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1966 Defence and Aerospace – Remembering Events Fifty Years Ago By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.


rollslogSensibly I hope and not for any other reason than recognition that even if we are sometimes inclined to look back at past technology developments and some of the worst industrial and political decisions that in our own minds impacted on the aerospace and defence industry community, I believe that looking back and learning lessons from the past can be very beneficial. Today I will look back at some of the events of 1966 including the Rolls-Royce acquisition of Bristol Siddeley, the 1966 Defence Review, and the establishment of the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO) plus some personal memories of events that took place in 1966 that are particularly poignant for me. Last but not least, I will recall some of the industrial leaders from that time that I have been fortunate to either know or meet and that have been important in my career so far.

1966 was a very important year for me in respect of it being the year that my real and deep seated interest in defence and aerospace first began. I will spare you the detail but although only 17 years of age I held sufficient knowledge and understanding of defence to know that this was a very backward step. As if Duncan Sandys 1957 defence cuts and attempted industry consolidation were not more than enough the 1966 Defence White Paper was, for a nation that placed huge importance on freedom and that understood the reality of the nuclear threat, published it looked to all intents and purposes like an attempt to cancel everything in its wake. Gone was the CVA-01 aircraft carrier programme, a decision that has had ramifications for the UK ever since, and having cancelled TSR2 the previous year, we had a crass decision to acquire 50 US built F-111-A aircraft. Thankfully that decision was later revered. Once again, I will spare you the specific detail of the various and wide ranging capability cancellations and wide ranging strategy change in order to maintain a degree of self-respect. The bottom line was that this was certainly not to be Defence Minister, Denis Healey’s finest hour and such was the devastation that one may argue that defence in the eyes of the public was to be seriously damaged. To Healey, security of the United Kingdom back then was largely all about preventing a war in Europe. That may seem rather strange to our generation now and this fact alone should act as a timely reminder of the importance and real value of NATO. Of course, in those days we spent about 6.5% of our GDP on defence and just as we face a continuing threat from Russia today so it was that it was the USSR that provided the greatest level of threat in 1966.

But it wasn’t all bad news in 1966. This was after all the year that, following recommendations made in a report published by Sir Donald Stokes, that Denis Healey authorised the creation of the Defence Export Support Organisation (DESO) an organisation that would over the best part of the next 50 years deliver significant defence export success for the UK. Sadly, as I have reminded several times over the past year, successive governments over the past ten years have done much to damage the ability of the substantially downsized (now UKTI DSO wreck) organisations ability to do its work supporting large, medium and small enterprises in growing UK defence exports.

So what else happened in 1966? The sudden and untimely death of Hawker Siddeley aircraft designer Sir Sydney Camm was recorded on March 12th that year, BOAC (today’s British Airways) ordered its first six Boeing 747 aircraft. French President General Charles de Gaulle announced that was to leave NATO (it re-joined 43 later in 2009) and the US demanded the return of aircraft it had supplied to France. In Germany and having lost no fewer than 65 of its original 770 strong fleet of Starfighter aircraft, grounds them. In February that year Freddie Laker established a cheap charter airline and sadly, on June 3rd a Hawker Siddeley Trident 1C which was the 23rd of 24 being built for British European Airways crashed during what was supposed to be a routine production test flight.

There are many other events that I could recall from that year such as that apart from having flown in a Chipmunk when I was in the Air Training Corp 1966 marked the first time that I flew with the Royal Air Force when I spent three weeks at RAF St. Mawgan flying on Avro Shackleton’s and Westland Whirlwinds. Happy memories they are too but despite this, my parents still wouldn’t let me join the Royal Air Force!

Presented to Parliament by the Minister of Aviation in 1965 the Plowden ‘Report Of The Committee of Inquiry Into The Aircraft Industry’ would lead to the final large round of consolidation in the aerospace industry. Following Plowden and already engaged in partnership joint venture aerospace and defence projects such as Concorde and the supersonic attack, fighter/trainer Jaguar aircraft the British and French governments encouraged the idea of creating a consortia of European companies to produce a smaller wide bodied ‘airbus’ (the comparison here being with the Douglas DC-10) and to that end designs of what would be called the Airbus A300 were called for during 1966. Rolls-Royce needed to be in this project and having decided that a merged Rolls-Royce and Bristol Siddeley would have a much better chance of competing with the US giants – General Electric and Pratt and Whitney – the decision was made by Rolls-Royce to bid for Bristol Siddeley in June of that year.

Finally in October 1966 Rolls-Royce acquired Bristol Siddeley at a cost of £63 million (approximately £1.3 billion in today’s money). Bristol Siddeley brought a significant stable of military engine capability into Rolls-Royce whilst Rolls-Royce brought significant civil engine technology into the combined group. Was this really a merger of equals? Not in my view and particularly when one looks at the parlous state of Bristol Siddeley finances. Bristol Siddeley was undoubtedly a great company but the reality was, as Peter Pugh concludes in his excellent second volume of Rolls-Royce history (The Magic of a Name) that Bristol Siddeley needed to be rescued. While it can be argued that the timing was hardly perfect for Rolls-Royce and which five years later would find itself in an even worse position, we should I believe be very satisfied that Rolls-Royce made the brave decision that it did to takeover Bristol Siddeley. Had it not done so I fear that Bristol Siddeley would have gone and that Rolls-Royce might not be the provider of 50% of the world’s wide-bodied civil aircraft engines as it is today!

To great engineers such as the late Sir David Huddie and Sir Stanley Hooker we owe a debt of gratitude that the UK remains not just a formidable player in the manufacture of aero engines but the second largest in the world. And that same debt of gratitude for what he did at Rolls-Royce in the generation before must also be expressed to the late Lord Hives.

I have been extremely fortunate to have known or at least have met many of those who stood up for engineering and who carried the responsibility of pushing the UK aerospace and defence industry forward over the years against the odds. To name but a few, I would have to include both David Huddie and Stanley Hooker both of whom I met in later years and later, Sir Ralph Robins who as both CEO and later Chairman of Rolls-Royce I not only held in very high regard but personally worked hard to support when the ‘city’ took such an opposing and negative view of Rolls-Royce during my 28 years in the ‘City’. To these names I must of course add the late Sir George Edwards, once of Vickers Aircraft and later as CEO of the British Aircraft Corporation and a man for whom I held enormous respect. High on the list of those that I have known and respected must be added the late Sir Arnold Hall of Hawker Siddeley, a man who I regarded as one of mentors and final, the late Ray Brookes and Sir Trevor Holdsworth of GKN, the latter particularly because over several years he taught me so much of what I know about engineering and manufacturing during my formative years in Birmingham.

CHW (London – 28th April 2016)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS


Tel: 07710 779785


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