Sir James Arnot Hamilton ~ aircraft designer

PENICUIK GREATS exhibitions on Sir James Arnot Hamilton in Jackson Street School and Penicuik Town Hall

Penicuik Community Development Trust3 February 2007,2 February 2008, expanded for PHS Anniversary 9 March 2013.

The new Penicuik Academy (now Penicuik High School) was not long finished when James Arnot Hamilton (born in Penicuik in 1923) became Dux of the school and stood for this photograph on the steps outside. He later joined Britain's innovative post-war aeronautics industry where he specialised in wing design, and the wing for the supersonic Concorde airliner was the peak of his achievement.


The aerodynamics of transport

Shaped for speed: High speed Gloster 1929††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† LNER streamlined trains link Edinburgh with London in 1937


The streamlined Short Brothers Flying Boats from Imperial Airways services to the Mediterranean, Cape Town, India and Australia were called into RAF duties at the beginning of war in 1939

Schoolday years of speed and power

Training in wartime

On completing his school education in Midlothian James Hamilton attended the University of Edinburgh in wartime where he graduated in 1943 with a degree in civil engineering.Until the end of the war the young engineer took part in the development of anti-submarine weapons for the Royal Air Force.His work was with the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment under the aegis of the Royal Aircraft Establishment and the Ministry of Supply.MAEE had been relocated for the duration of the war from its longstanding base at Felixstowe to Helensburgh on the Clyde.This was Britainís main seaplane test facility.Up to 15 aircraft at a time were being tested at Helensburgh including Sunderlands, Coronados, the ill-fated Lerwicks and even a floating Spitfire.Loch Lomond was available close by for freshwater trials. Many of the planes (including Short Sunderlands) were being built further up the Clyde at Beardmores at Dalmuir and at the vast Denny shipyard where Blackburn aircraft were being built at Dumbarton.

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Training in wartime

The Denny shipyard and Blackburn aircraft factory at Dumbarton Ėsee the completed flying boat top right

Training in wartime

Short Sunderlands then and now.††† As they circle and land, their huge form and graceful but lumbering flight is awe-inspiring.

American-designed PB2Y Coronados†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† a Float Spitfire

Experimental design on the Clyde at the warís end

Towards the end of the war in Europe a specification was sent to the Morris Furniture company in Glasgow by the Ministry of Aircraft Production on behalf of the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at Helensburgh.Morris were to deliver three prototypes models by road to Felixstowe. The first, which appears to have been a one-third scale model, had the small tail characteristic of Saunders Roe types. The latter two Morris model prototypes had the high slab tail as found on production aircraft. The model fuselage had a model engine bay for the Beryl engines as found on the production aircraft. The clear value of such combat aircraft in the Pacific war against Japan led to the issue of specification E644 which called for a single-seat, twin-jet fighter flying-boat.To meet the requirements of this specification, Saunders-Roe Ltd. produced the SR.A/1, which, though of conventional construction and hull design, embodied new features in its wing, tail and engine arrangements.The first of three SR.A/1 prototypes flew on July 16 1947, powered by two 3,250 lb thrust Metropolitan Vickers Beryl MVB1 turbojets in the hull with a common intake in the nose and outlets just aft of the wing. It was the worldís first jet flying-boat. A second more powerful prototype was powered by two 3,500 lb thrust Metrovick Beryl MVB2 turbojets. The third prototype had two 3,850 lb thrust Beryl MVB2 units. Jettisonable fuel tanks could be carried under the wing inboard of the retractable stability floats. Weight empty was 11,262 lb (5,108 kg), loaded l6,255 lb. (7,373 kg), and the third prototype reached 516 miles per hour in trials with an initial climb rate of 4,000 feet per minute.

Much later, both Dennys and Saunders-Roe took part in developing the hovercraft.

Experimental design at the warís end

An expert in diving and flight

James Hamiltonís amazing aptitude in understanding the characteristics of diving and flight had been recognized in his appointment as Head of Flight Research when the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment returned to its prewar base at Felixstowe in 1945. He was there for seven years before moving to the Royal Aircraft Establishment Farnborough in 1952 to research the aerodynamics of high-speed flight.Just as Dennys on the Clyde had been equipped with water tanks for testing hull dynamics, so Farnborough was fully fitted with water tanks and wind tunnels for extreme aircraft testing.An important role in the 1950s was the investigation of the early crashes of Comet airliners and the lessons were learned about structure and metal fatigue, especially problems caused by square windows.

Britainís ill fated Comet 1 airliners: Farnborough tests found square windows caused metal fatigue.††† Improved Comet 4

As the nineteen fifties passed into the sixties, financial constraints intensified. Increasing international attention to the development of unmanned missiles made it clear that the political appetite for high speed combat aircraft was waning and a number of promising and not so promising projects were cancelled.Among the projects that failed to gain acceptance was a 1962 proposal for a supersonic jet trainer and light tactical strike aircraft.

James Hamilton shows Princess Margaret an aeronautical model at the Royal Aircraft Establishment,


With so much at stake, choosing the right projects for British aircraft development was vital. In 1964 James Hamilton became Head of new Project Assessment at RAE.Soon after the prospect of a collaborative programme with France emerged to meet both countiesí aspirations for better training and tactical strike capability. Specifications were issued, and in 1965 James Hamilton was appointed Project Director for this the first joint Anglo-French Combat Aircraft.The results were to emerge in service in 1972 as the Jaguar. It was said to be the first RAF aircraft to be designed in metric rather than imperial measurements.

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Co-ordinated work on a British supersonic airliner had begun as far back as 1956. After prolonged design and testing, there was an agreement to share development with France in 1963.With the combat project now under way in 1966 James Hamilton moved over to become Director-General of the Concorde project, the Anglo-French supersonic airliner. He led the project until 1971 and the first Concordes entered passenger service in 1976.The fleet finally retired in 2003.

Sonic Boom

As the Director of the project, before any Concordes were built, James Hamilton insisted that before such a civil aircraft went into service, the public had the right to hear what sonic booms would sound like when the plane reached its top speeds. In the summer of 1967, he oversaw trials with Lightning fighters to test how the public would react to supersonic flights over land by Concorde; they ended with a sonic boom over central London as reporters stood beside him on the Air Ministry roof.The response was hostile, after a promising start and this was bad news for Concordeís commercial prospects. Hamilton reckoned a total ban on supersonic flights over land, as was eventually imposed, would reduce sales by 40 per cent.The first supersonic tests involving Concorde itself took place in 1970, along a corridor between Oban and Cornwall.Hamilton monitored them from St Davidís Cathedral, where scientists found sealing wax they had poured over cracks in the walls remained undisturbed.

A happy way about him to get things done

With a cheerful temperament, and proud of his practical Scottish background, Hamilton smoothed over all the difficulties infifteen years of political wrangling over this controversial Anglo-French aircraft.In spite of politics, anti-Concorde demonstrations, competition from the Americans and hostile media coverage, Hamilton felt in the end that we got the supersonic aircraft right. Many thought that America's swing-wing design, of titanium not light alloy, and flying at thrice not twice the speed of sound, must be the right way to go for supersonic travel. But, said Hamilton, "the Americans got it wrong in every respect. If we'd followed their line the aeroplane would never have been built just as theirs was never built."

Early design by Boeing, selected to build the prototype for Americaís first supersonic passenger plane in the sixties.

James Hamilton had specialised in wing design, and the wing for the supersonic Concorde was the peak of his achievement.In some ways it fulfilled ideas first sketched out by Roy Chadwick in his 1947 long-range jet proposals for the Manchester-based Avro company.

Avroís Roy Chadwick pioneered designs for the Vulcan bomber and Avro Atlantic Jetliner in 1947. He crashed later that year.

The ultra slim delta wing on Concorde gives the appearance of total simplicity. But probably no other part of the aircraft had so much time and attention given to its design.

On a traditional wing there can be well over 50 moveable parts to control and trim the aircraft and complex flaps and leading edge slats to generate extra lift at slower speeds. Concorde has none of this. The Concorde delta wing only has 6 trailing edge "elevons" to control the pitch and roll of the aircraft.

A very practical design expert

James Hamilton was an expert in the practicalities of design for high speed flight. As flying speeds have increased, more "sweepback" has been seen in wing designs. The slender delta wing on Concorde takes this a step further. Looked at head-on, the Concorde wing does not just sweep back by 55 degrees, it twists and droops, apparently simple yet very complex in reality.

This design gives Concorde lift at low speeds by increasing the angle of attack of the wing. And it gives efficiency at high speeds during the supersonic cruise where the delta wing's long chord, narrow profile and short span generates very little drag.

On a traditional aircraft wing a swirling vortex forms only at the wing tips. On a delta wing at low speeds and a high angle of attack, the vortex forms along the entire wing surface, giving the lift required for reliable take off and landing. Over 5000 hours of wind-tunnel testing were carried out to modify camber, droop and twist, to ensure the wing surface vortex would be a stable and dependable source of lift. As the delta wing gets closer to the ground, the downwash of air creates a cushion and landing is made very smooth even though the plane descends at much higher speed.


Delivering Concorde was an immensely complicated logistical, management, design and human relations exercise and there were many vitally important contributors, including Morien Morgan, Director of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, and John Hawkins of Alcan who helped to develop the heat resistant alloys required for high-temperature supersonic flight.

The Civil Servant

After the success of the Concorde project, Sir James moved into government, becoming Deputy Secretary for Aerospace in the Department of Trade and Industry between 1971 and 1973.Here, with his Minister for Aviation Supply and Aerospace Frederick Corfield (right), he oversaw the cancellation of the Black Arrow rocketry programme and provided financial help to Rolls-Royce (whose Filton, Bristol factory was in Corfieldís constituency) when it ran into difficulties that hampered its defence commitments. The assistance included the nationalisation of the strategically significant aero-engine part of RR.He also oversaw from government the first full scale roll-out of Concorde. Hamiltonís next Minister, Michael Heseltine, had the task of persuading other governments to invest in Concorde.

In 1973 James Hamilton moved to the Cabinet Office as Deputy Secretary serving first under Prime Minister Heath and then during Harold Wilsonís last administration.From May 1976 until May 1983 he headed the Department of Education and Science as Permanent Secretary, serving under premier James Callaghan then Margaret Thatcher.

Keeping up standards

In the Callaghan and Thatcher years which abandoned Harold Wilsonís earlier emphasis on technology, James Hamilton became seriously concerned at what he termed "extremely mediocre" education standards in science and engineering at some universities and technical colleges. His interests in excellence didnít end with science: he was insistent that there should be real value in all educational standards and opportunities for young people. Before retiring from government service in 1983 he succeeded in reversing cuts in scholarships for painting and sculpture given through the British School in Rome.

Industry and Education

On retiring from government service Sir James Hamilton took up a series of positions in the aerospace industry and related business.He was a Director of the Hawker-Siddeley Group from 1983 to 1991; of Smiths Industries from 1984 to 1994 and of Devonport Royal Dockyard from 1987 to 1997.In 1992 Sir James was executive member of the steering group studying the organisation of the engineering profession in the UK (The Fairclough Study); the findings of the group were published in 1993 as Engineering into the Millennium. From 1997-2000 he was Chairman of Brown and Root Ltd., a Halliburton subsidiary involved in constructing and running military bases and conducting an array of logistical operations. By now in his mid-seventies, Sir James turned his attention again to education and to developing engineering training. He was commissioned to prepare a critical overview of the engineering profession in Britain and his Report was published in 2001

Sir James Hamilton, Chairman of Halliburton Brown & Root, with award winning studentsTom Marshall and James Haslam at the Royal Aeronautical Society, London, for the 1999 Arkwright Awards presentation. 


Sir James was Vice-chairman of the Council of University College, London from 1985-1999, President of the Foundation for Educational Research 1983-1999, a Trustee of the Natural History Museum from 1984 until 1988,

Vice-president of Reading University Council 1983-95 and President of the Association for Science Education 1985-86. He has also served as a member of the Advisory Board of the Royal College of Defence Studies. Sir James held honorary doctorates from the Heriot Watt University and from the Council for National Academic Awards.

Sir James was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, of the Royal Academy of Engineering, of the Royal Aeronautical Society and an Honorary Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Sir James Arnot Hamilton, born Penicuik May 2nd 1923; died Winchester May 24th 2012.