RAFairman's Blog

An RAF Airman's Blog


One of the first questions I get asked whenever I say I am in the RAF is “What do you do? What trade are you?”

This is a difficult one, particularly for me right now as I am working ‘out-of-trade’ as it is called.  As regular readers will know I joined the RAF back in 1987 as an Avionics Technician, however the last time I actually DID any techy-ing would be in 2001 when I left RAF Leeming’s Radar Bay to move to become an instructor at RAF Cosford.

And in so doing I left all that behind me. And I loved it. I loved being an instructor, and loved NOT working on aircraft, because, despite the huge sense of job satisfaction you would get when you see an aircraft you’ve just fixed take off, I didn’t really enjoy the techy work that much. It’s been almost ten years since I actually did any techy work…so long that I think I would struggle if I went back to working in a techy-based job now. I’d be worse than some newly promoted LAC straight out of Cosford after his training course had finished…I am so far out of the loop now, that when asked about my trade now, I often say “Avionics…Retired.”

All that getting mucky, covered in hydraulic fluid, aircraft engine oil, radar cooling fluid (a particularly nasty liquid called Coolanol) and all the other associated lubricating oils and greases, as well as other chemical compounds that were used about the aircraft – one was used to protect the leading edges of the aerials that stuck out of the aircraft that was the messiest, stickiest, nastiest, foul-smellingest thing ever, well, it wasn’t really for me.  There were days when the grime and the filth just wouldn’t come out of your hands at the end of the day…

Oh I put up with it, yes, but it was one of the things I didn’t like about the job…constantly smelling of AVTUR (jet fuel) isn’t the best after shave you can get. But working on aircraft is sort of greater than the sum of all it’s parts.  As I say, the reward of seeing a fast jet power into the sky, just after you have been called to work on it – engines running, aircrew expectant and slightly frustrated that something isn’t working, and you have cured their snag and they CAN go flying, that’s a fairly big buzz to be honest. You certainly KNOW when a Tornado takes off anyway!

And you know that you made that happen.

But often the fixing of aircraft is more about working long nights in a cold hanger (or even worse, outside in the rain) up to your elbows in aircraft, with the aforementioned dirt, oil, grease and gunge all over the place.

And of course then there is the design of aircraft.

Now they may LOOK sexy. They may look fast, sleek and shapely. Like, say a Tornado or a Typhoon is.  Or they may look like they have been designed to do the most obvious job ever – blow things up – like say, an Apache.  Or even a bit of both, like the Harrier, but one thing is generally common when it comes to the design of the aircraft.

All the good looks and ease of aircraft design has gone on the OUTSIDE of the aircraft.

Cos invariably, and certainly in the case of the Tornado, they are an absolute BUGGER to work on.  Avionics boxes are bolted to the walls of panels. There are connectors and cables secured in the most awkward of places where it’s impossible to get a spanner or cable spanner (if one is needed) into to undo or do them up.  The screwdrivers are too long to get in the gap to correctly fit into the heads of screws. Socket heads need to be cut down so they can turn, or else you find you can twist a ratchet on a spanner for just one click and then have to re-seat it to allow the next turn and click to be made.

Sometimes one box is bolted to another, and the box that fails the most is, of course, BEHIND the first one that needs to be removed for access. Or else a box is fitted behind someone else’s bit of kit, so you need to ask the ‘heavies’ to remove a hydraulic pipe or hot air duct before you can do your work…or one of the worst cases – behind the ejection seat!

I remember one particular box that formed part of the Aircraft Comms System. It sat under a panel on the top of the Tornado, just behind the air intake. Dead easy to get to. A few screws to remove the panel and then there it was – right in front of you.  Apart from the fact that it was positioned in the bay there just at the wrong position to allow you to sit, kneel or even lie on the aircraft surface to get any purchase on the screwdriver to turn the four screws and remove it. It was a simple job, made almost impossible by the design of the aircraft and the design of the box. Almost like the two designers had not talked to each other before they had done their job.

One night two of us were working a snag and decided that the box at fault had to be the item I had just told you about. We got the tools and set about trying to change the box. we could only really get in with the screwdriver to turn the head of each of the screws by a few mils each time, and it took nearly 2 hours to remove the first two screws.

I turned to Taff – the other chap on the team – and said, ‘You know what? This is a bastard task for a right-handed person, you’re not left-handed are you? I bet a lefty would be in straight away and would be able to turn these screws easy.”

“I’m not,” he said, but had a go anyway. Again, he managed a mil or two turns at a time. One or two threads appeared, but it was taking forever.

Of course it was a night shift and it was getting late. The Sergeant in charge of the shift was getting a bit annoyed and wanted to go home – and ours was the last job outstanding. “How long are you gonna be” he asked over the phone, and wasn’t that impressed when we said we’d not even got the old box out, let alone got around to fitting the new one…and then there was the functional test to carry out after, to make sure we had fixed the fault…

After another hour, where we’d not got much further on, basically because I had become frustrated and had thrown the screwdriver across the hanger at one point…and we’d gone for a morale boosting cuppa and a choccie bar, the Sergeant, Gordon, came in to find out what was going on.

“What’s taking you so long?” he asked.  We gave him the full brief on what had happened, and how difficult it was to take the box out. “Wheeeeesh” he said in his Scottish accent. He picked the screwdriver up in his left hand, positioned himself on the back of the fuselage and turned the screw and out it popped. “Easy. I dunno what yous two have been playing at…”

“Gordon…you’re left handed aren’t you?”

“Aye, what’s that got to do with it?”

“Nevermind…I just wish we’d have known you were left-handed about two hours ago…” said Taff as he passed Gordon the new box to fit for us…20 minutes later…we were on our way home.


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7 thoughts on “Avionics….Retired…

  1. Laura A on said:

    I guess the designer must have been a leftie too.

    Thank you for this insight into the work that goes behind the scenes. Most people probably never give even a single thought for what actually makes the planes fly. A lot of people think that all you need is a skilful pilot. Even though, and I’ve said this before in a comment, without the work of the ground crew, the even the worst pilot would not get anywhere near the plane, let alone fly it.

  2. Just been accepted to the University of York to study Avionics. Fingers crossed it’s not all awkwardly placed boxes and bad design flaws!

  3. nonnyjorris on said:

    Great blog … reminds me of my days as an apprentice at Hatfield. Learnt the ropes on a couple of Vampire T-11s at St. Albans College. Seem to remember that you needed to be able to dislocate your shoulders and elbows to get to much of the systems equipment. Also managed to cover the entire hangar with Red-Oil after opening the hydraulic reservoir without de-pressurising the hydraulic system … oooops. Maybe that’s why I became a designer … 😉

  4. John Douglas on said:

    Being, at least a bit, ambidexterous is a huge advantage…I’m a natural leftie but snapped my right arm when I was 4, at the point when I was starting to write and use tools…so I became right handed. But the left is always ready for use if needed; I’ve just come out of my workshop now, where I’ve been changing the rear wheel bearing on my 1982 Lotus Eprit Turbo…this car is every bit as awkward to work on as you describe!! I, too, am sitting here smelling strongly of paraffin – from parts cleaning… my days of flying things that go fast and slurp Avtur are behind me now!

  5. paul wilson on said:

    Excellent! Reminds me of my days as a flight systems tech on Lightnings at Binbrook. Does that make me sound old?

  6. Bob Waddington on said:

    I was a Radar Instructor at RA F Leeming on the 60 s

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