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N.G.T.E. - Family Recollections

My father, Leslie Knight, was demobilised from the RAF in May 1946 and worked for a small engineering company until February 1947 before getting a job in the Civil Service and taking up an appointment at the newly nationalised Power Jets Limited in Leicester, the company originally founded by Frank Whittle who had invented the jet engine more than ten years earlier. I remember his boss’s name there because it was somewhat unusual, Roxbee Cox. Dad lived in Leicester for a short time before transferring to the National Gas Turbine Establishment at Pyestock, near Farnborough, in Hampshire and for a while lodged in nearby Frimley whilst returning home only at weekends. After two years of commuting he and his young family moved to the newly built Minley Estate in Farnborough from which N.G.T.E. was within easy cycling distance which allowed Dad to come home for his lunch.

The main entrance to N.G.T.E. was in Ively Road which followed the western boundary fence of the airfield at Farnborough. There were other gates hidden in the woods known only to nearby residents and employees but the main one was dominated by two large water cooling towers, known to local children as ‘the egg cups’. This area became known as ‘the Old Site’ as N.G.T.E. entered a phase of rapid expansion and the ‘New Site’ was developed.

Dad had several jobs while at Pyestock. I believe he started as a draughtsman but as he had qualified as an engineer and was a member of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and the Royal Aeronautical Society (eventually becoming a Fellow) he soon became one of Pyestock’s engineers. Of his jobs that I particularly remember, he looked after the establishment workshops, managed the Air House and, one he didn’t like at all, was the site’s civil engineer. N.G.T.E. having become a small town, needed a ‘borough engineer’ like any other.

As ‘borough engineer’ he was in charge of the site canteen and I remember how he inspected the kitchen and found it to be so filthy and grease covered that he ordered it to be closed down for a week to be thoroughly cleaned. Whilst there he also discovered why none of the children at the annual Christmas party would ever eat the jelly. It was made in a well used tea urn! Rather less amusing was the time a contractor digging up the road had not shored up the trench properly. It collapsed, killing the workman down the hole.

There were other fatalities at Pyestock, at least one person was sucked into an engine’s air intake while working inside one of the test cells. I once went inside one of those cells aged no more than 14 and the noise was absolutely deafening. Dad’s ear protectors consisted of a small piece of plastic shaped rather like a chess pawn and barely half an inch long that fitted inside his ear. Needless to say, Dad’s hearing was severely impaired by the time he retired.

The workshop job included responsibility for the apprentices. I recall there was a plan that they should make a small jet engine to put in a model plane but I don’t think it ever came to fruition.

The most high profile job was in the Air House and there is a full description of the work here along with a variety of photographs and technical descriptions.

Over the years there were a number of open days arranged for the press with a follow-up one for families at the weekend. I cannot distinguish one from another after all these years but among the things I saw was a gas turbine powered Rover car. This was taken to New York and I recall a British newspaper said it could run on refined orange juice. This may well have been untrue. Among the other sights were ‘pigeons’ (not real ones!) being fired into fast rotating engine compressor blades to see if they would break and there were tours around the working gas turbine power station which had been built to see if it was a viable proposition for general use in the country as well as to augment the establishment’s electricity suppliies.

By far the strangest recollection is one of a model commercial airliner, a BAC 1-11 unless I am very much mistaken, tethered within a large cage. It was equipped with a rotating tube-like structure above its wing, not unlike one of those rotating water sprinklers on old fashioned sewage tanks, and when compressed air was pumped into the tube and exhausted through a narrow slot, the aircraft took off vertically. What became of that idea I have no idea, but it seemed to work.

After getting one promotion too many, Dad was sent to the ministry H.Q. in London and was heavily involved in Concorde development.

My sister Rosemary also worked at Pyestock after leaving Farnborough Technical College until 1971 when she too transferred to the London H.Q. She was secretary to various scientists and engineers at Pyestock among them Mr. A.R. Howell, Len Islip and Dr. Ian Cheeseman who was in charge of ‘Vertical Take Off and Lift’ and presumably responsible for the strange caged airliner but they wouldn’t let her be the Director’s secretary only because her father was too closely associated with that position. One of the reasons that caused her eventually to leave.

Information provided by Malcolm Knight 3 September 2007.
Rosemary has subsequently provided more information about the V.T.O.L airliner project. 24 September 2007.