Kingston Aviation
Name: Gordon Jefferson
Transcript: 18 – Why was Hawkers so successful for so long?

The company founded by Sir Thomas Sopwith in 1912 endured – under different names – until 1992. Kingston designed aircraft are still in service today; the Harrier 2 is still in service with the U.S. Marines and the Hawk with the RAF. The Hawk is still built today by BAE Systems and continues to attract new orders almost 40 years after its first flight.

An extraordinary outburst of engineering innovation took place in Kingston in the 20th century and Gordon here speculates on why Sopwith and Hawker aircraft were so successful over such a long period of time. A key factor in this was, in his opinion, the company’s ability to tailor aircraft for lucrative overseas markets even if this brought it into conflict with the requirements of the British government.

Hawkers was very, very successful over a long period of time.

Yes, I think it was.

And what would you say was, sort of, the secret of that success? I mean because it had been, you know, I mean, going right the way back to the times to Sopwith Aviation in the First World War the, you know, the biplane era when it when huge numbers of the R.A.F. had been…

Pretty well flown – no other aeroplane when they were flying Hawker biplanes.

That’s right, that’s right. The Hurricane, of course, I mean that goes without saying. The Hunter was, of course, was one of the main Cold War aircraft. And then this, sort of, flowering, you know, I mean, it managed to keep going. At a time, because, I mean, the 60’s and 70’s the industry was….

Really on its knees.

And not just the aviation industry, I mean of course, the ship building industry, cars …

That’s quite right.

I mean everything was going down the ….. The 70’s was the absolute nadir. And then – but the company came up with a couple of very, very …

Good ideas.

Good ideas and you know, revolutionary designs – kept going until 1992. And then, of course, you know, the Harrier is still in service with the Americans.

Yes it still is today.

The Hawk is still being made. So …

It’s part of a contract they have just got.

Indeed, indeed, that’s right. It’s still, you know, going on after all these years. So they obviously did something right. I mean Sopwith and Camm obviously put something into the water which made it …

Quite right.

… gave it the secret of success. So what, bearing in mind your long experience with the company, what would you attribute that to?

Very difficult but I think possibly being prepared to listen to good ideas and see if it were developable. Now if you take the Harrier, clearly Sir Sydney was, I don’t think, probably convinced but perhaps Hooker [Dr. Stanley Hooker, Chief Engineer of Bristol Siddeley Engines who developed the Pegasus engine for the Harrier] said it’s worth having a look at. So you’ve got two clever chaps and they would give it – we were lucky to have in the Project Office some pretty bright brains. But they gave these opportunities to the chaps to have a go.

And if you take the Hawk for example, well we combined with Hamble [Hamble was the home of the Folland Aircraft Company which became part of Hawker Siddeley in 1959 and British Aerospace in 1977]who obviously wanted a replacement for the Gnat [the Folland Gnat was a standard RAF trainer before the Hawk].

This is because it [the Hawk]was effectively replacing it [the Gnat] wasn’t it?

It was indeed, but of course, we had the sense to give these people a chance to design an aeroplane.

Now the big thing we did right with that was – the possibility was that if you toned it right down to just a simple trainer you could use a Viper engine. But the alternative was an Adour. An Adour was at the beginning of its development because it was in a fighter jet already. So that if you looked at what was likely to happen, you don’t want to use an engine which is at the end of its life, you want to use one which is at the beginning. But it was a bit overdone really for – to put that into a, I think – into a trainer at the time.

But never the less I remember going to a meeting and Ralph [Ralph Hooper, Project Engineer] – actually I don’t think Ralph was there. And Chandler [Sir Colin Chandler, Director] had to decide what to do and he said, ‘O.K. it’s the Adour.’ And that did the job really, that’s why it was put in.

And the other thing we did, on the quiet, was to put into the wing the hard points for drop tanks and weapons. But of course, the contract didn’t call for that. But when they found out that we had done this, they were a bit cross because they said, ‘You have put this extra weight in that you didn’t need and extra complications.’  And we had some arrangement with them but that paid off tremendously well because, of course, once you have built the wing you can’t put the pipes in to drop tanks – you have to build new wings, but we had already got them in there.

So we did have the sense to anticipate that it wouldn’t just be a hundred aeroplanes for the R.A.F. The object in the exercise would be in the end would be to sell it abroad which we have done. But we had, we put this in right at the beginning of the design and it didn’t make much difference to when you build the wing – whether you put them in or not. So what, luck would you say?

It sounds to me like several things you, kind of – which I think has been illustrated in the history of the company by various people. Putting your trust in someone, you know, as Sopwith put his trust in Camm, for example. And then ‘future proofing’ – that sounds to me like very good anticipation. But also the fact that you just weren’t building for the R.A.F. You were …

Yes, that’s right – always thinking about the future and what you are going to do to sell it abroad because that’s what you need to do. And it was obvious that unless you have got a good foothold in America – when the Americans buy an airplane, if it’s a military airplane, they buy four or five hundred of them. If you trying to sell them here you’d get fifteen. So you are better off making a little bit of all that lot. And then slowly but surely that is exactly what has happened to British Aerospace [now BAE Systems], now they have got an enormous amount of their income comes from America.

Because they simply buy the aircraft in greater quantities

Yes, of course they do. Yes.

As they did with the Harrier and the Hawk.

Absolutely right. I mean they buy what three hundred and fifty of them whereas we were bloody lucky to get an order of about twenty. It was a bit more than that – but nevertheless, you have to be in with the ‘big boys’ to do any good at all.

We’d sold Hunters abroad so we knew that was – and done all these tropical trials to make sure it was capable of doing all that and whatever ‘mods’ [modifications] were necessary. Yes that’s right.

And I mean because that’s what you have to do – you also have to think about your foreign sales.  And of course there was, there was a potential conflict between just making stuff for the British military …

For the immediate order.

… but it was a private company …

That’s quite right.

… it was there to make money. And there was this potential for conflict was there not?

But we had the right people at the right time. And they are not there now because they have all gone.