On November 9th, in recognition of the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Aeronautical Society, Sir Donald Spiers CB, addressed the Association on progress in aeronautical engineering in that period.

Sir Donald started his engineering career in the Royal Engineers then read Mechanical Sciences at trinity College, Cambridge. Subsequently he became an apprentice with de Havilland Engines leading to a position as a gas turbine development engineer. Moving to the Air Ministry he was involved in the 1965 Kestrel Evaluation Squadron trials. After a number of other operational research, trials and analysis positions he was Assistant Chief Scientist to the RAF until moving the MoD Procurement Executive to be the project director of the Hawk, Jaguar, Tornado and Eurofighter programmes. Amongst other important MoD positions he was Controller of Aircraft for six years. He was also President of the RAeS and of the Popular Flying Association, now the Light Aircraft Association.

So, What Have We Done Since 1866?

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    Sir Donald started on what he called the ‘pre-history’ describing Sir George Cayley’s prescient design of a ‘governable parachute’ which incorporated the main features to be found in modern aircraft configurations and which was towed into flight, with Cayley’s unhappy coachman aboard, on July 5th, 1853. On January 12th 1866 the Aeronautical Society was formed by the Duke of Argyll and five other notables from the world of science, engineering and aviation. (In 1918 King George V would grant the Society its Royal prefix). A prize of 1000 was offered for a flight by a mechanical machine but this was not achievable. In 1875 Lord Kelvin stated “If you can’t measure it, you can’t understand it”. Who would disagree with that - but he also said “A heavier than air flying machine is impossible”! In 1894 Hiram Maxim built a huge four ton steam powered flying machine intended to fly from an 8 ft gauge track. This was not a success.
    However, in Dayton, Ohio, two brothers, the sons of a Bishop and owners of a bicycle shop, were designing and building a manned glider which flew successfully in 1900. They then designed and built their own four cylinder, water cooled petrol engine, which weighed 179 lb and developed 12 hp at 1020 rpm. With this engine, on December 17th 1903, Orville Wright achieved, at Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina, man’s first sustained, controlled, powered flight. Four flights were made that day, each brother taking turns, increasing the duration from 12 seconds to 59 seconds. On the fourth flight the aircraft was damaged and never flew again. The brothers received the first Aeronautical Society gold medal in 1908.
    The first sustained, controlled, powered flight in England, by Samuel Franklin Cody, an American showman, did not take place until October 1908. He received an Aeronautical Society silver medal in 1909, the same year that ‘brave but incompetent’ Bleriot flew across the English channel. Sadly, Cody was killed in 1913 when his aircraft broke up and crashed. Howard Pixton won the 1914 Schneider Trophy race at Monaco, flying a Sopwith Tabloid seaplane. This outstanding design led to the Sopwith family of fighters, so successful in WW I in which, initially aircraft were used for reconnaissance then shooting, combat and bombing. Some 11,000 Sopwith aircraft were used in the war by the RNAS, the RFC and the RAF. After the war Sopwith Aviation was liquidated to pay excess profits tax but started again as Hawker.
    In the 1920s passenger flying got under way. The UK Government light aircraft trials Lympne were won by the de Havilland Hummingbird which was not a success commercially but led to the Moth family including the Tiger Moth. The 1934 MacRobertson England-Australia air race was won by the de Havilland Comet racer but, more importantly, a production Douglas DC 2 airliner of KLM came second. In the ’20s and ’30s Imperial Airways flew European and Empire routes with British airliners including Handley Page HP 42s and Short flying boats. These luxurious aircraft were built in only small numbers.
    The RAF was biplane equipped in the 1930s but the monoplane Supermarine S.6B, which won the Schneider Trophy outright in 1931, showed that monoplanes were the way ahead leading to the Spitfire. Hawker produced the Hurricane and because the Company started production ahead of a Government contract there were enough fighters to win the battle of Britain in 1940. During WW II many aircraft types were produced in huge numbers for all purposes; bombers, fighters, flying boats, transports, specialist types, etc. In 1939 the RAeS had moved from Albemarle Street to 4 Hamilton place where it remains today. 
    Frank Whittle designed his jet engine which was to revolutionise aviation. The experimental Whittle powered Gloster E28/39 flew in May 1941. Production jet fighters followed; the DH vampire, the Gloster Meteor. Faster aircraft were developed including Hawker’s Hunter and the English Electric Lightning and the three (!) ‘V’ bombers. The civil turboprop Vickers Viscount was a commercial success but early DH Comet’s fatigue problems blighted its prospects.
    Outstanding technical achievements were the American Boeing 747 capable of carrying passengers and freight, and the Mach 2 Anglo-French Concorde. The latter made its last flight 100 years after Wilbur Wright first flew. Outstanding military aircraft technical achievements were the Lockheed SR-71 strategic reconnaissance aircraft of 1964 which could over-fly the Soviet Union at 85,000 ft and speeds higher than Mach 3; uncatchable, and the first truly stealthy aircraft, Lockheed’s 1977 F-117. Bert Rutan’s tandem twin-engined Voyager flew round the world, unrefuelled and non-stop, in 1986 taking nine days. It cruised on the 117 hp rear engine burning just 3 gallons of fuel per hour.
    In the early days of aviation pilots followed the railways but now we have inertial systems and satellite navigation. Britain’s primary airports in the 1930s were Croydon and Heston with a flying boat base at Southampton. Planning a new London Airport started in 1943 with Heathrow the chosen location. It opened for civil operations in 1946 with prefab huts; now there are five splendid terminals. The controversial decision to build a third runway has been taken, but…..Farnborough houses a large, modern business and VIP airport. BOAC was formed in 1939, BEA in 1946 using Northolt.
    The world’s first aircraft manufacturer was Short Bros who in 1909 built six Wright Flyers under licence. The Hon CS Rolls bought one for 1,000, over 100,000 today. The engine cost 400, Shorts got 200 and the Wright’s fee was 400. Rolls got Aero Club certificate No.2 then sold his aircraft to the government for 1000! Before WWI aircraft manufacture was a craft process, the workers doing whatever job was needed. In 1914 mass production stated with workers doing a specific, repeated task. In WWII skilled craftsmen performed these tasks. In the 1950s a Hunter cost 100,000, by the 1980s the cost of a fighter had risen to 20m (equivalent to 200 Spitfires). Today’s Typhoons cost 50m each and F-35s are 100m a copy.
    To conclude the speaker told the meeting about John and Christine Delaney, from Adelaide, Australia, who, using original drawings from the Smithsonian, built in a year, a replica Wright Flyer powered by a 12 hp VW engine. It had four small wheels on its skids for compatibility with the runway. It made one flight, on February 9th 2004, lasting 8 seconds. This is the most successful Flyer replica flight.
    After some questions the vote of thanks for this enthralling talk was given by Martin Pennell.