Air force

Air force

From its home in a hangar in the North of England a team of aviators jets off every day in search of adventure and new opportunities, as Andrew Mernin finds out.

Toilet roll, water and fruit.They are the bare necessities, as Ron Raison has learned from his time at Cobham Flight Inspection, which must be packed before embarking on a mission to Yemen.


You see, there is no such thing as a typical day at Cobham.
Flight inspectors could start the day on a cold strip of Tees Valley tarmac and finish it in the baking heat of Afghanistan, via a stop-off in Jordan.


While field trips for many business people involves conferencing in the Midlands and a night in a Travelodge, at Cobham, staff could be sent at relatively short notice to anywhere from South Africa to Kazakhstan, sometimes for weeks at a time.


Meanwhile, its military specialists can often be found engaged in war games, flying against Her Majesty’s finest and doing all they can with various gizmos and even chaff, to test radar and navigation systems to their limit.


From its base at Durham Tees Valley Airport, Cobham’s North East-based subsidiary is targeting growth of around 10% this year, after two tough years in 2009 and 2010, during which it reduced its workforce from 85 to 70 as European airport operators became increasingly squeezed in the recession.


The company is now in recovery mode, with annual turnover of around £13.5m last year – a figure that is likely to rise beyond the £14m mark by the end of this year.
At the time of writing, the company is also weeks away from discovering if, as expected, it has landed a £5m contract to work with the South African Air Force.


“I’m going to go out there at the end of February and we are moving towards them making a decision,” says Raison, the Wolverhampton lad who narrowly missed out on serving in Iraq and the Falklands during his RAF days.


“For the future, we are looking at expanding our presence across Africa, which we see as one of the world’s growth areas.”

Other recent contract wins for the firm include a £1m deal for work in Ireland and a £10m, four-year deal with the MoD to work on all airfields across the world where British troops have a presence.


Cobham has a fleet of four Beechcraft King Air planes, which are each valued at around £5m when kitted out with the required onboard equipment.


It has also recently invested close to £1m in a new Diamond model, which Raison explains is smaller and therefore a more cost-effective alternative for certain projects.


Before taking up his post at Cobham during the height of the credit crunch, Raison previously spent time in these parts when the military posted him to RAF Leeming in North Yorkshire.


He recalls arriving in the region on a bus which dropped him a considerable and muddy distance away from his new home.


“The bus driver told me he wouldn’t go any further. It was freezing cold, I was covered in cow shit and I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?’” By the time Raison finally returned north on Cobham’s orders, rather than the RAF’s, he was a successful sales and marketing man. In the early stages of his tenure the company avoided any recession-related turbulence – no mean feat against the backdrop of high street retailers and banks plummeting deep into the red.


In fact, so busy was 2008 that the firm was forced to turn work away from all over the world because of its limited number of aircraft. Then in 2009 the gloom of the downturn finally did clog up its engines.

“The recession suddenly hit and we were being told by the UK operators that they had lost 20% of their market, while Spain had lost 30% of its market,” he says.

“The only market that was holding up was out in the Middle East but nowhere else were they spending money on new equipment. A quarter of our business had been about new work and all of that had dried up.


“The military work is different because they budget for the next year and once the money is in there it is allocated, if they don’t spend it they don’t carry it over into the next year, so if they have committed to replacing all of their equipment, they will replace it. That said, if we check their equipment and it fails, they can struggle to find money to do additional checks.”

Currently in the Middle East, Cobham’s team is involved in a project to install 17 new instrument landing systems in Oman and 21 new radars in Saudi Arabia.  The company is also heavily involved in Afghanistan on behalf of the British, German, Italian and Spanish air forces, while another of its markets is Raison’s most memorable getaway – Yemen.
“Work out in the Middle East in summer is about 52°C,” he says. “Air conditioning on an aircraft works because it stays high. As soon as you get on land, or below 10,000 feet, the aircraft gets red hot. When we went to Yemen there was no water in the toilet, no toilet paper, and the restaurant only served meat and one of our team was a vegetarian.
“People think the job’s interesting, but it does get tiring.”

The sweat and sand of Yemen seems a far cry from Tees Valley in winter but its purpose-built facility on the site of Durham Tees Valley Airport has been home to the firm since a cost-cutting exercise saw it move north from Stanstead in 2005. With the airport suffering from a worrying decline in route and passenger numbers in recent years, and currently at perhaps its lowest ebb for some time, talk inevitably turns to the future.


And Raison is quite happy to ponder the elephant in the room; what would the company do if the airport did close? With the airport’s owners Peel Holdings putting its stake in the facility on the market at the turn of the year, uncertainty lingers over Cobham’s future on Teesside.

“We’ve pushed the airport’s owners to try and give us an indication of any potential purchasers and they are just keeping their mouth shut,” says Raison.

“They don’t want to put off anyone who is interested in buying it. We’d like to stay here and it would be our preferred location.” For now, even with the airport continuing to operate, its fading status as a transport hub has impacted on the way Cobham operates.


“It does matter that the airport is not what it used to be,” admits Raison. “A lot of our work is done during the night, for example with our radar work for the military, the guy will finish at 2am but they can’t get back in here because it’s only working till 12:30am.
Yes, we would consider moving but we are not going to move unless this closes.

“We keep an eye on things and talk to the guys at Peel in Manchester to try and find out what’s going on. We wonder what the heck they mean when they say ‘use it or lose it’.

“Does that mean we have to find new places to go?” But even if Teesside does eventually lose its airport, Raison is keen to keep Cobham in the North East, largely because of the need to keep his extremely specialist staff on board.

“All other local airports have come to us and said they’d like us to consider coming to them.
Newcastle has seriously offered.

“The big issue would be leaving and losing key people. If we were to lose people that would just kill the business. It is about not moving people too far and the closest airport is Newcastle.” Judging by the vast year planner that stretches the length of the Cobham HQ office wall, the coming months will certainly be busy for the team. Pieces of coloured card denote missions to Botswana, Tunisia and Portugal, although Raison admits that staff members who are young, single and unattached tend to get the lengthy gigs in sunnier climes. As the ex-military Midlander holds the fort on Teesside between trips to Europe and beyond, the challenge ahead is to find enough extra work to justify the continual expansion of its fleet.