Obituary: David Nisbet OBE, Electrical engineer, director of Ferranti, honoured for work on Ariane satellite system

David Nisbet OBE
David Nisbet OBE
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David Nisbet OBE, Electrical Engineer and Depute MD of Ferranti Scotland. Born: 20 March 1934 in Edinburgh. Died 6 June, 2018 in Edinburgh, aged 84

David Nisbet was a brilliant and highly respected engineer, senior manager and Director of Ferranti Defence Systems.

He was educated at Craiglockhart Primary and later attended Tynecastle Secondary where he became head boy, technical dux and sports champion.

Charles, his father, died suddenly when David was 17, and David felt he had to establish a career. He went to Heriot-Watt College to study electrical engineering. He was the top student in each year and was awarded the College medal in 1952 and 1953 and the Watt Club Silver medal in 1954. He graduated as an Associate of the College with distinction converted into a BSc in 1968. Following graduation he spent some 12 years as a part time demonstrator and lecturer in engineering at Heriot-Watt and at local technical colleges.

He joined local company Ferranti in 1954 and progressed as a design engineer from junior to senior and then to chief engineer of a Division. The main products were command and control systems for utilities and inertial navigation systems for aircraft and space systems. In 1958, as a designer of aircraft fire control (weapon aiming) systems, it was felt that David would have a better understanding of a pilot’s problem if he had some experience of flying, so Ferranti arranged for him to have some flying lessons. Flying first in a Tiger Moth with an open cockpit Dave remembers the air coming in round his legs and then the luxury of a Chipmunk with an enclosed cockpit.

In the 70s the company granted a licence to a Japanese company to produce an inertial navigation system for a single seat aircraft. This involved numerous visits to Japan over the next few years. Dave enjoyed these trips greatly and forged several lifelong friendships with some of the Japanese engineers.

As Student Member at College he became a Member and eventually in 1986 a Fellow of the then Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), now IET, and a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute again in 1986. Dave was Chairman of the local IEE branch in the 1990s and until 2013 was a membership interviewer, subjecting many prospective Chartered Engineers to his unique brand of constructive, penetrating and always well-informed questioning.

In 1990 he was awarded an OBE for services to the space industry as the project leader and chief engineer of a team developing the inertial sensor for the Ariane satellite launch system. The OBE citation states: “The talented work he has done in this exacting sphere has been exceptional and has established a high reputation for both the United Kingdon and the company as a world leader in precision guidance systems for space vehicles.”

From project and programme manager he became a divisional manager and eventually Deputy Managing Director of Ferranti Defence Systems. He continued in this position until 1992 after the takeover of FDS by GEC in 1990. He has been at various times a Director of Ferranti Defence Systems Singapore, Arianespace and a number of small Italian companies.

When David retired in 1996 after 42 years’ service, his colleagues presented him with a book of memorabilia. The narrative records that “Dave’s dedication to duty, together with his ability to communicate and work with his colleagues has earned him the enviable reputation of ‘a really true gentleman.’ His philosophy, his modesty and his ability to communicate at all levels, has endeared him to us all.”

Dave took a keen interest in sports all his life, particularly athletics, running cross country in winter as part of a team prominent in university and college meets at district and national level, and in summer middle distance track. He represented Scottish amateur athletics in the 440yds hurdles in 1952 and led the Electrical Engineers to victory in the Coronation Cup in 1953. He ran a veterans’ badminton club for many years in the 80s and 90s. Prior to and after retiral he took up hill walking and set about attempting to bag the Munros in his usual determined fashion.

He first met his future wife Margaret at Sunday school in 1938 and they knew one another when he was in the Boy Scouts and she in the Girl Guides. They met up again in 1955 and in 1957 Dave committed himself to the most successful project of his whole career when he and Margaret were married. During their nearly 60 years together they had a deeply loving and happy marriage.

David was a keen exponent of DIY, carrying out the majority of the gardening, maintenance required around the house. He built garden toys for the children; neighbours asked him to fix their cars; and in the 1970s he had three dormers put out on then-bungalow, completing the internal structure, stairs, wiring, plumbing and decorating by himself, with some help from the family.

On his retiral, the family bought a 9.5 acre plot with a Log Cabin named Troll Haugen (House of the Trolls) in Kirkmichael, Perthshire. As this was during the hill walking period he was accused of buying it to get nearer the northerly Munros since all those to the south had been climbed. The log cabin provided another opportunity to do things, such as felling trees to log up for firewood, gardening, organising extensions and general maintenance of the small estate. Dave and Mag quickly became involved in the life of the glen, enjoying two lives, spending half the week in Edinburgh where they looked after grandchildren, and the other half in Troll Haugen, enjoying the peace, red squirrels and conviviality of their rural neighbours.

David had an exceptional intellect, memory and above all, curiosity. If he didn’t know about a topic, he would find out about it, and more impressively, remember ALL the details.

He once attended a management course where the leader suggested that ‘engineers don’t like people’, but this certainly wasn’t true in David’s case. He was always interested in everything about everyone and had a remarkable ability to find out what made people tick.

David never lost this gregarious aspect of his character even as his health deteriorated, asking after and remembering names, faces and stories of all the staff and patients that he met in the Western General hospital and latterly St Columba’s Hospice.

He is survived by his three children: Paul, Wendy and Jill and five grandchildren Mhairi, Kirsty, Harry, Angus and Katie.