Backstage with Alan Haile

Backstage With Alan Haile
Backstage with Alan Haile

Saturday 24 October marked the 17th anniversary of the Concorde’s final commercial flight at Heathrow airport. This week, YTL Arena go backstage with Alan Haile - someone who knows all too well about the Concorde, having worked at iconic Brabazon Hangars on Filton Airfield, where he worked his way up to airport manager. Here, Alan shares his Concorde memories, some of the famous faces who landed at the airport, and more!

How did your career on Filton Airfield begin?

My first day at Filton, after leaving the Navy as a qualified electrical mechanic, I walked into the centre bay of the Brabazon Hangar. Things were very different then with all the shop floor staff having to clock in and out each day. You also had to clock when one task was completed, and you started another.

The personal lockers where you kept your overalls, these were provided by the firm, and your tools which you provided yourself, were all on the floor around the different aircraft that were being worked on. No tea rooms or tables, you had to lean against your locker and buy tea from the tea ladies’ trolley at break time. If you wanted lunch then the canteen was for shop floor staff only, there were separate dining rooms for office staff, which was self-service and management which had waiter service. Different times.

Drone footage of the Brabazon Hangars, 2019. Image by JMP.

I had to report to the foreman’s office where I was paired with a chap named Dennis who was a great guy but had an extremely loud voice, and I am sure ate a pint of gravel for breakfast every morning. First job was in the engine intake of Concorde which is tight enough for one person let alone two, especially my size. We completed that job the next morning and we were asked to move over to No.1 flight shed (which is the building on the left as you enter site from Flight Operations) to work on the testing of intakes, wings, fuselage and equipment of Concorde and other aircraft. I didn’t work back at the Brabazon again for about two years.

Inside the Brabazon Hangars, 2019. Image by JMP.

My career had been varied over the years working back in the Brabazon Hangar as an electrician on the BAE 146 (Regional Jet) VC10 and Airbus A320 both at Filton and in Toulouse. During these times I was promoted to foreman and moved to work in the detail shops and then onto F111’s where I was promoted to manager, working in the west and centre bays of the Brabazon and also spent some time in California working on a large electrical modification of the aircraft. After the F111 contract completed I moved to VC10 tanker conversion as manager of the ground and flight testing of the aircraft including delivery to the RAF. This meant I spent a lot of time working with the Flight test crew and Flight Operations. When the last VC10 was delivered I was offered a role as facilities manager on the airfield. The facilities side of this role was understandable, managing and maintaining the airfield equipment, runway and taxiways. I was also required to learn and gain experience of the CAA rules and regulations regarding commercial airports which sent me on many training courses around the country to gain the correct qualifications and eventually I was able to take over as airport manager a couple of years later.

What are your favourite memories of Concorde?

My career at Filton started after the production days of Concorde so there used to be the occasional fly in for modifications and checks from British Airways, and there was one test aircraft which was based at Filton and regularly flew on its test programme. This meant I sometimes worked on the aircraft when it was on the ground. I never did fly in Concorde which I am disappointed about. I did get one opportunity but missed out because I did not have my passport. Ah well!

My first real experience of Concorde was one Saturday morning. I was in on overtime and had a job on the Concorde test equipment. However, the flight test crew decided that they wanted to complete a flight test that day and the guy who pre-flighted/prepared the aircraft for flight was not in, so the job was handed to me. Everything was written down in order so as long as I followed the job sheet then it was seemingly easy, but to walk into the cockpit and came face to face with the array of dials and switches was quite unnerving. However, the job was completed, and the aircraft completed its test.

When I moved to the airfield, one of the regular operations were Concorde flight experience trips that were arranged by a local travel agent. This involved check in at Filton and then a quick flight (about an hour) out over the coast into the Atlantic. We called them trips round the bay. These trips were always at weekends and bank holidays as the aircraft was hired from BA when not on the regular business route to New York etc.

Of course, with Concorde operating at Filton (there were usually three trips per day) this caused much interest from the local community and aircraft enthusiasts. There would be quite a few grouped on the A38 by the airfield fence to get the best view they could.

On one occasion I noticed that there were quite a few families and some enthusiasts that had been at the fence line for a long time trying to get a good picture. As Concorde was parking overnight ready for trips the next day, the airfield ground crew were securing the aircraft for the night. I decided it was an opportunity for some of these families to get a close up view so I popped out and walked about 30-ish people down to Concorde to get some good pictures which was much appreciated by all. I was pleased I could give a few people the opportunity to get close to such an iconic aircraft.

I would point out that this was well before the awful events on the twin towers which changed aviation security forever. Again, different times.

The decision to retire the Concorde fleet was a sad day for aviation and there were many discussions with BA on what the plan would be for the now defunct aircraft. An agreement was reached with the Bristol Aero Collection and Airbus that the last aircraft built at Filton would be flown back to its home of birth to be managed by Airbus and the museum. To this end myself and the air traffic manager at Filton went to Heathrow to discuss the flight plan and arrival. I was concerned that just flying into Filton would block the roads around the airfield and not really give the residents of Bristol and surrounding area any view of Concorde flying for the last time. I suggested that we had the opportunity to fly over most of the area taking in the Clifton suspension bridge and SS Great Britain in a nod to other great engineering works by Brunel and the history of Bristol. This was excepted as the plan and the team at Filton worked long and hard to get helicopters to film the flight and of course get the iconic film of Concorde flying over the Clifton Bridge. Also, the team had to ensure that areas to view Concorde at Clifton and Weston Super Mare were in place, that the roads around the airfield were policed as well as inviting people to the airfield to see the arrival. It was a sad day, but I have lasting memories of working with all involved from the pilots, British Airways, CAA, Air traffic control, ground crew, caterers, TV, radio, Airbus and BAE Systems staff and of course the Aero Collection. As it turned out there were so many wanting to view on the A38 that the road was closed, and traffic diverted. A sad day for Concorde but a great day for Bristol. My thanks to all involved.

Concorde flies over Clifton Suspension Bridge for the last time. Image by South West News Network.

Do you have any industry stories you can share with us? Did you come across many famous faces?

As an electrician I worked with other electricians installing cable looms and connecting to equipment on the BAE 146 fuselage (later the BAE regional jet). There is one in the centre bay. We used to have good fun working together and referring to songs that boost my mood, I remember a few of us used to sing along to the radio. One in particular which we sang at the top of our voices was Poison Arrow by ABC. This was guaranteed to get the rest of the guys on the fuselage to tell us to shut up!

Our other immature entertainment for the day was to superglue a £1 coin near the walkway on the shop floor in full view of the fuselage. The whisper would go around that someone had walked past and noticed it. Then our fun began. It was worth losing the money just to see the inventive ways people would use to get it up off the floor without anyone noticing. They would bend down to tie a shoelace, try kicking it with the back of their foot whilst reading something, drop tools and try to use screwdrivers and eventually when all else failed, throwing caution to the wind, hammers. Hilarious, well, it was for us.

I have many memories similar to this, like using a two-foot-long plastic lizard placing it on a stone or in grass near the apron and telling someone (usually new apprentices on the job) it was seen jumping out of a recently arrived aircraft. It was their job to find it and catch it if they could but beware it could be dangerous. They were given a sack or net to throw over. Much mirth was had watching them quietly sneak toward to beast ready to throw the sack only for one of us to walk over and pick it up saying thanks.

There were many famous people that used the airfield. Most of the Royal family have used the airport at one time or another. I have been introduced to Princess Anne a couple of times. A very lovely lady.

In regard to stars using Filton I respected their privacy, but I did get a couple of autographs, especially Peter Gabriel as I am a huge Genesis and Gabriel fan, and Jools Holland who I have seen a couple of times in concert. Other names of note that I can remember are Robbie Williams and Van Morrison. One thing for sure is that if Bristol had a great Arena back when the airport was open there would have been a lot more.

What are your favourite things about Bristol?

Bristol is now a great city to live in with top attractions like the Clifton suspension bridge, the aquarium, Aerospace Bristol and the SS Great Britain. Lots of historic buildings, especially around the harbour and Clifton area. These have always been the places to go. For me my favourite thing is to take a wander around the harbour with its museums, historic waterfront, cafes, bars and restaurants. There is always plenty to do throughout the year either with organised events or just passing the time with a leisurely stroll. This area has been the focus for lots of people in and around the City.

Alan now hosts tours of the Brabazon Hangars, future home of YTL Arena Complex! Image by JMP.

How excited are you for Bristol to have an arena?

For me the sight of the Brabazon Hangar is as iconic as the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Both are full of history and are attractions in their own right. The Hangar now has the opportunity to burst into the 21st Century and become the premier entertainment complex in the UK. I can’t wait to see what acts and events will be brought to the Arena and the benefits the Arena will bring to the Bristol area.

Quickfire question: First gig, last gig, favourite gig?

Hmm it’s a long time ago. I was a bit of a rocker back in my youth. It’s between Led Zeppelin, Hawkwind or Status Quo. All were great and my ears still ring to this day.

I have always liked all types of music from reggae to hard rock to classical. However, I have mellowed slightly over the years and my last gig was the farewell tour for the folk band Bellowhead.

Favourite gig? Hard to choose. Genesis were amazing, so was Eric Clapton. Bellowhead are good entertainment but I think my favourite would be the blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa. Seen him 4 times now and can’t wait for the touring to start again. Check out Sloe gin to get you in the bluesy mood.

Can you name a song that can instantly boost your mood?

There are so many songs but if I had to choose it would be ‘I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’ by Nic Kershaw. I had just spent the night, and much of the morning with Kath (my wife) in the maternity ward in Bristol for the birth of our darling daughter Frances. I was walking on air back to the car and this was the first song I heard on the radio. I made sure I had that song in the car for the birth of our son David. Every time I hear this song it instantly takes me back.

And finally, can you share an all-time favourite song/ a song that means a lot to you so we can add it to our YTL Arena Backstage Pass playlist?

Without too much deliberating I will go for Whole Lotta Rosie by ACDC. Get your air guitar out and ROCK!

To listen to our Backstage Playlist on Spotify. For exciting updates at YTL Arena Bristol, follow @ytlarenabristol on social media or sign up to our newsletter