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Scientists of Wales: Handel Davies

(December 01, 2015)


Handel Davies (1912–2003)

Handel Davies

There are many references in ancient writings which hint at the wishes of people to be like birds and fly freely to great heights and over substantial distances. Perhaps the most notable is that from Greek mythology concerning the foolhardy Icarus in his venture to reach the Sun with false wings stuck on his body with wax. It was not until the twentieth century that some human aspirations concerning ‘flight’ (albeit with mechanical assistance) were realised. This article concerns one who contributed richly to such aspirations.

Handel Davies was born on June 2nd, 1912, the son of a coal miner; he was raised in Llwydcoed, a village near Aberdare. His primary education was spent at the local school from which he proceeded to Gadlys Secondary Modern School in Aberdare, having failed his 11+ examination*. His innate ability soon became evident and a transfer was arranged in 1927 to Aberdare Boys’ Grammar School. In due time he achieved modest success at the CWB Senior Examinations (corresponding to GCE Ordinary Level and GCSE 16+). It was in the Sixth Form, while pursuing courses in physics, pure mathematics and applied mathematics, that his ability began to shine. At the (then) Cardiff University College he gained First Class Honours degrees in mathematics (1933) and physics (1934) and an M.Sc. in physics (1935). Throughout his life Davies paid warm tribute to his school teachers and local authority officers for enabling him to overcome early disappointment after failing the 11+.*

His natural intellectual tendencies were towards theoretical physics, but the realities of securing employment in difficult economic times in the 1930s forced him to accept a post of Technical Assistant Grade III in the wind tunnels of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. This entailed undertaking procedures that were more to do with development rather than original research. The experiences taught him a great deal about the challenges of the application of the principles of powered aviation, still a very young and hazardous innovation on a commercial scale. It was the start of a 50-year career that spanned many disciplines as he moved from ‘pure’ mathematician to engineer, technologist, designer, project manager, technologist, government adviser, company director.

Hawker Hurricane Mk1, RAF serial R4118; image Adrian Pingstone
Hawker Hurricane Mk1, RAF serial R4118
Photographer Adrian Pingstone

During the Second World War he worked closely with the RAF on improvements to the Spitfire and Hurricane planes, not least to enhance their manoeuverability for the better understanding of pilots. After the war he returned to the RAE to become Head of the Aerodynamics Flight Research Division. This involved taking a leading role in planning and supervising experimental flying on the new breed of turbo-jet aircraft and, consequently, in the efforts to solve problems of penetrating the sonic barrier. During this time he successfully undertook a course that gave him a pilot’s licence; this qualification, he felt, gave him a better ‘feel’ for the challenges faced by pilots. He never aspired to their excellence as test pilots, but throughout his subsequent career he would use his licence to travel extensively on business.

RAF Supermarine Spitfires, Italy, January 1944RAF Supermarine Spitfires
Italy, January 1944

Supermarine Spitfire schematics
Supermarine Spitfire schematics

In the period 1952-55 he was Chief Superintendent of the Aeroplane and Armament Establishment at Boscombe Devon, where all new military aircraft, on his approval or rejection, were deemed fit or not for service in the Royal Air Force or the Royal Navy.

After a period of some twenty years of ‘hands-on’ activity, Davies moved into management at very senior levels of government and commercial aviation. Over the period 1955-59 he was Director General in the government service responsible for planning and supervising work in the aircraft industry and the Ministry of Defence, including research and development on new aircraft. In 1959 he returned to the RAE as Deputy Director at a very time when tentative development was being conducted to create a supersonic airliner with a transatlantic range, culminating in the creation of the Concorde. In addition to this spectacular - certainly to the public eye - addition to the types of aircraft in use, the aircraft industry in the UK was thriving on several challenges, for example, the development of blind-landing capability for civil and military aircraft and the exploration of the feasibility of using fibre-reinforced composite materials in place of light alloys. Davies was a notable leader in these endeavours.


Concorde schematics; image Julien Scavini
Concorde schematics
image Julien Scavini


In 1963 he returned to the Ministry of Aviation to lead the British technical teams in deliberation with their French counterparts once the British-French political agreement had been signed to build Concorde. This responsibility called on all his powers of scientific understanding and political persuasion because the prestigious project was not everyone’s favourite item of public expenditure. The Labour Minister of Aviation, Roy Jenkins, was a formidable ‘doubter’. These inter-governmental responsibilities carried by Davies extended to joint programmes for military aircraft with France and for collaboration on the Tornado plane with the governments of France and Italy.

Concorde taking off from Kansai International Airport in 1994; image Spaceaero2
Concorde taking off from Kansai International Airport in 1994
image Spaceaero2

In 1969 towards the end of his professional career, aged 57, Davies became Technical Director and member of the corporate board of the British Aircraft Corporation. At the time the company was engaged in the production of the BAC 111, Concorde, Jaguar and Tornado, as well as being a leading force in the search for new technical ideas and in unremitting efforts to improve productivity and enhancing safety procedures. He was a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Engineering. His work in the government service was recognised in the award of Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB).

In his personal life, often with Mary his wife since 1942, he maintained keen interest in sailing, in many parts of the world, skiing, music and ancient history. From an early age he played the violin and trombone. He and Mary delighted in music, mostly orchestral and especially opera. They had no children but were survived (Mary also died in 2003) by their tortoises, Tristan and Isolde.

* The 11-Plus was the selection test taken by all children at the end of their final year of primary school. Used between 1944 and 1968 its results determined which type of school each pupil attended the following year. Those who passed went to grammar schools, while those who failed went to secondary modern schools.

Neville Evans, December 2015


If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Dr Neville Evans, in his series Scientists of Wales:


     ERH Jones; December 2016
Elwyn Hughes
; September 2016
Gareth Roberts
; June 2016
Ezer Griffiths; March 2016

Handel Davies; December 2015
Mathematicians of Wales; September 2015

Professor Eleri Pryce; June 2015

William Robert Grove; March 2015

Frank Llewellyn-Jones; December 2014

Professor Julie Williams; September 2014

Ieuan Maddock, F.R.S.; June 2014

John Houghton, F.R.S.; March 2014

David Brunt, F.R.S.; December 2013

Professor John Beynon; September 2013

John Meurig Thomas; June 2013
Robert Recorde and William Jones; March 2013
Richard Tecwyn Williams, F.R.S; December 2012

Lyn Evans; September 2012
E G Bowen; June 2012

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