OBE BSc DIC CEng FRAeS HMIED
8 March 1925 - 11 August 2014
Ollie Heath, right, receives the RAeS Silver Medal from Handel Davies, RAeS President, in 1977.
Bernard Oliver ‘Ollie’ Heath, of Mickleton near Evesham, one of Britain’s most accomplished post-war designers of military fast jets, died on 11 August 2014, aged 89.
Born on 8 March 1925 in Derby, Professor Heath was educated in that city at Derby and Bemrose Schools. In 1944 he gained an external University of London BSc Honours Degree in Engineering at the (then) University College of Nottingham, before being awarded the DIC for advanced study in aeronautics at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in 1945. On graduating, under wartime employment strictures that were still in place, in July 1945 he was ‘directed’ by the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP) to join the aircraft design team of the English Electric Company at Preston, Lancashire, then recently formed under Chief Engineer W E W ‘Teddy’ Petter. His initial interview (in London) for the appointment was by the novelist and physicist, C P Snow, then a senior scientific advisor to the company and the government.
At that time, despite having built some 3,000 Hampden and Halifax bombers under licence to the Handley Page Company during WW2 and smaller numbers of Felixstowe and Kingston flying boats during WW1 and the early 1920s, English Electric was better known to the general public as a manufacturer of electric tramway equipment and domestic electrical goods. Ollie Heath’s first reaction to his appointment was that there must have been some mistake – “I’d been told that I was going to work in the aircraft industry!”
Ollie Heath joined Petter’s team as one of its very first recruits, initially assigned to Petter’s Chief Stressman and de facto deputy, F W ‘Freddie’ (later Sir Frederick) Page. From 1945 -1948, the embryo English Electric design team occupied an art deco former garage, car showroom and government training centre – known as ‘TC’ – in Corporation Street near the centre of Preston. There, Heath worked on the loading and stressing of the world’s first jet bomber, the English Electric Canberra. With no Aerodynamics Office, in those days the Stress Office did all the calculations in support of the Design office. In 1948, with the team numbering around 250 people, ‘TC’ was bursting at the seams and was vacated in favour of facilities at Warton Aerodrome, then surplus to RAF requirements having been extensively used by the USAAF during the war.
Heath’s interests lay in aerodynamics and in 1948 he was offered a job in the new Aerodynamics Office, reporting to Ray Creasey. “Stress Office was reluctant to let me go”, said Heath, “so I used to leave my coat in Stress and then go to work in Aerodynamics!” There, he worked on the conceptual phases of the swept-wing P.1 project, Britain’s first jet aircraft capable of exceeding the speed of sound in level flight and the predecessor of the Mach 2 Lightning interceptor fighter. In 1951 Heath set up the Aerostructures Group, as Leader to be personally involved on the aeroelastic loading of the P.1. His staff included eight young women mathematicians, initially destined for the teaching profession, but who, due to a shortage of jobs entered the aircraft industry instead. The team was also involved in clearance into RAF service of the Canberra. Early Canberras were experiencing buffeting problems, and when similar issues began to be experienced by the American B-57 version built in the USA under licence by the Martin Company and in service with the USAF, Ollie Heath and English Electric’s Chief Test Pilot, Roland Beamont, went across to Baltimore to see Martin successfully applying aerodynamic solutions in part developed at Warton.
In 1954 Heath was appointed Project Engineer, associated with new high altitude, high Mach number designs that proved in the direct line of fire of the 1957 Defence White Paper cuts. His drawings, today retained by the Heritage Department of BAE Systems at Warton, include those for the P.10, a high altitude Mach 3 reconnaissance aircraft of canard layout, powered by turbojets and ram-jet, together with the P.17 tactical strike reconnaissance aircraft. Undeterred by the prevailing climate of cuts, and with an RAF requirement evolving for a replacement for the Canberra, the company started work on a supersonic tactical strike and reconnaissance aircraft which included elements of P.17, to become better known as TSR2, the inaugural project of the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) formed by the merging of English Electric Aviation and Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) in 1960. In October 1956, working under Creasey, Heath had been the first engineer to set pencil to paper on the project. The following year he was appointed Chief Project Engineer and in 1959 Assistant Chief Engineer for Canberra and TSR2, staying with the latter until its cancellation by the Wilson Government in 1965, from 1963 as TSR2 Project Manager (Development). During that period, Heath travelled frequently between Warton, Weybridge and Boscombe Down. Though a body blow and a shock to the thousands who had worked on it, the cancellation was not the fatal blow to the company that some had predicted, its consequences mitigated by the attraction of a variety of other work and aircraft programmes such as Jaguar and Tornado at a time when the UK Government was vigorously propelling the UK aircraft industry down the route of European multi-national collaboration in support of its wider political objectives. Ollie Heath and colleagues were also able to drum up business from other companies and organisations such as Rolls-Royce and the Atomic Energy Authority.
Ollie Heath was made a Special Director of the (then) Preston Division of BAC in 1965. He led the BAC technical team working with Breguet Aviation and the British and French Ministries to design and produce a new strike trainer (Jaguar) from May to November 1965, when Ivan Yates took over the project. From August 1965 Heath also collaborated with the Dassault Company on the proposed Anglo-French Variable Geometry (AFVG) military aircraft and in January 1966 was appointed Project Manager, AFVG. When the French withdrew in 1967, AFVG reverted to a UK project with Ollie as Project Manager, UKVG. Around this time, Heath and colleagues worked closely with Rolls-Royce and the MoD to decide what thermodynamic cycle a new engine would need, laying the foundations for what became the RB199. Colleagues from those days remember Heath as “a perfect gentleman, socially or at work and it was a pleasure to attend the meetings he chaired with Rolls-Royce in the early days of the VG MRCA/RB199 design – civilised and effective.” But equally, those who failed to deliver their allotted tasks on time without adequate reason would be given short shrift!
In 1968, Heath became co-ordinator and international spokesman for the international technical team from the UK, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland and Canada charged with evolving and implementing the specification for the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) which became the Tornado. “It was very fortunate that we got on well”, he said. In fact, remarkably rapid progress was made and by March 1969 the aircraft was recognisably ‘Tornado’, with officialdom amazed at the pace of events achieved.
When Panavia GmbH was formed in 1969, comprising BAC, MBB and Fiat, Ollie Heath was appointed Panavia Director: Systems Engineering (Warton), responsible with German and Italian colleagues for the overall technical aspects of MRCA. Ollie was teamed with Helmut Langfelder of MBB to form the System Engineering Director function of Panavia. This formidable duo was instrumental in forging the engineering configuration of a multi-national weapon system we know today as the Tornado. He was appointed Director: MRCA of the Preston Division of BAC on 1 July 1970 and became Director of Engineering (while retaining his Panavia post until September 1981) in December 1974, British Aerospace Technical Director of Warton Division from 1978-81 and Divisional Director of Advanced Engineering with Aircraft Group responsibilities, including an overview of Quality, from 1981-84. Another of Heath’s responsibilities during that period was to authorise the highly successful first flight of the Fly-By-Wire (FBW) Jaguar, made by test pilot Chris Yeo on 21 October 1981. The FBW Jaguar was an immense step forward, pioneering the digital control technology subsequently fundamental to the Eurofighter Typhoon flight control system.
Heath was made an Honorary Member of the Institute of Engineering Designers (HMIED) in 1975 and, having been a member of the SBAC Technical Board from 1975, was its Chairman from 1980-82. In 1977 he was awarded the RAeS Silver Medal in recognition of his outstanding work over many years on the design and development of military aircraft. He was appointed OBE in the 1980 Birthday Honours List. In August 1982, Ollie Heath and Dr Ricardo Mautino, both then former Directors of Systems Engineering at Panavia, together with Professor Gero Madelung, former Chairman of Panavia, were joint recipients of the Theodor Von Karman Award presented by the International Council of Aeronautical Sciences (ICAS) at a ceremony in Seattle for successful international collaboration in the Tornado programme. At the awards ceremony, Heath gave a paper entitled ‘Engineering Aspects of International Collaboration on Tornado’.
Ollie Heath’s various appointments brought him into close contact with Salford University. Always keen to exploit the mutual benefit of enhanced links between industry and university, in January 1983 he was delighted to be appointed to a new form of professorship at Salford University in the form of the British Aerospace Integrated Chair in Aeronautical Engineering in the Department of Aeronautical and Mechanical Engineering. Professor Heath retired from British Aerospace in July 1984 after 39 years’ service with the company and its predecessors BAC and English Electric, retaining his Chair at Salford until 1989. He was the author of various technical publications and a contributor to RAeS and other aeronautical journals.
During his childhood in the Midlands, Ollie Heath’s interests were first with road and rail transport, with little contact with aircraft other than what he could absorb through magazines. In retirement he retained a keen interest in the history of all forms of transport, particularly steam powered. When he arrived to join Teddy Petter’s fledgling design team at English Electric in Preston in 1945, he could not have foreseen that over the following four decades he would become intimately associated with such iconic aircraft as Canberra, Lightning, Jaguar and Tornado, which in RAF hands secured the UK’s air defences throughout the Cold War and during what many have come to regard as a ‘golden age’ in the history of British military aircraft. Professor Heath, a father, grandfather and great grandfather, is survived by his widow Ethel, son Robert and daughter-in-law Philippa and their family.
James H Longworth
BAE Systems Heritage Department,
The above has been compiled from information in the BAE Systems archive, Who’s Who and personal recollections of Ollie Heath’s colleagues at Warton.