Tony Fairbrother 1926-2004
Tony Fairbrother was a flight-test engineer on board the world’s first jet airliner, the de Havilland DH106 Comet 1, the aircraft which doubled the cruising speed and altitude of conventional propeller-driven airliners.
The prototype Comet 1, designed and built in secret by the de Havilland Aircraft Company at Hatfield, flew in 1949. Aged 23, Fairbrother was responsible for managing the flight testing and certification programme. He was already an accomplished aerodynamicist and flight test engineer, with air experience in the Mosquito, Hornet, Dove, Ghost Lancaster, Chipmunk and other aircraft. He provided an invaluable link between the test pilots, led by John Cunningham, and the design and aerodynamics departments led by R. E. Bishop and R. M. Clarkson.
During 30 years as head of the Hatfield flight development team, Fairbrother managed the air testing and certification of more than 15 new types of civil and military aircraft and their developments.
Anthony James Fairbrother was born in Coventry in 1926. He was educated at Bablake School, Melton Mowbray Grammar School and the de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School.
In 1948, after spells in the de Havilland design and aerodynamics departments, he was appointed inaugural member of the company’s new aero flight test department. Over the next four decades, three of them as head of flight testing and development, he was responsible for organising and managing all the flight test programmes needed to verify the compliance of new aircraft with design and airworthiness requirements.
Fairbrother proved a master of this technically challenging and often sensitive work, earning the confidence of test pilots, designers and government airworthiness inspectors. During one particularly hectic period in the early 1950s he was managing the simultaneous development of half a dozen or more new aircraft types — Comets 1, 2 and 3, Vampire Night Fighter, DH110, Dove Mk8, and Herons 1 and 2.
The work required the careful management of risk in the testing of aircraft to their limits. As a new boy, while recording Mosquito diving speeds and stresses, he had unconsciously succumbed to anoxia at high altitude. He woke up at low level to the sound of a loud bang and the voice of test pilot John Derry complaining that the radar nose had blown off and they were going home. He later recalled: “Unfortunately the oxygen selector was in a different place from that of the old model I was used to, and instead of turning the oxygen to ‘high’ I had turned it to ‘off’.”
Though Fairbrother never had to use a parachute, he once accidentally pulled his ripcord while inside a Mosquito, emerging after landing draped in white silk, to the cheers of the ground crew.
It is hard now to appreciate the charisma of the Comet, which in technology terms was the Concorde or space shuttle of its day. After the prototype’s first flight in 1949, Fairbrother memorably observed: “The world changed as our wheels left the ground.” He was proud that since then about 17,000 jet airliners have revolutionised world commerce, business, communications, diplomacy, leisure and personal travel. Another 15,000 are expected to be built in the next 20 years.
During a negative-g manoeuvre in an early Comet test, Fairbrother observed a bag of lead ballast disappearing down a cabin-floor hatch into the flying control mechanism. He and another crewmember rushed to free it before the aileron and elevator cables jammed.
Fairbrother played a leading part in the national effort to recover from the 1954 Comet 1 structural-fatigue disasters, managing the flight testing of the new modified Comets 3, 4, 4B and 4C. He was particularly proud of the Comet 4, which in 1958 launched the world’s first transatlantic jet services before Boeing and went on to give its customers a quarter-century of safe and commercially successful passenger service. Today the Comet 4 flies on in the shape of the RAF Nimrod maritime reconnaisance aircraft, the Mk4 model of which flew recently.
In 1951, at the height of Comet 1 testing, the de Havilland chief test pilot John Cunningham chose Fairbrother as his crew for the first flight of the DH110, the advanced jet fighter ordered as the Sea Vixen for the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers. He again picked Fairbrother for the 1962 first flight of the de Havilland DH121 Trident, the fastest of all subsonic jet airliners to that date, and the first with automatic blind landing. When Fairbrother’s friend and colleague Tony Richards was killed in the DH110 at the 1952 Farnborough Air Show, he and Cunningham set about testing the prototype to its limits. They performed repeated high-speed dives and pullouts to provide structural data for the accident investigation.
Fairbrother led the Hatfield flight test department throughout the difficult years of regime-change, from de Havilland to Hawker Siddeley to British Aerospace and Airbus. From 1972 to 1974 he was seconded to Airbus in Toulouse to help to organise the flight-testing of the European airliner consortium’s first product, the A300. The wings of this aircraft were a British responsibility, as they have been on all the 3,000-plus Airbuses built since.
First and foremost an aerodynamicist and expert in performance, stability and control, Fairbrother was also competent in systems, structures, instrumentation, electronics and, from the early 1950s, computers. This technical versatility and practical hands-on experience qualified him ideally for the finale to his career. His boss at BAe Hatfield, Charles (now Sir Charles) Masefield, appointed him project manager of the BAe 146-300, a 16ft (4.87m) stretch of the 146 prototype, increasing passenger seats from 70 to 100. Masefield ordered: “It is up to you to make sure that the whole team enjoys this very rare opportunity to revert to the old-fashioned way of doing things — quickly.”
Nine months later, on May 1, 1987, on schedule and on budget, the 146-300 was ready for its first flight. Fairbrother was surprised and delighted when, in the paint shop, he discovered that his team had secretly arranged with the Civil Aviation Authority for the aircraft to be registered with his initials AJF.
After G-OAJF’s first flight, when someone said: “It didn’t even need trimming,” Fairbrother gave his famous impersonation of Victor Meldrew: “Well, of course. We are professionals.” He had brought up several new generations of flight-test engineers and pioneered the application of computers to flight-data recording and analysis. He was a chartered engineer and a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.