective grease. They weren’t pitted. They looked like they’d weathered their time in the crates and in Spain very well. And myself and my boss if you like, I don’t know if any of these names are familiar with you. My boss on the Battle of Britain Flight was a chap called Chief Technician Pete Russian. He was, he was a real enthusiast. Pete Russian. Yeah. He was a real enthusiast. Another interesting fact about my time which I just thought of actually in the Battle of Britain Flight. They obviously, we obviously got to know a lot of civilian operators of Spitfires of which there were quite a number. And I just, it’s just dawned on me this, there was one Italian who had a Spitfire and a number of our guys went across to do some work on it to restore it to get it back in to flying condition. And I left just as that was being completed and I, when I went to visit Just Jane only a few years ago there was an engineer there who basically did what I did but Just Jane and he recognised my name. He recognised my name and he’d seen my name on the paperwork because he used to be on the Battle of Britain flight. He replaced me actually. And I actually asked him whatever happened to that Italian Spitfire? He said it was actually flown to the UK and then on to the US by one of the, by one of our favourite pilots at the time. A chap called Paul Day.
CB: Oh.
RP: Do you know — ?
CB: Yeah.
RP: Yeah. He was a great guy. Had some laughs with him. I’ve got some stories about him as well. Anyway [laughs] but yeah. Apparently, yeah I was pleased to learn that he flew that all in one go as well apparently. From Italy back to Coningsby.
CB: Amazing. The Merlins are of interest because of course the Lancasters had Merlins. As other aircraft did as well.
RP: Yeah.
CB: As you said. So what was the task with these engines? You got them in crates and they’re greased with greaseproof paper and whatever else they put on them.
RP: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: What did you do with them and how were they then handled?
RP: The idea was, was to have as many of these become a spare engine available to use on the Hurricane and Spitfire and Lancaster as possible. As I say as many to use because some of these did actually have some components missing so we, I remember we had to cannibalise a couple of the engines to get some of the missing components to make other ones complete. So that was, that was the task and it, it took quite a long time as well because some were found to be, whilst they were in generally good condition there were some cracks in them. So we had to get some NDT Non-Destructive Testing crack experts to come in. Once I’d stripped the engine down they would come in and, and just check the integrity of the components that we got.
CB: Fluorescein dye.
RP: That’s right. Yeah. Yeah. There were various techniques that they used. One of which was that.
CB: And do you know which mark of engine they were, Merlin? Out of interest.
RP: No. I can’t remember to be honest.
CB: And whether they were suitable for all of the aircraft.
RP: Oh yeah.
CB: You had to be selective.
RP: No. No. No. Each one could be made suitable for any of the Merlin engine ones. Obviously not the Griffon Spitfire but, but for the —
CB: The [unclear] Spitfires and the Lancaster.
RP: And the Lancaster.
CB: Ok. So where was this work done?
RP: At the main hangar in Coningsby and also at Woodhall Spa. The engines were shipped to Woodhall Spa when complete. And whilst they were waiting for their turn to be stripped down that’s where we kept them.
CB: Then where did they go? Where were they stored after they’d been reworked?
RP: There was another. That was split between Coningsby and Woodhall Spa. I do remember that space was at an absolute premium. And I think obviously the Battle of Britain flight now has got a lot of focus and priority and, and at the time it was less so. It was the, it was the Phantoms and the Rolls Royce engines that you know took priority everywhere. So it was like we could, we were allocated a corner and then squeezed even further into the corner.
CB: So how were you doing this work? Were you interspersing it with your activities? With the Aircraft Servicing Flight?
RP: No. No. I was seconded.
CB: This was a, this was a specific task.
RP: Yeah. Yeah. I was they said to me, ‘If you want to take this job it will be dedicated to the Battle of Britain Flight,’ you know, ‘Leave the Phantoms behind.’ Absolutely fine by me so that’s what I did. Thoroughly enjoyed it. And, and what, not brought it to an end but for me was when I was told I was heading off to the Falklands. To —
CB: Right.
RP: Think about Phantoms again.
CB: Right. So the engines had been reworked. How were they run up after that? Were there special benches to run them up?
RP: No. No.
CB: Or were they never run?
RP: They were never run on a bench. When we, once we’d completed an engine we had to schedule it in to be run up on the Lancaster left inboard. Number two position. We had no facility to actually even start it.
CB: So it was always tested. Was each engine tested in the Lancaster then?
RP: Yes. Absolutely. Each engine was tested in the Lancaster.
CB: On the ground or did they fly it as well?
RP: Both.
CB: Right.
RP: But extensive tests on the ground first in accordance with, you know the manuals at, at the time in terms of you know the specific tests we had to do on that engine having started it and fired it up. So much was great fun. And then when it passed those tests it was, it was good to go for a an air test.
CB: So how much ground testing was there? How did it work and what period would it be? Would it just be ten minutes or were they running for a half an hour?
RP: No. No. No. No. No.
CB: Or what did they do on the ground?
RP: No. Testing my memory now. But it was, it was a good couple of hours.
CB: Oh was it?
RP: Oh yes. Yeah. And if I remember right what we did was rebuild one of the engines. Then start to rebuild another one. So we weren’t having to take out the number two engine on the Lancaster and therefore ground it each time we had one built. We, we’d have a couple of engines ready for test and when there was a gap in the, in the display over the winter then we could take the left inboard out and ground test both engines.
CB: So when it did the air test was that because it was going somewhere and they were comfortable with it?
AP: Well it —
CB: How long did the air test go on?
RP: The procedure was that it had to be ground tested first.
CB: Yeah.
RP: And then before it could be signed up as, off as operational. It had to go through the air test as well. You know things like they had to shut the engine down mid-flight and then be able to restart it again without any problems. And some things that you had to do on air test that can’t be done on the ground.
CB: Yeah.
RP: So, no that was quite an exciting time but each air test again lasted an hour. Three quarters of an hour to an hour. And on some occasions the engines because of the pressures to meet displays some of the air tests took place enroute to a display and the display actually happened subject to successful test of the engine mid-flight.
CB: But as they had been properly worked on by yourselves there was no real reason to think that they wouldn’t work.
RP: That’s right. Yeah. And from memory I didn’t ever have an engine I built fail an air test.
CB: So there were nineteen originally. Were all of them air worthy in the end?
RP: Well, I rebuilt, I’m trying to remember now how many. Probably half of those before I got the call to say, ‘You’re off to the Falklands.’ So as far as I know this other chap that I met on Just Jane he took over from me. Where he came from I’m not quite sure. Not a name I knew at the time. So somebody else carried on my work to be honest.
CB: The BBMF have more aircraft now then they did then. But what spares of engines did they have? Was there already quite a bank of engines?
RP: No. No. There was —
CB: Or were they getting desperate?
RP: They were getting desperate and Pete Russian and myself we went up to Prestwick. I remember that trip because there were quite a number of spares and engines lying around in Prestwick. But it really was literally going into a hangar, finding an engine that, you know or components that looked pretty much complete and saying we’ll have those and transporting them down. So, no. It really was looking under every stone for spares and for spare engines. And I remember bringing a couple back from Prestwick with him. [ coughs] pardon me. And in terms of components we were forever going to what they called rob the gate guards. There were a lot of Spitfires and Hurricanes on the entrance gates to stations. And I remember distinctly the number of them had still had air coolers for instance. And we went to Benson. Went to a number of places to, somebody had a register of what gate guards were where and just what components were still on it. But yeah we were forever going to various stations, taking the panels off, robbing the bits, putting the panels back on.
CB: Well, they weren’t going to fly again so it didn’t matter.
RP: Exactly. But that’s how desperate we were.
CB: Not then.
RP: That’s how desperate we were for spares.
CB: I’m stopping just now.
[recording paused]
RP: Yeah. There was one particular occasion when we were about to do engine runs on the Lancaster and it was one early afternoon. And we were just getting ready to do this and I took a phone call in the crew room from the guard room. And the chap in the guard room said, ‘I’ve got two guys here who used to work on Lancasters during the war and they’ve just turned up on spec. One lives in the UK and it’s his brother from Canada. And they’ve just turned up on spec to say is there any chance of having a look at the, you know the Battle of Britain Flight. The Lancaster.’ So I said, ‘Yeah, I don’t see why not.’ I checked it with Pete Russian my boss and he was fine. So we jumped in the Land Rover and picked them up. And a lot of the visitors that we used to get on the Battle of Britain Flight were ex-aircrew or people who, everyone seemed to claim to be an ex pilot. But these two guys turned up. Very genuine. Clearly ground crew, and got quite emotional. And at the time I remember saying to the guys, ‘We were just about to do engine runs on the Lancaster. Do you want to come on the flight deck while we do it?’ And there were tears streaming down their face. So we did the engine runs and the guy from Canada particular, particularly, you know we did what we needed to do and I said, ‘Can you remember how to do this?’ And he said, ‘I think so.’ And so with the engines turning we actually had him sat in the front left seat. He was crying his eyes out with nostalgia as he was going through some of the engine runs himself. And that was purely they decided to have a day out whilst he was visiting the UK and it turned into that. And they were so grateful that they insisted that evening on taking us all to the pub and buying everybody food and drink all night long.
CB: Fantastic.
RP: What a night that was.
CB: What’s your perception and recollection of people’s approach to the Lancaster? The ground personnel.
RP: In terms of what?
CB: Well, you’ve just talked about the emotion of these men. But what about the people on the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight? Did they have a very strong attachment? Some of it based on history of being with the aircraft.
RP: Yeah. Absolutely. And from talking to lots of visitors at the time you know that was very much the case during the war as well where the ground crew were passionate about their aeroplanes. Their components. Their, the work they’d done. And I suppose it’s like I know a lot of people who are passionate about the old car they keep in the garage. At the time the ground crew were passionate about the quality of the work they did and the preservation and looking after and protection of these old aeroplanes. And yeah, they took, they loved them. And the first thing that hits you when you get in these is the smell of the old leather and and so on. And you just, you become attached to it. Much more so than say the Phantoms. Yeah. Because you know they were at the time a dying breed and we just wanted to make sure that you know we did everything we could to keep them flying. And as I say the attachment was much more so than the modern, at the time, Phantoms.
CB: How did these two men describe their experiences?
RP: Well I remember them saying that they, because we were talking about this very subject in the pub. And they were saying that that was exactly how you know they remembered it during the war. When obviously they used to call them the kites. And when any, any of their kites didn’t come back because it had suffered, you know a shootdown or something everyone was very saddened. And this is what they were telling us. Everyone was very sad about the crew that had been lost. But actually just as sad about the aeroplane that had been lost as well because it was a, you know a piece of, a piece of art. And that was how they regarded it.
CB: And how did they describe their attitude to when the crew bent them?
RP: Anger. Absolute anger [laughs] And that happened on a fairly regular, you know basis. Whether they bent them on landing or they came back a bit shot up, you know. It was almost like blaming the crew for not being able to avoid being shot at. But yes it was exactly the same perception, attitude and connection with, with the aeroplanes.
CB: And how did you gauge their relationship with the aircrew?
RP: Total respect. The aircrew were always seen to be a bit aloof anyway. As they were with the Phantoms but, and rightly so, you know they were the aircrew and the pilots and you know there were every reason to be seen as godlike if you like. Total respect but also more respect of the fact that a lot of people took off at the start of a mission and didn’t return. So not just respect about the, you know the aircrew being aircrew and being the, you know, the pilot, navigator and so on but it was just about you know the sacrifice that these people often made when the ground crew didn’t. They’d just turn up for work again the following day. And I think that was, that was the respect bit.
CB: And so you saw them at Coningsby and then you were at the boozer afterwards.
RP: Yeah.
CB: And what other things did they talk about? These two chaps. In terms of their experiences in the war.
RP: I’m now struggling to remember but they they did talk about, a lot of discussion about the lives that were lost. About the aircraft that didn’t return. The speed of manufacture and the speed of deliverance of replacement aircraft as well. The whole country was pulling together and produced these things off the production line at the rate they were going at. That was very admirable as we say. Both of them, even the chap who was in from Canada who were both British. They both talked a lot about the, you know, the Americans arriving and the effect that had. More of the perceptions than what they saw the reality. Pinching all our girls and all of that sort of thing. And —
CB: Overpaid, oversexed and over here.
RP: That’s it. Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. And yeah, they were just reminiscing themselves and probably remembering things as they were reminiscing themselves.
CB: Quite. Yeah.
RP: But yeah it was, it was on a serious note it was respect for the aircrew because of the possibility of them just not coming back. Now that, that sort of respect I didn’t find in any of the Phantom squadrons. Because it was pretty much guaranteed and as I say there wasn’t really another conflict on the go at the time apart from the Falklands. So that, that was a very different experience that I valued on the BBMF to be honest.
CB: Yeah. I just wondered whether they also talked about their everyday lives on the airfield and what they were doing.
RP: Yes. They, they talked about that. They lived in fear of the station warrant officer.
CB: Didn’t we all?
RP: About being hauled in if you failed to salute or weren’t wearing, you know, the tie in the right way or, and in in that respect that was no different from being at Halton or Swinderby. That was exactly the same to be honest.
CB: So going back to your own experience you flew on a number of occasions in a Lancaster.
RP: Yes.
CB: Why would you do that and how many hours did you?
RP: I think I notched, can I just turn that off?
CB: Ok.
RP: I notched up. Oh sorry.
CB: It’s alright.
RP: No. I flew in the Lancaster on many occasions. And found that great for my preferred location because obviously on air test or just going along as a passenger once we’d finished the air test was in the mid-upper turret. That was, that was fine. Except that it was full of holes because it had been stop drilled. Where there was a hole in the crack in the Perspex they’d drilled it to stop the crack extending. So if you were flying through cloud or anything you did get a bit wet. I flew in the rear gunner’s position many times as well. That was quite interesting.
CB: How did you feel sitting in the isolation of the rear gunner position?
RP: Well, you couldn’t help but, you know, imagine what it must have been like during the war. Especially at night as well. In freezing conditions. So, yeah, I mean it’s an experience that you know most of the population don’t get to have but it was, as I say you couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like. There were some hilarious moments as well. And I remember one of the most memorable ones at the time was flying in a three ship with the Spitfire, Hurricane and, and Lancaster and I was, on this particular occasion I was in the rear gunner’s position and flying along. Flying to Blackpool actually for something and it was always the station commander’s prerogative to pilot the Spitfire. And it was Group Captain Bill Wratten who was flying the Spitfire and I was just actually watching him and he threw the canopy back because it was a nice, you know, sunny day. And his chart — straight out the top of the cockpit. And he happened to be doing the navigation for the three ship. So we got to Blackpool and had a severe warning that if ever this was mentioned back at Coningsby there would be repercussions.
CB: As you do.
RP: Yeah. And in those days I do remember part of the standard equipment on the flight deck on the Lancaster was a pair of high powered binoculars.
CB: For the beach.
RP: No. It was so that when we got lost which we did regularly we could find a motorway and see which junction we were at. So binoculars were road atlases. I remember one where one of the old aircrew who’d died, it was his last dying wish that his ashes would be scattered over a beach in Skegness.
CB: Oh.
RP: And we did this on route to a display. And, and Jacko Jackson said, ‘Right. We’ve got literally a minute to fly around the beach.’
CB: Took it down did he?
RP: Oh yes. Yeah. Yeah. And one of my oppos, the air frame guy whose name escapes me. It was his job to take the top off the ‘chute and put the ashes down and he couldn’t get the top off the urn. Jacko said, ‘Have those ashes gone yet?’ So he just chucked the old urn down. And it hit the papers when the kids were playing football on the beach with this urn when someone suddenly realised what it was. Yeah. Yeah. And you know and I do remember once flying through bad weather. We did get lost and Pete Russian insisted we all come out of our positions and sit with our backs against the main spar. Because it did get quite [pause] in fact he got in, I know he’s been around all over the place. He got in a bit of trouble because he always refused to fly in a Lancaster until it had done three or four flights after a major service. Just in case. But —
CB: So the practical consideration from an engineering point of view of flying in the Lancaster was what? The justification for the engineers to go in it.
RP: Well at the, from, well obviously it was a display so for example the Jersey air display was one of the biggest on the calendar at the time and that lasted for what? Three days. So had to have the, you know the ground crew just in case there were any problems because it took off or landed probably four or five times during that display. So just in case there were any problems there they had to have [pardon me ] ground crew to cover it. That was usually what it was for.
CB: Yeah.
RP: And Farnborough. That was another big one that we had to fly to. So, so that was the reason for the ground crew going.
CB: And whilst you were flying in the Lancaster were you always in a crew position or did you move about?
RP: No. Once you’d picked your position or nominated a position then that’s where you stayed. Unless, as I say, like the occasion when we were told to sit with our backs against the main spar. But, but no there was very little room in a Lancaster to move around. Normally if you did move around you banged your head on the framework anyway. So it was far better to stay there.
CB: Yeah. And what was the basic crew of BBMF for the Lancaster? The pilot and who else?
RP: Now then. Pilot and the number two pilot obviously in the right hand seat. The flight engineer. I’m trying to remember now. Radio operator. Navigator. And then whoever else was on board from, from the ground crew. I know, I know there were some characters there. Bandy Bill was one of them. Bow Legged Bill. He’d actually baled out from Lancasters twice during the war. Once over Belgium. So they all had stories to tell. But whilst we were on the Battle of Britain flight there was, there was one very memorable occasion when the Mosquito came in and obviously a crew of two were the visiting Mosquito crew from Hawarden. And the pilot and the engineer there and the engineer met up with Bandy Bill who they’d known from wartime and he decided to stay in the mess overnight. The Mosquito had to go back so the pilot of the Mosquito said, ‘Well, I’ve got a spare seat going back if anybody wants to come along for the ride and then make their own way back to Coningsby from Hawarden,’ Near Chester, ‘You know, can do.’ And in all fairness, I can tell you it was between me and Pete Russian the chief tech. Pete didn’t pull rank. He said, ‘Let’s flip a coin. One of us will go.’ And he won it so he went in the Mosquito.
CB: Fantastic.
RP: And the Chipmunk followed and brought him back. So that was just something I just remembered. Yeah.
CB: What’s your most memorable time in the RAF would you say?
RP: In the RAF? It must be flying along in a Lancaster and with the Hurricane and Spitfire either side. I enjoyed the Falklands but nothing equal to that feeling of, you know like not many people are going to get to do this. And I feel I’ve been very privileged, I think. Yeah. Absolutely.
CB: So after you qualified you were a junior technician. How did your rank move during your nine years engagement?
RP: Not very much. I obviously qualified as a corporal and then passed my sergeant’s exam. And just as I passed my sergeant’s exam that’s when I decided to leave because came my nine year point and they said to me, ‘Do you want to stay on?’ And I said, ‘No. I don’t think so. My liver can’t cope with it.’ So I decided to leave.
CB: So what was the choice for you when leaving? Of career.
RP: Well, I always knew what I wanted to do and that was to go into a sales role. Only because my mates at school had been, had got a nine year head start on me now. And the chap who was, I sparred against at school he was in a sales role and his area was Asia and Hong Kong. So I thought if he can do it I can. So that’s what I did. So I always knew what I wanted to do. I’d been to college. Become qualified with this Diploma in Business and Finance. And I spent, organised my resettlement time to go and work with a company and take my first sales role which is what I did.
CB: Where? Where was it?
RP: Geographically or —
CB: Well, the company.
RP: The company was called Pitney Bowes. And they sold office equipment and franking machines and things. And, and I went into that role. Technically I’d not even, I was top sales person there after three months and technically I’d not even left the air force. But it was simply because I just did what I was told to do and I was told if you do this, this and this and say these words you’ll be successful. And that proved to be true so I thought, happy days.
CB: And how did that progress?
RP: Very well. Yeah. I did very well with them. Won lots of sales awards. Overseas trips and so on. That branch, and that was working out of the Peterborough branch. We lived in Suffolk at the time. And that [pause] I moved from there to a company called Lex. The car group. But on, I was on the truck side. I was selling contract hire of trucks. And rapidly progressed through the ranks of Lex and to the training division. Trained up new people. Had an affiliation for sales and training and management and within a few years was running their management, leadership and sales training division. Five thousand people. And that’s been my forte ever since.
CB: So how long did you work for them?
RP: I was with Lex for eight years. Left there to set up my own business.
CB: Which is what?
RP: Well, at that time it was my own training company. Doing management training, sales training, leadership. Built that up. Sold it.
CB: What was that called?
RP: Percival Field Associates. And that was because I’d, one of my trainers was Chris Field and I took him from Lex. We set the business up. And since then we’ve had several other businesses that we’ve started or bought and sold.
CB: All in training? Or were you doing other things?
RP: A lot of training. A lot of it very closely geared to recruitment as well because my wife she was a nurse at Nocton Hall when I met her and left the air force to become a midwife. She did midwifery training at Basingstoke. A couple of years later she was gardening, fell out of a tree and broke her back. Which, she was ok. She had to have a laminectomy but it put an end to her midwifery days. So she went into business and rose to some very senior ranks in recruitment. So her recruitment and my training went very well together. So, you know that’s, that’s how it works.
CB: So what’s your business now?
RP: My business now is, my main business is Jigsaw Medical Services. And that’s purely because, you mentioned Oxford Brooke University. I’ve got a nephew who is twenty five at the end of this month. But he trained as a paramedic and, and he comes from Cheshire as well. And while he was training at Oxford Brooke he lived with us here and he was attached to Stoke Mandeville Hospital for his practical. And as he was coming towards the end of his paramedic course, you know, we said to him, ‘What are you going to do? You know. ‘Because your colleagues are going to be qualified as a paramedic and then they’ll do ambulance shifts and work for an ambulance trust. Do you want to do that or shall we pool all our resources and experience and set up a company that does it?’ So that’s what we did. And we financed the start of the business and that was what three and a half years ago and we currently own seventy ambulances, and —
CB: Do you really?

RP: And we, we support various NHS trusts. Yeah. We provide ambulances. Fully crewed with paramedics, ambulance technicians and emergency care assistants. So he’s got the paramedic knowledge. We financed him and its going great guns. We just recently sponsored a sporting event which was a charity event which lasted a month and involved lots of celebrities. So last week we were in Sicily working with Richard Branson and his family because its Richard Branson’s son organised this event. We provided all the medical cover. It was basically, they called it the Strive Challenge. A charity that started at the base of the Matterhorn at Zermatt and went down to Mount Etna in Sicily. All of which had to be under your own steam. So it was hiking, walking, cycling. The core team did the whole run but lots of celebrities went out and did two or three days at a time and they were raising money for this, for this charity called Big Change. So we went out to the start of it at Zermatt five weeks ago and then it ended in Mount Etna last week. So, and that was good for our PR because lots of endorsement.
CB: Huge exposure.
RP: From, from Richard himself. I was put in charge of his, looking after his mum, his ninety three year old mum for the day in Zermatt. His son Sam, his nephew Noah, his daughter Holly, his wife Joan. Yeah. We just moved in with them for a week.
CB: Fantastic.
RP: A bit of an experience. So, so yeah we’re just growing that Jigsaw Medical Services at a rapid rate at the moment. It does training. It does a lot for the military. We employ a lot of military people. People coming out of special forces and being trained up as paramedics themselves. So that’s what I’m heavily involved in now.
CB: How do ex-forces people fare in getting jobs after leaving the forces do you think?
RP: Very well. We have got a lot of ex-forces who are trained since leaving to become paramedics because that’s not recognised within the military. And I think it’s fair to say they are our best ambulance staff. Best paramedics. They really are and that’s because they’re very, they’re just used to being very thorough. Sticking to the rules. Following procedures. And just going the extra mile. And, you know we have a base in Stowe. Now, we, you probably know Stowe Castle. Yeah. That’s one of our offices and we have ten ambulances operating from there around the clock. And in fact I was up there just an hour before you arrived here, talking to some of the crews. And the jobs they get. You know, if you phone 999 you might get a South Central Ambulance turn up. NHS ambulance. Or it might be one of ours. Everybody just assumes it’s the NHS. But we comply. In fact, our standards have to be higher than the Trust anyway to avoid any sort of criticism or anything like that. So our levels of compliance and so on are great. But you wouldn’t know whether it was a Jigsaw Medical Services one or a South Central. And a lot of these people who’ve been the subject of an emergency call out for whatever reason come and visit. Send letters in of thanks and appreciation. And they never knew that actually they’d been looked after and treated by somebody who was still in the SAS or SBS or making that transition to civilian life. They just think it’s a regular, you know ambulance technician or paramedic. But some of these guys have seen more service and trauma then, you know than you would believe.
CB: Yeah.
RP: But they just, they obviously don’t talk about that.
CB: No.
RP: They just get on with the job.
CB: Just a final question. Going back to these engineers you showed around the —
RP: Yeah.
CB: BBMF Lancaster. What did they do after the war? Did you get a feel for how they progressed from the RAF? So the war finished. What did they do?
RP: From what I remember they didn’t do anything spectacular. Both of them. They left. After the war they left the service. I can’t remember exactly what they were doing but it was sort of middle manager roles and careers thereafter. Nothing spectacular. Nothing.
CB: Based on engineering?
RP: Oh yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Based on engineering. I think one of the chaps had his own small company but he ran it as a lifestyle company rather than, you know a desire to grow and sell or anything like that. Yeah. They were happy enough and really nice chaps but they were happy to just do more of the same day after day. You know, content with their lot if you like.
CB: Thank you very much. That’s really interesting.
[recording paused]
CB: A bit more memories then.
RP: Yeah. One final memory. We were at Jersey at the end of the display. And we were just leaving Jersey and we were all in our positions on the Lancaster getting ready to go and the Red Arrows took off before us. And I don’t know if you know Jersey.
CB: We’ve been.
RP: You’ve been. But the end of the runway is above the beach and I can’t remember what the beach is called now but the Red Arrows left in groups of three and as they took off they got to the end of the runway and then dropped down out of sight as they dropped down almost to beach level. And then you’d see them reappear again as they start to climb. So it was their bit of showing off which the Red Arrows did on a regular basis obviously. And I remember Jacko Jackson saying, ‘If they can do that so can we.’ And oh my God. And there was a deathly silence. And he said, ‘Right. Rob,’ he said to me, he said, ‘Will your left inboard engine take plus fourteen boost?’ I said, ‘Well [laughs] it sounds like we’re about to find out.’ So that’s what we did. Got to the end of the runway but in a very gently way dropped down a bit, out of sight a bit, and then plus fourteen boost on all four engines and then it climbed out after that. And nervous times. And he said, ‘Yes. Well done, A good engine.’ And I hate to think what would have happened if it had let go at the time.
CB: You’ve raised an important point here because in the war the Lancasters flew with one pilot. And the flight engineer next to him. And the take-off would start with the pilot controlling the throttles and then the engineer would take over. So could you just explain your comments there. So there is the term, ‘Pushing it through the gate.’ Could you just explain how that works and what the boost system is?
RP: Well, it’s, the boost system it just taking it to max RPM. And you know on an aeroplane and an engine that was forty years old at the time was quite a challenge to, it was almost like full throttle and red lining on a car. And that’s what they were doing at the time. But in terms of who controlled that, Squadron Leader Jackson was very much in charge as they say and he was the one. He was the controller. And —
CB: I’m really trying to get at what the aircraft, when it, what is the term, ‘the gate?’ Because in practical terms.
RP: I’m not familiar with that.
CB: Right. Well, so, right so the throttles would work normally up to a particular point and maximum power would be at, ‘the gate’ but you’d push it through to get extra more power. And so I just wondered if that was something you were conscious of.
RP: I’m struggling to think. I do remember —
CB: Because there was a limit to how far and how long you could fly the aircraft through ‘the gate.’
RP: Exactly. Yeah. I just remember that plus —
CB: And why would that be?
RP: Plus fourteen boost was, was the absolute, absolute maximum. As I say it was absolute full throttle in terms of thrust which as you say can only be done for a period of time. And that was an engine that I’d just rebuilt, fitted to the number two and of course the other engine, the other three had all been to plus fourteen boost previously.
CB: Yeah.
RP: This was the first time for this one.
CB: Yeah.
RP: And I just remember looking at the engine as we, as we were flying along thinking I just hope it hangs together [laughs] In fact we weathered out and we had to land at Northolt.
CB: Oh did you? Right.
RP: Because it was foggy. And that was another story because we all had duty free stashed away on the, on the Lancaster from Jersey. And then we had to land at Northolt because of the fog and get the train back to Coningsby and the duty free was confiscated by Customs.
CB: Very upsetting. Just back on the boost. What is the normal boost?
RP: If I remember right I think normal maximum is nine or ten.
CB: Right.
RP: Boost. Yeah.
CB: Ok.
RP: But I could be wrong on that.
CB: I know but it’s just a question of getting a perspective.
RP: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
CB: Good. And boost means what exactly?
RP: Again, I’m —
CB: We’re talking about superchargers are we?
RP: Oh yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
CB: Right.
RP: Yeah. It’s supercharge. It would be like the reheat on a, on a —
CB: Modern jet.
RP: On a modern jet. That would be the equivalent. You could reheat that.
CB: Yeah. Good analogy. Good. Thank you very much.
RP: Ok.
[recording paused]
CB: Ok. Talking about visitors to Coningsby.
RP: Yeah.
CB: Yeah.
RP: To the Battle of Britain Flight. Yeah.
CB: Yeah.
RP: I do remember we had on more than one occasion visitors from the Guinea Pig Club. People who’d been —
CB: We’ve interviewed two of those.
RP: Yeah.
CB: Yeah. They’re the people who had been burned.
RP: Exactly.
CB: Yes.
RP: And that was one that sticks in my memory. From the Guinea Pig Club. And also the famous story about a Spitfire that had taken off with a female person clinging to the tail plane. I remember her coming to visit as well.
CB: Did she?
RP: Yeah. So —
CB: So did she drape herself over the back of the Spitfire or not?
RP: I remember she, she sort of did in her old age. Just for the photographs. But yeah.
CB: Yeah. Terrifying experience.
RP: Some real characters. Yeah.
CB: Because the plane really did take off.
RP: Yeah.
CB: And it really did do the circuit.
RP: It did.
CB: And the pilot didn’t know she was on the back.
RP: Correct. Yeah. But the Guinea Pig Club. I remember those characters. You know, you had to have total respect for those characters.
CB: Did the Guinea Pig have any specific, what sort of specifics did he want to get in to with the Lancaster?
RP: No. They weren’t, they weren’t really doing that. It was more for the, it was just more for their annual, they had an annual visit if I remember right. And they were just treated very well in the mess.
CB: Right.
RP: I think they came along for that as much as, as, you know. All the questions they had they’d asked on previous occasions.
CB: Yes.
RP: They just came for their annual visit.
CB: Smashing. Thanks.


Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Robert Andrew Percival,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 21, 2024,

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