Handel Davies, c.b., m.sc., f.r.eng., f.r.ae.s., faiaa.
Aerodynamicist, Administrator, Pilot
Spitfire, Mosquito, Lancaster, Meteor, Vampire, Hunter, Javelin, Canberra, the V-Bombers, TSR2, Tornado, Airbus: could there be a single person who was involved in the development of all these aircraft? Surely not! But the answer is yes, and the man was past student Handel Davies of 5, Horeb Terrace, Llwydcoed.
Handel was an engineer, aerodynamicist, senior civil servant, negotiator and industrialist who operated at the highest levels of the British aircraft industry, in Whitehall and in Europe. He was born into a Welsh-speaking family in Llwydcoed on June 2, 1912. His father Henry John Davies was a ‘coal cutterman’. His mother was Elizabeth, née Howells.
He received his primary education in Llwydcoed, but failed to pass the scholarship so went to the Central School, Gadlys. Then in May 1927 with the help of his English master T.J. Lewis and his wife Gwladys, he gained a place at the County School under the casual entry arrangements, and joined Form IVB.
By the summer of the following year he had gained the CWB School Certificate, with credits that qualified him for what was called ‘Matriculation Equivalent Standard’. Two years later in 1930, he achieved three distinctions in the Higher School Certificate: in Pure Maths, Applied Maths and Physics. The quality of his passes resulted in the award of a State Scholarship, one of four awarded to boys in the school that year. His award, for study at the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, covered his tuition fees together with a sum of £80 per annum. Even so, Handel supplemented his income by playing trombone and violin for the Cardiff Symphony Orchestra. Subsequently, he graduated with a double first in Maths and Physics. He continued in Cardiff for a further two years doing research in theoretical physics, resulting in his dissertation entitled, “Maxwell’s theory and its modifications in recent quantum theories.”
In 1936, he changed his mind about a career in pure physics and took his first job as a junior technician at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) in Farnborough. His post in aerodynamics involved developmental work using the wind tunnels at the establishment. Then, in 1942 he moved to the Ministry of Aircraft Production.
He returned to Farnborough in 1946 as Head of Aero Flight. Changing location in 1952, he was appointed Chief Superintendent at Boscombe Down Aircraft and Armament Establishment in Wiltshire. From there, he moved back to Whitehall. During the subsequent period he was given the task of writing the specification for an aircraft to replace the Canberra bomber. Ultimately, the ill-fated TSR2 was designed and built, but to the great disappointment to those in the industry Harold Wilson’s government cancelled the project after the initial flights had taken place in 1964. Although most of the planes, and the tools used to build them were destroyed, one preserved example of the plane can be seen at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford.
In 1959, as Deputy Director at RAE, Handel had chaired the Anglo-French meeting to discuss the feasibility of a supersonic airliner. By 1962, the Concorde treaty was signed and Handel was appointed joint chairman of the engineering project to construct the plane.
He was to extend the co-operation of the UK and French aero industries, and in 1964 negotiated an agreement in which the French were to lead in the construction of Jaguar, and the British to lead on the construction of a swing-wing multi role aircraft. However, after several years of joint development, the French suddenly pulled out of the latter and initiated construction of their own swing-wing aeroplane, the Mirage-G.
It was to Handel’s great credit that he lost no time and started negotiations with Germany and other Nato countries to develop the Tornado, which is still in front line service today. Some of the technology of the abandoned TSR2 was sufficiently ahead of its time, that is was possible to adapt it for Tornado.
It is a testament to Handel’s technical mastery, immense energy and enduring enthusiasm that he was simultaneously promoting a European plan to build a civilian airliner to compete with the monopoly of supply enjoyed by North American manufactures such as Boeing. Handel ensured that the responsibility for the wing design and manufacture for the plane, we know as the Airbus, came to the UK.
Handel left the Civil Service in 1969 and moved to the British Aircraft Corporation as its Technical Director remaining there until 1977, when BAC merged with Hawker Siddley to form BAe. He stayed with the new company for a further two years as an adviser.
He was a member of many associations and many honours were showered upon him by this country and the USA. He was President of the Royal Aeronautical Society 1976-77, and a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. He was appointed C.B. in the New Years Honours, 1962. We understand from his family that he refused nomination for a knighthood on three occasions, feeling that his achievements were the result of team effort rather than just his own.
After retirement in 1979, Handel agreed to chair the Standing Conference on Schools, Science and Technology, a body which promoted the study of these subjects by pupils in schools for the benefit of the pupils themselves and for the future well-being of British industry.
Handel married Mary Graham Harris in Aldershot in 1942, but there were no children. They enjoyed a range of interests: skiing, opera and especially sailing. They were members at the Royal Air Force Yacht Club at Hamble where their boat Draig y Mor was moored. Mary was for a time a member of Ash Parish Council and later became a J.P. in Surrey. They lived in Horsell, near Woking.
Handel returned to the school in 1959 when he was guest of honour at the School Certificate Ceremony. At the height of his career in the autumn of 1972, he was the subject of an ITV programme in which Lord Chalfont conducted an in-depth interview of the aero engineer. A review of this programme can be found in the Aberdare Leader of November 3rd, 1972.
Handel died on April 28th, 2003 aged 90, just a few months after the death of his wife. In the period following his wife’s death, arrangements were being made to fulfil Handel’s wishes to return home to Aberdare. Sadly he died just before this move was to occur. After his cremation, his remains were brought back to Wales and interred in the grave of his parents in Aberdare Cemetery.
We are most grateful to Handel’s nephew Geraint Davies for providing information and photographs about his uncle. Not all of the material he sent us has been used in this account, and we intend to produce a supplement with these additional items in the near future. Geraint is the son of Handel’s brother Dilwyn, and his wife Thelma (née Gwilym). For a short time prior to WW2, Dilwyn also worked in the aviation industry, at the wind tunnels in Brooklands near Weybridge. Geraint is Handel’s only surviving relative and lives in the family home in Horeb Terrace.
Handel wrote numerous articles for professional journals, as well as for national newspapers. Several of his papers can be found in the online archive of Flight. You will also find many references to him in The Times online archive.
Obituaries for Handel are still available online, (October 2009). Click here for The Times obituary (no longer available without payment), and here for the The Guardian obituary, which was written by Reginald Turnill.
Some additional mementos:
Interview (to stream or download) with Handel Davies, (68 min.) from The Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) new