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Pilot Profile: Bob Grimstead - The Compleat Aviator

PUBLISHED: 16:25 21 March 2017 | UPDATED: 16:25 21 March 2017

PIL Mar17 Pilot profile

PIL Mar17 Pilot profile

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Long-serving Pilot Contributing Editor Bob is a retired BA captain who has written about a huge range of aircraft and now displays the Fournier RF4D

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I first met Bob Grimstead at the Tiger Club back in the 1980s and immediately took a liking to him. He was so friendly and enthusiastic that I offered him a go in my Skybolt. It was only afterwards that I made the connection; this was the man who wrote flight tests in Pilot. Later, I read his account of importing two Champs from the USA in a container and another piece about the Bowers Fly Baby, in which he flew both the monoplane and biplane versions. Then and now, Bob’s style is easy-to-read, informative, modest (he keeps his presence unobtrusive) and, above all, authoritative. He’s one of the true professionals.

In later years, during my stint as Pilot Editor, we worked closely together. We were both passionate about what went into the magazine, and even though we were kindred spirits, there were frequent clashes. With other contributors I had to be careful what I said, but Bob and I were unique in agreeing to a ‘no-holds-barred’ policy. If he thought I’d been an idiot, he said so, and vice versa. It worked brilliantly. In those busy days, though, there were few opportunities to meet and I had never been to his home, nor asked about his history and how he got into flying.

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So today I’m driving down the A3 into rural Surrey to visit ‘Castle Bob’. He and his wife Karen live in a small village on a hill, and their house has commanding views over rolling countryside. The house is charming, built in the 1930s (it still has the servants’ bells in the dining room), with some dazzling decorative touches, the work of Karen, who is an interior designer and artist. The final stretch of my journey took me through a small town built around a stately home. It was filled with tourists, its winding streets reminiscent of a Cornish fishing village, I thought−what a nice place to have on your doorstep.

The Grimsteads divide their time between their English home and a second home in Australia. Karen, though born in the UK, spent most of her life in Australia, and Bob took a shine to the place. Commuting between the two countries avoids the miseries of an English winter and means Bob can fly all year round, lucky man.

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Bob and I sit in the living room. The tables are spread with a dozen books, all open to pages showing a classic piston-engined airliner in which Bob has just had a ride−research for a forthcoming article. I begin, as I always do by asking when and where he was born; 1948, in Bristol. He spent his early childhood, though, in Twickenham. Bob’s father was a Customs and Excise officer and Bob’s parents met when they were both working at the Admiralty. His mother was a clerk in the Civil Service.

I ask what kind of childhood Bob had.

“I was the oldest of three,” he says. “My sisters Susan and Sarah were three, and six years younger. Dad commuted to an office at Heathrow until I was ten, and then had to travel around a lot−he wasn’t at home much. I was always out on my bike and I’ve always had an insatiable curiosity about everything. When I was seven or eight I used to hang around the local fire station, and a year or two later I made friends with a gunsmith and started collecting books on guns. I was an avid reader, especially of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons and had a canoe when I was eleven. I was always outside in those days, always doing something. I was a Wolf Cub, and then, from eleven, a Sea Scout. I loved rowing and swimming. It was a tussle between the sea and air at that age, because I also joined the Air Cadets.”

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His first encounter with aeroplanes was being terrified by the Brabazon flying over when he was two. “Dad didn’t want me to have a phobia, so he took me to the airfield to see what it was that had frightened me, and see that it was wonderful, not frightening.”

Love of the outdoors caused problems at school. “I spent half my childhood being told off for looking out the window,” Bob remembers, “especially whenever an aeroplane went over.” He bicycled to school and regularly detoured past Heathrow to watch the aircraft. He also bicycled, or took a Green Line bus, to Redhill, Gatwick and Biggin Hill at weekends. “Mostly, I was on my own,” he says. “I have always found it difficult to bond with other people. Besides, other boys were spotters and only interested in collecting aircraft registrations. I wanted to know how aeroplanes worked and – even then – what different aircraft would be like to fly.”

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His first flight

When he was fifteen, he got a weekend job at Fairoaks, sweeping hangars and helping with refuelling. He also had his first flight in a light aeroplane. “I was at the Cadet Corps Summer Camp at Little Rissington,” he remembers, “practising on the rifle range. It was with some reluctance that I put down my .303 rifle when another cadet sent to fetch me said I was wanted to take my turn for an air experience flight. It was in the right seat of a Piston Provost.

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I saw the camp dropping away and thought, ‘Wow, this is fantastic’. And it got even better when I was given the controls. I had read about how to fly, had built and flown a control line model, so I knew what to do and found flying coming to me almost naturally. From that moment on, I knew for sure that I had to be a pilot.” The Provost flight was followed by another in a Chipmunk at White Waltham, in which first the pilot, then fifteen-year-old Bob flew loops.

“He pointed out things below, like an aircraft factory and the remains of the old Roman town at Old Sarum which you could only see from the air. It all helped to capture my imagination.”

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When he was sixteen, the family moved to Burnham in Buckinghamshire. Earlier that year he bought his first motorbike, “and I was off, utterly wooed away from everything else”. His school was Hampton, “a rather posh Grammar with a reputation for being good academically. I’m not the academic type and loathed it.”

Bob was going quietly off the rails as a teenager.

Through a school friend who was an aircraft spotter who had moved on to motorbikes, he discovered a group of rockers and spent his time with them. “We were all leathers and attitude,” he remembers, “but also we all did our own maintenance. I moved up the Triumph ladder, 350cc, then 500 and finally a 650. Meanwhile, I was coming close to the bottom in class in every subject and more often, last.”

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By now, at sixteen, he knew that he wanted a career as a pilot. “I assumed that meant joining the RAF and for that I would need to have five ‘O’ levels and two ‘A’s−and you were supposed to sit for three, preferably all science subjects. I told the school I wanted to study maths, physics and geography, but they said I was better at languages and insisted on my doing English, French and geography.”

“I should have thought you’d love English,” I tell him. Bob makes a face. “Bloody Chaucer,” he says. “The teacher fancied himself as a master of medieval pronunciation and he used to faff about, reading great long sections in a language we couldn’t understand. No wonder I looked out the window.” It wasn’t all bad; Bob joined the school rowing club and competed in small-bore rifle shooting.

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He applied for an RAF Flying Scholarship. “I passed everything but the medical,” he says. “The RAF was cutting back and getting choosy. Anything could fail you and in my case it was having dry skin, which I’d developed from chlorinated swimming pools. They said it could give trouble were I posted to a tropical climate. I was devastated until my form master pointed out that all was not lost. It hadn’t occurred to me until that point that there were alternatives and I could earn a living as a civilian pilot.” So Bob applied to the BEA/BOAC college at Hamble and was accepted, providing he passed his ‘A’ levels.

However, he still couldn’t bring himself to make an effort at academic work and continued to come bottom of the class. Eventually the Head Master summoned Bob’s father and said the school was wasting its time and Bob would be better off leaving. “Dad decided something had to be done and it was time he took me in hand.

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A change of job (he was promoted at this point) meant the family moving, but from then on he came home every night instead of his work keeping him away. He took me on a tour of Grammar Schools in the area and let me ask the questions. Burnham was the one I chose−I asked the Head how many school rules they had and he said, ‘just one: behave responsibly’.

The place I’d been to before had dozens in a book. Burnham Grammar was co-ed, so there were girls. It was much smaller and it had just been opened so there was no school tradition to weigh things down. They let me choose my ‘A’ level subjects, so I chose maths, physics and geography.”

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“So did that turn things round?” I ask him. “Just enough,” he says. “I got my ‘A’ levels, but only just. I was too distracted by the girls. I also discovered cars and the evening and weekend jobs I took to pay for them didn’t help.”

One thing I have observed about Bob over the years is that he’s a touch restless, not a great one for relaxing and sitting back. So it’s no surprise that while still at school he worked as a delivery driver for a butcher, as a labourer on building sites, and in a tote booth at a greyhound racetrack. No wonder he only scraped passes at ‘A’ level. Still, it was enough for Hamble, and he was accepted.

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A late starter

“The only problem was, what with having lost a year changing schools and other delays, I was nineteen by the time I started there. And I graduated just as a two-year bulge in pilot recruitment was dying away. Other Hamble graduates my age who got on with things walked into jobs when the employment market was booming. That meant that, as the shortage of pilots kept in step with them, they got commands after a mere five or six years. Whereas I, who had enjoyed myself with girls, alcohol and motorbikes, started work in a shrinking market with more pilots than jobs... and I had to wait 25 years to be a captain.”

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There was a nine-month gap between leaving school and starting at Hamble. “I spent it building a powerful motorbike in my bedroom,” says Bob. “And working as a warehouseman in a paint factory, which actually helped me out when, later on, I went to airline job interviews, because I had a demonstrated record of coping with long night shifts.” Incidentally, Bob at this stage had a lot of girlfriends. “I discovered at school how much I enjoyed the company of women,” he says, “but I somehow couldn’t quite get the trick of moving from conversation to bed.”

Hamble was a live-in, men-only college. “One bloke who got married while still a student there got expelled,” says Bob. It was an eighteen-month course with 225 flying hours. Bob bought himself a Ford Prefect to replace the Anglia he’d had before.

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Of his intake of 36, twelve flunked the course and he came halfway up, so he passed through safely. “My memory of it was that it was really hard work.” So at 21, like all his intake, he was assigned to work at BOAC. Typical of Bob, he discovered that the pay rate depended on flying hours, figured out he could make a profit if he could get in some flying cheaply enough, and spent the fortnight from graduation to starting work hour-building in Fourniers at Biggin Hill. While on the course, incidentally, he had got in some aerobatics, via a sympathetic instructor and a Chipmunk.

Then came his first takeoff in the right seat of a Boeing 707 weighing 150 tons. “That followed 160 hours in Cherokees, 50 hours in twins, 25 in Chipmunks and 15 in Fourniers. It was quite a jump.” But first there were three months of ‘talk and chalk’ in BOAC’s classrooms, followed by an exam... and twenty hours in the primitive simulators of the day. He got twelve hours of flight training in the 707 and began work as a Third Pilot... “which for the first couple of years meant mostly watching the other two, with occasional spells in the right seat. Then you stopped flying for a few weeks to take the ATPL exams”.

During those probationary two years, Bob kept up his Private Pilot’s Licence. In fact he was unusually keen, not only continuing to fly Fourniers at Biggin, but taking up gliding at Booker (Wycombe Air Park), and joining a group with an Auster J4 and a Currie Wot.

“The job did allow plenty of time for fun flying,” he tells me. He was away from home for around 150 days a year, plus spending around fifty days on standby. Typical was a London-Tel Aviv-Tehran-and-back roster with 24-hour stops between flights, or two-to-three week circuits to the Far East or Australia and back.

“It wasn’t particularly well paid,” he says, “Probably around £20-25,000 in today’s money, so I got a weekday job to supplement my pay. The flying was mostly at weekends. I made another £12,000 (in today’s money) through warehouse work and truck driving. I earned enough to pay for my parents to have a two-week holiday in Hong Kong; it was to thank them for their support and celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.”

So, aged 24, Bob had a fresh ATPL and two stripes on his sleeve... and it was at this time, in 1972, that he joined the Tiger Club, although he didn’t become fully involved in club activities for another ten years. Soon after this, BOAC and BEA became British Airways, the INS was introduced and that made third pilots redundant, so Bob was seconded to Monarch.

“It was a big culture difference. At BOAC, captains were ‘Sir’ or ‘Skipper’ and stayed in a better hotel. Monarch captains treated first officers as their social equals. Plus I got a lot more responsibility. Compared to the forty or so landings I’d done with BOAC since starting, I did forty with Monarch in just six months. It was probably the happiest period of professional flying in my career.

By the long, hot summer of 1976, I was living in a cottage I shared with four other Monarch pilots, working my socks off and loving it. I was doing almost no private flying then, but really got to grips with airline flying... and that did make my return to BA frustrating.” And being Bob, he allowed his frustration to show.

Nevertheless, “After a while I settled into a routine. I’d stopped having second jobs. I met Kay, a stewardess, in 1977. We got married, moved to the country and started a family. At this stage I was doing just enough private flying to keep up my licence, but no more. I was flying all over the world and made a point of visiting every destination in our route network at least once a year to broaden my experience and keep the job interesting−which it was anyway.

I get bored easily but airline work had plenty to keep me satisfied; different places every day, all kinds of weather to deal with. And I mean all kinds: extremes of hot and cold, sandstorms, snowstorms, monsoon rain. Plus I like taking responsibility and some captains let me do everything. And I love aircraft. Wherever I went, if they had a type of aeroplane or a kind of flying that I had not experienced, I would try it: ski planes, floatplanes, a Pitts Special in Los Angeles, a Tomahawk in Philadelphia, a Schleicher glider in Delhi, and a Blanik in Zimbabwe, for instance.

I saw different terrains like the Rift Valley in Kenya, rounding the Cape of Good Hope, and Toronto Island Airport in -25°C and blowing snow. I was in a cockpit or waiting to fly two-thirds of my waking hours and also spending 130 days a year sitting around, sleeping or propping up a bar stool. And then it all came to an abrupt stop.

“On Christmas Eve 1981, BA suddenly announced the shutdown of the entire 707 fleet. We had an eighteen-month-old son and a baby on the way and suddenly I was laid up on half-pay. I told the Tiger Club my situation and asked if they had any ideas for cheap flying. And they suggested the Turbulent Display Team, which I joined. Also at that time I bumped into someone who was a rep for a new kind of aeroplane called a microlight. He offered me a flight−it was a Huntair Pathfinder−and I was so impressed I sat down and wrote an article about it and sent it to Popular Flying. That was my first published article and really got me started.”

After a while Bob took up the option of employment as an airline steward, which lasted for six months. “I enjoyed it and it made me a better captain, when I did go back to my old job in 1982. I got to know the customers and also it gave me insight into what it was like for the cabin crew.”

Now fully employed again, and thoroughly enjoying his display flying with the Turbulent Team−which he came to lead in 1983−Bob bought his first aeroplane, a Turbulent. Then he wrote his second aviation article. “In 1984, the team was down on bookings. It was its 25th anniversary and we thought a piece in Pilot might help. So I wrote one with another team member, Bob Downing. James Gilbert sent it back with a request for more anecdotes and then published it. That was my first appearance in Pilot. I had been reading the magazine since 1969.”

Between 1982 and 1985, Bob flew short haul out of Gatwick on 737s. But in 1986, he was flying the bigger 747 and was back to long haul. “At this point I began to think display flying was irresponsible, with my often being jet-lagged and having a young family, so I left the Turbulent Team.”

By then his marriage to Kay was deteriorating. “We had two children together−James, who’s now 36 and First Mate on windfarm support vessels and Lucy, 34, who works in foreign exchange in the City. They both enjoy flying and we had some family holidays in the Tiger Club’s Jodels. I flew a display with Kay stood on the top wing of a Tiger Moth−which made another article in Pilot. However, things gradually turned sour and we were increasingly arguing. Airline work and marriage don’t mix terribly well and it brought out the fault lines in our relationship.”

In 1988, he and Kay divorced after ten years. “I had to pay maintenance, and even on a senior first officer’s pay things were tight, so I looked to writing for aviation magazines as a way to supplement my earnings. Also, I was increasingly fed up with having nothing constructive to do during layovers. Writing was the answer.” He sold the Turbulent and bought a Champ, mainly because the Champ would be suited to taking air-to-air photographs for flight test articles.

Over the years he’s written more than 250 articles for Pilot, mostly flight tests, and as a result has flown 240 different types, ranging from a powered parachute with a 25kt cruise speed to a BA Hawk at Mach 0.99. He later bought a Maule for air-to-air photographs of faster subject aircraft and for its four seats, as against the Champ’s two. “That way I could take a formation pilot and photographer to the shoot,” he explains.

A few years after the divorce, he married Karen. “I met her as a passenger; she was one of eight personal assistants on a promotional trip and I was the first officer, told to make them especially welcome. I was struck by her looks, her intelligence and her extensive interests: decorating ceramics, stained glass window making, interior design and more. She opened up unfamiliar areas for me and vice versa. She has subsequently done a ‘safety pilot’ course in the family Maule, nowadays she takes most of our air-to-air photographs and she’s even written a couple of articles herself, but Karen says there’s only room for one pilot in the family.”

Bob finally made captain in 1995 and retired from BA (but not from other work) in 2003 after 33 years. “Looking back, it suited me perfectly,” he says. “Short haul could be a bit repetitive, but long haul, taking 400 people 7,000 miles is endlessly varied. I never got bored, and for much of that time it dovetailed nicely with my parallel career as a writer. The others killed time drinking in bars and I first scribbled in school exercise books, then tapped away at a manual portable typewriter−bought for a fiver in a charity shop. It was noisy, so I worked in hotel lobbies or business suites.

Later I bought a Sharp portable electric typewriter cheaply in Hong Kong, which was OK in my room, provided I rested it on a folded towel. Next an Amstrad at home and a weighty not-so-portable for when I was away. Some of my best writing was done through the night when I couldn’t sleep−inability to sleep when you want to being the bane of the jet-lagged long haul pilot. Finally Australian Aviation gave me a Dell laptop, which I still use today, although for the past fifteen years I have mostly written at home because the fatigue from airline flying in later life made me too tired to be creative when I was away.

Flight tests and photography

“Originally on test flights I made laborious notes in pencil on a flip-top notepad, but later followed CAA test pilot Bob Cole’s advice and printed out pro forma sheets with appropriate annotations so I just had to fill in the blanks and numbers. Also, at his advice I bought an Olympus Pearlcorder, threading its extension microphone into my headset, so that I could record my verbal observations. I have a drawer full of old tapes as souvenirs, should I ever wish to re-live any of those flights. At first our neighbour, good friend and professional photographer Mike A’Court took most of the air-to-airs, but latterly I’ve taken my own photographs whenever possible. Either that, or Karen did the photography while I flew either the photo ship or the subject aircraft.

“For years I used an early Olympus OM-1, and then an OM-2 and later also an OM-2N with motor-drive, for which I had a whole suite of heavy lenses from wide angle to telephoto, although the fixed 80mm focal length was the one we used most in the air. Just before retiring I bought a Canon EOS400D with zoom lens, which gave way to a Nikon D7000−and now an Olympus OM-D M5.”

The annual move to Australia started in 1998, when a near-forgotten investment in Standard Life matured, producing just enough to buy a three-bedroom bungalow in a suburb near Perth airport. There was even enough left over to buy an old used car and a half share in a Bowers Fly-Baby.

Aerobatic displays

Bob began flying aerobatic displays in his Fournier in 2005. “As a teenager, I hero-worshipped Neil Williams and wanted to be an aerobatic ace like him. A friend in Australia had a Fournier for sale and I remembered seeing the Skyhawks and thought it would make a good, affordable display machine, so bought it. I had some aerobatic instruction, but didn’t really get to polishing my manoeuvres until I read Alan Cassidy’s book, Better Aerobatics.

I won a local aerobatics competition in 2005, partly because I was better prepared for the strong crosswind, knowing it was the Fournier’s Achilles Heel, the aeroplane being relatively slow. The breakthrough in getting display work was to fit coloured smoke canisters to the wingtips.

Another break was being recommended for a Red Bull air race display by Mike Dentith, who had flown with the Skyhawks and was Nigel Lamb’s PR man. Once I was joined by Matthew Hill in his Fournier for a duo display things got even better.”

To date Bob has flown 151 displays, around thirty with the Turbs, seventy solo aerobatics and fifty more in formation with Matthew. Unfortunately Bob’s British Fournier was, for a long period, illegally withheld, limiting his display flying in the UK over the last three years. “Still, it’s an ill wind,” he says, grinning. “It gave me more time to write articles for Pilot.”

Bob is a rare combination. At first sight, he’s ‘Action Man’, lean, fit and always on the go (he also sails), not the kind of person to be contemplative or waste time on detail. Yet I know from many conversations and email exchanges that he analyses everything. He prepares meticulously before writing or flying a new aircraft. And he is a self-confessed nit-picker when it comes to text, so much so that the magazine pays him to provide an extra layer of proof-reading. He is extraordinarily good with people, yet he is also a rather private person who says that as a child he found it difficult to bond. If that was true then, it’s a weakness he has overcome – he’s a chap I feel close to, and I know many others feel the same. Given his rather unpromising schooldays, Bob is a self-improver par excellence. And he does have the most striking pale blue eyes.

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