Me­teor Mem­o­ries

James Al­lan Pi­lot Pro­file

Pilot - - FRONT PAGE - Words & Pho­tos Nick Bloom

Ifirst en­coun­tered James Al­lan’s writ­ing in a short story in Pi­lot in the 1980s. The style was self­dep­re­cat­ing, lit­er­ate and full of acute ob­ser­va­tion, and, of course, his avi­a­tion knowl­edge was ex­cel­lent. James’s con­tri­bu­tions to Pi­lot ac­tu­ally started in 1975 and have in­cluded a stream of tech­ni­cal pieces, such as one on the cor­rect use of mix­ture con­trol, and nu­mer­ous ar­ti­cles on GPS and other nav­i­ga­tion aids. He wrote a se­ries called ‘Des­ti­na­tions’ com­par­ing air­ports in the UK and their equiv­a­lents in main­land Europe, as well as oc­ca­sional flight tests and short sto­ries like the one that first caught my eye. De­spite ad­vanc­ing years, James still fea­tures reg­u­larly in Pi­lot, pro­duc­ing the monthly ‘air-brained’ quiz.

I paid him a visit to learn more about his avi­a­tion ex­pe­ri­ences and ca­reer.

He was born in 1928 in Shotts, a Scot­tish mining town. His mother was a champion golfer (with an MA) and his fa­ther was the Area Chief Sci­en­tist for the Na­tional Coal Board. James got the fly­ing bug when, aged seven, his par­ents took him to see Alan Cob­ham’s Fly­ing Cir­cus whose “sights, sounds and smells made an in­deli­ble im­pres­sion on me”. Like ev­ery­one else in the crowd he was ut­terly hood­winked by the ‘granny’ who stole a Gipsy Moth, flew it crazily and then landed to re­veal her­self as one of the show’s young pilots in dis­guise.

His school years in Ed­in­burgh co­in­cided with WWII and he re­mem­bers learn­ing to iden­tify the many RAF and oc­ca­sional Luft­waffe aero­planes that thun­dered over the play­ground by sub­scrib­ing to the weekly mag­a­zine, Aero­plane Spot­ter. Like many lads, he built model air­craft, first static, then fly­ing, pow­ered by a twisted rub­ber band. He joined the school’s Air Train­ing Corps and in 1944 fi­nally got the cov­eted ride in an aero­plane, an Air­speed Ox­ford. “Now, aged fif­teen, I was even more de­ter­mined to be­come a pi­lot,” he says. From then on, ev­ery sum­mer he went to an ATC camp at an ac­tive air­field and made it to Flight Sergeant by the time his school days fin­ished. The aero­plane rides ac­cu­mu­lated and so did his knowl­edge of air­craft, as the cadets were al­lowed to help out with sim­ple tasks like oil changes and prop-swing­ing. He also got his first look at avi­a­tion’s darker side−an en­forced visit to a re­cently shot-up Hal­i­fax with traces of dead air­crew only too ap­par­ent.

Al­though James was of­fered a place at Cran­well and thought about a ca­reer as an RAF pi­lot, he in­stead chose me­chan­i­cal engi­neer­ing at Glas­gow Univer­sity. “My fa­ther pointed out that I was cer­tain to be ac­cepted in the Univer­sity Air Squadron,” he says “and a me­chan­i­cal engi­neer­ing grad­u­ate would have bet­ter job prospects. I was per­suaded.”

And so it was. In 1947, he had his first fly­ing les­son in a Miles Mag­is­ter with the Glas­gow Univer­sity Air Squadron (GUAS). It had to be aban­doned af­ter twenty min­utes be­cause James was in­ca­pac­i­tated by air sick­ness. The same thing hap­pened on his next train­ing ex­er­cise. James and an­other stu­dent were sent to a doc­tor who gave them bot­tles of evil-smelling brown liq­uid: “Never been known to fail”. Nor did it, be­cause he sailed through the rest of his pi­lot train­ing with no trou­ble. He only found out later it was a placebo!

As his was a ‘sand­wich’ course, he gained prac­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence along­side the for­mal ed­u­ca­tion. At his first place­ment with the Bris­tol Aero­plane Com­pany at Fil­ton, he learned to weld, braze, rivet and use presses and rollers on sheet metal. With other ap­pren­tices, he even got a flight−in a ro­tor kite that had come from a U-boat, towed be­hind a car. Hap­pily, this piece of un­li­censed and un­su­per­vised stu­dent dar­ing ended with a soft land­ing.

Back at univer­sity, James con­tin­ued to ac­cu­mu­late fly­ing hours in Tiger Moths, in­clud­ing spins and re­cov­er­ies, which he didn’t much en­joy, and some self-taught blind fly­ing when he flew through a cloud, greatly re­lieved to come out the other side. While some GUAS stu­dents got up to pranks such as fly­ing un­der bridges, James chick­ened out of that, but re­mem­bers one mem­o­rable trip, force-land­ing near an iso­lated farm­house when his Tiger Moth de­vel­oped en­gine trou­ble. Re­al­is­ing that the near­est tele­phone was too far to walk to and with no other means of trans­port, he man­aged to re­move the lead de­posits that had clogged the plugs and con­tinue his flight.

For his sec­ond stint in in­dus­try, James went to Vick­ers Arm­strong at Brook­lands, where he worked on the air­liner as­sem­bly line, in the un­der­car­riage de­sign and test­ing depart­ment, and fi­nally in the draw­ing of­fice. He also flew some larger air­craft, in­clud­ing a short spell at the con­trols of an EX-WWII Welling­ton and, frus­trat­ingly, taxy­ing but not fly­ing a two-seat Spit­fire Mk IX. While at Brook­lands, he also had a go on the fa­mous race­track on his mo­tor­bike.

Dur­ing his third place­ment−again with Vick­ers−he ob­tained his civil­ian pi­lot’s li­cence in a Tiger Moth at Fairoaks. Soon he was fly­ing these air­craft and then Auster Au­to­crats at the Fairoaks Aero Club.

He grad­u­ated from univer­sity with 230 hours in his log books, “Al­most all paid for by some­one else−no won­der the Univer­sity Air Squadron was known as the best fly­ing club in the coun­try!” Af­ter univer­sity, James was called up for two years of Na­tional Ser­vice. Luck­ily for him, this en­tailed more RAF flight train­ing, at RAF Sy­er­ston, in­clud­ing mov­ing up to the Har­vard; he went solo in this rel­a­tively chal­leng­ing beast in just six hours. As a Pi­lot Of­fi­cer, he was, of course, sub­ject to RAF dis­ci­pline and mil­i­tary train­ing, in­clud­ing lec­tures, full-dress for­mal din­ners in the of­fi­cers’ mess, hi-jinks after­wards− some­one drove a mo­tor­bike down the cor­ri­dor−and lots of sport.

Dur­ing in­stru­ment fly­ing train­ing he once nearly had to bail out, along with his in­struc­tor. While above a layer of ‘ten­tenths’ cloud the gen­er­a­tor in the Har­vard failed, but its am­ber warn­ing light was in­vis­i­ble be­cause of am­ber-coloured panels in­side the canopy (used to­gether with blue-tinted gog­gles worn by the stu­dent to stop him see­ing out). With no electrics they were lucky to spot a hole in the cloud that they could de­scend through be­fore the fuel state be­came crit­i­cal.

Night and low fly­ing train­ing fol­lowed, and ul­ti­mately the Fi­nal Han­dling Test, which in­cluded aer­o­bat­ics. Dur­ing these, the fire ex­tin­guisher in the CFI’S cock­pit came loose and knocked him out. It took a while for a puz­zled James to work out why no fur­ther in­struc­tions were is­su­ing from the rear seat, and then, “I de­clared my first May­day and we got the CFI into an am­bu­lance. When he re­cov­ered he was kind enough to sign me off, none the less.” So James won his RAF Wings brevet.

He now went to RAF Mid­dle­ton St Ge­orge near Dar­ling­ton, County Durham, where he was to fly Me­teor F4 jet fight­ers. These were nick­named ‘meat­boxes’ be­cause they were killing so many pilots− an av­er­age of one in four­teen among trainees. One day, his class was walk­ing from the mess to a class­room when a Me­teor with two in­struc­tors on board crashed within sight of them. As James re­calls, just seven years af­ter the war, the RAF still had a ‘tol­er­ance’ to ca­su­alty rates. This was also the early days in mil­i­tary jets and Me­te­ors weren’t de­signed like civil­ian air­craft with safety first: ev­ery­thing had to be sac­ri­ficed to per­for­mance and get­ting into pro­duc­tion quickly. Even with full tanks, fuel en­durance was just 45 min­utes. Once, af­ter a go-around on low fuel, one en­gine stopped while he was taxy­ing. “You could only lower the un­der­car­riage be­low 175 knots, but the wheels came down one side first, caus­ing yaw, and this blanked off the el­e­va­tors if you al­lowed the speed to fall be­low 170kt; so you had to be in­cred­i­bly ac­cu­rate at that point, or you dived in.” The two widely-spaced, heavy en­gines made it un­safe to spin be­low 25,000ft; the aero­plane be­came unstable in a turn­ing dive; and so on... James soloed in the Meat­box and be­came a mil­i­tary jet pi­lot on a date he still re­mem­bers as a red-let­ter day: 15 May 1952. It wasn’t un­usual af­ter that for him to fly three or four sor­ties a day, in­clud­ing aer­o­batic, for­ma­tion, night, in­stru­ment and high-speed flights. Al­though usu­ally law-abid­ing, James be­came suf­fi­ciently ex­pert to have a go (suc­cess­fully) at the specif­i­cally for­bid­den Zu­rakowski Turn (for­bid­den be­cause it was in­clined to end in a fatal in­verted spin). It’s like a stall turn ex­cept that in­stead of yaw­ing from straight up to straight down once, the Me­teor does it twice in rapid suc­ces­sion, rud­der aided first by asym­met­ric thrust from the en­gines, then by the in­cred­i­ble mo­men­tum from their po­si­tion half­way down each wing once a good rate of yaw is es­tab­lished.

On an­other oc­ca­sion, the Me­teor that had just touched down in front of him lost a wing (the pi­lot sur­vived and blamed a burst tyre) and slewed into his path; in the some­what un­der­pow­ered Me­teor, it was only just pos­si­ble to open up and go-around and not de­scend onto the wreck­age. No fewer than five pilots died in Me­te­ors while he was with the train­ing squadron so it was

The fire ex­tin­guisher in the CFI’S cock­pit came loose and knocked him out — “I de­clared my first May­day”

per­haps for­tu­nate that James was as­sessed as al­most-but-not-quite good enough at the close for­ma­tion work the RAF re­quired (much tougher at jet speeds and with the de­layed throt­tle re­sponse of those early jet en­gines) and taken off fur­ther jet train­ing.

Now one year into his Na­tional Ser­vice, James de­cided to ap­ply for a five-year RAF Short Ser­vice Com­mis­sion in the Tech­ni­cal (Engi­neer­ing) Branch, the gen­er­ous terms of which in­cluded a one-off pay­ment at its con­clu­sion of £1,500, easily enough to buy a house in those days. Mean­while, the RAF sent him to train on the Vick­ers Var­sity. This had two ra­dial en­gines and gave him use­ful ex­tra ex­pe­ri­ence of pi­lot­ing multi-en­gine air­craft. His ap­pli­ca­tion was ac­cepted and he trans­ferred to Hen­don in Lon­don and, aged 24, got mar­ried to Mar­jorie, the girl he had first met at univer­sity. Ini­tially the RAF gave him a desk job shuf­fling pa­per, but then sent him on a Tech­ni­cal

Engi­neer­ing Of­fi­cer course. Af­ter that, he was posted to Kin­loss, back in Scot­land, in his new role of Air­craft Stor­age Of­fi­cer in a main­te­nance unit. Soon he found him­self su­per­vis­ing the some­what melan­choly busi­ness of see­ing many air­craft in his charge (in­clud­ing Spit­fires) sold for scrap. Per­fectly air­wor­thy Spits went for £60. How­ever, James en­joyed the job, par­tic­u­larly when a film crew ar­rived in search of Lan­cast­ers for the mak­ing of The Dam Busters. The Air Min­istry re­leased the air­craft, but banned fly­ing at night and it was James who sug­gested a so­lu­tion by stopped-down, against-the-sun film­ing which would look ex­actly like moon­light.

With a year to go, James wanted to ap­ply for a per­ma­nent com­mis­sion but, with a tod­dler and a sec­ond baby on the way, his wife was be­com­ing dis­il­lu­sioned by Ser­vice life and the prospect of fur­ther post­ings so, re­luc­tantly, he be­gan look­ing for a civil­ian job. His fi­nal RAF post­ing was to Coltishall in Nor­folk, where he had some tech­ni­cal flights in a Javelin. Highly mem­o­rable, as one was in ex­cess of Mach 0.9 at 50,000ft. He also had oc­ca­sional rides in a Bris­tol Sy­camore heli­copter, ro­tary-wing air­craft still be­ing quite a nov­elty.

One tempt­ing job of­fer that came up had to be turned down for fam­ily rea­sons, as it meant em­i­grat­ing to Canada, far away from Scot­land. The late 1950s was a dif­fi­cult time for the UK avi­a­tion in­dus­try, so James de­cided to look for a ca­reer elsewhere and went to a di­vi­sion of Gen­eral Mo­tors based in Mother­well, mak­ing heavy earth-mov­ing equip­ment. He stayed in this sec­tor for thir­teen years (1957-1970), through two changes of em­ployer, work­ing his way up the ca­reer lad­der, rais­ing a fam­ily and liv­ing in Scot­land. For the first three years, money was too tight to afford fly­ing, but at last he was able to start again as a mem­ber of the Glas­gow Fly­ing Club, hir­ing club air­craft, Bölkows and Chero­kees at £5 an hour. It was there that he met Jane, who be­came his wife af­ter his first mar­riage ended in di­vorce.

Jane was a grad­u­ate of Strath­clyde Univer­sity, work­ing for ac­count­ing firm Arthur An­der­sen. She learned to fly at the club, get­ting her PPL in 1969 and she and James were both mem­bers of the club com­mit­tee. The club was a lively place with a strong so­cial life and ex­cel­lent sup­port from the com­mer­cial op­er­a­tor Lo­ganair. James took her for her first aer­o­batic flight in a club Cessna Aer­o­bat.

In 1970, James took up a won­der­ful job op­por­tu­nity to set up a fac­tory from scratch, mak­ing high tem­per­a­ture ther­mal in­su­la­tion. The job, in a Bri­tish/ger­man multi­na­tional, paid much bet­ter than the post of MD of a Scot­tish engi­neer­ing com­pany, as he then was. It meant mov­ing to Bel­gium, where he and Jane were to live for the next 21 years. Jane quickly be­came in­volved with a com­mit­tee serv­ing the Bri­tish ex­pa­tri­ate com­mu­nity and was recog­nised with an MBE for her ser­vices, which in­cluded char­i­ta­ble work. James loved his new job and work­ing abroad. “I was ambitious,” he re­mem­bers, “and keen to try new places. My fam­ily has al­ways been wan­der­ers. My fa­ther had sev­eral broth­ers; one died in Shang­hai, an­other was lost at sea off the Great Bar­rier Reef, and a third was a mine man­ager in In­dia. My only brother em­i­grated to New Zealand.

“Al­though the fac­tory was in Bel­gium, it was clear from the start that I would be do­ing a lot of trav­el­ling, vis­it­ing other lo­ca­tions and go­ing to see cus­tomers. One of the direc­tors owned a PA-28 at Teesside Air­port, and I think the prospect of own­ing a light aero­plane and us­ing it for busi­ness was at the back of my mind from the start.” When the fac­tory was up and run­ning, James sub­mit­ted a cost­ing for a com­pany air­craft, but the Ger­man par­ent com­pany said ‘no’. “Some ac­coun­tant had read about a com­pany in dif­fi­cul­ties af­ter two of its direc­tors died in an aero­plane crash and they had a pol­icy of ‘no com­pany aero­planes’,” says James. Un­daunted, in 1972 he bought his own first aero­plane. “It was an AA1 Yan­kee. I had been in ne­go­ti­a­tion with Amer­i­can Avi­a­tion to be a dis­trib­u­tor; that didn’t come off, but I did get a good deal on the aero­plane.” Ini­tially, Jane con­verted to a Bel­gian pi­lot’s li­cence, but let it lapse, pre­fer­ring to fly as James’s co-pi­lot, nav­i­ga­tor and ra­dio-op­er­a­tor. Af­ter two years, the AA1’S short range, lack of lug­gage space and sin­gle pas­sen­ger seat led them to up­grade to an AA5, which they op­er­ated from 1974 to 1988, when it was writ­ten off at Antwerp air­port by a club mem­ber al­lowed to use it. From the start, James did a lot of busi­ness travel. One trip, to Cor­sica and back, was par­tic­u­larly event­ful. “I wrote my par­ents a long ac­count of the flight and thought it might make a good mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle, so I sent it to the Edi­tor of Pi­lot, James Gilbert. He liked it and it ap­peared in the Novem­ber 1975 is­sue.” James Gilbert soon re­alised that James Al­lan could be a valu­able con­trib­u­tor and en­cour­aged him to write more ar­ti­cles. What a find! A former RAF jet pi­lot, who had flown dozens of dif­fer­ent air­craft types, had ex­pe­ri­ence of for­ma­tion, aer­o­batic, night, and in­stru­ment fly­ing, had worked on air­craft and man­aged aero­plane main­te­nance in the RAF, was a highly-qual­i­fied engi­neer, and had been em­ployed by sev­eral avi­a­tion man­u­fac­tur­ers. On top of all that, he wrote clearly, pro­fes­sion­ally and in an en­ter­tain­ing way and was con­stantly fly­ing all over Europe, giv­ing him first-hand knowl­edge of air­ports and hands-on light air­craft fly­ing. No won­der James Gilbert en­cour­aged James Al­lan to write. And no won­der Air­life soon per­suaded him to au­thor a stream of books, in­clud­ing a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries like the one I first read.

The first ‘How air-brained are you?’ quiz ap­peared in 1981−an im­pres­sive un­bro­ken run of 35 years−and James has been a Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor since 1993.

James de­cided to re­tire when he reached the age of 62 in 1990. Al­though Bel­gium had been a great place to work, Scot­land beck­oned for re­tire­ment. The clinch­ing fac­tor was find­ing the house for sale in Cel­lardyke, a charm­ing lit­tle fish­ing vil­lage just up the road from An­struther, the sea­side hol­i­day town which James re­mem­bered so fondly from child­hood. The Al­lan’s house is as­ton­ish­ing. Right on the edge of the sea and with a fine view of the Isle of May−a bird sanc­tu­ary. The build­ing, orig­i­nally a fac­tory mak­ing nets, oil­skins and other fish­ing sup­plies, was con­verted into two gen­er­ously-sized houses. James and Jane oc­cupy the up­per two sto­ries and have a garage and small yard be­hind with just a wall and some rocks be­tween yard and sea. In fact, the garage isn’t safe to use when there’s a strong on­shore wind blow­ing sea water over the wall!

When he told him of his re­tire­ment and re­turn to the UK, James Gilbert paid his travel ex­penses to Lon­don and stood him lunch at Grou­cho’s. “He said now that I was re­tired and would have more time, he hoped I would write more for Pi­lot.” And he did write more, also help­ing re-write and fact-check sub­mis­sions by other peo­ple and gen­er­ally keep­ing an eye on the mag­a­zine. His books in­clude Pro­gres­sive Fly­ing; Wings over Scot­land; Go­ing For­eign; Go­ing For­eign VFR; Flights of Fancy; and Clearer Hori­zons. He is cur­rently writ­ing a fly­ing au­to­bi­og­ra­phy and has a full-length book about air­craft ac­ci­dents ready to pub­lish (com­mis­sioned by a pub­lisher who sub­se­quently went bust). His 1998 Pi­lot fea­ture ‘All You Wanted To Know About Avion­ics But Were Afraid To Ask’ won him a Royal Aero­nau­ti­cal So­ci­ety Aerospace Journalist of the Year award.

In re­tire­ment, af­ter fly­ing his own Grum­man Trav­eler first from Dundee, then from RAF Leuchars and Glen­rothes, he helped to es­tab­lish an airstrip at Kingsmuir where it could be kept. The strip at Kingsmuir started with an ad­ver­tise­ment in the PFA (now LAA) mag­a­zine about a pos­si­ble new air­field near An­struther. The ad­ver­tiser told James that she hoped to found a strip on her fa­ther’s farm. He con­tin­ues the story: “She said her fa­ther was dead against the idea, but she hoped to per­suade him. She lived in Brack­nell and had a share in an Auster and wanted to be able to fly home. Her ini­tial plan­ning ap­pli­ca­tion was re­jected and she came to me for help. I or­gan­ised an ap­peal and we won.”

In 2004, James sold his Grum­man and formed a group with four friends to fly a Tay­lor­craft based at Kingsmuir. Af­ter a while the Tay­lor­craft was traded for a Bölkow Ju­nior which, to Jane’s de­light and as­ton­ish­ment, turned out to be the very same aero­plane in which she had flown her first solo. The Bölkow was in turn re­placed, by a So­cata Ral­lye. How­ever, on the 65th an­niver­sary of his first solo, James took Jane up for one last time as pi­lot in com­mand. He con­tin­ues to fly in light air­craft−and take the con­trols−but these days only as a pas­sen­ger and he has al­lowed his li­cence to lapse. “I’ve flown all these 65 years with­out se­ri­ously dam­ag­ing an air­craft,” he says, “and with grad­u­ally de­te­ri­o­rat­ing eye­sight and hear­ing I de­cided it was time to quit while I was ahead and keep that record in­tact.” In al­most 4,000 hours, in­clud­ing three forced land­ings, the only re­pairs he was re­spon­si­ble for were the slightly dam­aged tips of a pro­pel­ler.

Re­tire­ment is busy: James is a founder mem­ber of the Scotch Malt Whisky So­ci­ety−he shared a dram or three dur­ing my visit−has been a lo­cal coun­cil­lor and con­tin­ues to be in­volved in pol­i­tics. He still goes hill-walk­ing, and he and Jane go to con­certs and the theatre and travel reg­u­larly, vis­it­ing James’s two sons, grand­chil­dren and great-grand­child. With no plans to stop his monthly Pi­lot con­tri­bu­tions, he is also com­plet­ing his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy and look­ing for a pub­lisher.

I had a sneak pre­view of the first few pages and can con­firm that, like all his writ­ings, it has the unique James Al­lan voice, a lit­tle Scot­tish in tone, a touch humorous, au­thor­i­ta­tive and ac­cu­rate, al­ways read­able and above all, en­ter­tain­ing. And my word, does he have a story to tell!

Now re­tired from fly­ing, James in the shared So­cata Ral­lye af­ter his fi­nal solo flight

The Me­teor F4 — a type nick­named with black hu­mour the ‘Meat­box’ — was the prin­ci­pal air­craft James flew dur­ing his RAF ser­vice

Right: a very young James, who has just tax­ied (though, sadly not flown) a Spit­fire

Above: af­ter over­com­ing air sick­ness, James did most of his early fly­ing in Tiger Moths

James’s jet fighter ex­pe­ri­ence was fol­lowed by a spell of fly­ing Var­si­ties, adding multi-en­gine pis­ton time to his log­books

Right: Jane mak­ing the head­lines as a 21-year-old ‘girl in a man’s world’. At the time she had logged ten hours hour solo in pur­suit of her PPL

James’s fi­nal RAF fly­ing ex­pe­ri­ence was as an engi­neer­ing of­fi­cer fly­ing in the back seat of a Javelin

Above: por­trait of a cou­ple that have flown many hun­dreds of hours to­gether, James at the helm, Jane as co-pi­lot, nav­i­ga­tor and ra­dio-op­er­a­tor

Above: as might be ex­pected, the com­piler of Pi­lot’s monthly quiz keeps a well-stocked ref­er­ence li­brary

Left: the desk where so many ‘How Air-brained are you?’ quizzes are born

Right: in pre­vi­ous own­er­ship the Ral­lye was painted up in a scheme that per­haps might not have been James’s first choice

James leav­ing the garage at the back of the house, open-cock­pit style in his BMW con­vert­ible; won­der­ful in good weather!

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