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British Industrial History

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Oliver Simmonds

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Oliver Edwin Simmonds

1897 Born in Kings Lynn, Norfolk[1]

Educated at Taunton

1914 Oliver Simmonds obtained a scholarship at Magdalene College, Cambridge, to read History.

During his last year at Taunton, the RFC landed a plane on the football fields. He was so impressed that he signed up with the RFC.

1916 Second Lieutenant Simmonds gained his flying certificate[2]. With fewer than 20 hours flying experience, he went to France and flew FE 2B's, a light bomber with two crew, who, in those days, flew until they were dead or wounded.

1919 Upon his entry to Cambridge Oliver Simmonds requested to read Engineering, rather than History, which was agreed.

1922 After graduating, he joined the RAF at Farnborough. Whilst there he wrote, in conjunction with the only female engineer there, a paper on the effects of supersonic flight on an air foil - by turning up the speed of the fan in the wind tunnel so that the air flow over the tips of the blades exceeded the speed of sound.

1922 Married Gladys Hewitt

c1924 He was moved to the Airworthiness Department, which handled the granting of Certificates of Airworthiness to all new civil British aircraft. He therefore had the opportunity to visit the design offices of all the UK aircraft manufacturers of the time (of which there were many) and thus he was able to witness all the innovations in aerodynamics.

1925 James Doolittle won the Schneider Trophy for the USA, at about 240mph. The Supermarine: S.4, a wooden monoplane which had been intended to be a British entry, was lost in an accident shortly before the competition but, even so, had not been as fast as the American winner, nor were the Gloster biplanes which also competed. As a result, the Air Ministry wrote a simple specification for a new aircraft, with a target speed of 300mph. Hubert Scott-Paine, the owner of Supermarine and Reginald Joseph Mitchell, the Chief Engineer, apparently regarded that as a very tall order. They asked the Ministry if they had any bright young engineer, who might contribute to the aerodynamic design. Oliver Simmonds was therefore sent to Southampton for an interview and immediately hired.

Simmonds worked with a small team of about 3-4 designers. At the start of the design, he sat on the ground, back to a piece of plywood laid against a wall, and asked one of his colleagues to draw an outline around his body. That became the lateral dimension of the fuselage and his height, the height of the cockpit. He was quite a small man, (about 5' 6" at the most). When flying trials eventually began, the RAF had to pick pilots who were able to operate in a very small cockpit.

In an attempt to cool the engine oil, they ran flutes, aft and forward, in the skin of the aircraft, down its sides. The engine oil was pumped to and fro during flight, which helped to cool it. Securing the Schneider Trophy in 1927, 1929 and 1931 became aviation history.

1926 Simmonds presented a paper to the Institution of Aeronautical Engineers suggesting that the Air Ministry's competition for commercial aircraft in 1921 had blighted the development of civil marine aircraft by insisting upon their possessing amphibious characteristics.[3]

c1927 As the Schneider racers had become evolutionary designs, Oliver Simmonds turned his thoughts to his own future in the industry. He recognised the problem of spare parts in the export market. He sought to address aspects of this problem by making the four wings interchangeable and the three tail surfaces also - this was reflected in his approach to what became the Spartan aircraft. The aircraft was initially built at his house in Woolston. The wings were, supposedly, laid across the beds in the guest room as Simmonds together with his wife, attached the fabric to the wings. It would seem that it was not until the aircraft was first flown that Scott-Paine and Mitchell at Supermarine became aware of the plane's existence. They were not impressed and took the stance that anything Simmonds developed, even in his own time, was company property. This difference of opinion led to his dismissal and was a turning point in his life.

1928 The Simmonds Aircraft Company Limited was formed in order to produce his Simmonds Spartan aircraft. The prototype was built in his house at Woolston, (Southampton) and assembled at the Rolling Mills off Archery Road in Southampton. A hangar was later rented at Hamble, and production started there. Approximately 50 aircraft were assembled and flown from Hamble.

1929/30 Simmonds Aircraft began to experience a business backlash from the 1929 crash in the US.

1930 After some financial difficulties, the company name was changed to Spartan Aircraft with Oliver Simmonds contributing the Spartan design for 50% of the equity and Whitehall Securities, of London, taking the balance for a cash contribution.

1931 On 20 February, the Spartan company moved into the buildings at Somerton, previously used by J. Samuel White and Co, after financial investment from the Aircraft Investment Corporation. Whitehall Securities wanted to merge the company with Saunders-Roe. The latter had its design offices in London, its factory in the Isle of Wight and it was a flying boat company. Simmonds thought it would be a total failure and so resisted the merger. It was finally agreed that Whitehall would buy him out for £10,000. The merger with Saunders-Roe was subsequently completed.

The new company (by then essentially part of Saunders-Roe) produced the Spartan Arrow and Spartan Three-Seater. These were followed by the Spartan Cruiser, a small three-engined airliner, of which a few were produced before the company went out of business in late 1935. The company also built a large number of De Havilland Gypsy Moths under contract.

1931 Oliver Simmonds went to the Paris Air Show and saw what was called a "push-pull control". He realised that this would immediately do away with bell cranks and levers, which then connected the aircraft controls to the control surfaces. He obtained a license for the rest of the world. He returned to the UK, formed Simmonds Aerocessories Ltd, and established a sub-contract manufacturer for the product in Birmingham.

1931 became Unionist MP for Duddeston, Birmingham

Mid-1930s. When the RAF started looking for a new monoplane fighter, the design of the Schneider racers had a major influence on the design of the Spitfire.

Simmonds Aerocessories prospered and eventually had operations in the UK, France, Poland, the USA, Canada and Australia. From the 1960s to the 1980s, there was hardly an air frame or an engine in the free world, which did not not incorporate a Simmonds product, which by then had grown dramatically in their diversity.

Saunders-Roe continued using the Spartan name, and built 13 Arrows, a small two seat biplane. They then designed the Mailplane, a plane for mail-carrying services. Only the prototype was built, as it was developed into the Cruiser, a passenger-carrying aircraft. Fifteen were built, and sold as far away as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Egypt and India, but the majority were kept by Saunders-Roe, who started an air-travel company, Spartan Airways, from Somerton in 1933 which operated air services from Cowes to Heston from April 1933.

By the end of 1933 Spartan Airways had proved so successful that it became part of Southern Railways and the Railways Air Services network, with flights to Ryde, Isle of Wight, as well as services to London and Birmingham as well as a stop-over at Bembridge Airport, Isle of Wight.

1935 Spartan Airways merged with United Airways.

1936 Simmonds founded the Air Raid Precaution Institute having seen the effects of aerial bombing in Spain.

1939 He toured the German aircraft industry and then warned of the need for Britain to increase fighter production.

WWII. During the war, the airline was closed and anti-aircraft obstacles placed on the airfields to prevent Germany from using them as a means of invading. Somerton remained open throughout the war for the use of Saunders-Roe. In 1942 three hangars at Somerton were destroyed in air raids, including the last Spartan aircraft.

1944 Knighted for public and political services

1948 Moved to the Bahamas where he set up a construction company

1977 Moved to Guernsey after the death of his wife.

1978 Remarried.

1985 Sir Oliver Simmonds died


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. BMD
  2. Royal Aero Club Aviators’ Certificates
  3. The Engineer 1926/03/19
  • [1] Simmonds/Spartan Aircraft
  • [2] BBC h2g2
  • The Times Jul 27, 1985