John Charnley: aeronautical research at Farnborough in the 1940s and 1950s

Sir John Charnley describes aeronautical research at Farnborough in the 1940s and 1950s, and the relationship between the engineers and test pilots.

The name is John Charnley, now Sir John Charnley as of 1981. And I was sent to Farnborough in January 1943, not knowing the first thing about aeronautics or aeroplanes or anything, thinking that I was going to be a civil engineer. In fact, I was very, very fortunate because just before I arrived here, in January, the – our first jet propelled aeroplane, the Gloster E28/39, which had been flight tested up in East Anglia, was delivered to RAE Farnborough for us here at Farnborough to make measurements on the aeroplane with this new engine, a turbine engine rather than a propeller driven aeroplane. And make measurements on its performance, its handling, its performance. And to do that a little special team had been set up, which consisted of Smelt, a double First at Cambridge, Smith a Cambridge engineer, Miss Fougiere a Cambridge mathematician, and a practical ex-apprentice of RAE called Dennis Higton. And that was the team that had been set up specially for doing the flight tests on this new concept of a jet propelled aeroplane. And I was attached to this section to be concerned with the flight tests. I knew nothing about aeroplanes, a lot to learn, but also I thought something to give. Now the first thing that happened to me was to be taken by this chap, this ex-apprentice Higton, out onto the airfield and I was shown a Stirling aeroplane. Now a Stirling was a four-engine bomber, enormous, and I stood underneath the wing, the fuselage of this thing was up there, and said to this young man, Higton, ‘Does this thing fly?’ I couldn’t believe it. It was enormous. And now he then took me into one of the other hangers here, and showed me this little jet propelled aeroplane that we were going to do tests upon, and I thought that makes much more sense, that little thing there than that blooming great thing up there. 

I was still nervous that these test pilots, many of whom who’d come back from operational experience, fighting, wartime, remember it’s ’43, and they’d been attached to RAE to do test flying duties, and they were prepared to believe what I was asking them to do. When here was I, you know, hardly out of school in many ways, against these experienced pilots and I was asking them to take a Spitfire up to 40,000 feet, stuff the nose down, and tell them that they’d go out of control or they’d buffet or they’d shake, but not to worry because when they got down to about 15,000 all would be well, and they’d be able to recover and come out and do the same thing again. And it staggers me that they were willing to trust me and believe me. And that reflects the spirit that we had between the so-called boffins and the pilots, because we ate and we drank together in the mess as a group, so you tended to live – I married in ’45, but until then I spent a lot of time in the mess with the pilots with whom you were working. And this bond between the two of you grew. On anything other than a single engine aeroplane I’d fly with them, never as a pilot, but I’d fly with them making observations, taking results or whatever, as well as with a lot of the instrumentation we put in the aeroplanes. So there was a great bond between the pilots and ourselves, which I think led to the success of a lot of the work. There was one evening which wasn’t such a great success. There was a dining in night, and after we’d all had dinner and we’d taken collars off and shoes off, silly game, High Cockalorum, does anyone know High Cockalorum? Where you – one team that goes down stuffing up you – head in to the bottom of the chap in front so there’s a long row of you all kneeled up, and then the other team has to leap over and get as far along this as they can. And you got eight chaps down there, and another eight chaps come and lean on and jump on them, and then you shake and shake and shake and the aim is to stop these other – to shake these fellows off. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. In the taking off of the shoes, apparently I, in taking my shoe off, flung it through the window of the mess. The PMC of the mess, I won't mention any names, was very upset about this - this wild, mad, civilian who was misbehaving in the Service mess. Two days later I was hauled up before the Director of the establishment for irresponsible behaviour in the RAF mess. And I got a stripping down from the Director of this, never been in his office before, dear God, but I was told off not to be a naughty boy, and as I was leaving his office very quietly he says, ‘Well done, Charnley.'

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