Sir Peter Masefield

Aircraft designer and pilot who ran BEA and BAA and then became an aviation historian

Thursday 23 February 2006 01:00

Peter Gordon Masefield, civil servant, administrator and aviation historian: born Trentham, Staffordshire 19 March 1914; design staff, Fairey Aviation Co 1935-37; staff, The Aeroplane 1937-43, Technical Editor 1939-43; Air Correspondent, The Sunday Times 1940-43; Editor, The Aeroplane Spotter 1941-43; Personal Adviser to the Lord Privy Seal (Lord Beaverbrook) and Secretary of War Cabinet Committee on Post-War Civil Air Transport 1943-45; British Civil Air Attaché, Washington 1945-46; Director-General of Long Term Planning and Projects, Ministry of Civil Aviation 1946-48; chief executive, British European Airways 1949-55; managing director, Bristol Aircraft 1956-60; managing director, Beagle Aircraft 1960-67, chairman 1968-70; Chairman, British Airports Authority 1965-71; Kt 1972; Chairman and Chief Executive, London Transport 1980-82; President, Brooklands Museum Trust 1993-2006, Chairman 1987-93; married 1936 Patricia Rooney (three sons, one daughter); died Laughton, East Sussex 14 February 2006.

The 20th century saw the birth, and amazing growth, of civil aviation. Great names are associated with that growth - Sefton Brancker, Sholto Douglas, George Cribbett, George Edwards. And to these must be added Peter Masefield. He had an extraordinary career in aviation - learning to design aircraft, fly them, in peace and in war, write about them, organise them and build them. For nearly 70 years he was at the heart of British aviation, in the Civil Service, as chief executive of British European Airways and as first chairman of the British Airports Authority. For two years in the early 1980s he was also chairman and chief executive of London Transport.

Peter Masefield was born in 1914, in Trentham, Staffordshire, the son of a distinguished surgeon, and a second cousin of the poet John, who had a great influence on Peter as a boy. He was sent to Westminster School, which he for ever venerated (later becoming chair of the trustees of Dr Busby's Estate), and then (unusually for that time) for further schooling in Switzerland - Chillon College, Montreux - where he became proficient in French and German. Then to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he rowed for the college, learnt to fly at Marshalls and took a good degree in Engineering.

From a very young age he had been fascinated by aircraft and took his first job, in 1935, in the design department of Fairey Aviation. But soon he wanted a wider field and a wider audience. He found this in aviation journalism, working for The Aeroplane, and later, in 1940, becoming aviation correspondent for The Sunday Times and a wartime aviation writer.

Although already having a private pilot's licence, he was denied entry into the RAF and Transport Command because of his eyes (he always had to wear glasses). But somehow he managed to get the United States Army Air Force to accept him on bombing missions as occasional co-pilot and air gunner, with near fatal results. He was lucky to escape with his life after his B17 was shot up over Le Bourget and just managed to limp home to East Anglia.

He was pulled out of active service by Lord Beaverbook, then Privy Seal, who was attracted to this young termagant writing critical articles in The Sunday Times. In 1943 Beaverbrook made him, at the age of 29, Secretary of the Cabinet Committee considering post-war British civil aviation. With the future, after Alamein and Stalingrad, reasonably assured, it was still a momentous decision. Masefield then took part in the inter- governmental negotiations in Chicago in 1944, leading to the set-up of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which still so successfully and usefully operates.

At the end of the Second World War Masefield was appointed the first Civil Air Attaché to the embassy in Washington - a brilliant appointment, given his happy liaison with the USAAF and his contacts made in Chicago.

He played a significant part in the 1946 negotiations for the first post-war inter-governmental agreement on air service - the Bermuda Agreement, governing air services between the United States and the UK and its colonies and dependencies. The Americans had wanted "Open Skies", as they supposedly still do. And the Bermuda I Agreement was a compromise between mercantilism and protectionism, which the fledgling British civil aviation companies wanted, and the dominant US airlines. The agreement lasted until 1977 when it was overtaken by Bermuda II, with much greater protection for British airlines.

Returning to London from Washington, Masefield was appointed to the newly created Ministry of Civil Aviation as Director of Long-Term Planning and Projects (a post specifically devised for him at Under-Secretary level aged 32). There, Lt-Col Edward Heath was sent to him after passing the immediate post-war interviews for Direct Entry Principals. The trouble was that Masefield had no time to spare for Heath, who soon went off to politics. But he had time for the widowed Alison Munro, now a Dame but then a lowly principal in the department, and her seven-year-old son, both of whom he terrified by flying them at low level across London in a Dragon Rapide.

Masefield was rescued from the Ministry of Civil Aviation by an old friend, Sholto Douglas, by now Lord Douglas of Kirtleside, Marshal of the RAF and chairman of British European Airways. Much to the dismay of many senior executives, Douglas made Masefield chief executive, where he served for five successful and expanding years.

But Masefield was always on the move and went off in 1956 to be managing director of the Bristol Aircraft Co, whose main production at that time was the Britannia - a lovely comfortable aircraft (as I came to know well on the Imperial Defence College tour of West Pakistan, Kashmir, India, East Pakistan and Ceylon in 1962). But the Britannia did not sell and Masefield moved on, with the help of Pressed Steel, to the newly formed British Executive and General Aviation (Beagle) for the manufacture of light aircraft.

It was while there that he was invited in 1965 by the then Labour government to become Chairman of the newly created nationalised British Airports Authority. His period of office - until 1971 - saw great expansion and rising profits. He always remained a staunch advocate of Stansted against Maplin on the Thames estuary as the site of London's third airport.

His appointment at BAA was not renewed after his five-year term, but he was in great demand: a member of the board of British Caledonian Airways from 1975 (deputy chairman, 1978-87, under Adam Thompson), and on the board of London Transport from 1973 to 1982. He was a director of Worldwide Estates and the Nationwide Building Society, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Imperial War Museum, Chairman of the Royal Aero Club, governor of Ashridge College and a member of the Cambridge University Appointments Board; and he always maintained his interests in the Royal Aeronautical Society and the Chartered Institute of Transport. He was knighted in 1972.

Peter Masefield was a kindly, tolerant and courteous man, driven only to anger by what he felt was the short-termism of successive governments - for example the virtual giveaway of our aeronautical manufacturing lead to the French and the unforgivable delay over the decision on Terminal Five. Sir Peter Baldwin, former Permanent Secretary of the Department of Transport, says, "We should have listened to him more."

In his later years, Masefield described himself as an aviation historian. He wrote the definitive story of the tragic loss of the R101 airship, To Ride the Storm (1982), and his own autobiography, Flight Path (2002), is fascinating. He also wrote good, well-researched obituaries for The Times and The Independent and numerous articles on aviation, transport, management and the First World War (a particular interest).

He had a fanatical ability to work. Up at 5am every morning until he was 90, he would write for two or three hours before breakfast, and continue, with an occasional break for food and drink, until 10pm at night. It might be expected that he had no time for his family. Far from it. Helped so much by his devoted wife, Pat, for close on 70 years he would mark family occasions avidly. Christmas was a three-line whip - sons, daughters-in-law, daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren, great- grandchildren: all would be summoned to Reigate. But once there they were not dominated; Masefield preferred to sit back and enjoy contemplating the world he had created.

Towards the end he could no longer do his beloved garden and there were no more beagles. When Beagle Aviation was set up, Masefield, with his typical enthusiasm and research into detail, had found out about beagle dogs. He discovered that they were the only dogs with a sense of humour (pug owners would disagree) and promptly bought a couple.

Patrick Shovelton

In 1980 London Transport was experiencing one of its intermittent periods of turmoil, writes Ian Phillips. Against a background of rising subsidy levels, and increasing pressure from a Conservative-led GLC for improvements in efficiency, the then chairman was dismissed, and a search began for a successor. Sir Peter Masefield, a non-executive member of the board since 1973 and with a background steeped in transport matters, was the obvious choice.

However, at the age of 66 he was understandably only willing to commit himself to a short-term appointment, and he was careful to get assurances that he had all-party support.

As an experienced aviator, Peter would have described this turmoil as mere turbulence, but it grew to the point when even he would have agreed that board seat-belts had to be permanently buckled. Within months of his becoming chairman the Conservative administration at the GLC gave way to a Labour one led by Ken Livingstone and their policy for public transport involved a 25 per cent reduction in fare levels on buses and the Underground.

London Transport and the GLC were taken to court by the London Borough of Bromley, who objected to the increased rates required, particularly as a borough without a tube service, and so followed the cases in the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords. The financial implications of the "Fares Fair" policy were found to have been in breach of the fiduciary duty owed by the GLC to their ratepayers, and the dramatic events that followed eventually led to the Thatcher government's decision to resume direct control of London Transport.

Peter's "short-term appointment" eventually stretched to over two years and throughout this period those of us who worked with him were much struck by his calmness under pressure. In situations where one might easily be near to panic - a House of Lords judgment or a call to a Commons Select Committee - Peter's calm assurance proved of great support.

I remember sitting outside a Select Committee room waiting to be called. Whilst the rest of his board colleagues - me included - sat fidgeting in varying degrees of nervousness, Peter the journalist and accomplished public speaker sat quietly in a corner annotating his opening comments with odd markings. I asked him what he was doing and was told that this series of personal symbols described points at which particular types of emphasis were required. He was ever the perfectionist.

Peter Masefield presided over one of the most dramatic board meetings I have ever attended. He began the meeting very solemnly, saying that one of our non-executives had been guilty of very reprehensible behaviour, and lest anyone should be in doubt about what had been said by him in a radio interview that morning, he reached under the table to produce a tape recorder. The man concerned swept his papers into his bag and left the meeting, never to return. Peter had handled the situation with attention to detail, meticulous prior planning, and with his usual considerable style.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments