While watching a TV programme about the early days of civil aviation I found myself thinking about my old friend John “Slim” Gregory. That in turn reminded me of a conversation I had at Cashmoor on July 18th at this year’s poorly attended Slim Gregory Memorial Day. The question, from a newish member, was “by the way, who was Slim Gregory?”.
What a good question. Slim was a real gentleman, with a ready wit, a steely eye at times, a generous heart, a wealth of experience, amusing anecdotes and a loyal friend. It was typical of his sense of humour and self-deprecation that, as slender as he was when I knew him, he took pride in showing off a photograph of himself in his well stocked bar which made it very clear that, at some time in his early life, he had been a very fat man. He had retained the nickname but not the avoirdupois.
Those of you who knew him well may have better memories than I and I apologise in advance if some of my recollections are different from yours.
I think Slim must have been born around 1917 just before the end of the Great War, aviation was obviously in his blood from the word go. In his early life, while living on the Isle of Wight and before W.W.II by the age of 18 was a CFI on Tiger Moths at either Bembridge or Sandown Airport. He was a commercial pilot with Imperial Airways before the merger forming The British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) in 1939. I recall him telling me of working on the Short Empire flying boats (the precursor to the more famous Short Sunderland of World War II) from Southampton and, I think, Poole to Egypt and South Africa all at a maximum speed of 174 knots. Because these aircraft were also vessels their crews were obliged to learn semaphore as well as Morse Code. Slim used to say that he could be quite rude in semaphore but, luckily, few knew what he was signalling.
It was while stationed in South Africa that Slim met and married his beloved Linda, already a principal contralto with the South Africa Opera. Once back in England their only child was born - a son, Lester, - who suffered from spina bifida. Upon completing his education and passing his driving test his proud parents presented him with a specially adapted Triumph Herald. He died at the age of 22.
As he rose through the ranks of BOAC Slim flew many famous aircraft. From his wistful reminiscences I’m sure that one of his favourites was the “Whispering Giant”, the Bristol Britannia. The last of the great British Propliners and a very luxurious aircraft as I was privileged to find out for myself.
At this point please permit me a brief aside. I was an apprentice at Bristol Aeroplane Co (BAC) starting in 1953, before the mergers with Hawker Siddley and then Rolls Royce both of which occurred during my time there (I even saw the Brabazon prototype - as big as a Boeing 767 when I went for my interview - just before it was scrapped). Senior apprentices were sometimes asked to escort visitors around the assembly hall and, at one time, I could have told you how many rivets there were on a Brittania. I still recall that there were over 120 miles of cable - if asked a question to which we didn’t know the answer we were instructed to say we did know but it was company confidential data so we were not allowed to say.
Back to Slim and one of his stories which always tickled me. The Brit. was so well equipped that it had separate lavatories for Ladies and Gents. Apparently the correct application of the urinals in the gents was misunderstood by one foreign passenger with the result that the snag sheet, on which the crew recorded any problems at the conclusion of each flight, once bore the cryptic comment “the urinal has been used as an arsenal”!
When in March 1974 BOAC was merged with British European Airways to form British Airways Slim was flying the Boeing 707 and, for a short time the 747. By that time Slim had risen to the rank of Chief Captain and his commercial license attested to the fact that he had amassed over 35,000 flying hours during his career. He was called in for his 6 monthly medical, the medical which was at 11 am revealed a heart murmur and by lunchtime he was retired, he was 56. At that time Slim and Linda were living in Sunningdale but wanting to be nearer to his mother who still lived on the Isle of Wight they moved to Ringwood where they spent the rest of their lives. Slim happily in his workshop or out flying model aircraft and Linda tending her garden. He never piloted full-size again.
Slim would have been the first to admit that he wasn’t the greatest R/C pilot, and was often as happy to watch others flying his models as he was flying them himself. His models were usually quite challenging, he loved multi-engined aircraft and sometimes all the engines were still running when he they landed, though not often - hence the challenge.
Slim’s devotion to the WMAC was recognised when he was appointed our President. He was always prepared to help when help was needed, mowing, site maintenance, helping to run competitions and ready to put his hand in his pocket when more than mere physical assistance was required. He was a modest man and much of his generosity went unrecognised other than by those who benefited from it as Jon will attest if you ask him.
With no dependants, when Slim and Linda’s health became a real problem to them and neither could face the thought of being left alone, they took the courageous decision to carry through with the suicide pact which they had often discussed. The club, and their many friends, lost a much loved couple.
I was proud to count him as a friend.