International Jet Setter

It’s around 1986 and I’m telling my story of how I worked my way up the company in different roles.  Let’s continue.

Up until now we had been making the new Fibresand product in a very rudimentary way – I would precisely weigh out large bags of fibre, lots of them – then me and a couple of other technicians would stand by the sand belt and feed the fibre onto the sand from the bag as it went up to the mixer – it was very technical (not).   We needed to put on one bag of fibre every four minutes, and I would stand with a stopwatch shouting out the time “You should have used half a bag by now” – “Quarter of a bag” “New bag!”    How sophisticated.

Then one day, the boss says “we’ve got a little project for you”.  A new fibresand mixer was arriving at the quarry and they wanted me to watch how it was built.

Always up for a challenge, and any excuse to learn something new, I jumped right in.

The team of engineers arrived with a crane and I stood and watched them build up the machine, bolt by bolt.  There was one kind old guy who seemed intent on making sure I knew where every bolt went.  I even got to hold a spanner now and again.

IMG_2458Our first plant arrives and my journey begins…

Next the electricians arrived, and I got enlisted to help them run out the huge armoured cables out – I’d never done anything like this before and the electricians took time out to show me how to correctly put together the waterproof glands on the cables.  There were lots of cables – I soon felt like a fully fledged engineer.

The new plant was looking impressive.  A huge automated fibre feeder, two huge sand hoppers with vibratory feeders – a first for our company – a smaller compact version of our pulveriser mixers, all connected by huge conveyors,  it was a sight to behold.

Once the plant was built, it was time for the belt weigher company to fit an electronic belt weigher.  Up until now we had had to manually calibrate our fibre addition using a set of shop scales and a stop clock, but now it was all to be done electronically.  The weigher was fitted by a father and son team from a little place in Derbyshire called Wormholes (if you don’t believe me look for Peak Forest in Derbyshire and head west for a mile or two).   The dad, a nice guy with a glass eye, a passion for motorcycles and driving a huge Lincoln Continental, and his younger son, came down and again spent a lot of time showing me how the weigher worked, how you calibrated it, and the main problems that might be experienced.  Left me with wiring diagrams and all sorts of useful goodies.    The guy with the glass eye, Alan, would be constantly making jokes about it – for instance shutting his good eye to take a “better” look at something, or asking me to “keep an eye on it” for him.   Little did I know that I was forming the first of many enduring special partnerships and I hope friendships with Alan and his son Daren.

To be honest, I didn’t know why they were bothering to go to so much detail – it wasn’t like I was going to be running the machine, we had quarrymen for that.

The final day of assembly arrived and everything came together.  The mixer guys, the fibre feeder guys, the weigher guys, plus our engineers all turned up and we started up the machinery and produced our first Fibresand from the new plant.  They even gave me the honour of starting up the plant.  It took a while to fine tune the various bits of machinery but we were soon in full flow.  An exciting moment.

Then came the next task – take it to bits again.  And again I was instructed to stand by and watch, to make sure they got it all dismantled safely and loaded it back on to lorries to deliver to a mystery destination.  I was understandably a little confused by all of the secrecy.

IMG_2459
Loading the plant back on to trailers – but why?

At which point I was called back into the boss’s office.

“Did you see how the plant was built?” I was asked.  “yes” I replied. “I even got to tighten up some of the bolts”.

“Did you see how it operated?”   “Yes” I replied.  “I even got the chance to run it myself for a few hours”.

“And did you see how it was dismantled again?”  “Yes, quite easy” I replied.

“And do you think you have learned anything?”   “Absolutely!” I replied – I had learned about the principles of engineering, how steel structures were braced and put together for strength, I had a crash course in three phase electrics, learned about electronic belt weighing, and even had a good understanding of fibre debaling – useful if I ever left the quarry for a life in the textile industry.

“Good” the boss said “Because we want you to take the machine to Denmark and show a company there how to build it and operate it – You’re the only one who knows how to do it”.

Damn.   Conned and I hadn’t even seen it coming.  I am SO naive.

I had only been abroad once before and that was with Sue and Stacey to Majorca. This was different – this was a business trip.  An INTERNATIONAL business trip.  And it felt odd, heading off in a taxi for the airport without Sue by my side.  Perhaps even a little scary.    I was well out of my comfort zone, and all eyes (at least from the top) were focused on me.

It was the middle of January and it was freezing cold.  I flew from Birmingham to Aarhus in Denmark on a tiny little SAS jet,  hardly room for my huge blue Parka, a brand new coat that I had purchased just for the trip – I couldn’t really afford it but I didn’t have a decent coat at the time and I was warned it would be even colder where I was going.   I was collected by their rep at the tiny airport and taken to the production site.

They weren’t wrong about the temperature.  Denmark was awesome.  If we thought we had winters, they were like small snow flurries compared to Denmark.  The roads were sheets of white ice, no tarmac in sight,  The lampposts were coated in thick ice with icicles hanging from the lamps.  Fences, trees, buildings, totally white. And it was COLD.

Minus 15’C cold.

Image result for silkeborg roads snow

They had already built the machine from our plans so that saved me a job, and I quickly demonstrated how to mix the fibres, but that was it.  Apparently it was far too cold to work in winter, and the company basically did 12 months worth of work in summer, and then for the three winter months they would completely dismantle all their quarry plant, take it into large hangers and repair and paint it ready for the next season.   When we weren’t working on the plant they were proudly showing off their quarrying equipment and laboratory – which was far superior to anything we had back home.  It was the first time I realised that actually, we sometimes did things a bit “second best” back home.  A bit “Make Do”.   “On the cheap”.

In the evenings, my guide would pick me up and take me to the local restaurants, where I was treated to all manner of Danish delicacies, some bad, some good, including an excellent steak served on an oak platter with baby sweetcorn.  So, once my Fibresand training session was over, I was taken for my last lunch of Smorgasbord (hideous) before being quickly placed on a plane, this time a small propeller plane from Aarhus to Hull another first.  The views over the frosty Danish landscape were stunning.  I was in love with flying.

One of the technicians picked me up and drove me home, grumbling that he had pulled the short straw.

IMG_2537My little plane home. Below, the amazing sunset reflecting on the polished metal.
IMG_2536

Anyway the job was successful and I came home, having experienced my first business flight – although not business class.  But it was quite exciting, the flight was a prop powered small plane into Humber airport.

At work, I was becoming a bit of a celebrity – international business was not what we did, and suddenly I was a bit of a star – most of the other guys in the quarry were lucky if they made it past Huddersfield.  But our MD had a taste for the international stage and this was just the start.

The world had suddenly become MUCH bigger.

To be continued…

 

 

 

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