Real lives: Concorde wing designer had a high-flying career

Sir James shows Princess Margaret around the Farnborough complex
Sir James shows Princess Margaret around the Farnborough complex
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Sir James Arnot Hamilton, designer of Concorde’s distinctive delta wings, has died, aged 89.

Born in Penicuik in 1923, James Arnot Hamilton attended the town’s new academy – now Penicuik High School – and became dux.

He went on to study civil engineering at Edinburgh University, graduating in 1943 and going to work until the end of the Second World War on the development of anti-submarine weapons for the Royal Air Force.

He quickly became a rising star in Britain’s innovative post-war aeronautics industry, where he specialised in wing design.

He was appointed head of flight research with the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment when it returned from its wartime base at Helensburgh on the Clyde to its pre-war home at Felixstowe, Suffolk, in 1945. He served there for seven years before moving to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, Hampshire, in 1952 to research the aerodynamics of high-speed flight.

In 1966, Sir James became director-general of the Concorde project, the Anglo-French supersonic airliner. Co-ordinated work on a British supersonic airliner had begun as early as 1956. After prolonged design and testing, there was an agreement in 1963 to share development with France. Sir James led the project until 1971.

More than 5000 hours of wind-tunnel testing were carried out to modify camber, droop and twist of the wings, to ensure the wing surface vortex would be a stable and dependable source of lift.

After the success of the Concorde project, Sir James became deputy secretary for aerospace in the Department of Trade and Industry between 1971 and 1973, where he was involved in the nationalisation of the strategically important aero-engine part of Rolls-Royce. He also oversaw from government the first full-scale roll-out of Concorde.

In 1973, he moved to the Cabinet Office as deputy secretary under John Hunt, serving Prime Minister Ted Heath and then Harold Wilson during his last administration. In 1976, he moved to the Department of Education and Science as permanent secretary before retiring in 1983.

On retirement, Sir James took up a series of positions in the aerospace industry. He was asked to give a critical overview of the engineering profession in Britain and his report was published in 2001. He received an honorary doctorate from Heriot-Watt University and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

When the Concorde fleet was retired in 2003, Sir James, by then 80, campaigned successfully for one of the seven decommissioned aircraft to go to the East Fortune Museum of Flight, in East Lothian.

He is survived by partner Marcia Cunningham and three sons from a previous marriage.