Obituary: Les Wilson

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The Independent Online
Les Wilson lived and breathed airports, airliners and air travel. One of civil aviation's most colourful and popular characters, he died in a car accident just two weeks before being invested as OBE in honour of an outstanding career culminating as managing director of Bristol Airport.

When he took over the reins of the city's bankrupt municipal airport in 1980, it handled fewer than 200,000 passengers annually, mostly on charter flights. Today the figure is 1.4 million. Half are carried on scheduled business flights, many linking Bristol with Europe.

This dramatic change of fortunes - pre-tax profits for 1994 were pounds 3.5m - was achieved largely through Wilson's dynamism, contacts in civil aviation, skill in developing a team and flair in exploiting the media to further his airport's cause.

Les Wilson was born in Berwick-on-Tweed in 1933 and educated at the local grammar school. His failure to pass mathematics meant that he left without qualifications. He chose football and played for Berwick Rangers until a broken leg ended his sporting career.

His next choice - to join the Royal Air Force for national service - was more fruitful. He fell in love with aviation and trained as a wireless operator and air traffic controller. After national service he became an air traffic controller at Newcastle.

He married and in 1958 emigrated to Kenya with his young family and worked at Nairobi airport. His swift intervention prevented a disaster when an approaching BOAC Comet began to descend dangerously low. Wilson's urgent warning allowed the pilot just enough altitude to land safely. An inquiry revealed that one of the Comet's altitude instruments had been incorrectly set by 3,000ft.

Wilson loved Kenya, learnt Swahili, climbed Kilimanjaro and was in his element until his world fell apart with the death of his wife in 1966. Left with three young children, he returned to Britain. He worked at East Midlands airport, where he met his second wife, Pat, an assistant air traffic controller. In 1967 they moved to Zambia, where he was manager of Lusaka airport until the political situation in Zambia deteriorated.

He was assistant director in charge of marketing and development at Luton Airport during the hectic Seventies in which passenger figures rose to 3 million a year. His heart was not in the job. He was a perfectionist and felt Luton had expanded far too quickly for the facilities it then offered. He believed passengers deserved the best.

He needed a challenge and a chance to put into practice his ideas on how an efficient regional airport should be run. He found it at Bristol. His enthusiasm and confident prediction that passenger figures could rise by an annual 10 per cent convinced Bristol's Airport Committee and in 1980 he was appointed manager. He first courted contacts in tour operators including Thomson and Horizon and, with the holiday trade secure and growing, turned his attention to contacts in business aviation to improve Bristol's international links.

Bristol Airport's performance quickly outstripped even his most optimistic forecasts. Within four years passenger numbers had almost doubled. The 1 million figure was passed by the early 1990s and 1.5 million will soon be achieved.

Les Wilson loved playing the part of the jovial "Mr Bristol Airport". He and his Bristol success were a source of local pride and people liked and admired him for it.

There were frustrations. The airport's runway cannot accommodate larger international aircraft and attempts to increase its length have failed. Now comes a possible threat from BAE's nearby Filton airport with its huge runway and a campaign to set up as a rival business airport. Wilson handled them all with equanimity and a sure-footedness which was a hallmark of his career.

Away from work he found enormous pleasure in his family and in simple country pursuits like helping his wife with her horses or in pottering around in the garden. He once told me: "I'm a workaholic. I never had time to develop hobbies . . . I've been too busy."

He never lost his love for aircraft and aviation but, curiously, never took his pilot's licence. It was one of his few regrets. He did take lessons on a Tiger Moth in the early 1950s but he ran out of money. "I was a fool," he confessed. "I should have begged, borrowed or stolen the money."

James Belsey

Les James Wilson, airport executive: born Berwick-on-Tweed 1933; assistant air traffic controller, Newcastle 1953-58; air traffic controller and training officer, Nairobi 1958-1966; manager, Lusaka airport and principal, Zambian Air Services Training Institute, 1967-72; general manager, Bristol Airport, 1980-95; twice married (two sons, two daughters); died near Wedmore, Somerset 27 November 1995.