John Coplin: the Rolls-Royce RB211

John Coplin on the history of the Rolls-Royce RB211 jet engine

Well the item behind me is the RB211, it’s the RB211-22B, and in March of 1968 the company won a competitive award to power a Lockheed Tri-Star. And it was supported by many airlines, we called them launch airlines, who were happy with the choice of that engine to power that aeroplane. The RB211 is a breed of jet engine and a jet engine in its simplest form has a compressor to suck in air, compress it, you then set fire to it by injecting some fuel which continuously burns. That raises the temperature of that compressed air which then expands through the turbine, and the turbine has enough power to drive the compressor and some left over. If it’s a pure jet for a fast jet, fighter or example, then the exhaust velocity will be very, very high. But alternatively you can put it through a further turbine to drive a big fan, and the big increases the thrust, increases the propulsion’s efficiency, and correspondingly for a given amount of thrust reduces the fuel burn and so enabling a commercial airliner to go further. And from an efficiency point of view, every last one percent of efficiency, at the time when I was doing RB211 design, one percent of efficiency was worth $100,000 per aeroplane per year. So even fractions of a percent to perfection or imperfection removed was of great importance. It’s dominated by fuel efficiency. There were several challenges. On the technical side really there were two that stood out. One was how do you make the composites work, when all your experience is on small subsonic aerodynamics. And the second one was how do you get to the very high turbine entry temperatures that you really need to give enough power in the turbine to drive not only the compressors that compress the core gas, but also to have enough energy to drive the fan at a good speed with a good pressure ratio to get that propulsive efficiency that you need. But the other challenge was that the – the, if you like, the policy of the company was to develop engines through development rather than design, and therefore they had committed to the launch airlines to have a sequence of standards which were anticipated to be the logical steps towards a final service engine that would be in service for tens of years, probably the best part of half a century, maybe even more than that. And that actually massively increased the volume of work. So not only was it technically challenged, but managerially. And we rose actually to a total number of people who were related to the design process of 771 people, all expert in some way, but very few of them expert in the new features of the RB211 engine. At the time of the going into receivership, a very experienced Rolls Royce turbine designer had subsequently run the car company in Crewe and, seeing all these difficulties, was brought back. And we all met with him and explained how we were going to get the engine right and so on. And he judged that what we were proposing to do was inadequate and that there would be a cost overrun, and he went to his board colleagues and then to the government and said, you know, this is not going to make it. Fortunately, Lockheed had the confidence and by bringing in some old hands, some very experienced people, notably Sir Stanley Hooker, Freddie Morley, and they both knew me and I knew them, and they actually helped convey to the bankers, to the airlines, the confidence that we had. And in fact he was so confident, and of course we were supportive of that confidence, we were so supportive that we actually decided to launch a more powerful version of the engine with in the same scamplings [ph] on the basic engine. It could’ve been a very stressful time. In fact it wasn’t, for me personally, because you could see how you could structure your day to do the clever stuff in the morning, have the meetings, go through the balance of arguments on particular aspects of the design. But then later in the day, you could walk round, talk to everybody who was working on the job at least as far as those inside the company were concerned. But then at night, after a break with the family and having supper with the children before they went to bed, we could come back and go into the workshops, into the factory, see parts being made and understand at firsthand what was causing the difficulty. And the following morning you come back and you could talk to the guys who’d got that part of the job to do and say, ‘Why don’t you talk to so and so in number four shop,’ or wherever, in order that you can get a deeper insight into what’s causing the difficulties there. Initially we were not allowed to move parts between different parts of the factory. We had no money, how do we recover? But Freddie Morley, who was my mentor and who’d been responsible for developing much of my career, Freddie Morley said, ‘Well if you are so clever that you can solve this problem, show me you can solve it with the parts you’ve already got.’ And that was a very, very good lesson because indeed, if you put the extra effort in, that’s exactly what you can do. And a further point was that prior to going bankrupt, there was a measure of unease amongst the staff that really perhaps we weren’t being paid well enough for what we were doing, but in fact after bankruptcy everybody just gave up their best. Well the engine behind me is the Trent, and it’s one of several versions of the Trent, but the architecture of that engine is very much the architecture of the RB211. It’s a matter of some pride really that the engine has gone on to be very successful, perhaps one of the most successful aero engines, commercial engines certainly, that Rolls Royce has ever had. I well remember the first time I went to Hong Kong, looking out of one window and seeing thirty-four RB211 powered aircraft, that was a tremendous joy.

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