Working Lives

The Air Force Engineer (1957-1995)

Location: East Anglia

Mike’s working life was in the Air Force, on the engineering rather than the military side. After a tour of duty in Cyprus, he became a nuclear specialist in the days of the Cold War, where top secret manoeuvres were carried out against nuclear attack. Based in Norfolk, he retired from the RAF and wrote manuals for the drilling platforms in the North Sea.

I was born in Exeter in 1939, and I think I was one of the lucky generation; I think people of my age are the lucky ones. I was educated at Exeter School. I was never particularly academic, wasn’t very sporting either, for that matter! At about 17 I looked around for things to do. My father was an engineer, and I had an engineering bent and I’ve always been interested in aeroplanes in some shape or form, although I didn’t ever go for a PPL (Private Pilot’s Licence). So I decided that the way forward for me, living in a provincial town similar to Norwich, would be to join the Royal Air Force. And I thought to myself ‘Well, I’m not just going to join the Royal Air Force.’ My education was better than the average person, so I thought that I would go to RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire, which was at that time the number one school of technical training. It was formed by Lord Trenchard in 1918, when they formed the Royal Air Force,  and they realised that at that time they had lots of up in the air junior bird men who were quite happy to fly the aeroplanes, there were not too many who were trained to maintain them. That was really the bête noir as far as the Air Force were concerned. So they thought ‘OK, fine’, and they started the training scheme.

The Air Force Engineer

Although we had a military background we, en bloc, were encouraged to be engineers, and that was the main thing. That is one essential difference between the Army and the Royal Air Force, in that the Air Force have always been technical because it had to be, whereas the Army are military first and technical second. It may have changed now, but that is the difference.

I had GCEs when I left school. You had to have minimum qualifications. Not commissioned rank at all and never did achieve commission rank. They took three entries a year, so that was about 600 airmen going through, all of them engineers. But the attrition rate was quite high. I was the 84th entry, but we went in at about 320 and came out with about 140 odd.

So then I qualified after three years, as a Junior Technician, which is pretty damned low. It’s Airman, Leading Aircraftsman, Senior Aircraftsman, and then the quantum leap is to Junior Technician because then you become a technical rank. And we attracted a much higher pay scale because we were responsible for maintaining the aeroplanes. I never thought it was fair, but that was the way it was. You know, a bandsman or a cook would get probably two thirds our pay, if that.

I learned a helluva lot, and things I’m still doing now I was taught there. And it was the old school of apprenticeship where you had hands on . . .. but it was instilled in you that you had to learn the background techniques involved rather than just do. You stood back and thought about it.

There was a 50/50 split between theory and practical exams. Probably tending towards the academic, though academic’s not the right word. We had to learn technical drawing, we had to learn the normal subjects. I think that’s why the attrition rate was quite high; some people just couldn’t maintain that level the whole way through. But then they would just fall back. There was another level. They used to have boy entrants and that would be for the workers.  

You went into the Air Force at between 16 and 17. It was then that they started to find the level of skill, and if you failed at Halton you went down one, and if you were really good then you went to the Officers’ Engineering College at Henlow. That was the way it was done and it was quite clever really.

So then I qualified as a Junior Technician and I went to RAF Coltishall. Normally postings in the Air Force are three years, and they don’t like experts. That’s what you don’t want to have, because somebody who is good at doing one aspect. a specialist, put them into a different environment and they’ve got problems. That is why they keep rotating all the time, and even if you are very, very good at something still after three years they’ll move you. And you accept that. So it meant that throughout my life really, although I was in the Air Force for 23 years and people say ‘Oh my God , how did you stick that?’, it was because after three or four years you changed roles completely. And as you went up through the rank structure then your life changed, because you went from a bod in a working environment to be managerial, to be higher managerial. And that was the way it is. The whole thing is multi-faceted.

We were again privileged going through Halton in that, at that time, you were guaranteed, provided you didn’t do anything absolutely stupid and have yourself on a technical charge or something like that, you were guaranteed promotion after x number of years. You always had exams. Throughout my Air Force career I’ve always been examined. All the way through, even up at Chief Tech., Warrant Officer level, you always had these examinations. because you’re going up a technical rank, so therefore you wanted to be sure of the person you were working alongside.

You can’t afford to make mistakes. Of course, you still did make mistakes, I was the one who put an ejection seat through the side of the aircraft, but there you are – we all did it! I broke the canopy. You can imagine this seat, and you have to lift it to get it out and there are canopy breakers deliberately on the top, and I just lifted it too far and that broke the canopy! I haven’t made any serious nasties, but I’ve seen one or two serious nasties.

Then after that I had a nice little tour in Cyprus. We had a little bit of an Empire then. Not much of it left, I’m afraid. This was 1962. Cyprus.. Nice and warm.

I should have let you know I was involved with armaments. You know, nice people, dropping bombs on them! That was guns, bombs and latterly nuclear weapons.

At the time there was Makarios in Cyprus and General Grievas. I did get slightly involved in the political scene there, but the island was unified at that stage. That was OK, that was just a tour. That was the standard three years. I was just learning then, and we did some rocket trials and I was interested in doing that, and I was flying around in Canberras doing testing. A lot of us would do that, you know, if there was something going, we’d volunteer. And I always wanted to do that.  

This was on Test Flights. I was one of the lucky ones! I’ve never fought anybody in my life, thank you very much indeed!

So I did that for three years and then I came back to RAF Cottesmore, and that was a change because all the other postings previously were Fighter Command and now we go to Bomber Command, and that is totally different. And I spent a lot of my time on Vulcans, and I’m pleased to see that XM558, the last remaining Vulcan is still flying. It’s used in a display role. But maintaining a Spitfire is a very old technology. They were comparatively unsophisticated, whereas a modern-ish 65 op. Bomber is a totally different kettle of fish.

I was involved in the navigational bombing systems, INAS, Initial Navigational Attack System where you flew behind yourself, in other words you lay down a radar path. You can artificially bomb Norwich or anywhere else without actually dropping anything at all. To see whether you as a bomber were accurate enough – and in all weathers, because you can’t always see the target. When you get to a bombing run the pilot doesn’t actually fly the aircraft, the bomb aimer does. But it was one hell of an aeroplane. It kept the Air Force in business. It kept us going all the time. The whole resources of the Air Force were tied in with flying the Vulcan. Major, major, major operations. And of course this was Cold War stuff, so you couldn’t make a mistake and you had to have the aircraft out of the pad ready to go in. . I think generation time was about 30 minutes .  And that’s late. You know, you’ve got to be up there. You had to get into a retaliatory role. We were loaded on the end of the airfield … I wasn’t air crew, I used to fly with them to test things but I was not air crew.

It was at that juncture that the nuclear weapon made its way into the Air Force, and I volunteered .. . volunteering again, you see! … I thought ‘Well, this is what I want to do. I wouldn’t mind that’.

Cold War manoeuvres

We used to have generation exercises. In other words a training run, and they would generate the aircraft at very, very short notice in the middle of the night. And you got used to it – simulating an attack. The story I tell on that one: You imagine the scene – it’s pitch black at night, you’re in married quarters or whatever, and the alarm buzzer goes, and you think ‘God Almighty!’ And you run down the road, and at 20 you’re running down the road and you’re thinking ‘Oh boy, oh boy, may be going to war this time!’ At 30 you’re running down the road and you’re thinking ‘Well . . . maybe we’ll go to war’. At 40 you’re thinking ‘My God, I don’t want to do this again!’ That’s the difference!  

You never knew if it was real. Four minute warning. It could be the live ones. You never, ever knew. We pinched all these ideas from the American Air Force, of course, so that’s the way it was.

Where did we go from there? I went in what was called the Safe SSA, the Supplementary Storage Area. It was a euphemism for the nuclear weapon bomb dump really. It was closely guarded and we all had to have at that time what was known as a positive vetting. In other words they would really look into your background. Most people had a negative vetting where you had to fill in a form, but with the positive vetting you had to know.

They were active spies in Germany. They had what are known as Soxmis and Britmis. It was legal spying, part of the Warsaw Agreement after the War. They were allowed to go searching around in each other’s territory to see that they weren’t doing anything wrong.

At that time we were using an American weapon, the Blue Danube, and after that we were using the Red Beard, and than after that, when I got really interested, we were using the British weapon, which was a Six Hundred 950, and we were developing that in the end at Orford Ness.

I’d just spent three years at Cottesmore which is in Rutland, and then they were looking for volunteers to come to Swanton Morley. Swanton Morley was the Central Servicing Development Establishment. It’s a station with no aircraft at all, absolutely nothing at all. It just used the barrack blocks, it’s as simple as that. It’s Research and Development on a parallel at that time with Boscombe Down, with Aldermaston, with Farnborough, places like that. It’s like a spider’s web and at the centre of the spider’s web is the M.O.D., the Ministry of Defence. And I came back .. . I said they don’t like specialists …. it’s not strictly true . … because of my knowledge of usage of nuclear weapons I was sent to Swanton Morley to work with the M.O.D. on their weapons. Department Weapon Eng. 3. If you said that now they would say ‘Oh yes, you were nuclear’, but nobody knew at the time. It was still very, very secret.

Some areas I would be a bit careful. If somebody asked me about the yields of the weapons or something like that I don’t think I would be prepared to say that, even now. Although the keyword – and you can look this up on the website, it’s interesting – is WE177. And you look it up and it’s got pictures of all the weapons and everything else we’d got. It doesn’t tell you how to make them, but it tells you all about them and where they were. They don’t give you numbers, and we never knew that, and there were certain things I was party to with the M.O.D. that, when I went out to sub-stations where we had nuclear weapons, I was not permitted to tell them. Because the Air Force – in fact any of the services – have always worked on a need to know principle. If you don’t need to know about it, they don’t tell you. And conversely they wouldn’t tell me.  

They’re all kept in nuclear bunkers. Heavily lined with asbestos, we came to discover afterwards, and that’s why I was screened for some years afterwards  and I thought ‘Well that’s great! Thank you very much indeed!’ I wasn’t killed by radiation, but, by God, the asbestos got me!!

So basically the nuclear world has been mine for about fifteen years in total, because once you get into that world then you become a specialist. I finished my time at RAF Gütersloh but that was only for about three years and then I just had to finish off, and I was spoilt then; I couldn’t come to terms with the rest of the Air Force. It proved their point – because I’d been in a closed environment. We were stationed in Germany, at RAF Larbruck, for some time, but our little SSA was within a wire. When they had generation exercises, as we discussed earlier on at Cottesmore, we were not allowed to be involved with that at all. You know ‘We can’t play with you because you’ve got nuclear weapons’ sort of thing!! They wouldn’t risk it. So we were in a closed enclave.

The bombs shouldn’t have been on German soil in the first place. Politics is the name of the game! Somebody may have seen these little white beasts going round the countryside and think ‘Why is that there, and then how did it get there?’  

We were generating nuclear weapons at Waddington, at Honington, at Scampton and then we had our secret dumps at RAF Fauld, places like that. And the Americans were up to it at the same time. RAF Honington, there was a little station just before, RAF Barnham. That’s where the first nuclear weapon was brought into this country from America.

As I say I was working for the M.O.D. and they would say ‘We want you to go and have a look at a certain aspect of it.’ And I would go out and do it and write a secret, confidential report, or whatever.  

If they discovered in flight there was a problem with it then I had to go and look at it, or if there was a problem with servicing or something like that, I would go out and see the servicing crews – loading and things like that.

If the electronics are okay you have to assume the systems are okay. Although you wouldn’t want to detonate the weapon. We won’t bother with the American ones because we were never told. They used to sanitise their paperwork. If you got one of their working documents they would cut a piece out that they wouldn’t want the British to know about.

No, you would want to know, short of detonation, that the systems allied to that detonation were Ok. I mean you could set the weapon to detonate above ground, under water, at certain heights. It had to be multi-purpose. They were designed to be used, would you believe, as tactical battlefield weapons. You can’t imagine that, can you? But they were so frightened of the Russians coming across the border, and they knew very well they couldn’t hold the tanks back, so the last ditch was to drop nuclear things.

Then they started to worry that they, the M.O.D. or the Government, had all these nuclear weapons massed around Germany and then somebody said ‘What if the tanks could break through and they captured all the weapons, what would we do?’ So then we had to work out a scheme to really destroy them quickly, and we used to fire a bolt, like a gun, straight through the middle of them. And that’s what I was doing at Orford Ness. And I’ve been back there since just to see what it was like. And they’ve got one down there.  

The principle of a nuclear weapon is that you have a sub-critical mass and you compress it. It’s about the size of a football with lots of explosive charges all the way round it, and when you compress it, so, it will go critical. That is the basic principle. (There’s another one like a rifle where you fire two pieces of critical mass together.) So if you can fire a hole through the middle of it you ain’t got a football any more! So it’s not going to work!

It’s safe, it’s fast and it’s dirty – you get a lot of fissionable material, but again you’re not worried about the manpower who’re doing it. They’re dead anyway! You know, the Services are not humane at all, not really. Lip service, but not really. And you know that. Your pay reflected that. We were quite well paid, but it was known as the X Factor – disposable, that’s it!

So when I was working as a nuclear specialist, as a technical author I would write …. everything in the Air Force is written, you know. You work to a manual: If it says ‘2:1 Do so-and-so’. But somebody’s got to write that manual and somebody’s got to ensure that it’s accurate, and that’s what I was doing. And the problem with writing a manual is trying to be unambiguous. I’d explain something to you and you’d explain it back to me and somewhere in between we’ve got a problem! But our manuals are written by Chinese for English! Lost in translation! But that’s what we used to do.

And I was an engineer. I never did like the military side of it too much. I would pay lip service to it. We were under military discipline. You knew that you were party to the Air Force Act and to the Official Secrets Act. But by that time you were trained and people knew what you were doing anyway. And we were all given ranks and that was all right.

I left just on the Falklands episode, that was about ’82 / ’83, because I was fed up with becoming a peripatetic engineer, and didn’t want to go wandering around. I was married by that time anyway.

Impact on family life

Some people adapt and some people don’t. My wife accepted it, but she had a profession, she was a chemist with a degree in Chemistry, went into teaching, didn’t like that too much. She taught at Dereham, at the Neatherd, for some time, but she was never really cut out for teaching, so then she went into the Norwich Union. Which was fine. I was at Swanton Morley, she was there, and that’s why we’re here.

They said ‘You can go off to Gütersloh in Germany’, and I thought ‘No, I don’t really want to do this, thank you. I’ve had enough. I’ve done my time. I’ve learned my skills. I’m very grateful, and you’ve paid me for it as well.’ And an index-linked pension! I’ve been very lucky!

We did have trouble from nuclear protesters, Greenham Common was an example of that. And we were involved with the Americans at Wethersfield a long, long time ago. But, no, they didn’t do anything to us at all. And we were heavily guarded!  We got to know the RAF police quite well! They were quite a presence. On a given site, something like 10 or 12 technicians and something like a hundred RAF police. And then we were well within the boundary of an Air Force base, which is not that defended. You can’t defend an airfield.

Life after the RAF

So then I became a technical author. I went onto the North Sea and wrote manuals for platforms, for the rigs. I didn’t go out there very often. I spent six months there, which was horrible! You do two weeks on and two weeks off, but I didn’t like that at all really. I think the main reason for that was I was getting too old for it. The story with that one is that after the Piper Alpha disaster they decided that to drop life rafts straight into the burning sea was not a very clever thing to do, so they developed like a submarine idea, where you fired it from the top, a hundred foot up. It went down under the sea and it came up again and floated. Super idea! Absolutely super! And you used to do a test every Sunday morning at about six o’clock in the morning. They’d drag you out of bed and you’d get into this thing and you’re all strapped in and all the rest of it. And you’re all there and it’s horrible, and I thought to myself ‘My God, you’re 56 now. What the hell are you doing here?’ And after that I thought ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, thank you very much indeed!’

Michael Vincent  (1939-2010) talking to WISEArchive on 7th April 2009 in Norwich.

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