To Fly, To Serve – the British Airways current campaign

I always promised myself that any blogging I did would be only concerned with professional, not personal, topics.  Today I am going to break that promise. Once and once only.

The current British Airways campaign video is absolutely stunning.  It tells the story of the company from its early days.  In doing so, it also tells the story of my father’s career.

Frank O’Hara joined the RAF before the war.  He was an absolutely typical ‘Brylcreem Boy’, as the new RAF men were known.  Six foot two inches, beautifully proportioned, with looks that were a mix of Cary Grant and Clark Gable.  And he could dance.  In later years, he and my mother would bring ballrooms to a standstill in countries across the world as people just stopped to watch them as they took the floor.

At the end of the war, he was demobbed and immediately offered a choice of jobs:  he could be an aeroplane accident inspector, based in England. Or he could be Station Engineer for British South American Airways, BSAA, in Montevideo, Uruguay.  Of course, he chose the latter.  Thus started a career that was at the heart of the development of commercial air travel in the 20th Century.

Over the next 35 years, as BSAA merged and became Imperial Airways, then BOAC, then finally British Airways, so he moved from Montevideo to Lima, Peru, then to Bermuda, Karachi, Beirut, Teheran, London and, finally, New York, moving roughly every three years, except in New York where he did the last 12 years up to 1981.    Looking at those postings now, it is clear that he was setting up the key BOAC hubs across the world.  When we were in Karachi, it became the busiest hub for the east.  As commercial travel developed, Beirut became the centre and so on.

In between postings, he would have to go back to the UK for every new plane that was invented to study intensively to get his licence for that aircraft.  At home, he was never off duty, and phone calls would come through in the dead of night when an aircraft was in trouble: the phrase ‘engine change’ was a familiar and dreaded concept in our home – often it meant that birds had flown into the engine and caused it to fail, which meant that Dad had to go into the airport and sign off the new engine installation before it was allowed to take off again.  In London, these midnight calls were more frequent  and, to some extent, more alarming, because he was responsible for a whole geographic section of the world – so calls would come in from Tokyo  or Barbados or Johannesburg and he would have to advise and authorise without actually going to the airport to see the work.  The family suddenly became acutely aware of how much responsibility he carried for life and death.  Earlier, in Karachi in the ‘50s, when things were much less sophisticated, he’d had a particularly tricky engine change.  He and his deputy, Jack Dady, were the only licensed engineers on the station.  They had got the plane jacked up on wooden crates so that they could lie on the ground under it to get access to underneath.  After a couple of hours of intense working, the crates gave way.  The plane crashed to the floor – Jack Dady was killed immediately but Dad rolled clear just in time, injured but alive.

I think he wore a uniform till the ‘60s, when we were in Beirut.  I still have his cap with the badge and its motto ‘To Fly, To Serve’.  In Beirut, he was no longer Station Engineer, but now Senior Technical Representative of BOAC.  I suspect my mother had a hand in the change of title! – it was, I think, part of the deal to get him to agree to go to Beirut where he not only looked after BOAC but also Middle East Airlines, then a relatively new start-up.  After Beirut, he went to Teheran during the time of the Shah, where I first started to hear about corruption – I seem to remember that Dad had a specific budget line for bribing customs officers to allow engines and aircraft parts to be delivered from London.   It was just normal practice.  And then to London, with an office based at Heathrow.  It was the time that BOAC and BEA, the UK’s European airline, merged and became British Airways, I think losing their nationalised status.  The culture of the two airlines had always been very different.  BOAC was the aristocracy, the world airline used by royalty and the stars, where service came first and money was barely a consideration.  BEA, on the other hand, was rather looked down upon, a grubby, penny pinching little airline with little aeroplanes (the Viscount, for heaven’s sake!) and no style, only operating in Europe.  I remember Dad coming back from the first staff meeting led by the new management.  He was amused, intrigued and shocked in equal proportion.  It was clear that things were going to change dramatically! Although I think BOAC management had retained the Chair and Chief Executive, BEA managers had been given the next management tier.  Dad, who was a devout Catholic and never, in our presence anyway, used anything remotely resembling strong language, recounted how the new former BEA manager had socked it to them all, with frequent recourse to four-letter words to emphasise the threats and challenges he was making, and deliberately piercing the complacency of the BOAC staff.  To his credit, I think Dad adapted well to the change – the sense of getting things done, of achieving things was always important to him.  He began to take a much closer interest in the practice of management itself and it was while he was in the London office that he and two  colleagues, John Barr and Hugh Gibson, made company history.  They were all engineers but they were the first in the company to make the formal transition to management.  It sounds so normal now but, in those days, it was extraordinary.  Ealing College had just introduced the first Diploma in Management Studies and Dad, John and Hugh signed up.   In one particularly ghastly year at home, I remember, my brother was doing O levels, I was doing A levels and Dad was doing his Diploma.  Of course, he worked harder than both of us put together and got Distinction in his Diploma.  It was a highly significant achievement, not least in finally satisfying my mother’s ambitions for him!  But he didn’t enjoy living and working in England very much.  Although he was promoted to Senior Staff, then a very important BA threshold, career-wise, I think he didn’t like the hierarchy, the bureaucracy and, above all, the greyness of England.   When the opportunity arose in 1970 to go as BA Manager for US, Canada and the Caribbean, he grabbed it.

In New York, it felt like the world had lit up again.  I took the opportunity to leave home and didn’t go to America with them, but I flew out at every opportunity.  Dad oversaw the building and opening of the first BA Terminal in New York – he then oversaw the introduction of the Boeing 747, the ‘Jumbo’ as it was known, to BA’s US routes and then, finally and gloriously, he introduced Concorde to America.  It was a time of huge razzmatazz, they were on every socialite’s guest list, they were invited to the reception for the Queen when she came to New York and life was fun.  On the other hand, work had its challenges.  It was mostly to do with the New York unions who, at the time, were legendary in their capacity to disrupt and cause chaos.  In the early days, time and again, Dad’s patience was pushed to the wall.  It seemed like almost every day, there were challenges to his authority, testing out the new Brit who thought he could manage things.  Looking back now, it seems almost impossible that people should have behaved like that – there was nothing to which they would not stoop.  Intimidation of staff was rampant.  Defiance, vandalism, theft, physical fights and worse – they tried it all.   But, in the end, they had met their match.  Not for nothing had the RAF squadron under his command in wartime Basra written out in the sand ‘Send O’Hara home’!   Dad was infinitely patient, intelligent, articulate and well read.  But he had originally come from the poorest part of Liverpool and the street fighter in him never really disappeared.  In the final coup de grace, he got the union leadership to agree to give him an hour on his own with the leading disruptive.  I should not relate what happened, but after that, there was relative peace at Kennedy and he went on to have 12 extremely happy and successful years there.   He founded the Kennedy Airline Managers Association, the first time there had been such cross-airline collaboration.  He was elected Chair for the first five years and was held in high regard by everyone.   When he retired in 1981, he was grieving the loss of my mother and wouldn’t go to UK for his retirement do.  So the Board of BA got on Concorde and flew out to him, to honour him as he deserved.  He was a great man in himself – but he was also a key part of their great history.

Anamaria Wills