The Journal of the Friends of Sywell Aerodrome
No. 3 Autumn 1999
Sywell's Characters - 'ASH'
No. 2 in a series
by Chris Parker
One of the best remembered characters from Sywell's post-war years is, to give him his full name, Lionel Hector Tracy Ashburner- universally known as 'Ash'. Ash was Air Traffic Control Officer at Sywell from 1964 until his retirement in 1974 at the age of 75.
Ash's long aviation career started soon after he had reached his 18th birthday in June 1917, and enlisted in the Army as a 'Tommy'. He applied for a commission in the Royal Flying Corps, was successful, and started his flying training on 1st April 1918 - the very day that the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service merged to become the Royal Air Force. His progress was obviously rapid, as by August of 1918 he had himself become an instructor - initially on Avro 504Ks, and then immediately after the Armistice in November, on 2-seat Sopwith Camels, renowned as very tricky aeroplanes.
After being demobilised from the RAF in mid 1919, Ash went back to his education, and obtained an Engineering degree from Bristol University. Jobs were hard to come by in England in 1922, and Ash looked overseas - he was successful in obtaining a position as an overseer on a sugar estate in British Guiana. His adventures over the next eight years were legion, and culminated in an offer from his employers for him to spend time back in England to get a civilian pilot's licence to enable him to fly a company aircraft they were planning to purchase. Ash duly obtained his 'A' licence in January 1930 at Filton aerodrome near Bristol on de Havilland Cirrus Moths.
The company aircraft didn't materialise however, and Ash returned abroad - this time to Dutch Guiana - in April 1930. His responsibilities now switched to cattle ranching, and a further set of adventures including trying his hand at prospecting for gold!
By 1935 Ash was again in England on leave, and resumed his flying from Whitchurch aerodrome near Bristol on Gipsy Moths and Avro Cadets. Business problems with his employer next saw Ash embarking on full time gold prospecting, in the Guiana's and Brazil - yet more adventures together with modest financial success. In 1938 Ash returned home once more, this time with the hope of attracting backers to put his prospecting interests on a permanent business footing. He was not successful, and decided to remain in this country and make a new start in aviation. He first revalidated his 'A' licence, and then successfully applied for a post as an Air Traffic Controller with the Ministry of Aviation. After training for his controller's rating at Croydon, Ash was posted initially to Heston, then on the outbreak of war in September 1939 to Perth and later Dyce (Aberdeen). November 1940 saw Ash posted back down to Whitchurch - by then a very busy aerodrome with an Air Transport Auxiliary Ferry Pool, BOAC's and KLM's main operations as well as Bristol Beaufighter assembly and flight testing.
Ash applied for release from Controlling so that he could join the Air Transport Auxiliary full time as a pilot, but the Ministry would not agree to this - so he proceeded on the probably unigue arrangement of flying for the ATA in his spare time! The strain of controlling by night and flying by day eventually took its toll and Ash used to relate the story of the time he fell asleep whilst ferrying a Spitfire. He descended from 3000 feet and fortunately woke up at 500 feet just in time to avoid an untimely end for himself and the aeroplane!
The Ministry did, after much string pulling, eventually release him for full time ferrying and by the end of the war he had flown over 60 operational types including 16 marks of Spitfire and Seafire.
After the war Ash returned to controlling, serving at Renfrew, Turnhouse (Edinburgh), Gloucester, and Filton where he witnessed the test flying of the incredible Bristol Brabazon.
In the early 50s, Ash sought a new challenge and transferred to the then novel activity of airways controlling, being posted to the newly established Control Centre at Preston and participated in early use of radar, and the introduction of faster turbo prop passenger aircraft such as the Viscount.
Ash's ten years or so at Preston were enlivened by spells of volunteer postings to Bahrein, Cyprus, and Rhoose (Cardiff).
Following his 'official' retirement in 1964, he accepted a position as ATCO at Sywell - guite a change from his previous controlling experience as Sywell was relatively guiet at the time, and the majority of the locally based aircraft were nonradio. Over the next ten years or so however, he presided over significant increases in traffic, much greater use of radio, and from 1969 onwards the establishment of the annual PFA Rallies which were held at Syweli. Ash was very proud of the excellent safety record of those early rallies, which grew from a handful of aircraft to well over 600 visitors - all controlled by Ash himself with a small team of assistants.
Whilst living in Northampton, Ash energetically pursued his leisure interests - these included Bridge playing, trout fishing and violin playing. On at least one occasion he was heard to respond to a reguest over the R/T and deliver a few notes on his violin whilst the microphone was keyed by a willing accomplice.
Prolonged fine weather would bring Ash out onto the balcony of the control tower, clad only in his shorts and sandals, and happy to continue controlling with the microphone cable passed out through the open window! Normally, Ash was more sartorially correct and proudly sported his Royal Flying Corps tie - by the mid 1970s one of a dwindling band of those properly gualified so to do.
A constant companion for Ash during his lonely spells of duty on watch was his spaniel Toffee, whose recreation was to chase aircraft which invaded his territory close to the Tower. Fortunately Toffee kept clear of whirling propellers and made it to old age.
Ash continued to fly at Sywell whenever the opportunity presented itself - he flew group operated aircraft, ferried for Shackleton Aviation, and flew with several private owners who appreciated his great experience. He reached over 150 types in his log book, before problems with his medical finally occasioned his retirement from flying and controlling in 1974. Ash was truly one of life's and aviation's great characters. His aviation achievements were recognised by the awards of both a John Player Trophy, and a Paul Tissandier diploma of the FAI. Following his retirement Ash continued his association with Sywell whenever the opportunity arose. He was a founder member of the Sywell Aero Club and would try to visit us to enjoy social and flying events whenever possible. After a short period of ill health, Ash died in 1986.
Ash's son William himself obtained his pilot's licence at Sywell with the Northants Aero Club.
His widow Jade has retained her interest in Sywell as a member of the Sywell Aero Club and is an early and enthusiastic member of FOSA.