SOUE News Issue 2

The 15th Jenkin Lecture: Engineering, Management and Aircraft

Martyn Hurst (Merton 1962-5, now Managing Director, Messier-Dowty, manufacturers of aircraft landing gear), 4th October 2002 - report by David Witt

Martyn Hurst told us how, when he went from Oxford into the Engineering Branch of the Royal Air Force, the forefront of our air defences was the Vulcan bomber fleet. So it seemed a bit of a let-down at first to find himself appointed as No.2 looking after a fleet of 25 propeller-driven Chipmunk training aircraft. However by sheer fluke he rapidly became the Senior Technical Officer in that unit, responsible not only for the aircraft, but also for the airmen who serviced them. Challenges and experience came quickly, and not only in engineering matters:

But the real benefit was to learn about people. Within the Royal Air Force the junior managers were held responsible for the people they managed - not just for their output but also for their well-being. To ensure they were housed, solvent, healthy and that any lack of sobriety did not adversely affect the local community.

Now this may sound somewhat paternalistic in the brave new 21st century. But I passionately believe that if you are going to manage people you need to get to know them, care about them as individuals and to empathise with them in their success and difficulties.

At that time the Royal Air Force was well ahead of its time in terms of management training, not just for administration skills but motivation and leadership too. He remembered visiting some contemporaries working in the steel industry and:

being shocked by the relationship - or rather the lack of it - between those who were trying to manage and the main body of employees. When I moved up to Doncaster and got to know junior managers in the coal industry and visited several mines the same picture was clear. No doubt someone will produce a comprehensive and objective analysis of the UK's post war industrial situation. I suspect it will make pretty sad reading - with misunderstandings of the real situation, wasteful conflict and squandered opportunities. There is always a tendency to blame this on trade unions. However I wonder whether things would have been different if managers had been better trained and supported.

After various other postings, Martyn found himself looking after Harriers in the 1970s, when this remarkable aircraft was quite new to the RAF. Its VTOL capability meant that they were sometimes operated from tented camps in the woods in close support of the Army - quite a contrast from a well-endowed airbase.

From servicing Harriers in the field (almost literally), he moved to the Harrier Engineering Authority, a joint body between the Air Force as users and Hawker Siddeley as builders, concerned with the airworthiness and future development of the aircraft. This was a chance to see the aircraft industry at close quarters. On the whole he was very impressed, but not always:

In general the RAF did not challenge the industry view with sufficient rigour. I visited the company I work for today to protest that the landing gear overhaul life was far too short. After some strong discussion it was eventually raised through a process of sampling. Dowty's situation was not helped that day when I visited the repair shop and found five landing gears stripped down in pieces. All the oil bath covers, which carried the serial number of the landing gear, were in one cleaning basket. "How do you know which cover belongs to which gear, and how are we going to track the fatigue life of each gear?" I asked.

Eventually it became apparent that many of the interesting senior posts in the RAF were not open to its engineer officers. Wanting to do something different, he resigned and took the post of Chief Engineer with British Caledonian Airways, which at the time was the major independent airline in the UK. So he was still in aircraft engineering. But the airline was suffering on the one hand from a serious cash shortage, and on the other from abysmal industrial relations. The staff did not trust the management, management made no attempt to communicate to them the problems facing the airline, and the pay structure depended on inappropriate shift patterns and inefficient working practices to generate extra overtime to increase a low basic wage. There was a proposal to consolidate most of the actual take-home pay into basic pay in exchange for the elimination of inefficiencies and to introduce a sensible progression structure based on qualifications and experience, but it took almost two and a half years of hard discussion to generate sufficient trust for it to be agreed.

The results which followed were extremely good - productivity improved in a spectacular manner and the management energy which had been previously expended in fire fighting could be turned to longer term planning and improvements.

However outside events took over. The airline consolidation process had begun and in mid 87 British Airways put in an offer for British Caledonian which was cleared by the end of the year. The Industrial Relations climate in BA at that time was even more difficult than it had been in BCal at the start of the change process. There was probably no other course of action than to introduce BA terms and conditions for the BCal staff who joined BA.

The direction we had taken - a brave new start ahead of its time in the UK - was cast aside - a somewhat frustrating experience.

Martyn was one of the British Caledonian people who joined British Airways, and he was given responsibility for "Heavy Maintenance" (2000 people and 20 hangar bays, plus the Concorde operation). But although BA was beginning to improve its management-staff relations, beginning with the cabin staff, it hadn't really percolated far into the Engineering operation, where things were still very confrontational. They did begin to change, but very slowly, and it was frustrating not to be able to move things the way he believed in.

Eventually an opportunity came to move to a new and smaller airline where he might have more influence. Air Europe was in some ways a predecessor of today's "low-cost airlines", run by a young and dynamic team, but undoubtedly risky from a commercial point of view. The fall in business due to the 1991 Gulf War led to the bank withdrawing its support, and the company went out of business.

I hope few of you have been through a company failure because it is an exceedingly painful experience. You call the employees to tell them to stay at home, and that any pay they are owed will be a long time coming, if it comes at all. The city men arrive in red braces and loud voices to pick out the remaining assets from the wreckage for distribution to the creditors. No one will do anything for you unless you pay cash in advance . . .

During the few weeks it takes to close down the company you feverishly search for another job. And you are one of the few lucky ones because you are being paid by the administrator during this fairly traumatic period. I well remember getting a call from one of my friends who said "Martyn, don't you think you are getting a little old for such character-building experiences?"

After this, he went to work for Dowty Landing Gear. He showed us some pictures of typical landing gear - in the case of the Airbus 340 it has to support 275 tons during a fully-loaded take-off - and how it copes with landing loads. And it has to be sufficiently reliable to remain in service for 10 years or 20,000 landings between overhauls.

He was taken on initially to "sort out their Product Support". It was badly in need of it. The chances of an airline receiving any spare part within the advertised delivery date was only about 58%, the storage arrangements were primitive, and emergency telephone calls out of working hours went to the security guard. As he said, this provided "a fantastic opportunity". Today there are locally-manned support centres around the world, and the 58% has risen to 97%, most things being delivered immediately.

This has been achieved with . . . essentially the same team - so what has changed? Basically the management style. Previously the requirements of the airline customers were never understood. These have been clearly explained and then the product support team were encouraged, helped, supported with resource and convinced that they could achieve. It takes a while to overcome the starting inertia but once a team reaches critical self-sustaining speed it seems to become self-motivating, and new ideas and new approaches spring from within. Individuals who were previously perceived as ordinary by the organisation come up with the truly extraordinary.

Dowty Group paid the price of diversifying into electronics instead of sticking with what they were good at, and were taken over by the TI Group, who had a very short-term financial outlook, most unsuited to an aerospace enterprise. So eventually Dowty were amalgamated with their French counterpart Messier (part of SNECMA) to form Messier-Dowty, and TI no longer exists.

For Martyn, this meant a move to France, and we were given some interesting insights on Anglo-French collaboration:

For example the French are extremely good planners - in fact I sometimes feel they prefer planning to doing. So it can be analysis leading to paralysis. The British cannot wait to get started and rush into change, which leads to a period of chaos before things get sorted out. If you can combine these two approaches to get the best of both worlds it really gives a good result.

Messier-Dowty have manufacturing plants in France, England and Canada, and they and their US competitor Goodrich share about 85% of the landing-gear market about equally between them. Their own landing-gear touches down on a runway somewhere 30,000 times a day, once every 3 seconds. Nearly always with no trouble, but as engineers we could not be expected to believe that nothing ever went wrong, so we were given examples of a few occasions when it did - none of them fatal. Two examples:

Virgin A340 with landing gear problem

Here is a Virgin A340 en route into Heathrow and you can see what is missing. The Left Hand Main Gear would not deploy because a brake rod had become detached and jammed in the aircraft structure. Not a problem with a Messier-Dowty part I hasten to add. The aircraft landed safely on the nose gear, right-hand main and left engine nacelle, and no one was hurt.

Then there was the Air Transat A330 that ran out of fuel over the Atlantic. You would not believe you could glide aircraft like an A330. However 19 long and very quiet minutes later the aircraft made a successful landing on the only piece of terra firma for over 1000 miles. Fortunately the Almighty had put the Azores in exactly the right place. The pilot obviously could not go round again and had to come in very fast and very high and put the aircraft down very hard. By then the emergency Ram Air Turbine was no longer generating hydraulic power and the brake accumulators give you only one or two brake applications. So it was brakes on and keep them on or go off the end into the sea. In such circumstances the tyres burst and then the wheels get ground flat and then the bottom of the landing gear. But minor injuries only, and the aircraft was recovered.

A third example, of some technical significance, was a fatigue failure of a leg from torsional stresses, brought about by the aircraft doing tight turns on the tarmac far more frequently than had been expected at the design stage.

But such incidents were very rare, and he was emphatic about the dedication of aerospace people to their task of keeping aircraft safe and reliable, and their awareness of the responsibilities they carry.

To conclude, he gave us his list of "what it takes to be an effective managing engineer":

  1. Personal Integrity
  2. An Empathy with People
  3. A sound grasp of Engineering Principles
  4. Incurable Optimism combined with Pragmatic Pessimism
  5. A willingness to challenge "Perceived Wisdom"
  6. A Sixth Sense (that something may be about to go badly wrong, so go and look)
  7. A Supportive Partner

He ended with what he called "an impudent challenge to the Engineering Department":

As I see it, the consolidation of major industries and the frustrating lack of UK industrial strategy means that many key engineering opportunities for Oxford engineering graduates will lie outside the UK in mainland Europe.

So the challenge is this: "Are you equipping today's graduates to compete for those opportunities against their European counterparts from the best Engineering Institutions in France, Germany and the other members of the EEC?"

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