Pilot Profile: Stephen Slater
A car and aviation enthusiast, the LAA’S CEO has worked as a writer, broadcaster and public relations consultant, and was even briefly a soldier
The LAA CEO is a bookworm, committed car enthusiast, and aviation fan from age twelve
Anyone who flies a Permit aeroplane would like to think that the Light Aircraft Association’s Chief Executive Officer is not too different from him or her. That is to say, a regular amateur flyer with some engineering skills and a liking for old, unusual and above all practical aeroplanes.
Stephen Slater lives with his wife Jean a stone’s throw from the town centre in green and leafy Chesham. The Underground connection to London is close by, as are some charming streets of early Victorian workmen’s cottages, allotments and modest town houses. The Slaters’ house is 1960s, at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac and has a comfortable feel. Inside the front door is a large set of bookshelves and there are more bookshelves on the stairs and throughout the house. I can’t stop looking at all the titles. Most (but by no means all) of the books have an aviation theme, but there are also Trollope, Enid Blyton, Michael Crichton and Margaret Atwood, to name but a few. There is also an upright piano, played by one of Jean’s daughters, who now has a house and children herself. Stephen and I sit in a sunny lounge overlooking the garden. Stephen was born in Darlington in County Durham in 1957, “which,” he says, “makes me a cross between a northerner and a Yorkshireman”. His father (now elderly and in a care home) was an analytical chemist who became a technical sales director and helped develop specialised aircraft insulation materials. “In his time, he worked with NASA, on Concorde, and the Harrier jump-jet,” says Stephen. There were two boys in the family; Stephen’s younger brother by five years is an electronics engineer. “Not a pilot, but he shares my interest in car racing.”
I ask how the pilot thing started. He says, “I discovered aviation when I was a rather gawky twelve-year-old, and Dad took me and my school friend Nigel with him on business trips so that we could detour to airshows and airfields. He found out that Ark Royal would be disembarking its aircraft fleet into Leuchars and took us to watch them landing. That was when I was fourteen. As we got older, Nigel and I either bicycled to airports or took trains.”
Stephen describes himself as a spotter at this age, but not exclusively as he also built model aeroplanes, both Airfix plastic and Keil Kraft balsa-and-tissue flying ones. I ask what was his greatest achievement in that line and he says, “A Jetex-powered Venom. I had it trimmed to fly left-hand circuits and it stayed in the air for all of two minutes, time enough for three full circuits of the large field behind our house before the Jetex engine sputtered out. That was pretty good. Other Jetex models just set themselves on fire−and I collected a fair few burns myself.”
He went to a comprehensive school, where he remembers it being pretty much just him and Nigel that were interested in aeroplanes. “I was also into railway engines,” he adds. “Both grandparents were railway men and my uncle was Station Master at King’s Cross.” He read
Eagle and Biggles stories, WWI and WWII pilot fiction and non-fiction and a few non-flying books, including Isaac Asimov. He remembers, “As a boy I always wanted to know how things worked. Dad used to say that if I was bought anything I would invariably take it apart.” He left school with ‘A’ levels in geology, chemistry and mathematics with statistics.
He was fourteen when he first flew in a light aircraft. As a holiday treat he got a joy ride round Blackpool Tower in the back seat of a PA-28. “I loved it, so I went to the St George Aero Club at Teesside Airport and asked how much it would cost for a trial lesson. The CFI, an ex-squadron Leader, said it would be twenty-five bob (£1.25), but were I to put the money into junior club membership and help him out in the office he would sort me out some flying. So from then on, if ever there was a training flight with an empty seat, I’d be taken along. In return I washed aeroplanes, put them away, answered phones and so on. In four years I should think I flew at least a hundred hours as a passenger. I also had some training and soloed shortly after my seventeenth birthday.”
When he left school, you might have expected Stephen to join the RAF, or train as a pilot but, “No, I joined the Royal Engineers as a potential officer”. I ask him to explain. “Well, if you were in the north-east in the mid-seventies, the choices were the steel industry, mining or manufacturing, none of which appealed. I did a parachute jump and at that age
nothing was quite as addictive as the adrenalin rush which something like that provided. I had aspirations to join the Royal Engineers independent parachute squadron, so I joined up. As it turned out, my army career was short-lived; I was grounded after a parachuting accident and I didn’t fancy a desk job, so I left.” I ask what he thinks about parachuting today. “Oh, I’d do it today if I could,” he says, slightly to my surprise.
His next move was a job in quality control with cigarette maker Rothmans, “which, incidentally, put me right off smoking”. He stayed with the company for seven years and ended up quality control manager in a research facility. “It was a good training, actually,” he says. “And they were a good employer.”
I would have expected him to carry on flying, given his earlier enthusiasm, but he had been diverted into his other lifelong interest: cars. “I was rallying, motor racing and restoring vintage cars. The focus of my interest, then and now, is Austins−i admit to a slight bias in favour of British manufacturing.” I ask what was the appeal of rallying and racing. “The excitement,” he answers, “and the skill in controlling a vehicle on wheels constantly at the edge of adhesion.”
How successful was he? “My motor racing career was hampered equally by lack of talent and lack of money,” he says. “A lucky third place was the best I achieved.” In the mid-eighties he wrote off the Austin Healey Sprite he was racing. “The track owner, seeing that I was at a loose end, asked if I would like to help by commentating. And that was how my new career started.”
I am curious about his restoration of vintage cars and ask for an example. “I had a 1930s Austin Twelve,” he says, “a large five-seat saloon, with a−nominally− twelve horsepower engine. It had a maximum speed of around 45mph, but it was ‘long-legged’; you could drive across town without changing out of top gear. It had a certain elegance, too: there was a full set of curtains in the back!” And the skills he developed at that time? “I learned to scrape white metal bearings, de-coking, grinding valves, some welding, some paint-spraying and how to rebuild clutches. But I knew my limits too. I stopped short of gearboxes, for instance. Part of the know-how was realising when to get someone more skilled than you to do the work, who the best people were, and how to liaise with them and form a good relationship.”
He was obviously a success at motor race commentating, because he moved from addressing audiences at events to talking on the radio and then on television. Commentating was a regular occupation for thirty years. And it led to other things. “I began writing for magazines including Autosport and classic car titles, and then I was invited to join a public relations agency in Covent Garden.” He worked as an account director in the agency from 1989 to 1995, mainly with automotive clients, and then worked in Sweden, the USA and Belgium before starting his own agency, Kingpin Media, based in Chesham. When he was 38, he met Jean (they both had previous marriages) through work−she was in the same business, and she subsequently joined him in Kingpin. “She was setting up England’s ‘Heritage Open Days’ for the Department of National Heritage and I was the broadcaster,” he says. Jean then became Tourism Manager for the City of Oxford, finally stepping down from tourism consultancy in 2014.
At this time he was commentating on Formula One Grand Prix for Star Sports, a television company based in Singapore. “In fact for thirteen years I was the voice of Formula One right across Asia,” he says. In later years he was beginning to move into more aviation writing and voiceover work, but that stopped when he took up his post with the LAA.
Stephen was in his mid-forties when he took up flying for a second time. “I had never stopped going to airshows,” he says, “and I was a regular reader of Aeroplane
The track owner asked if I would like to help by commentating. And that was how my new career started
and Pilot. The focus of my interest was classic aeroplanes and that probably dates from my days as a ‘hangar rat’−i remember rides in Tiger Moths and particularly in a Tipsy Trainer. So what changed things was seeing a ‘classified’ in Pilot advertising a Luton Minor. I simply couldn’t resist it, so I bought the aeroplane. Then I had to set about getting my licence, which I did at RAF Halton and Denham. I got my PPL in 45 hours of flight training, and by coincidence it was almost thirty years to the day from when I soloed aged seventeen.”
He kept the Luton Minor on a farm strip. His PFA Inspector was David Beale (“particularly good on engines”) and he had a lot of help from another personage well known in LAA circles, Barbara Schlussler. “She had owned a share and was enormously helpful in showing me how to get the aeroplane through its Permit renewal and operate it safely.”
Before tackling the Luton Minor, he had ten hours in a Tiger Moth. He flew 120 hours in the Luton Minor between 2004 and 2007, which is impressive for a slow, basic, open-cockpit, single-seater. He subsequently had a brief share in a Tiger Moth, flying another twenty Moth hours, and he owned a Pushpak (Indian-made Aeronca Chief) for a year.
At this point, Stephen’s work was split three ways, in terms both of time expended and in earnings. One-third was writing books, mostly about racing and/ or classic cars; another third was commentating on TV and radio; and the remaining third was working as a public relations consultant.
In 2007 Charlie Huke’s Tipsy Trainer came on the market. This example of the open-cockpit, side-by-side two-seat trainer was begun in 1939 and completed shortly after the war. (The prototype flew in 1937.) Stephen owned it for seven years and says it’s the aeroplane in which he has had the most adventures. He recalls one particularly character-forming moment: “The crankshaft in the pre-war Walter Mikron snapped and I had to land in a field, fortunately without damaging the airframe.” He still has the crankshaft in his study upstairs in the house. “Aside from the interval while the engine was fixed, I flew the aeroplane all over the UK. It was my mount when I became Chairman of the Vintage Aircraft Club and ideally suited to that role.”
He bought his present aeroplane, a 90hp Cub in July 2014, from ‘Beeswax’ – Alan Chalkley – who for decades wrote the ‘Over the Hedge’ column in Popular Flying (now Light Aviation). “Alan rang me and said, I’ve been flying this Cub for fifty years and it’s time I sold it. I want you to have it. It was an offer I couldn’t resist. He took his last flight in it with me down the beaches in Wales.” Stephen flies his Cub for around thirty hours a year−“rather less since I took on the LAA job”−and keeps it at RAF Bicester.
Since 2005 he has also co-owned a BE2C replica. The aircraft−a converted Tiger Moth−was built in 1969 at Sywell by Charles and David Boddington as a commission from a film company and shipped to America. It ended up with a private pilot who wrote it off in a spinning accident in 1977.
Matt Boddington, son of Charles and nephew of David, was Stephen’s LAA Inspector and when he heard that the wreck might be for sale, offered Stephen a joint partnership in a project to import and rebuild it. They both went to America in 2005 to collect the aircraft and, with a lot of help, had it flying by 2011. It has been a regular (and highly popular) airshow attender ever since. Despite other commitments Stephen managed to devote a day a week to working on the restoration but has yet to solo it, although he has had many flights in it. “That’s one of my ambitions,” he says.
I ask what other piloting ambitions he has. “To finish a Taylor Monoplane project I have going,” he says, “and a Grunau Baby Glider project, and master types of flying I still haven’t experienced.” “Such as?” I ask, and he replies, “Floatplanes, hybrid electric aircraft (once somebody builds one) and gliding.” He has sampled gentle aerobatics but it seems that’s not
particularly high on the list. “Jean flies with me occasionally,” he says “but she’s not particularly keen on flying. Her daughters are in their thirties now, with children of their own. Neither is a pilot and they say they are too risk-averse to fly with me.”
Stephen retains his interest in classic cars and has an old BMW in the drive and a 1932 Austin Seven in a friend’s barn. “Ah, the smell you get from the exhaust,” he says of the Austin Seven. “You only get that smell when there’s Castrol R vegetable-based oil in the sump.”
He became a member of the Vintage Aircraft Club in 2003 and was elected Chairman in 2010, serving for five years. “When I was elected we had around 220 members and the numbers were declining, so I saw my main task as reversing that. The key was to have more events, to make them more diverse and in particular to have events across more locations right across the UK to bring in new members. In 2014, it was the club’s fiftieth anniversary
When the LAA CEO vacancy arose in 2015 I decided to apply
and by then we had reached 300 members. At the fiftieth anniversary fly-in at Popham we got 120 aircraft. At the next AGM I announced my resignation, but I’m still active with the VAC, and I am currently Vice-chairman.”
While he was Chairman of the VAC he was invited to attend a meeting of the GAAC (General Aviation Awareness Council), a pressure group founded in response to the crisis then threatening airfields. “This was twofold: firstly, all the wind turbines that were starting to be erected, some of them dangerously close to airfields. Secondly, there was John Prescott’s failure to exempt airfields from brownfield sites, making their conversion to housing estates a great deal more likely. With my public relations expertise, I was asked to prepare briefing and defence documents putting the case for keeping airfields operational. These were aimed at planning officers, local government and government ministries. Basically, they provided information which we felt decision makers should have. David Ogilvy had been leading airfield defence at AOPA and wanted to retire, and invited me to take over the task. So that is how I became Vice-chairman of the GAAC. Ten years on, I’m still on the board, as the LAA representative.”
Stephen began attending LAA National Council meetings when he was Chairman of the VAC. “It gave me some inside knowledge of the organisation and when the CEO vacancy arose in 2015 I decided to apply. I was appointed in September that year. It’s a fifty-hour working week, roughly one-third supervising and leading engineering and member services, one-third monitoring legislation and the remainder dealing with member enquiries and coming up with initiatives for moving forward while sticking with core values. Flying for fun is what it’s all about.”
The LAA has thirteen full-time employees based at Turweston, plus Brian Hope who produces Light Aviation, and Neil Wilson who covers marketing. Stephen reports to a board of twelve directors−the Chairman was Head of BA Engineering and is on his second homebuilt. “Roughly half of the directors are homebuilders−all are pilots,” says Stephen. “And all our engineers are also
pilots.” There are 7,622 members, 2,600 aircraft on LAA Permits, and 1,400 current projects. “Plus there are something approaching 2,000 aircraft on the G-register with lapsed Permits, of which we estimate three or four hundred are still viable and could be flying again. That’s one of the drives we have going at the moment.” Stephen is keen to emphasise, “My ultimate bosses are the 7,622 members”.
I ask about his other ambitions for the LAA. “One-third of members are 65 or over,” he says, “and I’m actively trying to bring in more young people.” We have reached the end of the interview so I mention a couple of my own concerns. My Currie Super Wot has a cowling I made myself out of fibreglass; it’s functional but it is rather obviously home-made. Nevertheless, I’m proud of it and also of having done all the paint spraying (again not very expertly). I’ve heard rumours that the LAA increasingly expects a perfect finish. “Not that I’ve heard,” says Stephen, “At least one of our people has an aeroplane that’s slightly tatty, but much loved and perfectly serviceable−me!” Another concern is that the homebuilding movement has been hijacked by people spending eighty thousand or more on ‘grand tourers’. “Ah,” says Stephen, “But if you can get Cirrus-type performance at half the price, that’s got to be good, hasn’t it?” I tell him he makes a good point.
We finish our meeting with a quick tour of the house while I look for backgrounds for photographs. There’s a garden shed with engine bits in it, but a manually-operated grinder because he hasn’t got around to fitting a power supply. In the study upstairs where he writes there are more books – one he shows me is a Haynes publication written by him: De Havilland Tiger Moth Workshop Manual−an insight into flying, owning and maintaining the legendary British training biplane. Also in the study is a David Boddington tissue-and-balsa model of a Luton Minor, and the (aforementioned) broken Walter Mikron crankshaft. Downstairs I photograph Jean and Stephen in front of that remarkable feature: the bookshelves by the front door. Then it’s time to say goodbye.
I began this article by asking what type of chap is now running the LAA. I’m pleased to report that he’s very much my kind of pilot. We’re in good hands.
Steve owned this Tipsy Trainer for seven years from 2007
Steve at the desk where he writes articles including Pilot’s popular ‘Open Cockpit’ column
The 90hp Cub Stephen currently flies, bought from ‘Beeswax’ (Alan Chalkley) in 2014 - a similar photo illustrates Steve’s regular column in Pilot
A well-read couple: Steve and his wife, Jean in front of one of the many bookshelves in their house
The Luton Minor (left) formerly owned by Steve
There was an adventurous moment when the crankshaft snapped and Steve made a successful forced landing
Above & above right: BE2C replica co-owned by Steve but in which he has yet to solo Steve’s Taylor Monoplane project
Contemporary service manual for the Cub from Steve’s collection
One of many aviation paintings in the house, showing a BE2C on a perfect summer’s day
Above: Bookshelf in Steve’s study with — peeping over the edge among other things — the broken crankshaft from his Tipsy Trainer that led to a successful forced landing
Left: Steve’s garden shed has engine bits in it
Below: Tiger Moth Haynes Manual, written by Steve