Now aged 81, after serving in the RAF and logging hours on 178 types, the former test pilot continues to fly light aircaft

Former Rolls-Royce chief test pilot Graham Andrews can look back over a long career of pioneering aviation firsts during which he flew 178 types ranging from the Tiger Moth and the MW3 microlight to the Lightning, Harrier and Concorde.

He suffered 27 engine failures and one hairy ejection and had more fun than any man has a right to expect?but his most memorable aviation moment came when, at the age of four, he shot down a German bomber with a wooden gun.

It happened, he explains, on the night of 14 November 1941, during the infamous Luftwaffe raid on Coventry which devastated the city and killed more than 500 people.

A pre-school resident of nearby Birmingham, Graham was being whisked to an air raid shelter under a stairwell when he looked out to see three searchlights coning on a bomber. He raised his wooden weapon to the skies and shouted “Bang!” And presto! The bomber’s wing folded up and it plummeted to the ground. “Got it! Got it!” he exclaimed.

It’s sobering to recall that, of the 515 German bombers that took part in the raid that night, only one was shot down?where would we be without young Graham Andrews, eh?

Since then he’s kept plugging away in the national interest, test-flying for the RAF, Short Brothers, Rolls-Royce and others, and at the age of 81 he will still fly anything he can get his hands on.

He remains gloriously politically incorrect and full of humour, and he tells his most exciting stories in an understated way which serves to emphasise their extraordinary nature.

Not content with shooting down a bomber, his wartime service to his country continued when he wheeled a pram around the streets of Birmingham collecting the aluminium pots and pans used to make fighter planes.

Remarkably, he still has his original Spitfire Fund badge, awarded for those childish collection efforts, and the Spitfire remains his favourite aircraft. (Rolls-Royce had one as a company hack, and Graham used it for urgent trips to field stations. Strictly business, of course.)

While scrounging pots and pans, he would often look up to see Alex Henshaw testing the Spitfires that came off the production line at Castle Bromwich, and on a particularly good day a Lockheed P-38 based at Elmdon would be lurking nearby, ready to bounce the great man as he went about his business.

What fun! At a big airshow over Birmingham in 1948 he stood on a bridge to watch a Lancaster demonstration. “He cut one engine and flew past on three,” Graham says. “On his next pass he cut two engines, and for the final pass he cut three, and flew over on one engine. At the age of eleven, I found it

hugely impressive.”

A boy with such a fascination was always fated to find his way into military aviation, and Graham joined the RAF section of the Combined Cadet Force at his school, King Edward’s in Birmingham. By the age of seventeen he was a pilot, having cycled after school to take flying lessons in a Tiger Moth.

At eighteen, having passed for entry to RAF College, Cranwell, he spent his first year droning up and down in a Vickers Valetta learning to find his way. “Celestial navigation was a handful,” he says. “I was confused to find, on taking my first star shot, that I was in the middle of the North Sea, despite being to my certain knowledge surrounded by grass on all sides.”

Life was pretty horrible, with no hands-on flying. Today they’d call it bullying, but in those days the practice of ‘hazing’ was ingrained at Cranwell, tacitly encouraged from the top ‘to harden the kids up’. Matters came to a head one night in 1955 when the second-year cadets decided to re-enact the funeral of a well-known radio figure, Grace Archer.

After lights-out they pressure-fed a first-year airman into a small box and paraded his colleagues, naked but with uniforms painted on them. “We were slow-marched up and down, the full funeral service,” Graham says, “then as we climbed some steps between air raid shelters they blasted us in the balls with a hosepipe.

“We decided we’d had enough. We were numerically superior, so the next night we really got stuck into them and there was a battle that stopped this nonsense for a year. It came back later, and wasn’t finally ended until a cadet was seriously injured?there were questions in the House of Commons, and things improved.”

Despite the abuse, the oppressive navigation work, the everyday humiliations of square-bashing, and the drudgery of Blanco, Brasso and bull, Graham never for one second thought he’d taken a wrong turning.

Always at the end of it was the Holy Grail of flying in the Royal Air Force, and for that almost anything could be endured. Graham made a chart in the back of one of his books in which he crossed off the hours until his delivery from purgatory.

Finally deliverance came, and in the second year Graham began flying training on the piston Provost, an ungainly-looking taildragger with stalky legs. “It was a good trainer because it wasn’t very easy to fly and was quite tricky to land,” he says. “Those of us with some flying experience?I had thirty hours on Tigers?got the hang of it, but those who came to it cold struggled.”

After 150 hours on the Provost came the de Havilland Vampire, Graham’s first jet. “You’d do a lesson in the dual T.11, then you’d be sent out to repeat it in the single-seat FB9, proper grown-up flying.”

In the T.11 Graham had his first “really interesting experience”, which came while he was doing high-level aerobatics. “Three quarters of the way through a slow roll it snapped into a spin, and nothing I could do would stop it. Halfway to the ground, the instructor shouted: ‘Eject!’

“‘Pardon?’ I said. Then he blew the canopy and was gone, so I realised he meant it. I pulled the blind down and banged out. The seat separated and I floated down, watching my instructor as he overtook me?he was rather heavier than I was.

I realised to my dismay that I was heading straight for the River Trent, and I can’t swim. I tugged at the shrouds and saw that I was now heading for some high-tension cables. I landed between the cables and the river, and as I lay on my back I remember thinking that two years before, at about this time, I would have been cycling to school.” The cause was a broken control cable in the rudder circuit.

In 1957 a film was made at Cranwell called High Flight, with RAF cadets as extras; in the opening scene of a marching column, the cadet who snaps “Eyes right!” is Graham Andrews. The cadets were paid, he said, a fabulous £8 10s a day.

He remembered the film’s star, Ray Milland needing fourteen takes to get his speech to the cadets right, which didn’t impress anyone. Another star, Anthony Newley boasted in the pub that one day he was going to be a pop star. How they laughed! But of course, Newley became exactly that in the late ‘fifties.

By the end of the course at Cranwell, only 31of the 78 cadets who’d started were still standing. In previous years the top cadets had been claimed by Fighter Command, but the other Commands had objected so this year the talent was spread across the whole of the RAF. Graham transitioned onto the photo-reconnaissance Canberra.

He was posted to Germany, where it was common to fly ‘not above 200 feet’, which was “really interesting”. In those days pilots were invited to identify distant places they’d like to visit, and these ‘Lone Rangers’ would treat the flights as navigation exercises.

Graham chose Nairobi, which was then reachable in two hops, staging at El Adem in Libya. “You just drew a line on a map and flew along it,” he says. “Air traffic control was non-existent, especially when you got up to 48,000 feet.”

At the end of his first tour a lot of Canberra men were transferring to the V-Force as co-pilots, something that didn’t appeal, so Graham volunteered to go to Central Flying School at Little Rissington and found himself back on the piston Provost.

Later he went back to Cranwell as an instructor on Chipmunks and Jet Provosts. “I could teach my granny to fly a Jet Provost,” he says. “It was insufficiently challenging, so people who went ab initio on the Jet Provost often struggled when it got more complicated.”

He had always had his sights on test flying, and at the second attempt was accepted at the Empire Test Pilots School at Farnborough in 1965. The course was a shocker. “I reckoned on working every night until at least 2:30 a.m.” Graham says. “I think my card was marked because I was good at sport, and we hammered the staff at football and cricket. That probably cost me a few marks.

“I had a nagging pain in my shoulder, and strangely I lost all strength in my upper arm, leading me to inexplicably dump a pint of beer. So I went to see a doctor at the School of Aviation Medicine. They did some tests and found I’d had a mild dose of polio, despite having had the sugar lump and the injection.

“I was very apprehensive about what it might do to my career, but the doctors thought the nerves would repair themselves in eight or nine months, and so it proved.

“Years later I had a pretty awful accident when a dog ran in front of my bike and, despite a parachute roll, I lost a muscle in my shoulder, but my only injury from test flying was a blood blister caused when the straps pulled my legs in during my ejection. Pretty good going, really.”

All the hard work paid off, and on graduation Graham was sent as a project pilot to the TSR-2 programme. Before he even got to Boscombe Down, the project had been cancelled. “Perhaps the cancellation was necessary,” Graham says. “Britain still had a major hangover of wartime debt?the country had effectively been bankrupt. But I would have loved to have flown her.”

He flew all the aircraft that ‘A’ Squadron had in its inventory, which included the P.1127 and the Kestrel, Jet Provost, Gnat, Lightning and Hunter. At the same time, he was an examiner on Tiger Moths at Compton Abbas, and one weekend was asked for a flypast “in something exciting”.

As it happened he had a training flight in a Lightning the following day, during which it was later alleged he flew around the spire of Salisbury Cathedral at 600 knots, then flew over Compton Abbas cutting the daisies before pulling 4g and zooming up to 30,000 feet, turning off his transponder as he went. You could get away with that sort of thing in those days.

He flew trials on the Short Belfast assessing the head-up display, and on the Shackleton to appraise buoy-dropping techniques. Afterwards they would always fly home via the pretty route, and usually so low that you had to pull up before you could bank.

He was one of three pilots engaged in ‘Operation Summer Sky’, a top-secret programme to investigate the effect of sonic booms during the development of Concorde. The plan was to ‘drop a bang’ over three sites: Blandford Forum, Bristol, and London. The Lightning at 43,000 feet and 1.4 Mach would produce the same overpressure as Concorde at 60,000 feet, and Graham got the London flight.

“Monday’s flight was cancelled because it coincided with the Queen’s Garden Party,” he says. “Next day I lined up over France, under orders to drop a bang over Big Ben at noon. I accelerated and crossed the coast as briefed, creating a rolling boom that hit Big Ben right on schedule.

“For all the secrecy, next day the Evening Standard carried the headline ‘Avengers over London!’ They had discovered that one of the three test pilots was Hugh Rigg, whose sister Diana was an actress in a popular TV series called The Avengers, and wrongly concluded that he had been the culprit.

“My most exiting flight was the second one in the P.1127. After a conventional flight with the nozzles horizontal, and ten hours of helicoptering, came the vertical flight. The Pegasus 3 produced 14,000 lb of thrust and XP980 weighed 12,500 lb empty,” he says.

“A 1 to 1.1 thrust-to-weight ratio was required for a clean lift-off. You would taxi out with not much more than 400 lb of fuel, and it burned 130 lb a minute in the hover. You’d expend 50 lb getting to the concrete pad and doing your checks.

“You’d be accompanied by a squadron Land Rover, and from the moment you left the ground the chap in the Land Rover would start a special big stopwatch at two minutes, and if you weren’t back on the ground as the last seconds ticked away he would get increasingly frantic.”

At the same time, Graham was running the Bustard Flying Club at Old Sarum, and would often fly to work in their Tiger Moth. He once hovered the Tiger for a minute 500 feet above the tower at Boscombe in a 40mph wind, then landed to take a Lightning for high-altitude speed tests with the overwing extender tanks. All in a day’s work.

After three years at Boscombe he was promoted to Squadron Leader and posted to RAE Farnborough. As number two at Flight Test Operations to Wing Commander Wally Bainbridge, Graham flew almost every day, in everything from the supersonic stock to Devons and Canberras.

He kept his IR current on the Meteor and got a transport category licence for flying shuttles to Llanbedr. But staff college was looming. “I was a pilot, not really career officer material, and I had other serious considerations, too,” he says.

“In fourteen years in the RAF I’d had twelve moves, and I had a wife and four children. The fourth birth had been horrendously complicated and my wife almost died, and the RAF wasn’t conducive to settled family life.”

Rolls-Royce test pilot

One of the advantages of Flight Test Operations was that one knew where the civilian test pilots’ jobs were, and Graham was invited to join Rolls-Royce, who were then working on major modifications to the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom to allow it to operate from smaller British aircraft carriers.

The R-R Spey engine was more powerful than the US aircraft’s GE J79 and had a higher bypass ratio, which could blow the flaps to help reduce the landing speed on carriers. “It was supposed to have other advantages, such as increased range,” Graham says, “but it didn’t work out in practice.

“The Spey needed a bigger intake and jetpipe assembly, which increased the drag even though we designed a tailored jetpipe in an attempt to reduce it. There was a half-second lag in the reheat, which the RAF didn’t like. And then, of course, it was decided that the Navy was giving up carriers, so all the Phantoms ended up with the RAF and the modification work, which resulted in every aircraft costing much more than the American equivalent, turned out not to be necessary.”

Most of the test flying work on Concorde had been done by his predecessors, but Graham was responsible for chairing the Engine Handling Panel. “I did get a few flights in her, and some of them were quite interesting,” he says. “Shutting down an engine at Mach 2 produced a profound deceleration since the paired engine immediately surged and had to be shut down as well.”

He was made Chief Test Pilot for Rolls-Royce in 1976 and, apart from the Phantom and Concorde, flew everything from the Harrier to helicopters, the HS125, Argosy, Navajo, Heron and trainers like the Aermacchi 339.

But when business was slack and the testing work ran down, he took voluntary redundancy in 1981 with the intention of becoming a science teacher. Unfortunately, since he didn’t have a degree he was deemed unqualified to teach, which must rank as one of the dumbest decisions our educators have ever made.

Microlights were just coming in, and Bristol University had built a two-seater on which Graham did the test-flying. He became Chairman of the Airworthiness Section of the new BMAA and flew for BAC as a freelance pilot on the 125 and Navajo before being approached by Shorts to work for them.

“The paperwork took eight months to complete,” he said. “At one point I gave up and joined the CAA, but when the papers came through I moved to Belfast. Two weeks later Shorts landed the Tucano contract.

“I’d done the JP5 assessment at Boscombe Down and I’d flown the Spitfire IIb, and the performance of the Tucano was about the same. But the fatigue life of the Tucano was 6,000 hours compared to 150 on the Spitfire. Similarly, the Garrett engine in the Tucano had an overhaul time of 6,000 hours, while that of the Merlin was 150.

“Flying the Tucano made you feel like you just had to attack somebody. I was doing a flutter test off Rathlin Island and had to dive and hold the speed for one minute. There was a Cessna 172 right in my sights, so I did a barrel roll around him. He reported a near miss and I was called in by the Wing Commander at Aldergrove for a chat, hat off and no coffee. Luckily I got away with ‘don’t do it again’.”

But it wasn’t all fun and games. The saga of the Shorts Tucano is nothing short of a scandal, one that cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds while civil servants indulged their yen for pedantry before almost giving the whole company away for a song.

Shorts was owned by the government, and it beat three other manufacturers bidding to provide a turboprop Jet Provost trainer replacement, offering a licence-built version of the Brazilian Embraer EMB-312 Tucano. It was a fixed-price contract, which meant the company had to deliver on budget.

The plane was to be built to DEF STAN 00-970, a standard set out under the Military Air Systems Certification Process, which normally allows a certain amount of common-sense flexibility in interpretation. However, once work started, the MoD civil servants demanded that every last dot and comma of DEF STAN 970 be adhered to, and hundreds of items on the aircraft had to be redesigned or altered for no real benefit.

For example, the canopy was required to withstand the impact of a two-pound bird at the aircraft’s maximum level cruising speed – okay for slower trainers, but the Tucano cruised at 240 knots. The Embraer version would fail the test at 120 knots, but the civil servants gave Shorts no leeway.

It took two years of development before they got the thickness right, but then the canopy would not shatter into small enough pieces when hit by the ejector seat, so they had to fit detonating cord into the canopy. And all to pay homage to a number on a piece of paper.

“Their attitude created many, many problems all over the aircraft,” Graham said. “And of course, BAC were sticking the knife in?they’d lost the bidding with the Pilatus PC-9, which also couldn’t have met the bird-strike standard. It’s a testament to the brilliance of Shorts engineers that we were only a year late on delivery.

“But the initial production run was 140 aircraft, and Shorts lost almost £1 million on each one. The RAF was shrinking at the time, and I believe about half of them went into storage. We sold some to Kenya and Kuwait, but in 1989 the government decided to sell Shorts to the Canadian company Bombardier. The price was ridiculous, just £30 million, after they’d written off £90 million in debts, which fell to the taxpayer and was largely made up of cost overruns on the Tucano caused by civil service pedantry.

“I tried to put together a management buy-out because Shorts had a lot of missiles, a lot of aero structures, and we were starting to build the commuter jet which became the Bombardier CRJ?we’d even got as far as laying out the cockpit. But we couldn’t raise the money in time, so the company was lost. It was a spectacular own goal for Britain, but nobody was ever held to account.”

Graham then became a CAA examiner in Bristol, during which time he built on an already impressive tally of types flown, and in 1995 he was invited by the Americans to do the test flying on 28 Shorts C-23 Sherpas they had ordered for the Air National Guard.

The job stretched over three years and gave him a lasting respect for the FAA’s positive and co-operative approach to testing. As an example, only one test pilot was required on the programme, where the CAA would have insisted on two. He finished his flying career with, oddly enough, Flybe.

“They had five Shorts 360s at that time and their chief pilot was Ted Nance, who’d been a cadet with me at Cranwell,” Graham says. “He asked me to be chief training captain on the 360s, and when they got rid of them I became a project pilot on the Q400, and because of that I ended up with 13,000 hours, which is a fairly big number for a test pilot.

“And then it was time to retire. When I look back at the wonderful people I’ve worked with and the fabulous aircraft I’ve flown I know I’m fantastically lucky to have had the career I’ve had. I was a test pilot at the right time, when there were new types coming along every year.

“There’s not so much call for them now?but if anyone needs a hand, I can still fit into the blue suit the RAF gave me in 1957. Give me a call.”

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