Ralph Hooper – aeronautical engineer

Ralph Hooper (1926-2022), aeronautical engineer, was the first designer of the Hawker Siddeley P.1127, the  vertical-take-off-and-landing aeroplane which evolved into the revolutionary Harrier jump-jet. During his later career with Hawker Siddeley, which became part of British Aerospace, he oversaw a number of other projects, including the P1182 that developed into the highly successful Hawk jet trainer, and played an activerole in selling these aircraft overseas. He retired in 1985, following the cancellation of the P1216, a supersonic version of the Harrier.

Obituary – Ralph Hooper OBE (1926-2022)

In the small cottage where Ralph Hooper lived on his own in old age, the drawers and cupboards were stuffed with boxes of model aeroplanes, almost all of them military aircraft — British, German, American, Japanese and Russian — that he had built over the years and studied intently.

Few of the plastic models were ever painted. Hooper wanted to see the detail in the design and construction of those aircraft. He liked to see the bolts and rivets.

Elsewhere, amid the flotsam and jetsam of his life, were piles of aeronautical magazines, photographs, honours and awards, and correspondence with distinguished engineering bodies.

To many observers, the cottage and its occupant appeared to exist in a state of chaos, but the opposite was true. Hooper was a master of organisation and precision.

Ralph Hooper, right, in 1972 in front of Harrier, with the test pilot Tony Hawkes
Photo courtesy of BAE Systems

The Harrier was unique as a military aircraft, with vertical/short-take-off and landing capabilities — known by the acronym V/Stol — and played a decisive role in the British victory in the Falklands conflict in 1982.

Hooper devised an aircraft with vertical lift, using a jet engine that had four swivelling nozzles for directing the power or thrust generated by the aircraft in different directions. Most jet engines have only one nozzle directing thrust. The Harrier also had small auxiliary exhaust nozzles fitted in the nose, tail and wingtips that provided further balance while the aircraft hovered, an action activated by the pilot’s normal flying controls.

Such innovations meant that the first operational Harriers, which were ordered by the RAF as ground-attack aircraft during the Cold War, could operate from isolated positions far from the main airfields. In other guises, as a fighter ordered for the Royal Navy, the Harrier could virtually stop in mid-air as a chasing fighter flew past, and then suddenly attack the enemy from behind. By any benchmark, it was a remarkable manoeuvre.

According to one colleague, “the Harrier would never have existed without Ralph’s unique vision and his subsequent determination to find the simplest possible design solutions. It is the world’s only vertical take-off and landing jet fighter.

“Eventually, over 800 were built for the RAF, the Royal Navy and, mostly, for the US Marine Corps, who still use the later versions to this day, over 50 years since the first Harrier went into service.”

After being interviewed by Camm for a job with Hawker in 1948, Hooper joined the design department at its factory in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey, working on the Hawker Hunter jet fighter. Four years later, he moved to an office looking at potential new aircraft.

Hooper in c 1960
Ralph Hopper 1960

In 1957 Hooper started work on a project known as P.1127, which led to the development of the Harrier. Unlike most modern British military aircraft, the Harrier was not developed in response to government requirements, but was a private initiative pursued by the Hawker company. The cost of developing its engine was supported by the Americans through Nato.

As it turned out, this was fortuitous. Many projects initiated by the British government at this time were later scaled back or cancelled because of defence cuts.

Hooper worked closely with an engineer from the Bristol Aeroplane Company, Gordon Lewis, who was a specialist in jet propulsion and had been working on a short take-off engine called the BE53 with two rotating nozzles. Hooper realised that, with four rotating nozzles, the engine could provide enough thrust to lift a relatively light aircraft vertically from the ground before rotating the nozzles rearward and flying away conventionally.

By the spring of 1958 Hooper had succeeded in marrying the new engine, known as the Bristol Pegasus, with the aerodynamic and engineering requirements of an airframe for the proposed Harrier, with its distinctive anhedral wings and a bicycle undercarriage with wingtip outriggers. In October 1960 the prototype successfully demonstrated controlled vertical take-off, hovering flight and vertical landing, proving that Hooper’s design concepts worked. He was appointed “Project Engineer P.1127” in 1961 and given responsibility for technical control. He led all further development, drawing together the work of Hawker’s specialist teams.

In a typically self-deprecating interview with the British Library years later, Hooper said: “Any fool could do it . . . There was at one time a series of cartoons of what an aeroplane would look like if it was designed by the aerodynamicist, which if I remember is that it would have an enormous wing and no fuselage; what it would look like if designed by the structures people, which was just two planks of wood with a very large nail between them; and what it would look like if designed by the systems engineers, and so on.

“Now, if it was designed by the test pilot, well, it would be just one magnificent cockpit with a coffee machine in one side and a cigar lighter on the other, and that sort of thing. But they all have to interact and they all have to compromise their desires to suit all the others. So perfectly simple, as I said.”

In 1968 Hooper was made executive director and chief engineer at the Kingston plant. Under his guidance, the company, now known as Hawker Siddeley, won a competition to design a new jet trainer for the RAF, which was the renowned Hawk. The aircraft flew for the first time in 1974.

The Hawk, which is still used by the RAF’s display team, the Red Arrows, has been a big success; more than 1,000 have been built for air forces around the world.

Elected a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1970, Hooper was awarded the society’s Gold Medal in 1986. He was also honoured by the Royal Society and the American Institute of Aviation and Aeronautics.

Ralph Spenser Hooper was born close to the site of the RAF aerodrome at Hornchurch in east London in 1926. He was the son of Herbert, a senior civil servant at the Board of Trade, and his wife, the former Sheila Spenser, whose forebears included the 16th-century poet Edmund Spenser. The couple also had a daughter, Sheila.

As a boy, he was influenced by his grandfather, who was chief draughtsman for a railway company, and showed early promise as an engineer. He used his Meccano construction kit to link his alarm clock to his bedroom light so that they worked in tandem.

Flying, however, became his passion. He took an early interest in birds, read articles about aeroplanes and listened avidly to an uncle who had served with the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. When he was seven, the family moved to Hull, where Ralph attended Hymers College. He enjoyed playing rugby, struggled with languages, but developed an interest in applied mathematics.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, Hull was heavily bombed and the school was evacuated to Pocklington, outside York.

By the age of 15, Ralph had decided to follow a career in the aircraft industry and embarked on a five-year apprenticeship with the Blackburn aviation company. He started work in the fitters’ shop, moved to the welding research shop, and took night classes at Hull Municipal Technical College, where he studied technical drawing, mechanics and design.

After the end of his apprenticeship at Blackburn, he gained a diploma in aeronautics at University College Hull. He was then among the first intake of students at the newly created College of Aeronautics at Cranfield in Bedfordshire in 1946.

Although Hooper had several girlfriends, he was unlucky in love. At University College Hull, he courted one young woman whose father was a representative of the Civil Service Clerical Association, which sometimes clashed with Hooper’s father, who had become a senior manager at Hull Docks. “It was most unfortunate,” he said. He never married. Nor did his sister, Sheila, a botanist who became a notable curator at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in west London.

A good-humoured man, Hooper enjoyed skiing and remained involved with the Hawker Association, which brought together former employees of the company, and the Brooklands motoring and aviation museum in Weybridge, Surrey.

At Cranfield, Hooper had learnt to glide and then fly. He went solo in a Tiger Moth after four hours and 20 minutes of tuition, “which is not a record”, he said, “but is quite good”. He later became a lifelong member of the Surrey Gliding Club and flew high- performance sailplanes. He believed that learning to fly benefited his work as an aircraft designer.

“Yes, I think it helps, even if it’s only fairly rudimentary stuff. You get used to the idea of what it feels like to pull a hard turn or to fly inverted. It just gives you a feel for the whole thing.”

Later, he said, “I was lucky enough to fly in the company’s products”, including the Harrier and the Hawk. “It’s a delight, I mean the controls are light and it’s not like using manual controls, and it does whatever you want. As one of the marines once said in respect of the Harrier, ‘It goes where you point it and the engine keeps running. Who could ask for anything more?’”

Ralph Hooper OBE, aeronautical engineer, was born on January 30, 1926. He died on December 12, 2022, aged 96

Obituary Sunday Times December 2022

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