Oral history of British science

Dommett, Roy (Part 3 of 19). An Oral History of British Science.

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  • Subjects

    Aeronautical Engineering

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  • Recording locations

    Interviewee’s home, Fleet

  • Interviewees

    Dommett, Roy, 1933- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Lean, Thomas (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 3: Remarks on: university laboratory sessions, steam engines, designing and making gear wheels, dynamos, structural tests, strain gauges and voltmeters; changes in engineering and aerodynamics methods in the 1940s and 1950s; working with aerodynamics, the Kutta condition, wing shape and structure, Bernoulli's law, airflow changes at higher speeds; [5:30] historical changes in air-foil design methods, guesswork methods of the Wright Brothers, Royal Aicraft Factory Farnbourough, the Clark Y wing; historical differences between British and German aerodynamics, Ludwig Prandtl, F.W. Lanchester and Glouert's text book on aerodynamics, the working of wings, problems at wingtips, Professor Black's work on swept wings, comparison of Spitfire and Messerschmitt 109 wing. [10:00] Remarks on: teaching of general principles at university; development of theory of aircraft stability during the war, prewar concerns with aircraft stability and its relation to wing design and centre of gravity, handling characteristics, further differences between British and German approaches, the problem of spin and solution in tail design, as used by De Havilland's; auto-rotation, flow patterns with reference to Blue Streak; [15:10] design experience leading to characteristic shapes, with reference to the aerodynamics and vortex flow of wing shapes of Concorde, Space Shuttle and Vulcan. [short pause and mic noise to find models of aerodynamics shapes]; fuselage shape, boundary layer, drag effect, airflow, vortices and airship handling. [short pause][20:00] Remarks on calculations and models: mental models, back of envelope calculations to check computer results in 1950s, modern computers entailing a loss of intuition; thinking about problems and explaining work to an audience. [22:10] Remarks on RAE director James Lighthill: story about him lecturing; published ideas through RAE memorandums; [short pause] death swimming around the Isle of Sark; excellent management techniques, despite Treasury concerns over Blue Streak. [26:10] Remarks on starting work at the RAE: personnel, low priority of flight test trials; story about repairing a damaged test vehicle with a mallet at Aberporth; importance of empirical testing to solve problems at supersonic speeds. [29:30] Remarks on the work of Ted Phythian and Peter Crawley in developing approaches to solve such theoretical problems. Anecdote about how work going unpublished because department head Bert Hind didn't like vetting reports. Remarks: on writing reports for the precise A.K. Weaver and learning that precision was the RAE house style; RD's interests in, and workings of, vortices effects and vortex flow on moving bodies, with reference to problems of finite parts of infinite intervals, and the value of James Lighthill's reports; difficulties of non linear calculations, interpreting wind tunnel results, and representing data in computers; [35:00] use of TRIDAC three dimensional analogue computer with actual missile components and in solving Blue Streak silo launch problems. [37:25] Overview of RD early aerodynamics work; changes in leading edge design of wings; poor performance of early guided weapons and the learning curve faced in the 1950s regarding limitations of designs; [39:45] atmosphere of RAE in mid 1950s, fascinating time as so much happening; working with a wind tunnel, evaluating supersonic bomber designs; drifting from aero-elasticity problems to other flow problems in guided weapons department, becoming deputy editor of the 'Handbook of Supersonic Data' with Peter Herbert, and producing charts of cone and ogive cylinder wind tunnel test data which were adopted by the Royal Aircraft Society; [45:10] interpreting American computer data of airflow and its later relevance for his work on Blue Streak; solving problems as a team, despite being understaffed; link between RD's data charts and the Skylark sounding rocket. [46:30] Description of Skylark project, CTV5: International Geophysical Year 1957; contributions of Desmond King Helle, Waltham Abbey, Westcott, Derrick Dalton's detailed design; the mistake of choosing three fins not four; launcher's built at Aberporth and Woomera out of Bailey Bridge parts; RD contributions performance characteristics of cone cylinder, and working with Ted Phythian on three fin design; problems with Skylark, unknown areas that were going to be problematic, changes in atmospheric density at altitude making weather cocking a problem and leading to flat spins; [51:10] Pete Herbert's fix for Skylark, involving a magnetometer allowing alignment with the earth's magnetic field; how four fins would have worked better; success of Skylark; RD becoming involved because of his particular expertise and because RAE culture encouraged cooperation. Remarks on: James Lighthill's changes to management culture, applying cost codes to different jobs [coughing]; no mention of ballistic missiles when he was on student placement, RAE initial work on missiles, W.H. Stevens, later ELDO manager. [55:35] Remarks on working at RAE in the 1950s: no cars on site; Empire Test Pilot School and army helicopter section; signing-in on arrival, similarities with structured factory work; canteen; internal social functions, such as film and drama societies; divisional Christmas parties; mixing with other groups professionally rather than socially; developing outside interests after realising limitations of social aspect of work. [1:00:00] Comments on the Guided Weapons Department when he joined: housed in Q134 building, now home to the Royal Aircraft Society's library formally at 4 Hamilton Place, shared building with Armaments Department; armed police on the entrances to protect sensitive work; pressure of work on social life, apart from Morris and barn dancing. [1:02:50] Remarks on start of work on ballistic missile problems in November 1953: re-entry problems, choice of launcher materials, reading research papers when he arrived; 1954 Duncan Sandys agreement with USA Secretary of Defence for sharing ballistic missile and missile defence research; British team sent to talk to Americans working on Vanguard, Redstone and Atlas rockets; limitations of Atlas information; disappearing from view on long travels on missions to the USA; [1:05:35] limited detail of presentations, engineers only needing an idea to work from rather than data; exchanging ideas, not feeling that British efforts were behind Martin and Convair at the start of Blue Streak; pre-feasibility study of Ian Petey on re-entry problems; Aldermaston initial inability to provide Joe Lines with hydrogen bomb size, as they didn't know how to make one yet. Remarks on nuclear weapon design history: wartime work of Claus Fuchs and others; wartime designs for atomic weapons; the RAE and emigre scientists in the MAUD committee; [1:10:30] William Penney and his deputy thinking of nuclear weapon problems in fluid dynamics terms; wartime nuclear weapon design; explosive lenses use in detonating an atomic bomb, with reference to Tailor instability and German wartime attempts to create a weapon using cone compression [1:15:50] Remarks: on British Manhattan Project workers at Fort Halstead; no archival evidence to suggest documents brought from Manhattan Project; unrecognised importance of Claus Fuchs' contributions, his considering himself invulnerable to discipline as a result; early UK nuclear weapons programme, Blue Danube bomb origins, problems of Blue Danube and Red Beard, such as Plutonium phase changes; role of RAE in defining environment of weapons, such as potential problems of Red Beard if used on a Blackburn Buccaneer, [1:20:55] and fusing and arming; Aldermaston's miniaturised nuclear weapon. Short story about aerodynamic problems stopping Vickers Valiant from dropping atom bomb. Remarks on: British aircraft never taking off with live nuclear weapons; solving aerodynamics problems of weapons release; not knowing if Victor and Vulcan aircraft had the same problem as the Valiant, Aldermaston historian Kate Pine. [1:25:30] Anecdote about Valiant undergoing secret work was parked in the car park at Farnborough Airshow. Remarks on: assisting Armaments Department with problems that needed an aerodynamicist; informal conversations in the corridor; being a secretary on Blue Streak structure, materials and aerodynamics panels, consultant to the Black Knight [BK] panel on his areas of expertise, and thus having exposure to the politics of section heads at an early stage in his career.

  • Description

    Interview with rocket scientist and aeronautical engineer Roy Dommett

  • Related transcripts

    Roy Dommett interviewed by Dr Thomas Lean: full transcript of the interview

  • Related links

    Visit this interviewee's page on the 'Voices of Science' web resource

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