Obituary: Sir Denning Pearson

Click to follow
The Independent Online
James Denning Pearson, engineer and businessman, born Bootle Lancashire 8 August 1980, Managing Director Aero Engine Division Rolls-Royce Ltd 1954-65, Chief Executive and Deputy Chairman Rolls-Royce Ltd 1957-68, Chairman and Chief Executive 1969-70, Kt 1963, Chairman Gamma Associates 1972-80, married 1932 Eluned Henry (two daughters), died Holbrook Derbyshire 1 August 1992.

DENNING PEARSON joined Rolls-Royce from Metropolitan Vickers in 1932 with impeccable engineering qualifications - a first-class honours degree and a Whitworth Scholarship at Cardiff Technical College. Despite this, his route to the top of the company was not through the classical engineering fields of research, design or development. He was one of a small number of young people who went to Glasgow to establish the shadow factories for the production of aero-engines during the Second World War.

Before the war Rolls-Royce had no place in commercial aviation. The Merlin engine had acquired a considerable reputation during the conflict and Pearson, looking for business opportunities for Rolls-Royce after the war, persuaded EW Hives (later Lord Hives, the then managing director) to attempt a limited commercial application for the Merlin. This was achieved by fitting a version of the engine designed for commercial operation to a suitably modified Douglas DC6 aircraft. Forty-four of these aircraft were sold to three airlines: Trans Canada Airlines (now Air Canada), Canadian Pacific and BOAC (now British Airways). The aircraft was also operated by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Pearson went to Canada to see the engine into service and established technical and service backing for it.

Valuable lessons were learned from this operation which were applied to the production of a range of gas-turbine engines for commercial aircraft in the 1950s.

The gas-turbine engine had established a preponderant position in military applications. The Viscount aircraft, the first commercial aircraft to be powered by gas- turbine, powered by the Rolls- Royce Dart, appeared in 1953 and proved very popular with both passengers and airlines. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s gas-turbine power replaced piston engines in major commercial and military operations. During this period Rolls-Royce won a significant share of world orders in the market in both fields and by the mid-Sixties had an acknowledged position as an international supplier for both military and commercial aviation. Pearson played a major role in this achievement. In 1950 he became a director of Rolls-Royce Ltd, in 1954 managing director of its aero-engine division, then chief executive of Rolls-Royce and finally its chairman, in 1969.

Outside the aero-engine field Pearson was responsible for obtaining for Rolls-Royce the business of supplying power units for the British nuclear-powered submarine programme. Admiral Rickover, the 'father' of the United States' nuclear-powered submarine programme, refused to work with any but Rolls-Royce. There is little doubt that the high mutual respect and regard which developed between Rickover and Pearson played its part in this. The nuclear technical facilities and the joint nuclear company, Rolls- Royce and Associates, still bear testimony to the success of this Pearson initiative.

By the middle of the 1960s it was clear that large engines of high efficiency would capture a significant proportion of the commercial aero-engine market in the 1970s and beyond. After much study Rolls-Royce decided to compete in this field and the result was the RB-211, which obtained its first order from Lockheed to power the Tristar, with Trans World Airlines and Eastern Airlines in the US as its launching customers. Within three years the engineering cost of developing the RB-211 had so far exceeded the estimates that the company was forced into liquidation in 1971. The company was subsequently nationalised and the RB-211 was successfully developed.

Liquidation of a company can only be described as failure and Pearson regarded it as such. I was closely involved in these events so the failure is mine also. There is, however, a sequel. The RB-211 became a very successful commercial engine and was installed in a number of familiar passenger aircraft. By the end of 1991 total RB-211 business amounted to pounds 11.5bn in 1991 values. And there is clearly more to come.

Pearson was a man of high integrity. He was not one for small talk but he read widely. He had a great interest in people and what motivated them both as individuals and in groups. He had a positive interest in adminstration.

Despite the RB-211 catastrophe, Denning Pearson's record and achievement constitute a very valuable contribution both to the present Rolls Royce plc and to manufacturing industry in Great Britain.

(Photograph omitted)