Johanna Weber: Mathematician and aerodynamics expert whose work on wing design played a key role in developing Concorde

 

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Johanna Weber was a German-born mathematician and aerodynamicist whose pioneering work on the design of arrow-shaped wing prototypes and air flow computations was instrumental to Concorde’s radical design. Together with fellow-émigré and lifelong colleague

Dietrich Küchemann, a fluid dynamicist, she spent decades working on aerodynamics to ensure the safety of flying and the industry’s ability to build ever more sophisticated aircraft.

Both had worked at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), a government research facility in Farnborough, Hampshire, since their arrival in the UK in 1947. During the early 1950s they researched wing designs suitable for supersonic flight. They published a series of reports on a new wing planform, known in the UK as the “slender delta” concept, which overnight changed the nature of supersonic design.

Following the first meeting of the government-funded Supersonic Transport Advisory Committee at RAE in 1956, established to explore the development of commercial flight beyond the sound barrier, the decision was made to fund the development of a testbed aircraft to test the low speed performance of the slender delta wing, a contract that eventually produced the Handley Page HP115 in 1961.

It was described as genius; the slender delta, arrow-shaped wing model which, for the era of supersonic flight, utilised a separated airflow, challenged the established view of the basic principles of aircraft design. The wing provided sufficient lift at low speeds while performing efficiently in Mach 1-plus flight with little drag. Weber, Küchemann and their team provided the shape and the calculations, while others carried their ideas through. The result was that within 13 years of the initial request, Concorde made its maiden flight, on 2 March 1969.

She was born in Düsseldorf in 1910. Her parents were farmers who had left the Malmedy region (now in Belgium) shortly before her birth. Her father was one of the first casualties of the Great War, killed in November 1914, but this gave her “war orphan” status, entitling her to financial support for her education.

Weber read chemistry and mathematics (with physics) for two terms at Cologne University in 1929 then moved to Göttingen University, world-renowned for mathematics and science. With the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933 the university was purged of “undesirables”. Weber moved to a teacher training course in 1935 but upon completing it was refused a job as she was not a member of the Nazi Party. In 1937 she took a job at the Krupp ammunition and armaments factory in Essen, not too far from Düsseldorf, where her mother and sister still lived and who were in need of financial support. This work involved fairly low-level mathematics, mainly computational work on machines for the ballistics department.

Fortuitously, having seen an advertisement, by early 1939 Weber secured a mathematics post at the Aerodynamische Versuchsanstalt [Experimental Aerodynamics Institute] in Göttingen under Albert Betz, a pioneer of wind turbine technology. Here she met Küchemann and his wife, both fellow anti-Nazis.

Reserved and shy, Weber reluctantly gave a lecture about vortex rings, where she also suggested she worked further with Küchemann on this as he had done some work on ring profiles. It was the start of a lifelong collaboration and friendship, a time she described as “just wonderful”, until his death in 1976. She felt they complemented one another, “I didn’t want to give lectures... but preferred calculations… he did not like mathematics as much” but he had the vision, the “instinctive grasp of physics, the ability to see three-dimensional things”.

In 1945, Göttingen fell into the British occupation zone. Worked was stopped at the Institute and the researchers encouraged (and paid) to write monographs of their wartime work. Consequently, some were offered six-month contracts at the RAE, including Küchemann in 1946 and Weber in August 1947. They shared accommodation initially before Weber moved next door. The contracts were continually renewed and later made permanent when both were offered and took up British citizenship in 1953, the same year they published Aerodynamics of Propulsion.

Weber sent money to Germany to begin with but wanted to return to her sister and mother. However, she was won over: “English people typically are such a friendly lot to foreigners, certainly the women… I was an odd one but they wanted all to be kind to me.”

At the RAE they initially worked on the wings and airflow of the Handley Page Victor V-bomber which was used in a number of different incarnations during the Cold War. The airflow over its crescent-shaped wings gave such an efficient pressure distribution that the principles were later adopted for many civil and defence aircraft worldwide, but particularly in Europe. Their work later served as a basis for the Airbus A310 introduced in 1983.

Though she declined an authorial credit, she also played a key role on Küchemann’s classic, The Aerodynamic Design of Aircraft, published posthumously in 1978, updated in 2012.

She remained unmarried and retired in 1975, enrolling in geology and psychology courses at Surrey University – and avoiding anything to do with aeroplanes.

Johanna Weber, mathematician: born Düsseldorf 8 August 1910; died Farnham, Surrey 24 October 2014.

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