“People think, when you’ve broken the Land Speed record and raced super-balloons across the Pacific, that the world’s your oyster,” says design engineer John Ackroyd. “They are so wrong!”
That the designer of Thrust 2, the car that won back the land speed record for Britain in 1983, can be so often jobless and homeless adds to the tantalising quality of his book Jet Blast. It is the journal of a man who followed his boyhood dream, from plane-spotter to adventurer, and of the like-minded obsessives he met on the way.
It also chronicles the profound contribution to adventure made by the Isle of Wight.
We are pouring over John’s photo album which features the adventurers and entrepreneurs with whom he has spent a lifetime. Inevitably there is sadness when we come to pilot and balloonist Steve Fossett, whose disappearance on Sept 3 is still a mystery. “I phoned his engineer to try to get some news but he couldn’t speak, he burst into tears.”
John himself has flown from the point Fossett disappeared, hotel magnate Barron Hilton’s Flying M Ranch, 80 miles from Reno, Nevada. “You scream up with the thermals, and you’re thinking ‘slow down!’ But Steve of all people should know what to do in difficulty,” he says. The fact that Fossett was scouting for a dry lake bed on which to attempt a world speed record this month has chilling parallels to John’s story.
Brushes with those who dance with death have been bread and butter to John Ackroyd. The subtitle of the book, “And the Hand of Fate” is apt, since for all his engineering skills and design brilliance, it is the contribution made by the onset of bad weather, the break in the clouds, and the chance meeting of an old contact, which play as large a part in the success or otherwise of all the ventures.
John saw his first aircraft as a boy in India, where his father was serving as a British Army officer. “The sighting made a big impression on me and started an interest in aviation that was to shape my life,” he writes. From school he accepted an apprenticeship with Saunders Roe in East Cowes, builders of advanced flying boats.
In what proves to be a recurrent theme to John’s story, of projects which flounder through forces outside his control, the start of his apprenticeship marked the end of the market for flying boats. When in 1959 Saunders Roe was taken over by Westland, “the romance was fading and it was time to move out into the big wide world.”
John takes work on board a South African cargo ship, he hires out deckchairs back in Ryde, takes a job as an engineering instructor in Leatherhead, before finding a job as a Hovercraft designer with Cushioncraft in St Helens, part of Britten Norman Ltd. “The object was to design… a no-nonsense ten seat aircushion vehicle capable of operating over water, sand or swamp.”
The resulting CC7, which took to the beach and sea in 1967 proved successful. But the following year the company was sold off. Again, he was out of a job.
Marriage, to Swede Birgit, and birth of two daughters do not make for a less peripatetic life, which next sees him employed in Somerton Works in Cowes by a Greek shipping magnate, John Goulandris, one of the rich visionaries which punctuate this story. His dream is to develop electric cars, and John becomes the Project Designer.
The delicious lines of the dinky Enfield 8000 and the raunchy open plan Bikini were ahead of their time and designs of which John is rightly proud.
John Ackroyd’s ability to turn his hand to any kind of design, his courageous enthusiasm in embracing any task, anywhere, and his meticulous attention to detail are his unbending characteristics. The next chapters are a romp through the ups and the considerable downs of seeking the land speed record in a car designed and built on the Isle of Wight.
The story sees John responding to a press release:- “Wanted 650mph car designer”. It was placed by Richard Noble, now the land and waterspeed record legend but then merely a man with a dream and good contacts. Taking up the challenge – and designing the car in a Fishbourne kitchen – John sees the agonies of testing, hoping, failure and success of the Thrust project.
The seeming impossibility of the tasks is startling. “I still had not seen the Bonneville Salt Flats where we hoped to run the car, and our budget did not stretch to a visit that our sponsors might consider a “jolly”. I could only imagine the surface ‘grip and give’ of that vast dry lake bed….I would just have to use intuition to estimate the surface consistency, load bearing, cushioning, friction and tracking qualities.”
As well as being hampered by lack of funds, Richard and John and the team are subject to the diktats of nature. John’s fatalistic upbringing in India often resurfaces; he refers to Mother Nature and the spirit of the land as forces as tangible to success or otherwise as getting the mechanics right. Thrust’s first attempt is flooded out, the suspension is bent when the car hits a four-inch pit after an all-night session to reset the engine, and still they are not defeated. But then it rains.
‘Bouncebackability’ is something John has in spades. But it almost eludes the reader when, having seen him get jobs which fall through lack of funds, strikes or cancelling of orders, he is out of work through achieving exactly what he set out to do:
“As the celebrations died down, reality struck. The single-minded focus of six years’ work was gone, the goal had been achieved. The Thrust team who had stuck to their guns through thick and thin was now disbanded. I was out of a job and out in the cold.”
His mother had died, his marriage had collapsed and his house had been sold. But another small ad, this time for work on a round the world balloon, re-inflated his world. The Isle of Wight again plays its part in the story, with Island Plastics’ mould for a cess pit proving just the thing for a capsule shell.
So just when you have ridden the roller-coaster of Land Speed records, the book takes you on to the new journey of ballooning. Per Lindstrand and Richard Branson are the leading players now, funding and leading the development of the super balloons that are to take on the records across the Pacific and around the world, and John forges his links with Steve Fossett.
John, in his home in Ryde, is still living life in the fast lane. He has just returned from Miami where he is installing the latest in a series, world wide, of tethered pleasure balloons, and is about to disappear off to Romania to service one he made earlier. His Boys Own adventure is still going on.
Jet Blast, £29.29 plus p&p from www.redlinebooks.co.uk or www.amazon.co.uk