Spotlight on: Phil Whitehead, Commercial Manager

On 19th August our Commercial Manager Phil Whitehead will close the door on his office at Lasham for the final time as he heads into retirement. He will be sorely missed by many friends and colleagues around the tight-knit MRO industry, many of whom overseas came to know him as ‘Mr Phil’.

A lifelong aviation enthusiast, Phil’s passion for flight was fired when – as a boy growing up in Altrincham – he would hear the Heathrow-bound Vanguard aircraft starting up its engines at nearby Manchester airport while on his paper round.

Little did Phil know back then that he would rack up thousands of air miles flying for work during 48 years of continuous employment – with only a single day out of work (a Friday off between jobs). Or that he would attain a Private Pilot’s Licence at Denham in 1985. He has remained a keen aviation photographer with ‘thousands’ of photographs of the subject he loves.

Having missed out on apprenticeships at British Airways and BOAC, he’d applied for a job with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Although he was not selected, the application process meant he automatically qualified for the Home Civil Service. This led to a role with the Crown Agents for Overseas Government and Administrations, where he started in October 1973.

‘This turned out to be a fantastic commercial apprenticeship,’ Phil said, ‘the department was involved in the administration of UK Government aid and loans, managing contracts, shipping of equipment and processing invoices and claims via the Ministry of Overseas Development.’

Among the memorable projects Phil worked on was organising a shipment of trombones to the Mara Institute of Technology in Malaysia, an electrification project in Nigeria – which required shipping of pylons and cables – and a water purification project in Laos.

The foreign connections continued when Phil was moved as part of the standard three-year civil service rotation, moving to work on military equipment via a joint venture between the Ministry of Defence and the Crown Agents called International Military Services Ltd. This involved shipping kit such as armoured vehicles to countries in the Middle East, Kenya and elsewhere.

Phil finally moved into aviation in 1987 when he joined Dan Air at Lasham as a contracts manager. Within six weeks of joining, his first trip was to Kathmandu to discuss a maintenance contract for Boeing 727s. Trips to the British Virgin Islands to discuss HS748 maintenance and 2 trips to Lagos to discuss more B727 maintenance soon followed.

In around 1991 Dan Air Engineering was sold to FLS Aerospace, which later decided to split into two separate organisations, with support (tools and equipment) at Lasham and engineering at Stansted airport. Phil initially stayed at Lasham for just two weeks before he realised he wanted to be in the engineering unit. So, he went to Stansted, where he spent 10 years account managing the likes of British Airways, the My Travel group and finally Ryanair.

Highlights from that time included managing a former Dan Air maintenance contract with Air UK Leisure for seven 737-400s which were being leased to an Indian company Modiluft. FLS beat Lufthansa to the support contract, despite the German carrier being involved in the operation, and it resulted in a total support contract with a line station in Delhi. Phil ended up flying to Delhi six times, including twice in the space of one week. Sadly, the operation did not survive. The airline failed and the aircraft returned to KLM, which had taken over AirUK Leisure. However, as the aircraft were different to the KLM mainline fleet the maintenance support was transferred across to Amsterdam. The mid-1990s were notable for Phil as he was account manager for MyTravel Group, which led to many more overseas trips – including a typical week which saw him travel from his Stansted office to Manchester, flying to Copenhagen then back to London – and all before Thursday morning. In one year he flew 126 times commercially.

Phil took voluntary redundancy from FLS in 2002. ‘I was the last person they expected to volunteer for redundancy as I’d been representing employees in the consultation,’ Phil says. ‘I went home one night and thought about it and volunteered when I got into work the next day. At the time I was involved in overseeing the Ryanair maintenance, which was in the process of transferring from Stansted to Dublin. It was during a meeting in Dublin that I got a call from ATC Lasham who knew I was available asking if I would return to Lasham. So, I spent 10 years with FLS at Stansted before ultimately returning to Lasham.

‘It was around this time that I had my only day of being unemployed in almost 48 years since starting work,’ Phil says. ‘I had left my job at the end of October, finishing on a Thursday. I took the weekend off and started again on something like 4 November. So, I was only unemployed for one single Friday!’

The highlight from Phil’s ATC career was undoubtedly being Norwegian’s account manager, after ATC won their business in 2004. The airline became ATC-Lasham’s biggest customer over the next few years which went on to complete around 170 C-checks on its aircraft. A celebration of the 100th C-check saw The Blades fly past Lasham in formation with a Norwegian 737 photographed for posterity by the current 2EE CEO from a fifth Blade aircraft. The eruption of the Icelandic volcano almost scuppered the plan when all jet aircraft in northern Europe were grounded. But a negotiation with both the Norwegian and UK CAAs and a commitment to fly no higher than 1,000 feet meant the flight could go ahead. The one downside was the many Norwegian guests who were stranded by the restrictions on international flights. ATC ended up hiring a coach for the guests to travel back by land and sea, including a ferry to Normandy and then the long drive through northern France and the low countries before finally arriving in Oslo 48 hours later.

When ATC collapsed into administration in 2015, Phil was one of the few people retained by the administrators and he stayed in post as 2Excel took on the business, as 2Excel Engineering, tasking him with rebuilding the commercial team.

As he prepares for life away from Lasham, Phil confided he was ‘not quite ready’ to stop working completely and was already considering some offers of consultancy work. He looks forward to having more time to travel, having seen various places during his career. Top of the list are China and Japan – a haven for aviation photography due to the superb viewing facilities the Japanese provide. Phil has also fancied going back to see more of the United States, having not visited since before the 2001 terrorist attacks. He is also keen to visit Krakow in Poland and other parts of Europe.

Everyone at 2Excel Engineering wishes Phil the best of luck and Bon Voyage for the adventures ahead.

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