Obituary: Dr William Gordon Watson, Director of BAA’s Scottish Airports, Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society

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Dr William Gordon Watson, director of BAA’s Scottish Airports. Born: 11 November 1929 in Glasgow. Died: 7 July 2019 in Crieff, aged 89.

A Glasgow schoolboy who ultimately became Director of BAA’s Scottish Airports, described his job as “the most satisfying part of my working life” – yet, modestly, saw himself as “ a small cog in industry”.

William Gordon Watson, born in Somerset Place, Glasgow, used to criss cross the city to visit relatives “by way of a two penny fare on one of the ubiquitous tramcars”. His interest in flying started with model aircraft and plane spotting and he was evacuated duringthe Second World War, hardly remembering peacetime.

From Glasgow Academy (1935-47) he left with six highers and at Glasgow University’s Faculty of Engineering (1947-55) graduated BSc (Hons) in mechanical engineering being awarded a PhD (1955) for research in fluid dynamics.

As a member of the university’s air squadron – part of the RAF volunteer Reserve – (1947-55) Gordon’s first solo flight was in a Tiger Moth and he was the university’s UAS competitor or member of their team every year in which he was eligible. Promoted Pilot Officer in 1952, he represented them in the Queen’s Coronation Procession on 2 June, 1953 and was awarded the Coronation Medal.

Music was another interest and he enjoyed piano “vamping” in a semi professional Scottish country danceband. Car rallying was another favourite: as a driver or co-driver in the Scottish Sporting Car Club, he took part in some ten or 12 events, several three day events and the International Tulip Rallye twice, finishing in the Netherlands. Gordon was elected to Inveroran Salmon Anglser’s club – “the start of a lifelong pleasure in occasional angling in the company of pals.”

National service in the RAF (1955-1957) saw him promoted to Flying Officer piloting Hastings aircraft, Chipmunks and Ansons. Flying friendships formed over 16 months with a group designated as 111 University Air Squadron lasted for 60 years and he described the flying as “exacting” and in Vampires, “ exhilarating.”

Shy about admitting his RAF rank, when meeting men who had been inthe Second World War, if the subject cropped up, he’d admit to being “an Air Force chap”.

Gordon married Mary Sandford Campbell in 1961 and they had two children: Richard Gordon and Hilary Jane.

He joined Scottish Aviation Ltd (1957-75) as Assitant, Aerodynamics and Flight Test Observer, and flew some 400 hours on flight tests, mainly develping the series 2 and 3 variants of the Twin Pioneer STOL (short take off and landing) aircraft. Then, as Deputy Chief Engineer he initiated four highly detailed design studies for new aircraft: a ‘new’ Twin Pioneer, a twin engine, four seat plus crew executive aircraft; a single engine, five seat ‘touring’ aircraft and a single engine two seat aerobatic and with three seats, touring aircraft. “My team of design engineers were immensely skilled but level headed. This was as close as I ever got to being an aircraft designer” he commented.

When he became Head of the Project Department, work continued on the studies but his remit included a search for new projects and products for the company.

By 1967, he was Chief Engineer, continuing to seek projects which might expand the company and deriving a corporate plan for what were the most desirable types of aviation work within which they should try to find their future and which would “exploit the very wide range of Scottish Aviation’s abilities”.

At that time, marketing was quite a new idea but there was praise from one of the directors of the Cammel-Laird Group, owners of the company who knew his work.

Gordon later resigned as he felt the holding company were imposing conditions “against my responsibilities to workforce, customers and local community.”

In 1968, he undertook training at London Business School’s executive development programme and in 1969, was made a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, the world’s oldest learned aeronautical society. The same year, he purchased his first boat and had a dog – “having a dog or three has been a rewarding part of life” he said.

Six months’ unemployment followed despite daily searches for work when, out of the blue came an approach by the Fairey Company, inviting him to take on the role of managing director of the subsidiary Britten-Norman (Bembridge) Isle of Wight.

Compete aircraft – unfurnished, unpainted and without customer options – were bult at Avions Fairey in Belgium and Romania and delivered to Bembridge for storage until customised and delivered. In 1978, BAA made him Director of Scottish Airports. “To my surprise and delight,” he said, “I found BAA to be a very disciplined and tightly controlled organisation staffed by high quality professionals dedicated to running ‘the best airport system in the world’ and that is what was created.”

Prestick was under-utilised and a main concern, so, with the Scottish Tourist Board, he started ‘Gateway’ missions to the US and Canada, promoting visits to the UK using Prestwick and staying a few days in Scotland. “The Board ‘flew the flag’ and Scottish Airports provided subsidies.”

Divorced in 1987, he married Claire Campbell and they moved to Mauchline, Ayrshire. Gordon bought a boat whch needed ‘fitting out’ to his requirements and provided great sailing.

“My time with BAA was the most satisfying part of my working life,” he said.

After retirement he was a Counsellor with Enterprise Initiative, a government scheme to encourage small businesses and he took on some 80 cases, checking credibility and defining the needs.

“The great majority were straightforward but I also had the privilege of meeting about half a dozen people or couples of outstanding character and drive.” The Initiative ceased, as planned, around 1993/4.

Directorship with Cumbria Crystal based in Ulverston, followed.

Interested in the National Museum of Flight, East Fortune, and its “excellent collection of old aeroplanes” Gordon complained to the National Museums of Scotland that they were presented in what he called a very ad hoc manner.

“In vain I urged them to realise that aviation was one of the incredible stories of the 20th century and that with their marvellous collection of models, a few explanatory leaflets and maybe the odd shortvideo, they could excite public imagination about the amazing technical advances and courage of the pioneers and developers. I got nowhere.”

Even the treatment of Concorde, he claimed, was similar. “No story of the concept, technological masterpiece that was created and – little understood – the dramatic effect Concorde had on the world wide civil aircraft industry.”

Despite this “total failure” he became involved in the Aircraft Preservation Society of Scotland, serving as chairman for seven years.

Chairmanship of Argyll and Bute Young Enterprise Scotland for five years saw him encouraging fifth and sixth year secondary school pupils to form companies to find or invent a product, then trade and account for their actions and results to “shareholders”.

With 12 grandchildren, boats were a great interest though he continued designing model gliders – somethng that had begun on his first day of retirement – as well as two, full sized boats, one of them taking eight years before it was right.

BRIAN McGUIRE