This talk covering the life of Charles
Plantin was given by his son-in-law, David Hassard, on 14th October to
a large audience which included many of Charles’s family as well as
colleagues from the R&D department at Kingston. After an
introduction by Ralph Hooper, who knew Charles well professionally,
David started with the early life of his subject.
Charles was born in 1912 in London to French parents, Paul
Madeleine, who had moved there from the south of France to start a
business importing luxury goods. At the weekends, only French was
spoken at home and French papers and magazines, including ‘La Science
et la Vie’ were enjoyed, ensuring that Charles grew up bilingual with
an interest in the arts and engineering. David had brought along a
wonderful collection of books, magazines, sketches, drawings
paintings that Charles had owned or created.
was a ‘Wonder Book of Aircraft’ from 1921 which had an article by
Sir Sydney’s brother, FJ Camm, on building model aircraft, ‘The Clipper
of the Clouds’ by Jules Verne describing a VTOL aerial ship,
and copies of the ‘Meccano Magazine’ featuring prize-winning models built
by Charles from the age of thirteen, although he had been a Meccano
modeller since he was five! These included a magnificent Atlantic type
locomotive, a streamlined biplane fighter, a submarine and a bascule
bridge, all original model designs. The drawings and paintings included
remarkable renderings of aircraft, locomotives and ships as well as a
detailed sketch of a ‘flying wing’ airliner, “the Pterodactyl of 2000
AD”, done in his teenage years.
Charles and his two younger
brothers grew up in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, where he did well at
school and was set to go to ‘Oxbridge’ when the financial ‘crash’
caused a change in plan so he went to the Southend-on-Sea Technical
Institute where he won the National Union of Teachers bronze medal for
science and mathematics and shone in engineering drawing. He went on to
Queen Mary College, London University, where he was awarded a BSc in
mechanical engineering in 1934 but stayed to study aeronautical
engineering under the famous aerodynamicist, NAV Piercy.
1936 he was recruited by Roy Chaplin, Sir Sydney’s
also a QMC graduate, to join the Technical Office at Canbury Park Road,
Kingston, which contained just eleven engineers: three aerodynamicists,
seven stressmen and a weights engineer. Charles was soon at work
stressing the Hector wing spars and ribs, calculating the torsional
stresses in the Hurricane rear fuselage framework and working on the
Henley and Hotspur. His first structural test job was the
canopy release, under load, at Langley.
In 1939 Charles married
Vera Fellowes who he had met at Westcliffe-on-Sea and they set up home
in Kingston on his salary of £7.10.0.
1940 the Hawker design team
moved to Claremont House in Esher, to avoid possible bombing at
Kingston, and Charles was put in charge of the ‘upper’ stress office.
(Claremont did in fact receive incendiary bombs on the roof and bombs
in the garden.) In 1947 he was promoted to Deputy Chief of Research
& Development, Structures, soon responsible for 85 staff and
running the test rigs at Kingston and Langley.
The Abbey test
frame at Langley could take a complete aircraft with the loads applied
hydraulically and distributed through ‘whiffle tree’ linkages. Strain
gauges were applied to the airframe and deflections were measured with
telescopes. Under such a test the P.1040’s rear fuselage failed at only
40% of its design load but once strengthened it was satisfactory.
pressurisation test on the P.1040 canopy caused a near disaster. As the
pressure was increased the canopy seals did not fail but the canopy
did, showering shards as the canopy exploded. Charles later joked that
he had nearly killed the entire Hawker design team! A repeat test with
water bags over the canopy only resulted in everyone getting wet as the
shards burst the bags; subsequently such testing was done submerged. An
exception was low temperature testing when the Farnborough cryogenic
chamber was utilised.
Resonance testing of the P.1081 was a
landmark in structural testing. Charles and his team devised a method,
using eccentric loaded gears, for subjecting the complete aircraft to a
series of precisely controlled excitations whilst recording the
resonances at key places on the airframe. Following on from these tests
he wrote a paper for the Royal Aeronautical Society on resonance
testing and the theory of flutter calculation which won the 1952 Edward
Busk Memorial Prize for the most valuable contribution on applied
By 1951 the
Hunter was under test in the ‘Abbey’
frame with loads applied manually via capstans set in pairs which were
turned together by the two hands of each operator. Charles, the ‘Test
Master’, was calling out the instructions - such as “three turns 8 and
9” - from his script when he noticed that one wing was going up and the
other down; definitely not correct. The answer was that a fitter was
turning his pair of capstans in opposite directions. Some say it took
three days to reverse the procedure so the test could be restarted!
the subject of hands, David remarked that Charles, naturally left
handed, had taught himself to write with his right hand. The result was
that he could explain what he wanted done by drawing with his left hand
whilst simultaneously writing instructions with his right.
Bilingual, and smartly dressed, Charles often represented
HSA at the Paris Air Show, and was frequently an instantaneous
interpreter. He also wrote French language versions of marketing
brochures for the Hunter, P.1127, Harrier and Hawk.
with the advent of supersonics, Hawker purchased a Ferranti Pegasus
electronic computer, the third built, which Charles was put in charge
of. One of its first tasks was transonic area rule calculations.
same year, with Frank Cross, the Chief Experimental Draughtsman, he
crossed the Atlantic by BOAC Stratocruiser to visit Avro Canada, Orenda
Engines and the US Bendix Corporation to study North American design
and production methods and to assess the ill-fated supersonic CF105
Arrow all-weather fighter with its 25,000 lb static thrust Iroquois
reheated turbojet, the latter being a contender for Hawker’s equally
ill-fated P.1121, both eventually being cancelled. Charles
concluded that Hawker needed to double the size of its design and
R&D organisations to keep up in fighter development.
Hawker had reoccupied Sopwith’s Richmond Road factory from Leyland and
developed it with a new front office block and additional buildings.
1957 Charles got a new test laboratory, a new test frame and his
R&D team all together in one place, the test frame work being
Defence Minister Duncan Sandys’
dictat that there would be no more manned fighters for the RAF, the HSA
Board decided to stop funding P.1121 work.
The new test frame, named
Mithraem after the temple to Mythras recently discovered beneath
London, was designed by R&D to be large enough to accommodate
airframe the size of Convair’s B-58 Hustler. It was made in Glasgow and
erected at Kingston sunk 10 feet into the ground to comply with local
research was the first programme
carried out in the frame with computer controlled automatically
sequenced load application. Testing was carried out on five Mk4 Hunters
and two Mk7s, two at a time.
interesting P.1127 research task was
fatigue testing alternative riveted and spot welded wing structures.
Later P.1127, Kestrel, Harrier and Hawk structural strength and fatigue
tests would be carried out in this frame.
In 1961 Charles was
appointed Chief Structures Research and Development Engineer
Kingston-Brough Division, responsible for aircraft structural strength,
fatigue and dynamic R&D work, running the structural test
laboratory, the digital computer and the provision of mathematical
services to the Design Department. The same year Sir Sydney
presented Charles with a clock to mark 25 years service to Hawker and
25 years working together.
To cope with
the 1962 supersonic V/STOL
P.1154 project the R&D department expanded and new airframe
techniques were devised to take account of kinetic heating. Power
demands by the heaters were so high that a dedicated cable was to be
run from Kingston power station, and strain gauge readings were now
needed at the rate of 1000 per second. Charles also wrote the French
language version of the P.1154 brochure.
However, once again Hawker was
hit by a cancellation; this time in 1965 it was Dennis Healey who
wielded the axe, on the P.1154. A quarter of the R&D staff had
be dismissed and Charles was so upset at having to tell some of his
younger men that they were redundant that his health suffered.
In 1967 Charles moved to the HSA Head Office Design
in the Richmond Road building, as Assistant Company Co-ordinating
Engineer (Management & Methods) dealing with metrification,
standards for bought-out parts and value engineering. His
French was still in demand at the Paris Air Show and during visits of
French-speaking delegations. His last R&D task was to
Harrier and Hawk model spinning trials in the vertical wind tunnel at
Charles retired in April
1976 where he was presented by
HSA’s Technical Director, John Stamper, with a Longines watch and an
album of photographs of the Hawker aircraft he had worked on. At the
retirement party were colleagues from the early days including
Charles’s boss for many years ‘Roche’ Rochefort, Sir Robert Lickley,
Roy Chaplin, Harold Tuffen and Ian Nightingale. Charles died aged 92 in
David’s talk was
illustrated by many photographs,
several taken by Charles, showing his family, his colleagues and his
cars as well as aircraft that took his fancy at air shows from 1936
onwards, all of which added to the enjoyment of the large audience. The
title for David’s talk is taken from a quotation from Camm who said
that his aircraft were “always right” and the job of his team was to
“make them right.” Ralph Hooper has said that he overheard Sir Sydney
say that “Charles Plantin is a first class engineer”, the only time he
ever heard him complement a member of his staff.
adds the following footnote: I would like to thank those who
contributed anecdotes and those who spoke to me and the family after my
talk. We remember the stories but in most cases do not even know your
names. If you would like to get in touch with me, I would be very
pleased to get your stories properly recorded.
Putting this talk
together has brought me into contact with some of the interesting
people who worked on structural testing for Charles, and later Derek
Thomas, but there seem to be very few surviving reports and
photographs. If anybody out there has any such material that I could
copy, please do contact me and I can pass it on to Brian Indge who is
building a record of this work. Also, I must apologise for some caption
errors in my talk, somehow Mary Sutton became Helen and, in one place
only, Harold Tuffen became Tuffin.
Hassard Tel: 020 8546 2715