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Of Continuing Need for Aerospace Innovation and Remembering RAF Thurleigh By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.






In an interesting recent article, Tim Robinson, editor of the Royal Aeronautical Society magazine ‘Aerospace’ questions whether we are entering a new golden age in aerospace innovation. In the article he reminds us of reasons that continue to drive innovation in aerospace such as war and conflict, these leading to development of unmanned aerial vehicles and 3D printing for instance and that, I would add, are increasingly leading to defence related developments in Space – witness the recent UK Defence Space Strategy that is being led by the Royal Air Force.

Digital transformation, hybrid electric aircraft and autonomous flying cars are just some of the many innovations currently being researched and developed and not to be forgotten either is the work being done by Reaction Engines in which BAE Systems, Boeing and Rolls-Royce are all invested. Potential great things to come here.

To be fair, the UK Government has a good record of investing and supporting aerospace research and development although it has also to be said, a slightly less good record investing in defence related aerospace research and development aside that of Space.

Various bodies and organisations are today equally or part funded by government and industry and many of these have sprung up over the past eight years since the then Coalition Government launched the industry ‘Growth Partnerships in 2011. Most of these including the Aerospace Growth Partnership where to be funded by government but not so the Defence Growth Partnership, one that has since its foundation been primarily funded by industry.

In the former aerospace related category one can begin to appreciate that the UK Aerospace Research and Technology (UKART) Programme in fact represents a £3.9 billion joint government and industry investment, one whose aim is to maintain and grow the UK’s competitive position in civil aerospace. To name but two here I would mention the Aerospace Technology Institute and the International Aviation Academy but there are others too. Academia plays an important role here as well.

But what about defence? Through the Defence Growth Partnership initiative was born the UK Defence Solutions Centre at Farnborough, an organisation whose primary aim is to respond to customer needs for innovative and tailored world-class defence solutions, at the pre-competitive stage and to better align defence innovation with the UK Government and also ensure better collaboration within the UK value chain. DSC is doing well and I will be visiting the organisation again soon I hope.

DSC and other defence related bodies and organisations work very closely with industry just as they also do with government owned organisations such as DSTL (Defence Science and Technology. Industry itself continues to play a vital role investing in innovation as well, investing in their own futures and companies such as BAE Systems, QinetiQ, Thales and Rolls-Royce to name but a few spend millions on research and development as they look to the future.

Overall then, the UK is probably fairly well placed in respect of aerospace related innovation compared to some of its European peers but is this enough? This is a subject that I will be looking at over the coming months but today, this being a Friday and the last but one week before things start to go a touch quiet following the interim results season next week, I thought I would look back at innovation and research and development past rather than forward and particularly so in respect of organisational as opposed to corporate Aeronautical Research Heritage. Today then I will celebrate the work not just of the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) but in particular, that of RAF Thurleigh which would later be known as the Royal Aircraft Establishment – RAE Bedford.

With a history that goes back to the Army Balloon Factory that had relocated to what was then known as Farnborough Common and which was itself where Samuel Cody made the first aeroplane flight in Britain one hundred and ten years ago, the Royal Aircraft Establishment is responsible for so much British aircraft research and development overall that I just wouldn’t know where to start. In 1991 what had been the Royal Aircraft Establishment became part of the Defence Research Agency and in 1995 that organisation became part of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA). This organisation was in turn split in 2001 to form two organisation, DSTL which remains government owned and the rest was floated to form QinetiQ.

The RAE had major activities located on the historic Farnborough site, the vast majority of these being long since demolished, although ahead of its replacement being formally commissioned shortly, the DERA Centrifuge which dates from 1949 and still managed by QinetiQ remains in operation on the Farnborough site. The only other recognisable building that used to be owned by the RAE on the Farnborough site is now used by BAE Systems Heritage. The important former RAE site at Boscombe Down is now part of QinetiQ and as I am not quite sure as to the standing of all the other former RAE sites including Malvern I will concentrate her on RAF Thurleigh/RAE Bedford, a vital part of UK aerospace related research, development, testing and evaluation until it closed in 1994.

With further development of the RAE Farnborough site (by 1954 the Farnborough site had become home to what was by then an annual airshow event, one that used to draw buyers from all over the world interested in buying British made aircraft) considered inappropriate the former RAF Thurleigh airfield in Bedfordshire would, after 1954, become the primary home of all major aviation related research, development, testing and evaluation.

It was Thurleigh that did all the work on Concorde and STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) development of aircraft carrier launch and arrester gear and importantly, through the Blind Landing Experimental Unit, all work on the automatic landing system for all-weather civil aircraft operation for which a British European Airways Trident aircraft would be the first to land on any airport in the world using this system.

Just as it does today, advances in aeronautical engineering and technology development almost always leads on to the creation of other related advances and structures. Without Thurleigh or RAE Bedford if you prefer, I doubt that Britain would be in the superb position it is today in regard of aerospace. It was here that Radar Tracking and Guidance was developed, Simulation cockpit and visual display was born along with development, testing and evaluation of tele-tracking, beacon guidance, microwave landing and digital guidance, airframe sensors, terrain avoidance, proximity, direct voice control, ATM, transponder and position fixing and much other avionics and ship systems development, testing and evaluation work was done.

Like so much of what we had in the past, Thurleigh was closed because either someone thought we no longer needed it or much more likely, the Government decided it could no longer afford to support it. This is a familiar tale of course and one that continues to this day. That said, there does appear to be better recognition by government of the need to invest in aerospace innovation and while we are not about to get another Thurleigh the organisations and aerospace and defence companies that support them are doing a very good job in kick starting a new stream of aerospace innovation here in the UK.

Given the prospect of change, never has there been a more urgent need for the UK to invest more in innovation. If I was to express any concern it would be that while the Government is good at initially supporting the organisations that we need to support innovation development it has a nasty habit of walking away and leaving everything else including funding to industry. That must not be allowed to happen again.

CHW (London – 27th July 2018)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon




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