Obituary: Michael Goldsmith

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The Independent Online
Michael Goldsmith was one of the post-war generation of British aircraft engineers who rose to top management and laid the foundations of Britain's current pre-eminence in commercial aerospace. Airbus is today a British Aerospace success story, but it might have been otherwise without Goldsmith.

Airbus had been set up in 1966 as a European civil aerospace industry consortium, to pull together Europe's fragmented efforts to compete with the Americans in the world jetliner market. The British government pulled out of Airbus in March 1969, leaving Britain's aerospace industry to fend for itself. Tony Benn, then Harold Wilson's technology minister, said, "I cannot see one factor in favour of Airbus. My advisers say it will not sell."

In May 1969 the French and German governments went ahead without the British, whose aerospace industry, the industrial partner responsible for designing the A300's wings, now had to maintain its place on technical merit and its own investment. The French official attitude, especially when new projects like the A310 and A320 came along, was: "We can design and build wings too, you know."

In this politically negative atmosphere, the presence of Goldsmith, a professional aerospace engineer greatly respected by his French and German colleagues, helped to keep the British industry in Airbus. He did this by skilled technical advocacy and diplomacy and unremitting hard work.

In September 1979, when he was managing director of the British Aerospace Hatfield-Chester division responsible for Airbus wings, Goldsmith saw the British government rejoin Airbus, when it was clearly proving to be a success, as a full member. He had worked for this as executive director of British Aerospace Airbus, from 1973 to 1977. Goldsmith later said: "I like to think that I was the thin thread which kept our link with Airbus in place."

Like his French and German counterparts Roger Bateille and Felix Kracht, who became personal friends, Goldsmith was an engineer with business flair. He had to assess technical and financial risks over the long life-cycle of an airliner project, typically 20 years. He had a rare feel for what technology and manufacturing can do and what the market will want and can afford. Airbus has now sold more than 2,000 aircraft and has won 40 per cent of the market, second only to Boeing.

Born in Dorking in 1932, Michael Goldsmith won a scholarship to Epsom College. His love of aviation then drew him to the de Havilland Aeronautical Technical College, Hatfield, which taught hands-on factory skills as well as the theories of aerodynamics, structures and materials. He was awarded a scholarship to Imperial College, London, and learnt to fly with the London University Air Squadron, going solo after only four hours on Chipmunks. His first job as a qualified aeronautical engineer and pilot was in the de Havilland aerodynamics department at Hatfield in 1955. He rose through sales engineering and project management to become managing director of BAe Hatfield in 1978.

Goldsmith's talents also made their mark on other British Aerospace products, including the Trident, 125-800 business jet, and the 146 regional jetliner. The 146 Avro RJ has become the Britain's best-selling jetliner with more than 300 ordered to date, thanks to its brisk airfield performance and the extra wide cabin, which Goldsmith, as its project manager, had advocated.

Mike Goldsmith was 6ft 6in tall, handsome and possessing that quality much needed in European dogfighting - an excellent sense of humour. He also had the gravitas, calmness and diplomacy necessary to handle staff, superiors and political and financial luminaries of the Airbus supervisory board. All regarded him highly.

He had to retire in 1988 at the early age of 55, cruelly incapacitated by a rare form of ataxia which leads to total loss of speech and mobility. He suffered this affliction with indomitable courage, supported by his wife Betty. His intellectual powers and humour remained undimmed.

Michael John Goldsmith, engineer: born Dorking, Surrey 20 August 1932; married 1958 Betty Bigwood (two sons); died Welwyn, Hertfordshire 24 January 1997.