Professor Bryan Richards: Aeronautical engineer, Concorde developer, and expert on aircraft dynamics

Professor Bryan Richards has died at the age of 79
Professor Bryan Richards has died at the age of 79
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Professor Bryan Edwards Richards, aeronautical engineering expert. Born 30 June, 1938 in Hornchurch, London. Died: 30 October, 2017, in Helensburgh, Argyll and Bute, aged 79.

The deadly roar of doodlebugs struck terror into the hearts of Londoners when Britain’s southern cities and ports were bombarded with German V1 missiles as the Second World War drew to a close.

In a last gasp act of revenge, thousands of these buzz bombs were launched from German armament placements along the French and Dutch coasts on 1944, in retaliation for the successful Allied landings in Europe, which had taken place a week earlier.

One small boy was not frightened, however. Professor ­Bryan Edwards Richards, who has died suddenly in Helensburgh, aged 79, was inspired as these vergeltungswaffen (vengeance weapons), roared out of the sky above his home town of Hornchurch, east of London.

Young Richards watched awestruck as Messerschmitts and Spitfires fought out fierce dog-fights and crashed and burned over the towns and cities of England’s south coast. The buzz bombs or ­doodlebugs, which were ­early versions of the cruise missile and the only production ­aircraft to use a pulsejet for power, caught Richards’ imagination to the extent that he chose aeronautical engineering as a career.

Years later, he said: “Maybe it was the dog-fights and the V1 bombs overhead ­during the war, but certainly the varied aircraft designed, built and flown in the 1950s attracted me to take a degree course in aeronautical engineering.”

Richards studied at Queen Mary College, which is now the Queen Mary University of London, completing, under Professor Alec Young, a course in research and development in aircraft and their simulation.

In the 1960s, computations were generally done using slide-rules and mathematical tables. When Richards joined the Bristol Aircraft Company, they were doing sums using calculating machines.

There were no digital ­computers available then, and they needed urgently to ­convince airlines, ­governments and safety regulators to introduce supersonic transport aircraft. Their work resulted in Concorde.

Richards then joined Imperial College London, working for Professor John Stollery, where his focus was on hypersonic aerodynamics. He said: “We used analog computation techniques using resistance-capacitance networks to ­enable us to extract heat transfer rates from short-duration surface temperature measurements on the ceramic walls of the models.”

The professor joined the ­faculty of the Von Karman Institute in Belgium in 1967 to set up a High Enthalpy Laboratory. This included a heavy piston gun tunnel called Longshot, which is still in use today and is capable of simulating the re-entry of the Space Shuttle at Mach 15-20. Even with today’s computers, this would be a significant task. Through this exercise, he became interested in numerical methods, and devised and taught a postgraduate course in collaboration with post doctorate ­students who were visiting from the US at the time.

In 1980, Richards moved as professor to the University of Glasgow. He was excited that past faculty members included Watt, Kelvin and Rankine, and by the fact he would be able to pursue his interest in aerodynamics more exclusively.

His main focus then turned to unsteady trans/supersonic flows with the then ultimate aim of tackling the very demanding task of simulating aircraft flutter. In the early days of this, they were favoured with shared access to the university mainframe computers, but there was a setback when arts and social sciences researchers demanded desktop computers and the mainframe was shut down.

Richards and his colleagues found a solution by wiring up multiple low-cost PCs and obtained the necessary high speed and distributed memory they required with a modest budget. They were able then to upgrade every three years while increasing their capability to stimulate full aircraft flows. Industry’s ability to tackle large geometrically and physically complex problems and do it cheaply increased exponentially through this important work.

Professor Richards’ research activities in Glasgow involved application to interdisciplinary problems such as flight mechanics and flow control of fixed wing and rotor aircraft, all carried out with national and international partners.

He retired from the Mechan Chair in the Department of Aerospace Engineering after a career of 43 years in ­aerospace, including a period as editor of the specialist journal Progress in Aerospace Sciences. He was also a board member, reviewer and author.

As Emeritus Professor and Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the Department, he continued to be based in Glasgow until his sudden death from a heart attack while returning home from a visit to the dentist.

During his undergraduate studies in London, Professor Richards developed an interest in sailing which became a lifetime passion. It was ­inevitable that with the Firth of Clyde on their doorstep, Richards and his wife, Margaret, also a sailor, and a growing family of four children, this became his main pastime.

He built sailing dinghies for the children and it was with great astonishment and pride that his daughter, Emma, became the first British yachtswoman and youngest ever person to complete the Around Alone, a 29,000 mile, single-handed round the world yacht race with stops in an open 60ft boat in 2002/3.

She now lives in New Zealand with her husband Mike Sanderson, and their three children. Professor Richards’ elder daughter, Phillipa, has, like her father, been involved all her professional life in the aerospace and marine engineering industry. She lives in London with her husband and two children. The professor’s sons, Andrew and David, are engineering graduates and accomplished sailors. Andrew is married and lives with his wife and three sons in New Zealand. David and his wife have two children and live in London.

Professor Richards, whose funeral took place at Cardross Crematorium, is survived by his wife of nearly 50 years, Margaret, his four children and ten grandchildren.