Pilot’s long-serving contributor and ‘air-brained’ quiz compiler, James has enjoyed an illustrious career in aviation, from flying in the RAF to working as a professional engineer and writer
Words and contemporary photos: Nick Bloom
I first encountered James Allan’s writing in a short story in Pilot in the 1980s. The style was self-deprecating, literate and full of acute observation, and, of course, his aviation knowledge was excellent.
James’s contributions to Pilot actually started in 1975 and have included a stream of technical pieces, such as one on the correct use of mixture control, and numerous articles on GPS and other navigation aids. He wrote a series called Destinations comparing airports in the UK and their equivalents in mainland Europe, as well as occasional flight tests and short stories like the one that first caught my eye. He still features regularly in the magaxine, producing the monthly ‘air-brained’ quiz.
I paid him a visit to learn more about his aviation experiences and career.
He was born in 1928 in Shotts, a Scottish mining town. His mother was a champion golfer (with an MA) and his father was the Area Chief Scientist for the National Coal Board. James got the flying bug when, aged seven, his parents took him to see Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus whose “sights, sounds and smells made an indelible impression on me”. Like everyone else in the crowd he was utterly hoodwinked by the ‘granny’ who stole a Gipsy Moth, flew it crazily and then landed to reveal herself as one of the show’s young pilots in disguise.
His school years in Edinburgh coincided with World War II and he remembers learning to identify the many RAF and occasional Luftwaffe aeroplanes that thundered over the playground by subscribing to the weekly magazine, Aeroplane Spotter. Like many lads, he built model aircraft, first static, then flying, powered by a twisted rubber band.
He joined the school’s Air Training Corps and in 1944 finally got the coveted ride in an aeroplane, an Airspeed Oxford. “Now, aged fifteen, I was even more determined to become a pilot,” he says. From then on, every summer he went to an ATC camp at an active airfield and made it to Flight Sergeant by the time his school days finished. The aeroplane rides accumulated and so did his knowledge of aircraft, as the cadets were allowed to help out with simple tasks like oil changes and prop-swinging.
He also got his first look at aviation’s darker side ? an enforced visit to a recently shot-up Halifax with traces of dead aircrew only too apparent.
Although James was offered a place at Cranwell and thought about a career as an RAF pilot, he instead chose mechanical engineering at Glasgow University. “My father pointed out that I was certain to be accepted in the University Air Squadron,” he says “and a mechanical engineering graduate would have better job prospects. I was persuaded.”
And so it was. In 1947, he had his first flying lesson in a Miles Magister with the Glasgow University Air Squadron (GUAS). It had to be abandoned after twenty minutes because James was incapacitated by air sickness. The same thing happened on his next training exercise. James and another student were sent to a doctor who gave them bottles of evil-smelling brown liquid: “Never been known to fail”. Nor did it, because he sailed through the rest of his pilot training with no trouble. He only found out later it was a placebo!
As his was a ‘sandwich’ course, he gained practical experience alongside the formal education. At his first placement with the Bristol Aeroplane Company at Filton, he learned to weld, braze, rivet and use presses and rollers on sheet metal. With other apprentices, he even got a flight ? in a rotor kite that had come from a U-boat, towed behind a car. Happily, this piece of unlicensed and unsupervised student daring ended with a soft landing.
Back at university, James continued to accumulate flying hours in Tiger Moths, including spins and recoveries, which he didn’t much enjoy, and some self-taught blind flying when he flew through a cloud, greatly relieved to come out the other side. While some GUAS students got up to pranks such as flying under bridges, James chickened out of that, but remembers one memorable trip, force-landing near an isolated farmhouse when his Tiger Moth developed engine trouble. Realising that the nearest telephone was too far to walk to and with no other means of transport, he managed to remove the lead deposits that had clogged the plugs and continue his flight.
For his second stint in industry, James went to Vickers Armstrong at Brooklands, where he worked on the airliner assembly line, in the undercarriage design and testing department, and finally in the drawing office. He also flew some larger aircraft, including a short spell at the controls of an ex-WWII Wellington and, frustratingly, taxying but not flying a two-seat Spitfire Mk IX. While at Brooklands, he also had a go on the famous racetrack on his motorbike.
During his third placement ? again with Vickers ? he obtained his civilian pilot’s licence in a Tiger Moth at Fairoaks. Soon he was flying these aircraft and then Auster Autocrats at the Fairoaks Aero Club.
He graduated from university with 230 hours in his log books, “Almost all paid for by someone else ? no wonder the University Air Squadron was known as the best flying club in the country!”
After university, James was called up for two years of National Service. Luckily for him, this entailed more flight training, at RAF Syerston, including moving up to the Harvard. He went solo in this relatively challenging beast in just six hours. As a Pilot Officer, he was, of course, subject to RAF discipline and military training, including lectures, full-dress formal dinners in the officers’ mess, hi-jinks afterwards ? someone drove a motorbike down the corridor ? and lots of sport.
During instrument flying training he once nearly had to bail out, along with his instructor. While above a layer of ‘ten-tenths’ cloud the generator in the Harvard failed, but its amber warning light was invisible because of amber-coloured panels inside the canopy (used together with blue-tinted goggles worn by the student to stop him seeing out). With no electrics they were lucky to spot a hole in the cloud that they could descend through before the fuel state became critical.
Night and low flying training followed, and ultimately the Final Handling Test, which included aerobatics. During these, the fire extinguisher in the CFI’s cockpit came loose and knocked him out. It took a while for a puzzled James to work out why no further instructions were issuing from the rear seat, and then, “I declared my first Mayday and we got the CFI into an ambulance. When he recovered he was kind enough to sign me off, none the less.” So James won his RAF Wings brevet.
He now went to RAF Middleton St George near Darlington, County Durham, where he was to fly Meteor F4 jet fighters. These were nicknamed ‘meatboxes’ because they were killing so many pilots ? an average of one in fourteen among trainees. One day, his class was walking from the mess to a classroom when a Meteor with two instructors on board crashed within sight of them. As James recalls, just seven years after the war, the RAF still had a ‘tolerance’ to casualty rates.
This was also the early days in military jets and Meteors weren’t designed like civilian aircraft with safety first. Everything had to be sacrificed to performance and getting into production quickly. Even with full tanks, fuel endurance was just 45 minutes. Once, after a go-around on low fuel, one engine stopped while he was taxying. “You could only lower the undercarriage below 175 knots, but the wheels came down one side first, causing yaw, and this blanked off the elevators if you allowed the speed to fall below 170kt; so you had to be incredibly accurate at that point, or you dived in.”
The two widely-spaced, heavy engines made it unsafe to spin below 25,000ft; the aeroplane became unstable in a turning dive; and so on…
James soloed in the Meatbox and became a military jet pilot on a date he still remembers as a red-letter day: 15 May 1952. It wasn’t unusual after that for him to fly three or four sorties a day, including aerobatic, formation, night, instrument and high-speed flights. Although usually law-abiding, James became sufficiently expert to have a go (successfully) at the specifically forbidden Zurakowski Turn (forbidden because it was inclined to end in a fatal inverted spin).
It’s like a stall turn except that instead of yawing from straight up to straight down once, the Meteor does it twice in rapid succession, rudder aided first by asymmetric thrust from the engines, then by the incredible momentum from their position halfway down each wing once a good rate of yaw is established.
On another occasion, the Meteor that had just touched down in front of him lost a wing (the pilot survived and blamed a burst tyre) and slewed into his path; in the somewhat underpowered Meteor, it was only just possible to open up and go-around and not descend onto the wreckage. No fewer than five pilots died in Meteors while he was with the training squadron so it was perhaps fortunate that James was assessed as almost-but-not-quite good enough at the close formation work the RAF required (much tougher at jet speeds and with the delayed throttle response of those early jet engines) and taken off further jet training.
Now one year into his National Service, James decided to apply for a five-year RAF Short Service Commission in the Technical (Engineering) Branch, the generous terms of which included a one-off payment at its conclusion of £1,500, easily enough to buy a house in those days. Meanwhile, the RAF sent him to train on the Vickers Varsity. This had two radial engines and gave him useful extra experience of piloting multi-engine aircraft.
His application was accepted and he transferred to Hendon in London and, aged 24, got married to Marjorie, the girl he had first met at university.
Initially the RAF gave him a desk job shuffling paper, but then sent him on a Technical Engineering Officer course. After that, he was posted to Kinloss, back in Scotland, in his new role of Aircraft Storage Officer in a maintenance unit. Soon he found himself supervising the somewhat melancholy business of seeing many aircraft in his charge (including Spitfires) sold for scrap.
Perfectly airworthy Spits went for £60.
However, James enjoyed the job, particularly when a film crew arrived in search of Lancasters for the making of The Dam Busters. The Air Ministry released the aircraft, but banned flying at night and it was James who suggested a solution by stopped-down, against-the-sun filming which would look exactly like moonlight.
With a year to go, James wanted to apply for a permanent commission but, with a toddler and a second baby on the way, his wife was becoming disillusioned by Service life and the prospect of further postings so, reluctantly, he began looking for a civilian job. His final RAF posting was to Coltishall in Norfolk, where he had some technical flights in a Javelin. Highly memorable, as one was in excess of Mach 0.9 at 50,000ft. He also had occasional rides in a Bristol Sycamore helicopter, rotary-wing aircraft still being quite a novelty.
One tempting job offer that came up had to be turned down for family reasons, as it meant emigrating to Canada, far away from Scotland. The late 1950s was a difficult time for the UK aviation industry, so James decided to look for a career elsewhere and went to a division of General Motors based in Motherwell, making heavy earth-moving equipment.
He stayed in this sector for thirteen years (1957-1970), through two changes of employer, working his way up the career ladder, raising a family and living in Scotland. For the first three years, money was too tight to afford flying, but at last he was able to start again as a member of the Glasgow Flying Club, hiring club aircraft, Bölkows and Cherokees at £5 an hour. It was there that he met Jane, who became his wife after his first marriage ended in divorce.
Jane was a graduate of Strathclyde University, working for accounting firm Arthur Andersen. She learned to fly at the club, getting her PPL in 1969 and she and James were both members of the club committee. The club was a lively place with a strong social life and excellent support from the commercial operator Loganair. James took her for her first aerobatic flight in a club Cessna Aerobat.
In 1970, James took up a wonderful job opportunity to set up a factory from scratch, making high temperature thermal insulation. The job, in a British/German multinational, paid much better than the post of MD of a Scottish engineering company, as he then was. It meant moving to Belgium, where he and Jane were to live for the next 21 years.
Jane quickly became involved with a committee serving the British expatriate community and was recognised with an MBE for her services, which included charitable work. James loved his new job and working abroad. “I was ambitious,” he remembers, “and keen to try new places. My family has always been wanderers. My father had several brothers; one died in Shanghai, another was lost at sea off the Great Barrier Reef, and a third was a mine manager in India. My only brother emigrated to New Zealand.
“Although the factory was in Belgium, it was clear from the start that I would be doing a lot of travelling, visiting other locations and going to see customers. One of the directors owned a PA-28 at Teesside Airport, and I think the prospect of owning a light aeroplane and using it for business was at the back of my mind from the start.”
When the factory was up and running, James submitted a costing for a company aircraft, but the German parent company said ‘no’. “Some accountant had read about a company in difficulties after two of its directors died in an aeroplane crash and they had a policy of ‘no company aeroplanes’,” says James. Undaunted, in 1972 he bought his own first aeroplane.
“It was an AA1 Yankee. I had been in negotiation with American Aviation to be a distributor; that didn’t come off, but I did get a good deal on the aeroplane.” Initially, Jane converted to a Belgian pilot’s licence, but let it lapse, preferring to fly as James’s co-pilot, navigator and radio-operator. After two years, the AA1’s short range, lack of luggage space and single passenger seat led them to upgrade to an AA5, which they operated from 1974 to 1988, when it was written off at Antwerp airport by a club member allowed to use it.
From the start, James did a lot of business travel. One trip, to Corsica and back, was particularly eventful. “I wrote my parents a long account of the flight and thought it might make a good magazine article, so I sent it to the Editor of Pilot, James Gilbert. He liked it and it appeared in the November 1975 issue.”
James Gilbert soon realised that James Allan could be a valuable contributor and encouraged him to write more articles. What a find!
A former RAF jet pilot, who had flown dozens of different aircraft types, had experience of formation, aerobatic, night, and instrument flying, had worked on aircraft and managed aeroplane maintenance in the RAF, was a highly-qualified engineer, and had been employed by several aviation manufacturers.
On top of all that, he wrote clearly, professionally and in an entertaining way and was constantly flying all over Europe, giving him first-hand knowledge of airports and hands-on light aircraft flying. No wonder James Gilbert encouraged James Allan to write. And no wonder Airlife soon persuaded him to author a stream of books, including a collection of short stories like the one I first read.
The first ‘How air-brained are you?’ quiz appeared in 1981 ? an impressive unbroken run of 35 years ? and James has been a Contributing Editor since 1993.
James decided to retire when he reached the age of 62 in 1990. Although Belgium had been a great place to work, Scotland beckoned for retirement. The clinching factor was finding the house for sale in Cellardyke, a charming little fishing village just up the road from Anstruther, the seaside holiday town which James remembered so fondly from childhood.
The Allan’s house is astonishing. Right on the edge of the sea and with a fine view of the Isle of May ? a bird sanctuary. The building, originally a factory making nets, oilskins and other fishing supplies, was converted into two generously-sized houses. James and Jane occupy the upper two stories and have a garage and small yard behind with just a wall and some rocks between yard and sea. In fact, the garage isn’t safe to use when there’s a strong onshore wind blowing sea water over the wall!
When he told him of his retirement and return to the UK, James Gilbert paid his travel expenses to London and stood him lunch at Groucho’s. “He said now that I was retired and would have more time, he hoped I would write more for Pilot.” And he did write more, also helping re-write and fact-check submissions by other people and generally keeping an eye on the magazine.
His books include Progressive Flying; Wings over Scotland; Going Foreign; Going Foreign VFR; Flights of Fancy; and Clearer Horizons. He is currently writing a flying autobiography and has a full-length book about aircraft accidents ready to publish (commissioned by a publisher who subsequently went bust).
His 1998 Pilot feature ‘All You Wanted To Know About Avionics But Were Afraid To Ask’ won him a Royal Aeronautical Society Aerospace Journalist of the Year award.
In retirement, after flying his own Grumman Traveler first from Dundee, then from RAF Leuchars and Glenrothes, he helped to establish an airstrip at Kingsmuir where it could be kept. The strip at Kingsmuir started with an advertisement in the PFA (now LAA) magazine about a possible new airfield near Anstruther. The advertiser told James that she hoped to found a strip on her father’s farm. He continues the story: “She said her father was dead against the idea, but she hoped to persuade him. She lived in Bracknell and had a share in an Auster and wanted to be able to fly home. Her initial planning application was rejected and she came to me for help. I organised an appeal and we won.”
In 2004, James sold his Grumman and formed a group with four friends to fly a Taylorcraft based at Kingsmuir. After a while the Taylorcraft was traded for a Bölkow Junior which, to Jane’s delight and astonishment, turned out to be the very same aeroplane in which she had flown her first solo. The Bölkow was in turn replaced, by a Socata Rallye.
However, on the 65th anniversary of his first solo, James took Jane up for one last time as pilot in command. He continues to fly in light aircraft ? and take the controls ? but these days only as a passenger and he has allowed his licence to lapse. “I’ve flown all these 65 years without seriously damaging an aircraft,” he says, “and with gradually deteriorating eyesight and hearing I decided it was time to quit while I was ahead and keep that record intact.”
In almost 4,000 hours, including three forced landings, the only repairs he was responsible for were the slightly damaged tips of a propeller.
Retirement is busy: James is a founder member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society ? he shared a dram or three during my visit ? has been a local councillor and continues to be involved in politics. He still goes hill-walking, and he and Jane go to concerts and the theatre and travel regularly, visiting James’s two sons, grandchildren and great-grandchild. With no plans to stop his monthly Pilot contributions, he is also completing his autobiography and looking for a publisher.
I had a sneak preview of the first few pages and can confirm that, like all his writings, it has the unique James Allan voice, a little Scottish in tone, a touch humorous, authoritative and accurate, always readable and above all, entertaining. And my word, does he have a story to tell!
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