Paul McMahon from Airbus Defence and Space’s Stevenage site in the UK worked on the ELA-1 and ELA-2 launch pads (short for: Ensemble de Lancement d’Ariane) in Kourou between 1978 and 1986.
What was your role on the Ariane programme?
“I joined Airbus Defence and Space (then Hawker Siddeley Dynamics) in 1975 and went straight into the development department on ELA-1. I went to Kourou in February 1978 and stayed until the end of May, where I was in charge of the technical day-to-day work and ensuring that the equipment was installed properly and on time.
Prior to going to Kourou, I was also involved in the development of the gaiters that were fitted around the throat of the main engine nozzles to prevent exhaust gases from entering the thrust frame. This was a highly successful product and was fitted to all Ariane 1, 2, 3 and 4 launchers.”
What stands out most for you from your Ariane career and what does Ariane mean for you?
“I’m immensely proud of being a part of the Ariane programme – we had 27 launches from ELA-1 and all were successful. For the first trip to Kourou on ELA-1 the team consisted of between 12 and 14 people and we formed close friendships there. We socialised in smaller groups of four or five and I have very fond memories of those people. On many of the later trips for ELA-1 I was on my own, but for ELA-2 the team was much larger – closer to 20. We supplied three sets of release gear for ELA-2, which were used for Ariane 3 and 4. There were 119 launches from ELA-2 – all without any release gear failures.
It wasn’t like it is today, where telephony and mail services are much easier to come by. We had to book a phone call at least three days ahead to make or receive a call from home – and mail was also very erratic. Our social life really was based around waiting for that morale-boosting call or letter.
ELA-1/2 launch pads at Kourou. (© ESA)
Four weeks before L02 (the second Ariane 1 launch) I was back in the UK and got a phone call as there was a problem on the release gear. There were four hydraulic clamps which had to open simultaneously and this wasn’t happening. Within two days of the phone call I was back in Kourou and had the problems sorted out within the week. After that, I stayed for the launch. Unfortunately Ariane’s second flight was destroyed about one minute into the launch, which was extremely disappointing.
One of the funniest things I remember is the QA guy on the Ariane Autopilot programme. He was called Willie McCurly and, prior to the delivery of every unit did a manual ‘rattle’ test to make sure nothing had come loose. This was actually written into one of the procedures by name of the ‘Willie McCurly Rattle Test’!”
Were you at the first Ariane launch and what was it like for you?
“Unfortunately, we did nothing in Stevenage for the first launch in 1979. However, I set my alarm clock to wake me up in time to tune into French radio for the launch. As the presenter went through the countdown I could follow what he was saying but once zero was passed the presenter went bananas and I couldn’t understand a word of what he said!
Since then, of course, we do have launch events on site and it isn’t as difficult to be a part of history – but it is immensely satisfying to be able to say I played a part in preparing for the first launch.”