When doing interviews and research for BEAST, I compiled massive amounts of material that simply didn't fit into the finished product. A lot of that material was very interesting - or extremely funny - so I thought I'd share some it here.
First up are some of the funniest stories about Paul Morgan, co-founder (and the "mor") of Ilmor. Morgan played a huge role in the success of the project, but was tragically killed while flying one of his vintage war planes. However, his love of flying those aircrafts produced many great stories. (Photo above is Paul with his beloved Mustang P51D fighter plane - as featured in chapter 1 of BEAST.)
ROBIN PAGE (Ilmor engineer)
I went flying with Paul in his Mustang, and we were doing some aerobatics and went through a big cloud. We were chatting afterwards and I asked him, “How do you know that you’re not going to hit something when you’re going through a cloud?” You know there’s no radar on his P51D, and I wondered how that worked.
He said, “Robin, there are a few things you need to bear in mind. First of all, the sky is a bloody big place, so the chance of hitting something is really, really miniscule. And secondly, why do you think I put in so much time for the church spire restoration? I think I’ve bought a spot up there. And finally, fuck it! Who wants to get old and play golf?” He was a bit of a daredevil and knew the risks.
LIZ MORGAN (Paul’s widow)
He would test himself to the limit: driving, flying… Well, flying he was pretty careful. But he really did take risks.
We’d all been with him on what we called ‘low level flying,’ which was Paul driving a car. I was with him when he was overtaking a car and a caravan all in the grass on the wrong side! I said, “What if there had been a bicycle?” “Ah… yeah.” was his response. There were many people reluctant to get in a car with Paul. I don’t think he thought he was being wild, I think he thought he was doing things in a safe manner.
The [Sywell] airfield was prone to water-logging. To the point that people would take photos every year of the ponds with ducks on them in the middle of the field. Of course, if you have big, heavy airplanes, that’s quite an issue. Generally, the runways were pretty well drained but getting to them was a huge problem. Obviously the airfield staff don’t like huge furrows being cut across the airfield. It was a constant battle. You have a five-ton airplane and wheels that are no more than a foot wide.
Dad would go to the tower and say “Right, Frank. I’d really like to fly the Mustang today.” And Frank [Bird] would say “No, it’s way too soft.” “Well, can I fly the Harvard then?” “No Paul, it’s way too wet for that. You can fly the Chipmunk, but that’s the limit.”
These arguments would be very, very frequent, so eventually he decided that the only way to convince the tower to let him try was some scientific method of showing that the ground was fine. So, he built this thing. (Liz Morgan: “Oh yes, the pogo stick.”)
It was a stainless steel cross, with a conical, machined-end to it. And it was all beautifully made. The steel had balls on the end of it - very ornate. And then the cone had several rings on it. And the number of rings you got up to would tell you how soft the ground was. What we used to do was… well, you needed two people to operate it: one to hold it and then he would stand on it. It was allegedly ‘calibrated’ to his weight, which was complete fiction! So, I would hold the end of it and he would put his feet on it. But he would insist we walk around and find the hardest ground! Then he would troop into the tower and say, “Look, it’s only up to ring number seven - that means I can fly the Mustang.”
You can imagine there were lots of rolling of the eyes, but it did go some way into them capitulating. And we did get stuck in the mud so many times. He wouldn’t just stop and let sometime tow him in. Almost every time, it would be throttle flat until it pulled itself out. The whole time, the tail would be doing this [makes fast, wavering motion].
He was a funny guy and lots of funny stories that he used to tell about his flying and racing. His safety briefing on the Mustang was just stupendous. That was another ‘Paul Morganism.’ When we were going up in his Mustang, we were sitting on the apron at the airfield with the big ol’ Merlin engine chugging over and it was just beautiful.
He said, “Before we get going, let me give you a safety briefing. If things look bad, the first thing you’ll probably see is that I’ll eject the canopy. If we have time, I’ll put the plane upside-down. You have two buckles in front of you. One is the seatbelt, the other is the parachute. Make sure you pull the right one. Pull that and then pull the rip cord on the way down and you’ll be OK. Most people get hit by the tail fin of the airplane, so do try and get clear if you can. That’s why I’ll turn the plane upside down. If it’s really bad, like a big fire or something, the canopy will be gone and I’ll be out. Just do your best to miss the tail. But if it’s not too bad and I think I can land but there’s a good chance of a crash, if I think I have a chance, I’ll eject the canopy and you get out and just leave me to try and get the plane down. But the most likely scenario is that the weakest link in the system is me, so if I have a heart attack or trouble of some sort, the pull cord to eject the canopy is here (pointing to the very front of the cockpit). You can’t reach that. So, just enjoy the rest of the flight!”