HENRY WILSON, the defence scientist, was eminently suited to satisfying the scrupulous scientific demands of the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), Farnborough. Yet, but for the exigencies of war, he might have completed his career as it began, as a worthy if unremarked teacher in the RAF's education branch. But the war and the RAE opened up opportunities in research and development and Wilson's career blossomed.
The RAE has been described by Brian Trubshaw, Britain's Concorde flight-test director, as 'the platform from which everything derives'. As such it was the right place for Wilson, who as an RAF teacher rose no higher than acting wing commander, while in the RAE he headed Farnborough's Armament Department from 1949 to 1956, before going on to senior scientific posts at the Ministry of Aviation and the British Embassy in Washington.
Throughout his career Wilson's meticulous attention to detail reflected his training at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, after which he had the self-discipline to serve a mechanical engineering apprenticeship with Combe Barbour of Belfast and work part-time for a Queen's University degree. Not until he had completed his apprenticeship in 1931 did he enter Queen's full- time and went on to obtain a Ph D with a thesis on high-voltage transients and power transmission lines. From 1934 to 1935 he was college apprentice at Metropolitan Vickers, Manchester. He joined the RAF Educational Service - as the Branch then was - in 1935 and was commissioned in 1939. For much of the war he was senior tutor of the RAF Advanced Armament Course, Fort Halstead. In the year preceding his switch to RAE he taught at the Empire Air Armament School, Manby.
Farnborough has been criticised in the past for being 'rather slow' and Wilson's patience and painstaking application was in tune with its measured pace - or, to the frustration of colleagues, behind it. In the event this was no disadvantage. From the moment Wilson joined in 1947 as a senior principal scientific officer and began a distinguished association with guided weapons, he was at the receiving end of politics and the changes in defence policy that accompanies changes of government.
A Farnborough maxim of the 1950s and 1960s - 'never predict that you are going to solve a technical problem if you are working to a deadline' - accorded with Wilson's philosophy as he helped to nudge Britain into the missile and nuclear-warhead era of the Cold War.
Wilson's work at Farnborough led to Fireflash, an air-to-air beam-riding guided missile, the first such RAF weapon, and, similarly, Sea Slug for the Royal Navy. 'Red Duster', a codename for Bloodhound, a surface-to-air missile for area defence, and 'Red Shoes', which became Thunderbird, were among the projects which put Britain on the road to a potential cruise missile and international pre-eminence - eventually to be scuppered by cancellations and financial cold feet.
Wilson was responsible also for some of Britain's atom bomb programme, particularly the all-important fusing of the weapons used in tests.
With this background and preceding service as Director General, Aircraft Equipment Research and Development at the Ministry of Aviation from 1956 to 1962, he was welcomed to the American defence establishment when he was posted in 1962 to head the Defence Research and Development staff at the British Embassy in Washington. Thus he was on hand to advise the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, at the 1962 Nassau summit with President Kennedy when Britain bought the Polaris ballistic missile. His counsel was also available in Washington during the Cuba missile showdown with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
His reputation further enhanced, he returned to Whitehall as the Army's deputy chief and then chief scientist in 1967. Finally he directed the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) Technical Centre, Brussels, where once again his rapport with the Americans paid dividends.Reuse content