Obituary: Sir James Hamilton; aeronautical engineer who developed delta wing for Anglo-French Concorde

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Born: 2 May, 1923, in Penicuik, Midlothian. Died: 24 May, 2012, in Winchester, Hampshire, aged 89.

EVEN as a schoolboy in Penicuik before the Second World War, James Hamilton showed signs of an exceptional intelligence. After completing a fast-track engineering degree, he was sent to work at a secret military establishment in Helensburgh and, in the 1960s and 1970s, he became one of the key figures in the development of the Concorde supersonic aircraft.

He was in charge of the British end of the historic Anglo-French project and takes much of the credit for the design of the plane’s “Delta” wing, which along with the titling nose and the long, slim body gave the aircraft such a distinctive and aesthetically-pleasing look.

But aesthetics were almost incidental. It is easy to forget – now that Concorde is merely a museum piece – the level of excitement prompted by the development of a passenger aeroplane that flew faster than the speed of sound.

And it was developed by British (and French) expertise at the height of the space race, in which the British were essentially interested spectators. Concorde was the subject of national pride and of postage stamps and it earned Hamilton a knighthood.

It flew from Britain to America in less than three and a half hours, compared with eight for the usual subsonic flight. Because of the time difference passengers were arriving in the US “before they left the UK” in layman’s terms. “She travels faster than the sun,” was the boast.

Somewhere along the line, Hamilton segued from being an engineer to being a civil servant, taking a senior post at the Ministry of Aviation, and eventually running the Department of Education and Science, as its permanent secretary. It is some life that has such a posting as a footnote.

Born James Arnot Hamilton, he showed prodigious academic ability and was dux of Penicuik Academy. He did civil engineering at Edinburgh University in the early years of the Second World War and was then whisked off to Helensburgh for secret work on the design of anti-submarine weaponry for aircraft. He also worked on the design of seaplanes and a floating Spitfire was tested on the Clyde.

Research and testing on supersonic flight were done during the Second World War and just a few years later, in 1947, the American test pilot Chuck Yeager went through the sound barrier in a controlled flight in the Bell X-1 rocket plane, an event dramatised in the film The Right Stuff.

In 1964, Hamilton became head of new projects at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, in Hampshire, and was responsible for the design and development of a new supersonic Anglo-French combat aircraft, which entered service in the early 1970s as the Jaguar. It had a nuclear strike capability and was sold to several countries around the world.

But it was Concorde that really caught the popular imagination, though it was controversial. The costs were sky-high and there was concern about the supersonic “boom” as the plane broke the sound barrier. Many were sceptical that it would ever get off the ground anyway.

And it was not just the price-tag and the noise that were causing controversy – the British had surrendered to the French over the figures and were working in metric rather than imperial measures for the first time.

As well as being in overall charge of the British end of it all, Hamilton worked specifically on the design of the delta wing, so called because it looked like the classical Greek letter, basically a tall, slim triangle. The delta wing design was vital to the steep ascent and descent of the plane and Hamilton drew on earlier work by the late Roy Chadwick for the Vulcan bomber.

The Concorde wing was not a straight-forward delta shape, as you looked at it from the front of the plane, it also dipped.

A conventional plane, might have dozens of moving parts and flaps on the wings to control angle and speed, pitch and roll, but the Concorde had just six “elevons” at the back end of the wings. The final measurements (in metres and centimetres, of course) were the result of thousands of hours of meticulous testing in wind tunnels.

On 2 March, 1969, André Turcat took the aircraft up for a first, short, subsonic flight from Toulouse. In October, it went supersonic for the first time, though it would be another six years before Concorde entered commercial service, initially between London and Bahrain. It began flying London to New York the following year, 1977.

More than 2.5 million passengers flew on BA’s Concorde flights between 1976 and 2003, when the planes were finally decommissioned due largely to the rising cost of fuel, though one of the planes had crashed in France in 2000 and there had also been growing concern about noise pollution and increased sensitivity over the high level of fuel consumed.

According to BA, the most common passenger profile was “oil company executive”. The programme had captured the public imagination, though very few Britons could ever have afforded to fly Concorde.

There were only 20 Concordes built and BA and Air France received government subsidies to buy planes, so the programme ultimately made a huge loss in purely financial terms.

In 1971, Hamilton had joined the Department of Trade and Industry as deputy secretary with responsibility for the aircraft industry.

He moved to the Cabinet Office and, in 1976, to the Department of Education and Science. He was the first engineer to become a permanent head of a government department.

He retired in 1983, with a warning that, although scientific research in the top British universities was first class, in most of them it was “extremely mediocre”.

He served on various boards, including that of the Hawker-Siddeley aircraft company.

His first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by three sons from the marriage and by his partner Marcia Cunningham.