PROFESSOR HERBERT HARRY PEARCEY

CEng FRAeS
1921-2015

We regret to report the death of Professor Herbert Pearcey, who died on 10 September at the age of 93.

Herbert Harry Pearcey came from a non-academic background, but through hard work and determination he achieved distinction in the fields of both transonic aerodynamics and racing yacht design.

He was born in Devonshire on 29 November 1921, the son of a farmer and from a farming community. He developed an early interest in science and mathematics and obtained a Higher School Certificate in these subjects from Huish’s Grammar School, Taunton, Somerset in 1939/40. Through an advertisement by the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, he was appointed to a position in the Aerodynamics Division, at that time under E F Relf. In those dark days, young men were liable to be ‘called up’ to serve in the armed forces, but one in ten of those were randomly selected to be ‘Bevin Boys’, i.e. to work in the coal mines. Herbert found he was one of those so selected, but NPL argued that his work there was more important than coal production, and he remained at NPL for the duration. During this time, with NPL support, he enrolled part time at Kingston Technical College and gained a B Sc in Mathematics from London University.

Herbert and Joan (known as Penny) were married in 1946, daughters Susan and Jenny were born in 1950 and 1953. Herbert was clearly a loving and caring father, but sadly disaster struck twice; Jenny developed encephalitis, which left her with permanent weakness, and Susan was later killed in a car accident while a student at Edinburgh University.

In the years after the war, Herbert turned to the problems of flight at near-sonic speeds, in particular to the regime where the accelerated flow above a wing can reach or exceed the speed of sound. When that happens, a nearly-normal shock wave can form on the upper surface, the sharp pressure rise causing the boundary layer to separate from the wing, resulting in increased drag or stall. Careful attention to the wing profile, tested in the NPL high-speed wind tunnels, allowed locally supersonic flow to occur without the attendant drag problems, leading to the so-called supercritical wing. This work became known to the Vickers aerodynamicists, and the VC10, which first flew in 1962, was designed in accordance with Herbert’s work, together with the mathematical work of Johanna Weber at RAE who also died recently. These techniques were later also applied to the BAC 1-11, the Trident and eventually the Airbus A300 series. All these aircraft were faster and had lower drag than their competitors, and in fact the VC10 still holds the record for the fastest Atlantic crossing by a subsonic airliner. Richard T Whitcomb of NASA (who pioneered the supersonic Area Rule for wing/body combinations) is often given the credit for developing the supercritical wing, but his work was preceded by Herbert Pearcey’s by several years. In 1963, Herbert was awarded the Royal Aeronautical Society bronze medal for his contributions to aerodynamics. The first US airliner to use a supercritical wing design was the Boeing 777 of 1995.

In 1969, the Ministry of Technology decided to rationalise its aerodynamic research laboratories, and in 1970 NPL Aerodynamics Division, an organisation with a long and distinguished history, was disbanded and the staff and many facilities relocated to RAE Farnborough or Bedford. A small group working mainly on industrial aerodynamic problems remained at NPL and later formed the basis of the NPL Division of Maritime Science, of which Herbert Pearcey became Superintendent. Later, NPL Ship Division merged with DMS to form the National Maritime Institute (NMI), of which Herbert became Head of Research and carried out ship tank work on the pitch and roll behaviour of ships, not too different from the corresponding aircraft problems.

In 1982 NMI was privatised, and in 1985 combined with BSRA to form British Maritime Technology, now a large and successful multinational research organisation, BMT Group Ltd. By this time Herbert was close to retirement age, but a new challenge arose – the Royal Thames Yacht Club America’s Cup Challenge of 1987. Herbert became involved with a series of wind tunnel and tank tests of hull shapes with the addition of bulbs, winglets, flaps and even riblets simulating shark skin that were believed to reduce drag. Ultimately two rival designs were built but the eventual challenger, White Crusader, failed to defeat the enemy.

After retirement, Herbert was appointed Professor of Aeronautics at City University, a fitting achievement for a tireless worker in the field. His beloved wife Penny died in September 2010 and Herbert continued to care for his surviving daughter Jenny until his death.

John Wills


17 November 2015