Obituary: Sir David Huddie

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
DAVID HUDDIE played a critical role in one of the most dramatic developments in Britain's post-war aviation industry.

In 1967, as managing director of the Aero Engine Division at Rolls-Royce, he worked tirelessly to establish a new large fan-jet engine intended for the emerging generation of "jumbo jet" wide-body aircraft. It was through Huddie's efforts that Rolls-Royce reached agreement with Lockheed to develop this engine, the RB211, to power the L1011 TriStar.

At the time this was the biggest aerospace export order ever achieved in Britain but, by 1970, the costs of development engineering had proved to be far higher than anticipated and Rolls-Royce was forced into receivership in February 1971. However, after temporary government ownership the engine came to fruition as a notable success which, over subsequent decades, brought Rolls-Royce into the front rank of world engine builders.

Huddie was born in County Cavan and became an outstanding student of Mathematics at Trinity College, Dublin. Joining Rolls-Royce in 1939 he became a "stressman", using mathematical analysis to compute loads and to design critical components in the Merlin - the engine that powered the Spitfire, the Hurricane and the Lancaster. Speaking shortly before his death he recalled that in 1945 "Rolls-Royce had a towering reputation - which was deserved" although this had been won entirely with military engines.

Huddie then became closely involved with the conversion of the Merlin for airliner use ("our baptism of fire") learning that the thousands of cruising hours expected in civil air transport was as demanding for an aero engine, in a different way, as the shorter bursts of violent activity in war. He subsequently became Chief Development Engineer for civil engines and was instrumental in marrying the Dart turboprop to the Vickers Viscount aircraft, producing the most successful British civil airliner in the whole post-war era and the one which established the gas turbine in air transport.

Rolls-Royce tried to sell civil aero engines in the US throughout the post-war era but, in spite of advanced technology and keen prices, Pratt & Whitney and General Electric (GE) almost inevitably triumphed as the launch supplier of engines for new airliners. Huddie felt frustrated that the effect of Rolls-Royce competition was to force their rivals to greater effort but not to win significant orders. Nevertheless, Rolls-Royce had demonstrated with the Spey (as fitted to the BAC1-11) and the Conway (used in the VC10 and some Boeing 707s) that it was capable of building world- class civil engines.

Airliners were about to undergo a huge transformation and so too were the engines. Boeing, in discussion with Pan American, were developing the 747 which was double the size of predecessors. The engines too were to change from the noisy and narrow pure jet types used for the 707 generation, to very large, quiet and more efficient "high by-pass" fan-jets in which most of the air ingested by the engine is a "cold stream" driven around a hard-working central "core" engine by a large fan.

In America, both Pratt & Whitney and GE had received government contracts to develop engines of this type for the new large military transport, the C5A Galaxy. One of these, the Pratt & Whitney JT9D, was chosen by Boeing as the launch engine for the 747 while the new GE design went to the DC10 - the Douglas company's rival to the Boeing 747. That left Lockheed as the only major airliner builder not committed to an engine.

This, combined with political events in Britain in the 1960s, formed the background for the RB211 contract. British manufacturers and government were in discussion about British large airliners and there were also moves towards a European collaborative project that eventually led to Airbus.

Huddie saw these discussions "trickling on". By contrast, decision-making in the US was far quicker and so Rolls-Royce went all out to sell engines for the Lockheed TriStar proposal "which was solid, and had customers". Rolls-Royce knew, moreover, that unless it could make the jump into the new era of the large fan jet it would be condemned to a marginal niche and would no longer be a major manufacturer.

It was against this perceived necessity to move up to the new plateau of engine performance and also to succeed in the US as the core airliner market that Sir David Huddie took up residence in the United States in 1967 to concentrate entirely on selling the proposed engine to Lockheed. That he did so, against the powerful American preference for home-grown equipment, was a credit to his engineering authority and to his commitment to a development that seemed to be a technological and a commercial imperative. "I thought the price was keen," he said, "but I thought we would make money."

Nevertheless, the RB211 represented an extraordinary technological challenge. The new fanjet demanded a core engine working efficiently at higher temperatures and pressures than hitherto and Rolls-Royce had conceived a more demanding solution - the "three shaft" concept with three turbine stages driving three compressor stages as opposed to the mechanically simpler "two shaft" concept used by GE and Pratt & Whitney.

It was this design, offering more ideal matching of turbine and compressor characteristics, which underpinned the ambitious fuel consumption and thrust projections on which the engine had been sold. Development problems have often been blamed wrongly on teething troubles with the new wonder material, carbon fibre. In fact, the scale of effort on design, trial and redesign in every element of the engine was unprecedented and had been unanticipated.

The paradox is that the RB211 turned out to be an outstanding engine and its successors, with the distinctive three-shaft architecture, form the successful Rolls-Royce Trent series engines sold today. In 1997 Rolls- Royce took more than a third of world civil engine sales and Trents are fitted to the latest twin-engined wide-body aircraft such as the Boeing 777, Airbus A330 and A340.

Taken over a longer accounting period than was accepted in 1970 Huddie's instinct in pressing forward to a new level of performance has been completely justified. It must also be accepted that Rolls-Royce was the victim of bad luck. Political events had forced the company to make the move into the new generation of engines in what, for the aerospace sector, was a peculiarly exposed position with a tightly drawn Anglo-American contract.

In a period where enormous overspends in aviation were virtually the norm, on both sides of the Atlantic, the visible and binding nature of the Rolls-Royce-Lockheed contract exposed the cost over-runs far more cruelly than would otherwise have been the case. In the (then) normal course of events, all nations tended to nurse their own indigenous programmes, and in a defence project the over-spend would probably have been "swallowed". International collaborations too could also protect programmes, as seen with Concorde, if there was enough common purpose between the nations involved.

The bankruptcy had little to do with poor technological choices on the part of Rolls-Royce. The official investigation certainly criticised the financial control at Rolls-Royce and its management procedures. It also criticised Sir David Huddie and Sir Denning Pearson (as chairman) but, from a technological perspective, it must be said that the new engine could not have been purchased more cheaply. Almost certainly Rolls-Royce's costs were comparable to those of the American competitors; the quantum jump in performance achieved by Rolls-Royce and its survival as a major international engine builder, was bought at a fair price.

In the aftermath of the bankruptcy Sir David Huddie behaved with immense restraint and honour. Leaving Rolls-Royce for Imperial College he, and Sir Denning Pearson, effectively shouldered the blame, accepting that the important thing was the success of Rolls-Royce, and never indulged in any self-justification, even when the engine and its successors were technically and commercially vindicated. However, it is good that, in the years before his death, he was brought back into contact with the company by well-wishers. He said of the engine last year that "as a failure, it hasn't done badly".

Andrew Nahum

David Patrick Huddie, engineer: born 12 March 1916; assistant chief designer, Aero-Engine Division, Rolls-Royce 1947, chief development engineer 1953, commercial director 1959, general manager 1962, managing director 1965; Kt 1968; chairman, Rolls-Royce Aero Engines 1969-70; Senior Research Fellow, Imperial College, London 1971-80; married 1941 Betty Booth (three sons); died Bakewell, Derbyshire 14 May 1998.