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David Keith-Lucas (1911 - 1997):
Aeronautical engineer

David Keith-Lucas was born in 1911 in Cambridge. His father was Keith Lucas, a prominent physiologist and Fellow of Trinity College but also a director of the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company. On the outbreak of War he joined the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough where he investigated complaints from the Front that the existing aircraft compasses were of little use. Lucas discovered that errors were caused by vibration and the vertical component of the earth's magnetic field when an aircraft turned off a northerly course; his work led to the development of the RAF Mark II compass. He also worked on bomb aiming devices, developing the first type to use gyroscopic control, and developed the "photo-kymograph" to accurately measure aircraft oscillations. He was killed in a mid-air collision in 1916; his widow changed the family surname to "Keith-Lucas" in his memory.

Keith-Lucas was educated at Gresham's School, Holt, and at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he read Engineering. His final year overlapped with an apprenticeship at Metropolitan-Vickers; he began his industrial career proper in 1933 as an apprentice with CA Parsons and Co, known for their steam turbines, and joined their design team in 1935. In 1940 he moved to the aerodynamics office of Short Brothers at their Rochester works, famous for the construction of flying boats. He was Chief Aerodynamicist from 1940 until 1949, when the Rochester works were closed and the concern moved to Belfast, where the associated company of Short Brothers and Harland had premises on Queen's Island. Keith-Lucas moved with the company, for whom he worked until retirement in a number of positions: as Chief Designer, from 1949 until 1958, Technical Director from 1958 until 1964, and finally Director of Research until 1965.

After the war, the relatively new invention of the jet engine engendered the development of many innovative aeronautical engineering concepts. Short Brothers and Harland were concerned with a number of these and Keith-Lucas made a major contribution to their application and development, especially in relation to swept wing aircraft, and later, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft.

The work on swept-wings initially produced the Shorts SB-1, a tailless single-seat glider designed by Keith-Lucas and built specifically to test the "isoclinic" wing, conceived originally by GTR Hill; rotating wing tips took the place of ailerons and elevator, and were supposed to make the aircraft more manoeuvrable at high altitudes.  Tested first on July 14, 1951, test pilots found it very easy to handle. A later model, the SB-4 Sherpa, which first flew in 1953, was engine-powered and tested successfully. Meanwhile, 1952 had seen the SB-5, designed specifically to investigate problems of low-speed handling of swept wing aircraft. This model was eventually used as the basis for the English Electric Lightning fighter, one of the RAF's most successful-ever aircraft, finally retired from service in 1988, and with several still flying today. Keith-Lucas wrote his developments up in a 1952 book, The Shape of Wings to Come.

The SC-1 was the first VTOL aircraft to be built in the United Kingdom. It first flew conventionally on 2nd April 1957, and vertically on 25th October 1958. The biggest technical problem encountered was control of the aircraft in vertical and transition flight; Keith-Lucas found a successful solution, which he later described in detail in his lectures to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, "The Challenge of Vertical Take-Off". His work undoubtedly represented a vital contribution to the UK's decades-long world lead in VTOL aircraft.

Other activities during his time in Northern Ireland included the Short Belfast heavy freighter and the much smaller Short Skyvan. From the latter were subsequently developed the Sherpa (not to be confused with the earlier SB-4), SD-330 and SD-360 light freight/commuter series of aircraft.

While in Northern Ireland, Keith-Lucas also served on the Senate of Queen's University from 1955-1965. In 1968, the University awarded him an honorary DSc.

In 1965 he was appointed Professor of Aircraft Design at the College of Aeronautics, (later the Cranfield Institute of Technology and now Cranfield University. Keith-Lucas served as Pro-Vice-Chancellor from 1970 to 1973, and was Professor of Aeronautics and Chairman of the College of Aeronautics from 1972 until 1976, when he was appointed Professor Emeritus having been awarded an honorary DSc the previous year.

Appointed CBE in 1973, Keith-Lucas was also a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, who appointed him President in 1968 and whose Gold Medal he was awarded in 1975. He was a member of the Council of the Air Registration Board, 1967-1972, Chairman of the Airworthiness Requirements Board, 1972-1982 and member of the Roskill Commission for the Third London Airport, 1968-1970. He published many articles in engineering journals, in addition to his publications already mentioned, on various aspects of aircraft design. 

His wife Dorothy died in a car crash in 1979. Their granddaughter Sarah was born in 1982 and given the middle name of Dorothy. Sarah later trained as a meteorologist and became very familiar to a wide public as a television weather presenter at the BBC.

In the words of David Keith-Lucas' colleague Sir Peter Froggatt: 

I was Assistant Chief Medical Officer at Short Brothers & Harland when David Keith-Lucas - DKL as he was konwn - was Chief Designer. Popular and approachable, I found him engaging, interesting and humurous company who would have been equally at home in many environments. His work on vertical take-off planes was pioneered in Belfast. 


Keith-Lucas’ lecture “The Shape of Wings to Come” had some influence on the thinking and even planning of aeroplanes’ designers; certainly it was well-constructed and authoritative. 




Born: 25 March 1911
Died: 6 April 1997
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann; Sir Peter Froggatt