The Royal Aircraft Establishment at Bedford

The RAE Bedford Story

The RAE site at Bedford was the UK’s premier flight test and wind tunnel research establishment from 1952 until 2001. This is a brief summary of its history and achievements. Much further information regarding the activity of RAE at Bedford may be gained from the published works of former members of staff,  which are listed on our Publications page.

RAE Bedford History in Brief

The origins of RAE Bedford date back to 1944 and an Aeronautical Research Committee Report No. ARC 7500 which recommended the setting up of a National Establishment for aeronautical research and development. The Government, in accepting the report, decided to set up the Establishment at Bedford. The NAE later became the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) Bedford in 1955 and, after a brief life (1988-1991) as the Royal Aerospace Establishment, transformed to the Defence Research Agency (DRA) in 1991, to the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) in 1995, before further government policy changes led to the split in 2001 into the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and QinetiQ, a commercial company.

The NAE, and subsequently the RAE at Bedford, consisted of two main sites, the wind tunnel site (sometimes also known as Twinwoods) and the airfield site at Thurleigh. RAE headquarters was, of course, at Farnborough.

After the site closure in 2001, a number of former employees formed an association, calling on their personal experiences and their memories of their working lives, to preserve the history and many remaining artefacts related to the site and its achievements. In 2008 this team formally became the Bedford Aeronautical Heritage Group (BAHG).

Bedford Airfield and Wind Tunnel sites – major research facilities of the RAE at Bedford.

The Story of RAE Bedford

While a considerable expansion of the UK aircraft industry had begun in the mid to late 1930s, it was the demands of World War II, in the early 1940s, which led to its huge growth in capability and size. As the tide of war began to turn in favour of the Allies, thought was given to the nation’s post-war prosperity and, because of its technically advanced state, the aircraft sector was singled out as a primary industry for exploitation. However, it was realised that large and expensive research facilities would be required for such exploitation to succeed and as this would be in pursuance of national objectives, the provision of such facilities would have to come from central government sources. Accordingly, it was decided to create an entirely new organisation to provide this necessary research capability. To be called the ‘National Experimental Establishment’, it was initially proposed that it should be sited at Farnborough and embrace the already-existing Royal Aircraft Establishment.

However, for a variety of reasons, it was later decided that the new organisation would be built on land in North Bedfordshire embracing the war-time airfields of Thurleigh, Twinwood Farm and Little Staughton. It would also be more appropriately styled the ‘National Aeronautical Establishment’.

Indeed, in response to a question in the House of Commons from Sir Richard Wells, MP for Bedford, on 28 February 1945, Sir Stafford Cripps, the then Minister of Aircraft Production, replied “In view of the imperative necessity to provide adequate resources in research and development for our future civil and military aircraft construction, and of the many new problems that now have to be faced with the approaching achievement of supersonic speeds, the Government has decided that it is necessary to embark upon the construction of a new research and development centre in this country in which all the latest and best wind tunnels and other apparatus can be installed. After a very complete survey of the country, it has been decided to place the new research establishment in the vicinity of Bedford.”

This statement led to the creation of the National Aeronautical Establishment, subsequently (in 1955) renamed the Royal Aircraft Establishment Bedford.

Following some sensible scaling down of the original rather grandiose proposals, the Establishment was developed on two sites, one adjacent to Twinwood Farm airfield, to house an extensive and extremely capable suite of large wind tunnels, and the other, Thurleigh Airfield, which was rebuilt into one of the most comprehensive research airfields in the UK, in Europe and indeed, in the World.

Construction of RAE Bedford began in 1947, first with new roads, then the first wind tunnels on the ‘Twinwoods’ site, and finally the airfield at Thurleigh. Major building work continued to at least 1957.

Short SB5 research aircraft in flight, July 1962

Concorde Model in 13×9 wind tunnel, June 1965

Wind Tunnels

The wind tunnel provision consisted essentially of four large high-quality research facilities, which would allow the testing of aircraft configurations and components at speeds from around eighty miles per hour up to a Mach number of 5, or five times the speed of sound. These were (in order of completion) the 3×3 supersonic tunnel, the 13×9 low speed tunnel, the 8×8 supersonic tunnel, and the 3×4 high supersonic speed tunnel (HSST). The numerals identify the working section dimensions in feet, width by height. The 8×8 and the 3×4 were the largest tunnels in their Mach number range in Western Europe. A low speed tunnel was also provided specifically to study the spinning characteristics of aircraft, which was a little understood phenomenon at the time. This Vertical Spinning Tunnel (VST) and the 13×9 low speed tunnel are still in use, the VST for skydiving and the 13×9 for the development of racing cars by Red Bull. A number of small tunnels were also built to provide for aerodynamic studies of a more fundamental nature.

These tunnels were fully utilised and served for the whole second half of the twentieth century and virtually every British aircraft project, and many from overseas, benefited from their advanced aerodynamic capabilities and from the quality and knowledge of the scientific, engineering and industrial people who staffed them. The contribution of the National Aeronautical Establishment (later the ‘Royal Aircraft Establishment Bedford’) to both the Nation’s security and to its industrial wellbeing was outstanding. Its legacy will continue to be felt and valued well into the twenty-first century.

Over a period between 1970 and 1972, a group of aerodynamics staff moved from the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) Teddington to RAE. The group that moved was largely the High Speed Aerodynamics Group of the NPL Aerodynamics Division. About 10 people moved to Bedford. The intention was that the high speed tunnels at Teddington would be dismantled and rebuilt, and the staff would go with them. In the event, although a lot of money was spent on design-studies for this purpose, no tunnels were ever rebuilt.

The 8ft x 8ft Wind Tunnel in 1982

The Airfield

The new airfield at Thurleigh required that the former WWII airfield be substantially re-built, to provide a new main runway 10500 x 300 ft, together with test facilities for naval aviation R&D.

Naval Air Department was the first unit to begin research on the airfield, in 1954, followed by the Flight Division of Aerodynamics Department, less formally known as ‘Aero Flight‘, in 1955. The Blind Landing Experimental Unit (BLEU) moved in from Martlesham Heath in 1957.

More information about these units can be found by following the links given above.

The scientific and engineering challenges of the period between the mid 1950s and 1972 at RAE Bedford had by 1972 been resolved satisfactorily. As the fundamental and focused research of BLEU and that of Aero Flight were completing, the research direction needed to change. With the broad scientific and engineering capability and competency of its staff, diversification to address the impact of developing technologies at the time and the potential operational benefits to MOD and Civil operations was made. Many enabling technologies were showing considerable promise in the early 1970s, not least of which were the rapid developments in digital technology. Nevertheless the departmental role continued to address customer requirements with the emphasis on innovation through application.

In 1974 departmental organisational changes took effect with a new departmental structure. This structure brought together the staff from BLEU and Aero Flight and the helicopter group from NAD which were then combined under Flight Systems Department. This department had several formats, sometimes with its administrative centre at Farnborough and sometimes at Bedford. Initially, for example, that part at Bedford was structured under three divisions, namely, Flight Dynamics (FS1), Operational Systems (FS2) and Common Services (FS6). The confusing details will not be elaborated further. Whatever the titles, work areas fell broadly into flight dynamics and flight control, operational systems and flight management, and flight simulation.

The widely recognised experience and knowledge of the new department staff allowed the department to address technology diversification with multi-disciplined teams. This approach also allowed the direct benefit of the research work to the MOD and Civil operating customers to continue and grow. This ‘total systems’ approach was the key enabler to the provision of the many research products of RAE Bedford for the next thirty years.

Bedford (Thurleigh) Airfield

Major Work Programmes

The major work programmes with their aircraft and other facilities that made significant contributions to MOD and the Civil Authorities were:

1. Tactical Landing Guidance, including guidance for helicopters to remote sites and ships, naval aircraft Carrier Guidance and visual approach and tactical aids. This work involved the aircraft Hawker Siddeley 748 XW750, Wessex XR503.

2. Radio Guidance developments, which included Microwave Landing Systems (MLS) and the Microwave Aircraft Digital Guidance Equipment (MADGE). This work involved aircraft Wessex XR503.

3. Terrain Following, as applied to the Vulcan and Tornado aircraft fleets. This work involved aircraft Tornado ZA326.

4. Civil Avionics, including Flight Management Systems and Area Navigation. This work involved the aircraft BAC 1-11 XX105.

5. VTOL developments, including VIFF capability, Sea Harrier night and low visibility recoveries to ships, ski-jump and the VAAC programme. These and the VAAC programme with its Advanced Flight Control and Handling Qualities involved aircraft Harrier XW175 and made extensive use of flight simulation.

6. Helicopter research, including fundamental understanding of rotor aerodynamic performance and helicopter flight mechanics. This work involved Wessex Mk1 XM300, Scout XP191 and the Lockheed XH51 (on loan from NASA), the Puma XW241, and Lynx ZD559.

7. Atmospheric turbulence, downbursts and windshear, and Vortex Wakes. This work involved the aircraft HS125 XW930.

8. Flight Simulation studies of all classes of aircraft, and of simulation technologies. Advanced Flight Simulator with its unique Large Motion System and the Real Time All-Vehicle Simulator.

 

Aircraft Department supported flying operations by providing aircraft maintenance and specialised installations on aircraft. RAE Bedford was privileged to have design authority to make changes to aircraft.

Other significant groups supported research work at Bedford, such as Air Traffic Control, Fire Services, Workshops, MoD Police and Administration.

Thurleigh airfield closed officially at 11:00 GMT on 31st Mar 1994. Research flying re-located to Boscombe Down. The airfield was sold to St Modwen in 1996. A scientific enclave was, however, retained under DRA/DERA management, and finally QinetiQ, until 2008.

The Flight Systems Department Research Aircraft, c1983

The new control tower was opened in 1957

RFTU – the Radar Research Squadron in Hangar 4

The Research at RAE Bedford and Publication

Early research themes at Bedford included how to launch fast heavy jet aircraft from ships and then how to recover them again; control requirements for vertical take-off and landing (VTOL); the flying qualities of highly swept supersonic aircraft; and how to achieve safe landings in fog under automatic control. Later themes of research extended to helicopter aerodynamics and manoeuvrability; advanced flight control for combat jet aircraft and for VTOL aircraft; and flight management systems to improve operations, including screen-based cockpit displays.

Whatever the topic, results were communicated to government, industry and other beneficiaries, such as ICAO, via a range of reports and other documents. During the RAE era, the principal publications were RAE Technical Notes and Reports, often re-published by the Aeronautical Research Council (ARC) as Reports and Memoranda or as Current Papers until the ARC ceased to operate in 1980. Papers were also presented to conferences (such as those organised by AGARD, AIAA and ICAS, see below) and published in journals, such as the Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society. Such journals are often available in academic libraries but are not readily accessible on-line. Collections of RAE and ARC reports are available from several organisations, but no single organisation has a complete set.

Organisations holding major collections include:

  • Cranfield University, particularly its collection of ARC reports at its ‘Aerade‘ site.
  • National Aerospace Library, part of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
  • Farnborough Air Sciences Trust

AGARD, the Advisory Group for Aeronautical Research & Development, was sponsored by NATO and operated through a variety of ‘Panels’, such as the Flight Mechanics Panel. Many AGARD publications (such as Conference Proceedings and AGARDographs) can be found at its successor, the NATO Science & Technology Organisation.

AIAA, the American Institute for Aeronautics & Astronautics, held many conferences and published papers in the Journal of Aeronautics.

ICAS, the International Congress for the Aeronautical Sciences, held a congress annually. Papers were published in the book series, Progress in Aerospace Sciences.

The book Wings Over Thurleigh includes an outline of many of the work programmes.

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