From the RAeS Preston Branch Newsletter, Issue 148, September 2010


Keith Emslie MSc, CE, Dip. Aero. Eng., AMIME, AFRAeS

Keith Emslie was born in Birkenhead in 1928 and as a small child moved with his family to Chester.  There, he won a scholarship to the prestigious King’s School where his main extra-curricular interest was rowing on the River Dee, becoming ‘Captain of Boats’ in his final year.  He was also a keen aero modeller and made a three-foot span Keil Kraft Gull glider which flew successfully with the aid of a winch launch that his father made for him using clock gears.  His fascination with all aspects of flight from a very young age determined his choice of career.  In 1946 he entered the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough on a five year apprenticeship in aeronautical engineering, leading to an HND.  So began a lifelong interest in aerodynamics and wind tunnels.  Whilst there he met his future wife Gwenda who, then aged just 17, was a civil servant at the RAE.

At Farnborough he developed a passion for flight in all its forms, particularly gliding.  He first learned to glide with the RAE gliding club in 1948, gaining his ‘soaring’ badge in 1950.  During the next two years, at the Cranfield College of Aeronautics, he continued his specialist interest in aerodynamics and wind tunnels.  He also joined the gliding club at Cranfield.

In 1952 Keith, then aged 24, a fully qualified aeronautical engineer with an MSc and Distinction, was recruited by Frank Roe of the English Electric Company’s Aircraft Division at Warton.  Keith had received job offers from several aircraft companies, including Short Bros & Harland of Belfast and AV Roe of Manchester, but English Electric clinched the matter by offering him £1 per week more than the others!  In those days this extra made all the difference, enabling Keith and Gwenda to marry five months after coming to Warton, rather than having to put off the arrangements for several more months.

At that time Frank Roe was Head of the Wind Tunnel Department at Warton where, within nine months of joining, Keith was in charge of the 9 x 7 ft Low Speed Tunnel.  They were exciting times for English Electric, the early years of what Keith was often later to describe as The Golden Age of aircraft manufacturing in Lancashire.  It was only three years after the first flight of the Canberra and a full two years before that of the P1 supersonic research aircraft that presaged the P1B / Lightning interceptor fighter.

Keith missed serving under English Electric’s visionary post-war aircraft designer WEW ‘Teddy’ Petter by only two years, Petter having left to join Folland Aircraft in 1950 after designing and seeing into production the Canberra high altitude bomber and establishing the basic design of the P1.  With FW ‘Freddie’ (later Sir Frederick) Page and colleagues taking over detail design of the P1, Keith became intimately involved with the supersonic wind tunnel testing of the P1A as it progressed towards the P1B, the forerunner of the Lightning.  Throughout his career, Keith held Petter, Page, Roe, Chief Test Pilot Beamont and their contemporaries in the highest esteem.

Keith was uncompromising, indeed scathing, in his criticism of the Short SB5 complementary research aircraft, commissioned at the time from Short Bros and Harland by a Ministry of Supply and RAE, nervous of the fledgling English Electric Aircraft Division’s radical design for the P1, which incorporated a severely swept razor-thin wing and controversially low-set tailplane.  He felt that the SB5 (below) was an unnecessary waste of time and taxpayers’ money just to prove what English Electric had got right from the start!

Keith often graphically recounted the structural testing of a P1 airframe which failed with a big bang very close to prediction.  Another of his anecdotes involved test pilot Peter Hillwood who, around 1959, at the time of the initial in-flight refuelling trials with Lightning XA847, was understandably concerned that the approaching fuel-thirsty aircraft might be inclined to greedily ingest the tanker’s trailing drogue into its nose intake.  After Hillwood, from the wind tunnel roof, had successfully dangled a representative ‘drogue’ into the slipstream, all indications were that it would also behave safely in practice, which it did!

As English Electric expanded with the commercial success of its aircraft, many senior managers were promoted, including a number to Board level, freeing up opportunities elsewhere.  Accordingly Keith was appointed Head of the Wind Tunnel Department in 1958 at the age of 30.  He would remain in that capacity for another 30 years until he retired in 1988, guiding the Department’s growth to become one of the leading wind tunnel facilities in the world, himself directly involved in the development of many major aircraft projects including Canberra, P1 / Lightning, TSR2, Jet Provost / Strikemaster, Jaguar, Tornado, EAP and EFA.

Keith’s career spanned nearly four decades from the early years of jet propulsion to when flight at Mach 2 became routine.  Contrasting with his ‘day job’, working on the aerodynamics of aircraft capable of speeds in excess of Mach 2, was his continuing fascination with the principles of ‘pure’ flight manifested by his years as a glider pilot and instructor of considerable renown.  Doubtless his knowledge of the principles of airflow, the atmosphere and its properties, was fundamental to his love of gliding.

He was a leading member of the Blackpool and Fylde Gliding Club at Squires Gate and Samlesbury, and the Bowland Forest Gliding Club when the facilities relocated to a new gliding ground at Cock Hill Farm beneath Parlick, near Chipping.  Acutely aware of the need to be closer to the fells in order to exploit the benefits of hill soaring, Keith was actively involved in searching out the Club’s new site and organising the move.  Indeed, hill soaring was one of his greatest joys and after the move he was the first of the Club’s pilots to benefit from reaching the hills, thereupon experiencing an immediate climb to 2,400 ft!  Together with glider pilot colleagues including John Gibson, also of Warton, he designed and built the SD3 (Sailplane Design 3) glider and subsequently the BG135 (13.5 metre-wingspan) sailplane, produced in small numbers by the Birmingham Guild Co.  In retirement Keith continued to glide well into his seventies, amassing 1,834 flying hours, 1,200 of them solo, including over 4,500 training flights with hundreds of pupils.

In an entirely separate capacity, Keith was also an active member of the Lytham St. Annes branch of the University of the Third Age (U3A), sharing with others his knowledge of local history, meteorology and matters technical.  Keith Emslie was a stalwart member of the BAe Systems Heritage Department from its inception in 1995 to within a few weeks of his death.  He was a major contributor to its output, organising many exhibitions and dealing with enquiries relating to the industry’s heritage in Lancashire, having acquired detailed knowledge going back to the earliest days of flight and aircraft production, including English Electric’s ‘flying boat years’ during the First World War and the 1920s.

Keith produced numerous articles and in 2009 the Department published his booklet The English Electric P1 Supersonic Fighter Concept which has since attracted widespread praise as the definitive account of the early years of the development of this iconic aircraft.  In the weeks before his death on 24 April 2010, he was putting the final touches to his history of the Wind Tunnel Department at Warton which is intended for publication later this year.

As a lifelong disciple of Petter and Page – ‘Teddy and Freddie’ – he continued to generate ideas concerning their lives and times for further research and publication.  Keith was a strong and splendid character who had stoically and successfully fought a previous bout of illness a few years ago.  As someone who did not suffer fools gladly, occasionally tending a little towards the irascible when frustrated by the slower pace of others, he was also a gentleman, always willing to share his enviable knowledge of aviation and the principles of flight both with fellow professionals and interested laymen.  But woe betide those who forgot what he had told them last time!

As a writer myself, I was proud in recent years to have become a friend and to have benefited from his unique and kindly expertise.  The Heritage Department will not be the same without him and the condolences of all its members go to Keith’s family.  Keith is survived by Gwenda, his sons David and Martin and their families.

His funeral at the Lytham Crematorium on 30 April was attended by around 150 people who were addressed by David, supported by Keith’s three grand-daughters, with a short eulogy and readings most pertinent to his interests, including ‘High Flight’ by John Magee (“O, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth…Put out my hand and touched the face of God”), Psalm 121 (“I will lift up mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help”), and Isaiah ch.40 (“They will rise on wings like eagles…”).

Without doubt, this inspired choice of readings enabled those present to visualise Keith up there at the controls of his glider, seeking that elusive zephyr that might convey him and his craft to even greater heights.

James H. Longworth


English Electric’s Low Speed Wind Tunnel

The late Keith Emslie joined English Electric two years after the construction of the 9 x 7 ft low-speed wind tunnel, which became one of their most useful design tools.  The following extract comes from the notes Keith wrote recently on the wind tunnels at Warton.

The definitive facility was built by 1948, just in time to check out the B3/45 [Canberra] before it flew.  This had a working section of 9 x 7 feet, driven to 120 mph by a 250 horsepower electric motor.  It was provided with a mechanical balance below the working section which could measure the six components of air load: lift, drag and pitching moment, plus sideforce, rolling and yawing moment when the aircraft was sliding sideways.  This was a rather clever mechanical device, using frames that hung by thin strips of metal and were restrained by weighbeams that registered the loads.  Freedom in yaw was provided by an air bearing, a simple low-flying hovercraft (before those had been invented).  The 9 x 7 foot tunnel, which served well for fifty years, arrived just in time to start tests on the P1 design in late 1948, when the 60° swept wing shed leading edge vortices, which meant that the tailplane had to be lowered on the fuselage and the wing raised to the shoulder position.  If the tailplane was mounted from the fin this placed it in a region of high downwash, which caused the aircraft to pitch up.  The novel layout of the P1 required various features to be tested.  Airbrakes, flaps, undercarriage doors and later external stores had to be optimised.

Keith Emslie (1928-2010) BAE Systems Heritage


With thanks to Peter Fenton for forwarding this information