Obituary: Professor David Keith-Lucas
Thursday 29 May 1997
He was one of the distinguished sons of Keith Lucas, who invented the first aeronautical compass; his brother Brian, a political scientist and also a professor (sometime Master of Darwin College, Cambridge), predeceased him by five months. Born in the period just preceding the First World War, David Keith-Lucas was educated at Gresham's School, Holt, and at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he read Engineering. He began his industrial career in 1933 as an apprentice with C.A. Parsons and Co, and remained with that concern until the early months of the Second World War.
In 1940 he moved to the aerodynamics office of Short Bros at their Rochester works, famous for the construction of flying boats. He continued with the company and its successor for the next quarter of a century, and rapidly progressed to the position of chief aerodynamist. Soon after the end of the war a decision was taken to close the Rochester works and move the assets to Belfast, where the associated company of Short Bros and Harland occupied premises on Queen's Island. Keith- Lucas moved to Belfast with the company and in the period up to 1965 successively held the posts of chief designer, technical director and research director.
The early post-war years were an exciting period in aviation as the widespread application of the jet engine led to the investigation of many innovative engineering concepts. Short Bros and Harland were concerned with a number of these and Keith-Lucas made a major contribution to their application and successful outcome.The work included research on swept-wings which culminated in the Short SB-5 research aircraft. The wings of this machine were so designed that the sweepback could be adjusted on the ground, and it was flown to study the effect of sweep on low-speed aerodynamic characteristics.
At about the same time the novel "aero-isoclinic wing" concept of Professor G.T.R. Hill was investigated. This came to fruition as the Short Sherpa demonstrator aircraft which flew as a glider, and later powered by a jet engine. Keith- Lucas used his experience in these activities to publish in 1952 a classical work entitled The Shape of Wings to Come.
Interest then moved to jet-borne vertical take-off and landing concepts and after considerable investigation the Short SC-1 aircraft was designed and built. Unusual in that it was fitted with five engines, the aircraft used four of them to provide vertical lift. A signficant problem which was successfully overcome was the control of the machine in vertical and transition flight. A presentation to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers in 1961/62 under the title "The Challenge of VTOL" enabled Keith-Lucas to report the knowledge gained in this field.
Other activities during the Northern Ireland period included the Short Belfast heavy freighter and the much smaller Short Skyvan. From the latter were subsequently developed the Sherpa, SD-330 and SD-360 light freight/commuter series of aircraft.
Outside his professional duties David Keith-Lucas was very much a family man. He married Dorothy De Bauduy Robertson in 1942 and shared with her the pleasure in raising their two sons and daughter. He was also had a concern for the wider community and served on the Senate of the Queen's University, Belfast. His contribution to the university was recognised by the award of an Honorary Doctorate in 1968.
However, the wider world beckoned and in 1965 he moved from industry to academia when he was appointed Professor of Aircraft Design in the College of Aeronautics, Cranfield. This necessitated moving his home from Belfast to the mainland, and he and his wife took up residence in a pair of converted cottages at Emberton, Buckinghamshire, where he was to stay for the remainder of his life. In 1969 the College of Aeronautics was granted a Royal Charter and became the Cranfield Institute of Technology.
Perhaps Keith-Lucas's greatest achievement at Cranfield was the welding together of the original departments of Aerodynamics, Aircraft Design and Flight into a new College of Aeronautics. In 1972 he became Professor of Aeronautics and Chairman of the College, which still flourishes as a major part of what is now Cranfield University. Upon formal retirement in 1976 he was appointed Professor Emeritus and awarded an Honorary Doctorate.
Outside Cranfield Keith- Lucas had many and varied activities in aeronautics. He became a member of the Council of the old Air Registration Board in 1967, a position he held until 1972 when he became Chairman of its successor, the Airworthiness Requirements Board. He continued in this important role for the first, critical, 10 years of its existence.
During 1968 to 1970 Keith-Lucas was a member of the "Roskill" Commission for the Third London Airport. Although this exercise was frustrating in that the Commission's recommendations were not implemented, it had its lighter moments. At one stage Cranfield airfield was considered as a possible site and David Keith- Lucas was heard to comment that its adoption would result in the loss of his job, his home and his friends. Nevertheless the Roskill Commission was of significance in that it was one of the first of such investigations which give full consideration to environmental issues.
In 1968 Keith-Lucas became President of the Royal Aeronautical Society; he was awarded the Gold Medal of the society in 1975.
Keith-Lucas was a great admirer of the Wright brothers and was proud of their association with Short Bros in the early days of the company. In 1979 he set out to fulfil a lifelong ambition to visit the site of the world's first controlled, powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Sadly it was a journey destined to end in tragedy, a serious road accident resulting in the death of his wife and very serious injuries to himself. It was typical of the man that he overcame the disaster and his resulting disabilities to continue his contributions to aviation.
In 1981 he married Phyllis Everard, whom he had known many years earlier at Short Bros.
David Keith-Lucas, aeronautical engineer: born 23 March 1911; Chief Aerodynamicist, Short Bros 1940-49; Chief Designer, Short Bros & Harland 1949-58, Technical Director 1958-64, Director of Research 1964-65; Professor of Aircraft Design, Cranfield Institute of Technology 1965-72, Pro-Vice- Chancellor 1970-73; Professor of Aeronautics and Chairman, College of Aeronautics 1972-76 (Emeritus); CBE 1973; married 1942 Dorothy De Bauduy Robertson (died 1979; two sons, one daughter), 1981 Phyllis Everard (nee Whurr); died 6 April 1997.
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