SOUE News Issue 10

Gordon Lewis: Pembroke College 1942-1944

An obituary by Michael C Neale CB, sometime Director-General Engines (PE), Ministry of Defence

Gordon Lewis will be remembered for the outstanding part he played in the evolution of the aircraft gas turbine from the pioneering era of the 1940s to the near universal aircraft powerplant of today. He is rightly included in the Rolls-Royce 'Hall of Fame'. This commemorates those key individuals whose work shaped the Company, made 'Rolls-Royce' a hallmark of engineering excellence throughout the world, and laid the foundations for continued success in the years ahead.

Lewis was born on 24 June 1924, the son of a railway clerk, and attended Pate's Grammar School, Cheltenham. In 1942 he sat an examination for the Townsend Scholarship, a closed award at Oxford for Gloucestershire schools, which he won on condition that he satisfied the examiners in Latin. This he duly did after a two month cramming course. The prestige of the Townsend award, of £90 p.a., was enough to attract other awards, notably a Kitchener scholarship offered to the children of those who had fought in the 1914-18 war and - this being the middle of the 1939-45 war - he was given a year's deferment from military service.

Thus Lewis went up to Pembroke College in the autumn of 1942. A further year's deferment in 1943 enabled him to graduate in 1944, this reflecting the shortened wartime degree course. Summoned for interview at the Directorate of Scientific Manpower (an occasion punctuated by the closely adjacent explosion of a V1 flying bomb), Lewis was offered three options for employment: the coal mines, REME training for tank recovery, or 'structural research' at Farnborough. With what in retrospect can be seen as an early example of the determination he maintained throughout his life, Lewis made clear that none of these appealed. He wanted to work on the then secret jet engine. He got his way, and duly arrived at Bristol where he was to make his career.

At that time aero-engine work at Bristol was highly focussed on the development and production of the radial air cooled piston engines that were being produced in large numbers to support the war effort. Gas turbine work took a back seat. Nevertheless by 1946, in response to a Ministry specification, and on his own initiative (he having rejected the engine layout defined by his superiors), Lewis was drawing out a scheme for a two spool engine featuring two axial compressors in tandem. In the fullness of time, after much development, this was to become the Olympus, a landmark in the evolution of the aircraft gas turbine, and to achieve fame as the powerplant for Concorde.

The early success on test of the engine's twin spool compressor greatly impressed Stanley (later Sir Stanley) Hooker, 17 years senior to Lewis, who had moved from Derby to Bristol in 1949, shortly to become Chief Engineer there. Earlier in his career Hooker himself had carried out postgraduate research at Oxford, and quickly realised that in Lewis he had got, as he put it, 'pure gold'. Whilst still in his twenties Lewis was put in charge of all Bristol work on compressor design and performance and, with Hooker, went on to form a formidable engineering partnership at Bristol that was to last for the best part of twenty years.

For pure, frequently hilarious theatre, allied to engineering brilliance, the barnstorming performances of Hooker can have been matched by few in the engineering profession. But those closely associated with the Company knew that behind the undoubted brilliance of Hooker there was always Lewis - quietly spoken, measured, choosing his words carefully, always in full possession of the facts whatever the issue might be, and with a capacity for marshalling and explaining them that could only be admired.

Significant though the success was that Lewis had achieved whilst barely out of his twenties, it was but a prelude to his work that led to the Pegasus engine, the powerplant of the ever to be remembered Harrier vertical take-off fighter. Probably more than any other, this is the engine with which Lewis will always be associated. Its origins go back to 1956. It was then that a French proposal for a vertical take-off aircraft was referred to Lewis who, as was his way, studied it in detail. Whilst in awe of the revolutionary flight prospects offered by the concept, he was appalled by the mechanical and aerodynamic complication envisaged.

Lewis set out to devise an alternative. Ultimately there evolved the powerplant layout which, in its simple elegance, is unlikely ever to be surpassed in an aircraft providing the capabilities of the vertical take-off Harrier: a single bypass engine with four swivelling exhaust nozzles, two each for the front cold and rear hot streams respectively. Thus was born the Pegasus, of which about 1300 examples were to be built, including many for the United States for service with the US Marine Corps. This was an outstanding military export achievement into the notoriously hard to penetrate American defence equipment market. With the British services the Harrier operated successfully in the Gulf Wars and in Afghanistan. Most notably though, the Pegasus powered Sea Harrier (the naval variant) achieved distinction in the re-capture of the Falkland Islands: after the conflict the First Sea Lord observed that "without the Sea Harrier there could have been no task force".

The Pegasus engine
The Pegasus engine

Following the Pegasus Lewis faced what was perhaps the most difficult task of his career: the development of the engine - designated RB199 - for the Tornado aircraft. This programme had an unfortunate start. For reasons outside his control Lewis found himself landed with the responsibility for developing an engine with, for the role in mind, the unnecessary complication of three shafts rather than the two shafts he rightly favoured. Further an imposed competition with other contenders for the choice of engine led to the adoption of ambitious performance targets for which there was no prior technology demonstration. A consequence was that the airframe design commenced ahead of the launch of the engine programme: the cart was now well and truly before the horse. To all this was added the task of welding together the German, Italian and British engine teams with their very different backgrounds and levels of achievement into a unified development effort. Thus Lewis, as Managing Director of Turbo Union, the tri-national company formed to develop the engine, faced a formidable challenge.

Inevitably there were cost and timescale overruns. These attracted much publicity, it tending to be forgotten by the critics that the root cause of the difficulties lay in the unpromising circumstances surrounding the launch of the engine. Lewis bore with quiet fortitude, confidence and good humour the criticisms levelled at the programme. He was never in doubt that ultimately there would emerge an engine that would give distinguished service in the Royal Air Force and the Air Forces of Germany and Italy. That events proved him right demonstrated his mastery of the whole process of complex engine development and his ability to get the best out of people in the difficult circumstances in which the tri-national team had been placed.

However Lewis was not going to be landed with the same difficulties a second time. Thus when in the early 1980s the possible development of a European Fighter Aircraft began to be discussed in earnest he was to the fore in urging the necessity of a comprehensive programme of engine technology demonstration prior to any commitment to full development of the new engine that was in mind. This was met with a long familiar reluctance or, more accurately, refusal to spend money prior to a firm commitment to the project. Lewis showed his customary determination in overcoming this. The required technology programme was initiated and went on to earn the plaudits of the National Audit Office for the huge benefit it conferred on the development of the EJ200 engine for the Typhoon aircraft. Save for the complications of multi-national working this was a model development, a world removed from the difficulties that had dogged the development of the RB199.

An early step on the road to this successful outcome, and one of fundamental importance, was the adoption of a two shaft layout for the engine. No sophisticated PowerPoint presentation of today could surpass the clarity of the case advanced by Lewis to this end. In illuminating a complex technical argument he needed no more than four Vu-foils drawn freehand with a magic marker on the kitchen table. Those simply drawn Vu-foils defined the layout of the engines that will be in front line service with the Royal Air Force and the air forces of the other participating nations for decades to come.

But beyond the detail of his engineering designs Lewis always saw a bigger picture. He appreciated, as did his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, that wherever in the world an aircraft or aero-engine industry is established, industry and Government are inextricably linked - whether either party likes it or not. His MoD colleagues argued constantly that the interests of the United Kingdom are best served when the two work in partnership rather than in opposition. No one saw this more clearly than Lewis. Within MoD he was seen not just as an outstanding engineer, but also as an outstanding ambassador for the great company he served. He worked tirelessly not just as an engineer, but in representing his company to the wider community and, above all, in seeking the common ground in his dealings with government.

This whole process, tortuous and time consuming though it often was, should not be thought of as unfailingly solemn. Especially engaging was Lewis's sense of humour, never far beneath the surface, as Hooker had noted approvingly in his early days at Bristol. The writer recalls that a trait among Bristol engineers was to ring him up in his MoD office at about six or later in the evening. Mischievously he used to claim that they were checking up on him: they were still working and so should he be! On one such evening the 'phone rang and it was Lewis. After he had offered a few complimentary remarks on finding the writer still at his desk the latter explained wearily that he had had an awful day - continuous meetings since before 9 am - and only then, he felt, was he getting down to his proper day's work.

Lewis was not impressed. Without a second's hesitation he replied, undoubtedly with a twinkle in his eye, "Well it's all very well for you to say that Mike, but you have no idea what it has been like down here".

It was heart warming. On another occasion the difficulties and delays in the development of the RB199 were causing great concern in Whitehall. As was the custom, the chiefs there called for a report, and for Lewis in person to present it. Having prepared his report Lewis came first to see the writer, who told him to be prepared. "Gordon," he said, "I know it is not your fault but when you get down to the Main Building you're going to be told to bend over: you're going to get six of the best." "In that case Mike," rejoined Lewis, "do you think that the best thing I can do with the report is to stuff it down the seat of my trousers?"

And this was the man, this giant of the profession - all humility - who had personally made a huge contribution to the aero-engine business right from the early days of the aircraft gas turbine. Self effacing always in the eyes of his friends and colleagues, this merely added to his stature. All in Government who ever met Gordon Lewis will remember him not merely as one of the giants of his profession - but as one of nature's gentlemen.

Lewis retired as Rolls-Royce technical director in 1986. He was the recipient of many honours and awards. These include:

Appointment as CBE; Royal Aeronautical Society Gold Medal; Membership of the team receiving the MacRobert Award for engineering innovation with the Pegasus engine; Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering; Design Council Award for the Pegasus engine; Award from the American Helicopter Society; F E Newbold Award from the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics; Honorary DSc from Bristol University; American Society of Mechanical Engineers designation of the Pegasus engine as an International Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.

Gordon Lewis died on 4 October 2010. He is survived by his wife Marjorie, whom he married in 1947, and a son and two daughters.

Editor's note: Gordon Lewis was President of the SOUE from 1993 to 2002.

The Harrier hovering
The Harrier hovering gracefully - a sight regrettably consigned to the past by defence cuts

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