View Full Version : The Chudleigh Lot

21st Aug 2017, 07:13
The Times: Magnificent maths men whose heroics in the air equalled death (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/magnificent-maths-men-whose-heroics-in-the-air-equalled-death-60r3jljlh)


They were the flying mathematicians solving equations in the sky, but their breakthroughs cost them dearly.

Research has cast new light on the brilliant young men who risked their lives testing early aircraft during the First World War. They were known as the Chudleigh Lot, eight whip-smart mathematicians, scientists and engineers named after the house in which they lived while working for the Royal Aircraft Factory in Farnborough, Hampshire. Their mission was to solve the biggest aerodynamic problems of their day so that British forces could reconnoitre enemy lines in steadier, safer planes. When the army pilots could not provide the data they needed they got into the planes and conducted their own experiments.

By the end of the war four had died, but not before having made significant contributions to the understanding of powered flight. Tony Royle, who started researching the men’s story while recovering from a heart attack that put his own 20-year career as a pilot for Virgin Atlantic on pause, said: “They showed incredible bravery; some might call it insanity.”

Some of the group, and their contemporaries at Farnborough, went on to great achievements. Sir George Thomson won the Nobel prize for physics; Frederick Lindemann, known as “The Prof”, was Churchill’s chief scientific adviser and later Viscount Cherwell; and Sir Geoffrey Taylor worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. It was, however, the sacrifices of the four “unsung heroes” that most surprised Mr Royle. These were the men who came up with a theory on how to manoeuvre out of a potentially deadly tailspin and then jumped into the cockpit to put it to the test. “They engaged in aerial versions of Russian roulette and paid the ultimate price,” Mr Royle, 57, said.

The first, Edward Busk, was a Cambridge graduate from Sussex recruited in 1912 to improve the stability of aircraft. Regaining control of a plane that had been knocked off its flight path had been proving tricky. Experts had been grappling with the problem on the ground but it needed Busk, as both mathematician and pilot, to develop instruments that could measure the various rates at which the aircraft rolled and use the results to unravel the mysteries of stability. It was his breakthrough that led to the production of the first inherently stable aircraft in 1913. The following year a spark from the engine ignited a pool of fuel that had leaked into his cockpit. He died in the fireball, aged 28.

Terrified of losing more men, the authorities tried to ban their top talent from the air. Keith Lucas, however, was determined to fly. The physiologist became a captain in the Royal Flying Corps and showed a flair for improving instrument design. Mr Royle said: “The compass needles were snagging as the aircraft was turning. It was causing major problems; in cloud, for example. You could look at the needle, not realising it had snagged, and come out of the cloud upside down.” Lucas developed a pendulum that solved the problem. He was killed on October 5, 1916, aged 37, in a collision with another aircraft over Salisbury Plain.

David Pinsent, from Edgbaston, and Hugh Renwick, from Stirling, contributed not as pilots, but as observers who took measurements from the freezing open cockpits. Pinsent was a mathematician and close friend of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He died aged 26 in May 1918 while testing the structural integrity of a trial plane. His body was never found. Renwick, another Cambridge graduate, perished three months later when his aircraft suffered a similar structural failure at 2,000ft.

Mr Royle said: “There’s a tendency now to think that planes just appeared and started flying. These guys studied how the hell they stayed up in the sky.”

Tony Pilmer, librarian at the National Aerospace Library, said the men were part of a deep pool of talent at the Royal Aircraft Factory. He said: “The work of about one thousand experimental staff enabled the UK to make great strides in aerodynamics, stability, armaments, photography and radio, turning aero designers, scientists and experimenters into professional aeronautical engineers.”

Mr Royle is researching the men’s achievements for a PhD. “I feel nothing but respect for their sacrifices,” he said, adding that the motto of the RAF applied to them perfectly: “Per ardua ad astra — through adversity to the stars.”