Inventor Guy Jefferson saved lives and money in his long working life. MATT CLARK meets a York man to whom the RAF owes a great deal.

A LONE plane drones high in the early morning sky. The pilot doesn’t know it, but he owes a great deal to the man watching from below.

Guy Jefferson was given two hours to live when he was born. There was a problem with his circulation, but a diligent nurse spent two days tending him to health. Mr Jefferson survived and has packed more into his life than most, almost as if realising he shouldn’t be here at all.

Now a sprightly 83, Mr Jefferson, from Rawcliffe, always was an habitual inventor. At the age of 20, he built from scratch the first TV set in York. That was in 1947 and people came from all over to watch programmes on his homemade set.

But Mr Jefferson’s debut engineering triumph was to pale into insignificance some years later when he solved a major headache for the RAF.

The base at Linton-on-Ouse had converted from Piston Provosts to Jet Provosts and apart from the obvious, there was one significant difference. The undercarriage was retractable and student pilots had to remember to lower it before landing.

Habits being notoriously difficult to change, many aircraft landed belly-up because the pilot forgot his most important final approach check.

Conscious that these were not only costly errors, but potentially life threatening, Mr Jefferson came up with a plan. A transmitter would be connected to the cockpit undercarriage display and when three green lights illuminated – meaning wheels down and locked – a confirmation tone would be sent to the ground controller’s radio.

The authorities were delighted with his Ultrasonic Undercarriage Position Indicator (UUPI) and soon Mr Jefferson was scrambling around in the base’s jets connecting up his device. Once it was fitted, if a controller didn’t hear the tone, he would tell the pilot to break off and make another approach.

“Before UUPI they kept landing and jiggering up the airframes,” he says. “I don’t know how much a Jet Provost cost to build, but it must have been around half a million, so my invention would have saved the RAF a lot of money. But the main thing is it helped save lives.”

It was a crucial safety break and the problem of belly-up landings disappeared overnight; and the device has yet to be improved. Even today, Linton-on-Ouse Tucanos are fitted with it.

For Mr Jefferson, aeroplanes have always been a passion. As a lad he used to go along to Linton’s Empire Air days and he still flies at Sherburn aerodrome.

“I was keen on aircraft from the first day Linton aerodrome was built. I lived in Newton then and as a lad came to watch the base being constructed. Then as a 15 year old, I was offered a job on base as a motor mechanics assistant. Well, I jumped at the chance.”

The motor pool was located in a farm building just past the end of the runway and, on a return visit, Mr Jefferson recalls another day he cheated death; the day a bomber nearly took him out.

“It was very windy and this brand new Halifax was about to take off. I thought he’s a brave fellow, this is going to be fun. Anyway the pilot set off and a gust of wind lifted him up. Now instead of sticking with it, he shut the throttles and ended up going sideways, straight through a hedge and on towards me. I thought, ‘Ye gods which way am I running’.”

Fortunately the farm had an area of slush covered in grass; the pilot hit this, his aircraft spun round and ground to a halt. The pristine Halifax was a write-off.

“If it hadn’t have been for that sump he would have certainly got me, I didn’t have time to run left or right.”

Mr Jefferson went on to work for 28 years at Linton as a civilian radio and radar engineer, and another of his inventions changed for good the way air traffic controllers work.

During the war, radar and visual controllers shared the same room, making communication straight forward. In the Fifties, they were separated not only by function but by location, with the radar operators moving downstairs. But there remained a constant need for a cross-flow of information and the only way to do it was by sending a runner or by using an intercom box.

And the last thing a busy controller needs, when talking to a pilot in need of help, is another voice in his ear.

So once again, Mr Jefferson came up with a plan; he designed and built a visual indicator for each room. That way, instead of controllers having to ask each other where aircraft were in the circuit, a set of lights on a display board showed them at a glance.

“I saw a need. The signals group was meant to spot weaknesses but they weren’t on the job. I was though and decided to do something about it.”

Mr Jefferson spent weeks etching copper printed circuit boards with acid and connecting his displays with multi-core wires. Finally it was ready to unveil and Linton became the only base with such an advanced system, and one which revolutionised air traffic control.

“I called it LATIS and it did away with all those voices which made everything much safer. Before I invented it, everything had to be told by a clerk upstairs to a clerk downstairs and there was a lot of lag in it. Once my system had been installed, everything could be seen instantly.”

But all he got at the time was a £50 cheque and a pat on the back.

The RAF did make amends in the Seventies when Mr Jefferson was recommended for a British Empire Medal. But as a modest sort, he didn’t want any fuss.

“They wanted me to go to Buckingham Palace, but I said, ‘No way, I’m not going down there.’ I didn’t want all that bother. So I asked if the Queen had a representative in Yorkshire.”

One of the base’s administration clerks told him the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Normanby, lived in Sandsend and Mr Jefferson would have to make his own way there to be presented with his medal.

“When they were taking photos at the presentation, Lord Normanby told me he always wanted to face sideways because he had a good side and a bad side. I said I don’t care which way you face.

“It was nice to get some recognition after all that time though. I think UUPI was the invention I’m most proud of, because it was the one that really did save lives.”

“I suppose inventing has always been in my blood. I can’t stop it.”