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

Pilot - - CONTENTS - By Nick Bloom

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.