by Lynne Burlingham
This article was originally published in the December 2003 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
It's a sad day. As I sit writing this, Concorde is making her last commercial flight from JFK, New York to Heathrow.
At approximately 3.30 pm she will fly over Bristol where, thirty years ago, she took shape in the huge hangers at Filton, originally built to house the giant Brabazon. Concorde was worked on by hundreds of engineers and designers, one of whom was my father, Bill Solley. He was an aircraft designer and draughtsman and was very proud of having worked on Concorde. His last job on Concorde was Interchangeability Engineer. He retired from BAC Filton (now BAe) in 1975. Even after his retirement he still took great interest in Concorde and used to look out (and listen!) for her flying over as well as listening in to the in-flight talk on his air-band radio. If I remember correctly her call sign was 'speedbird', which seems appropriate for such a fast, elegant and beautiful plane.
All the recent publicity about Concorde and its premature demise set me thinking about my father and his involvement with aircraft and the aircraft industry. Along with archaeology, and perhaps family history, aircraft were an important part of much of his life. But it wasn't until earlier this year when I started looking through his files of photos, correspondence and other material he had collected relating to aircraft, that I realised just how early in his life that interest started, in his pushchair in fact!
In a letter written in 1992 he writes 'I was born at Canterbury (Stuppington, November1914) but lived at Kearsney, near Dover soon after and remember watching the seaplanes being launched while in my pushchair. I have a faint recollection of seeing a zeppelin and going for shelter in the cellar of the Bell Hotel at Kearsney'. In the same letter, he continues: 'At this time we (his parents Tom and Ethel Solley ran the Hope Inn in the 1930s) were keeping the Hope Inn at Lydden and were on the air-lane for Croydon, so saw the Imperial Airways and other air-liners and also Amy Johnson being escorted back to Croydon from one of her record flights'.
There were a couple of early visits to the airfield at Hawkinge, one for an open day when the journey from Lydden to Hawkinge was made in a pony and trap. What a contrast between the old and new forms of transport! Another visit was 'off the cuff'. On this occasion 'two furies were flying too close together - nose to tail. The result was one heap of wreckage in the hanger and alongside a complete aircraft with a chip out of the prop. Both pilots were OK…I expect they got a rocket'.
After leaving school, Dad started work as a junior draughtsman in the Highways Department of Bridge-Blean RDC, lodging with his aunt and uncle, Edie and Bill Sidders, at Bridge. It was at this time that he wrote to the local paper, the Kent Herald, suggesting the formation of a 'Mannock Flying Club' in Canterbury in commemoration of the air ace. This resulted in an essay competition, of which Dad was a joint winner in the adult section with his essay 'Why Canterbury should have a civil airport'. The prize was a free trip to Croydon and conducted tour of the airport on March 23 1935.
He had his first flight in 1935 from Bekesbourne, Kent in a 504K of Skytrips. The pilot, who lodged with Dad's uncle and aunt at Bridge, near Canterbury, crammed Dad and his aunt into the cockpit while the ground engineer went ahead to clear sheep from the field on the other side of Canterbury.
Dad's real ambition was to work in the aircraft industry and, while working at Bridge, he wrote to various aircraft manufacturers hoping to find employment in one of their drawing offices. Those approached included Short Brothers in Rochester, Hawker Aircraft Ltd., Kingston-on-Thames, Vickers (Aviation) Limited at Weybridge and the Fairey Aviation Company Ltd. of Hayes. His application to Fairey was successful and he started work there as a Junior Draughtsman on 11th November 1935. His commencing salary was the princely sum of £2 5s per week.
In 1936 at a Fairey Aviation Garden Party Dad was introduced to Lord Brabazon. By a strange coincidence, when Dad was a baby, his father Tom Solley had worked for Lord Brabazon (plain Moore-Brabazon at that time) at Sandwich Bay and Dad sometimes used to wear their babies' hand-me-downs. By a further coincidence, after the Second World War when he moved to the BAC, Filton in 1947, the first aeroplane Dad worked on was the Brabazon.
After about eighteen months at Fairey Aviation, in May 1937 Dad went to work as a Senior Draughtsman for Phillips & Powis Aircraft Limited (subsequently Miles Aircraft Limited) at Woodley on the outskirts of Reading, where he remained until 1947. Again to quote from a letter he wrote ' Had a very happy time at Miles, just a family affair in the early days. A German who had learned to fly there before the war gave us some return visits, unannounced, but we got away with a few frights. Miles produced a possible backup for the Spitfire and Hurricane, the first being put in the air in nine weeks from the word go. They also got so far on the first supersonic plane…'.
On Monday November 17th 1947, Dad started work as a Draughtsman in No.2 Drawing Office of the Bristol Aeroplane Company Limited at Filton. Miles was in difficulties after the war and the time had come to move on again. Before his appointment was made official, he had to produce an Introduction Card from the Ministry of Labour. His salary was £7. 10s per week plus an allowance of 29/6 in respect of increased cost of living (for those who remember 'old' money!) with a standard working week of 38 hours.
I was a 'Daddy's girl' and still remember the thrill, as a child in the '50s, of going with my parents to Open Days at the airfield 'where my Daddy worked'. Once, I was even taken to see the Drawing Office in one of the huge hangars, where he then worked. Dad remained with BAC/BAe until his retirement in 1975, working on planes from the Brabazon, Britannia and BAC1-11 to Concorde.
Which brings us back full circle to Concorde. It seems that one Concorde is to find a home in its birthplace of Filton, where there are plans afoot to establish a new aircraft museum, of which it is sure to be the star attraction. At the moment, the rumour is that it will return to Filton on November 17th this year, ironically the same date that Dad started work there all those years ago. I am sure he would have been sad to see it go out of service so prematurely, but also delighted to see one back in Filton where it belongs. I too I am looking forward to seeing it in the skies over Bristol one more time, with its distinctive roar and that graceful shape against the sky. Who knows, we may even go and watch it land at Filton.
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