Aeronauts, Concorde, and life on campus during WWII

 W. Geoffrey Heath (BSc Aeronautics) wrote for and edited the University’s Student’s Union magazine “The Torch” in 1944. It is therefore our privilege to publish, 70 years on, a new piece by Geoff for this blog. He recalls wartime on campus, his return to Hull in 1994 to participate in the University degree cermony, and the exceptional influence that Hull alumni had on the field of aeronautical engineering.

William Geoff Heath - 1994 graduation2
Geoff Heath (left) with Harry Sunley after receiving their degree certificates in 1994

Degree Day, December 1994.  Seated near the front of the hall nine elderly gents (of whom I was one), sat capped and gowned, waiting to be called forward to receive their degrees.  They were the few remaining Aeronauts who had sat for their final exams half-a -century earlier.  Who were they, and what caused the delay?

First, a little history.  The Aeronautics course was founded in the 1930s for apprentices from Blackburn Aircraft at Brough who already had obtained the Higher National Certificate.  The lectures and labs were divided between the University College (as it then was) and Hull Technical College (the Tech).  The students were known as The Aeronauts.  Since the University College was a branch of London University, which did not offer a degree in Aeronautics, the best  that could be awarded was a Diploma.

During the Second World War, the admission rules were altered to allow sixth-formers with a Higher School Certificate (A-Levels) to become Aeronauts, but they were required to pass the London External Intermediate BSc (Engineering) exam before being allowed to complete the course.  Since a male student’s stay at university during wartime was restricted to two years and three months, the grammar school entrants like me had to study for their Inter BSc alongside the first year of the Aeronautics course.  Thus most of our days were filled with lectures and labs, and we were obliged to attend evening classes at the Tech in order brush up our Engineering Drawing. Then we had to serve two years and nine months in industry before the Diploma was awarded.

William Geoff Heath - First year Aeronauts2
Author of this piece and editor of The Torch during 1944 Geoff Heath (second right, front row) with first-year Aeronautics students at University College, Hull, 1942 outside the Venn Building.

And we must not forget the extra-curricular activities.  No, I don’t mean the social life!  I mean fire-watching on the College roof during air raids, patrolling the streets as Air Raid Wardens, drilling with the Home Guard and flying with the University Air Squadron.

In my years (1942- 1944), there were less than 100 students in the entire College.  Of that population, some 25% were Aeronauts in each of the two years.  Small wonder that we dominated the scene.  The Union, the student magazine, the sports clubs and societies  every aspect of student life could not have functioned without the Aeronauts.  Indeed, had there been no Aeronautics course, one wonders if the University College would have been viable. Could it have survived the war with only 70 students?

And what a fascinating life we had in the aerospace industry and its associated institutions!  Remember that, when we were let loose in the world of aviation, the Wright Brothers’ first flight had taken place only 40 years earlier.  Aircraft were still much the same as Wilbur and Orville had conceived them, many of them biplanes with a braced structure covered with fabric, a piston engine turning a propellor, and control surfaces operated by simple mechanisms.  We were the generation af aeronautical engineers who witnessed (and took part in) the development of jet propulsion, supersonic flight, monocoque structures, pressurised cabins, ‘fly-by-wire’ controls and composite materials.  When we started work, draughtsmen were using pencil and paper; aerodynamicists and structural analysts used slide-rules; computers were unknown.  When we retired, computer-aided design and manufacture were commonplace.

quote.pngThere were only 57 students who successfully completed the Aeronautics course in the ten years which it ran.  Nevertheless, these holders of the Diploma kept cropping up as one went about the aircraft industry.  This was especially true when most of the companies came together as British Aerospace.  We began to visit the various factories for technical meetings as we tried to rationalise our separate ways of doing things, and so at Hatfield I would meet up with Raleigh Hilken; at Kingston with Ralph Hooper; at Brough with Ken Essex-Crosby; at Warton with Alec Atkin and Jim Fletcher; at Filton with Mick Wilde.  Think of any well-known British aircraft or aircraft engine in the post-war years, and a Hull Aeronaut will have had some part to play in its development.  Concorde, Hawk, Harrier, Buccaneer, Vulcan, Nimrod, Shackleton, Comet, Trident, Lightning, Tornado . . . .the list goes on and on.

Although not holding degrees, the Aeronauts nevertheless were able to attend Convocation, and in March 1994, a Fifty Years On reunion was held. During the formal proceedings, supported by my old colleague Harry Sunley,  I proposed that we should now receive a degree in Aeronautics.  Harry and I were asked to submit a paper setting out our argument, and this we did.

To our delight, it was accepted, and thus the few remaining Aeronauts (now in their seventies) were able to add BSc after their names.

©W. Geoffrey Heath, (BSc Aeronautics 1944)



“Torch” Committee: Editor . . . W. Geoffrey Heath






5 thoughts on “Aeronauts, Concorde, and life on campus during WWII

      1. Let me add a few further memories. At the end of our courses, all male students were required to appear before the Joint Recruiting Board (JRB), who decided what one must do for the war effort. Most students were posted to one or other of the armed services, but the country needed engineers more than it needed soldiers, sailors and airmen, so the Aeronauts were assigned either to industry or the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough.

        The Blackburn ex-apprentices returned to Brough, and most of the ex-grammar school men went to RAE. I had managed to secure a job within commuting distance of my home at the AVRO factory at Chadderton in north Manchester, subject to the JRB’s permission, which I was able to obtain. So I began my career as a Junior Stressman , ensuring by calculation that all new designs were structurally sound. I gradually rose through the ranks as Section Leader. Assistant Chief Stressman to Chief Stressman, working on Lancaster, Lincoln, Shackleton, Vulcan, Nimrod and the civil Avro 748. In 1964 the Design Office moved to Woodford in Cheshire, which was even nearer home, and I was promoted to Chief Structural Engineer with responsibility not only for the Stress Office, but also for the Structures and Materials Laboratories.

        At this stage in my career, I served on several technical committees. One, the Structures and Materials Panel of the Supersonic Transport Aircraft Committee, contributed towards the country’s intent to share in the design of Concorde. Another was the Structures and Materials Panel of the Advisory Group for Aerospace Research and Development, which was open to all countries in NATO.
        We met twice-yearly in one or another of the NATO countries, so I travelled to Ankara in the east and to Los Angeles in the west, and to a lot of European cities in between.

        Several of my colleagues were honoured. Mick Wilde received the MBE for his work on the design of Concorde; Alec Atkin, Chairman of several British Aerospace divisions, was awarded the CBE. Ken Essex-Crosby was made an Honorary Doctor of Hull University.

        So the course which did not originally lead to a degree produced some outstanding graduates and some interesting jobs!

        Now a word about ‘The Torch’. What I remember most was the censorship. The College Principal, Prof Nicholson, demanded to read every article before it was published, and would make alterations if something displeased him. A previous editor had been sent down for disobeying this strict rule. All the offending copies were withdrawn, except one which was kept secretly in the Editorial Office as a warning to future editors.


  1. What a great article. Thank you Geoff and great to hear what a crucial part the Hull course played in British aeronautics. You all thoroughly deserved your degrees if belatedly. How much was Hull bitter in the war and were you rationed?


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