The Iron Maiden front man is hoping the problems that have dogged the business will soon be fixed
The hanger at St Athan airfield where RAF VC10s were once serviced is once again reverberating to the noise of heavy engineering.
But now the engineers belong to Cardiff Aviation, the aircraft maintenance and repair organisation set up by Bruce Dickinson, and the aircraft being overhauled are Boeing airliners.
There are three airliners in the hanger today, and another one outside, adding up to a healthy batch of work that will keep 150 engineers busy for weeks, if not months.
But it hasn’t always been so rosy for Cardiff Aviation. Restrictions on the landing facilities at St Athan means that the company has not been able to attract as much business in the past as it hoped – and one major airline, Easyjet, walked away after having had three aircraft repaired, with the airline saying the difficulties with the availability of the airfield was a problem.
The problem is an instrument landing system (ILS) at St Athan, which belongs to the MOD. But Dickinson says he’s hopeful that a solution might soon be forthcoming.
“I believe that they’ve come to an agreement about how to use it which is effectively the solution that we suggested two years ago,” he said.
“It’s taken them two years to come to an agreement with the MoD about the use of the ILS, which was paid for by the Welsh Government and installed at vast expense to the public purse and which has never been used in anger, even though it works perfectly well. I brought an aircraft in from Djibouti the other day and we got the ILS 40 miles away.
“The attitude of the new RAF base commander at St Athan is very positive and I think that’s helped things along.”
Meeting with Welsh Government
Cardiff Aviation has also been in dispute with the Welsh Government over non-payment of rent for the facilities it occupies. Dickinson is meeting with the Welsh Government in early April to try to hammer out a solution.
“We are having a formal getting round the table on April 4, so we’ll finally get round the table with them, and we’ve arranged a mediation process so we’re going there, relaying our side of the story, and they’ll be saying their side, and we’re going to try and get to some sensible agreement which secures the future going forward.
“I would like to draw a line under the mishaps and semi-catastrophes of the past, there’s no point in banging on about them because there’s a future to look forward to. We’re employing nearly 200 people, which at a time when they’re shedding jobs at Bridgend and everywhere else is absolutely massive.”
Dickinson has invested £4m of his own money into the three businesses that make up Cardiff Aviation, the maintenance and repair organisation, a pilot training business and an airline which operates airliners on behalf of other airlines.
“That represents a massive personal commitment from me. I’m not looking for it back, I’m quite happy to have made that commitment, to build the business forward.”
The problems with the airfield meant that Cardiff Aviation had to cut back and restructure the maintenance and repair organisation, but it was always with the intention of being able to expand rapidly again. The company, he says, has a significant heavy engineering C-check capabilty (C-checks are major overhauls which take place every 12 to 18 months, or 3,000 to 6,000 flying hours, and require significant dismantling of aircraft).
“The aeroplane we have just repaired has just had the biggest structural repair it’s possible to do on a Boeing 737 without taking it to the scrapyard. We sawed it virtually in half and replaced the entire centre section. It’s a massive engineering task and the guys have done brilliantly.
“My intention is that if we get the support we think we should get from the aviation community, from the other airlines, I would like to welcome Easyjet back. We spent two years getting Easyjet and unfortunately they left.”
The pilot training business using simulators is doing very well, he says, thanks to a high global demand for pilots as airlines expand and an older generation of pilots reaches retirement.
Norwegian Airlines for example is planning to recruit 2,000 pilots in the next two years. Dickinson is in discussions with Norwegian about training the new pilots, and is hoping to persuade them to move some of the maintenance and repair work from Budapest to St Athan too.
He reckons that flying training in the UK with its cloudy skies and inclement weather produces better pilots than schools in sunnier climates.
Iron Maiden tour
Dickinson is so passionate about his aviation business that it’s easy to forget his other job as a front man of the phenomenally successful Iron Maiden, which is renewing its Book of Souls world tour with two months of arena concerts around Europe, including a night at the Motorpoint Arena in May, followed by two months in the US.
“I would love to play Principality Stadium, it’s the best stadium in the world for any purpose, the atmosphere in there is superb, the sightlines, the dimensions, it’s about as perfect as you could wish for,” he said.
“I should say Twickenham is brilliant, but I don’t like it. I don’t like watching rugby there, I don’t like watching music there. I played there and I was like, I don’t really like playing here.”
He thinks it’s a pity that small music venues such as Dempseys oin Cardiff city centre are closing.
“Sadly that seems to be happening in a lot of places. It’s the gentrification of the city centre, the dodgy hangouts which are really cool which kids like. We Wouldn’t have been able to start out if there hadn’t been venues like that. The good thing is you don’t need a lot to have a place where you can have a racket and have people turn up.”
The joy of flying
Unlike last year he won’t be flying the group around on Ed Force One, which is now flying under Saudi Arabian Airlines colours.
He still gets a thrill out of flying, he says, but it’s a totally different sensation to playing live.
“The satisfaction flying aeroplanes is getting the job done, but the satisfaction with playing live is external, looking out at all the people looking at you. With an airliner it’s all internal, if you’ve got passengers nobody goes, wow wasn’t that great, they’re thinking about the rest of their day. Your job as an airline pilot is to deliver them safely and be invisible.
“That’s quite nice for me because it’s completely the opposite to what I do when I sing.”
Dickinson is interested in the development of automated aircraft over the coming years, which he says presents different challenges to driverless cars, particularly the need for a pilot of things go wrong.
“I don’t think there will ever be pilotless airliners but the role of the pilot and cabin crew are going to change over the next 10 to 20 years. Cargo is an absolute no-brainer for delivery by remotely piloted vehicles,” he said.
He added: “There’s all sorts of interesting solutions for transportation of goods in a low carbon way. The world is electrifying at such a rate and developing renewables you won’t be able to give oil away in 15 years’ time and oil will be used for the things it’s good at as opposed to the things it’s cheap at, and the things it’s good at are storing energy and driving aeroplanes.”
Dickinson has said he sees Brexit as offering opportunities rather than threats, and he is sanguine about its effects on his business and aviation in Britain. He points out there are countries outside the EU that have very healthy aviation industries, such as Norway and Iceland.
“We hold approvals for countries around the world for fixing their airliners. Any airline from anywhere in Europe and around the world can come here and get their aeroplanes fixed,” he said.
“A Boeing is a Boeing, they fly them everywhere and we can fix them. The value of the pound has dropped which is good for us, the other things is the quality of the work, those two things make us very competitive. The same with the pilot training.
“There are all sorts of alliances we can do with European countries because we are in the UK and Africa as well as Europe, and I think that’s a model that one or two other people might end up doing.
“The UK is one of Europe’s most successful transport hubs, Americans aren’t going to stop coming here and because they’re coming here everybody else is going to keep coming here. You can get to anywhere else in the world from London, more than from anywhere else in the world.”
Source: Wales Online