W.E.W. Petter

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W.E.W. (Teddy) Petter
Born 8 August 1908
Highgate, north London
Died 1 May 1968
Béruges, France
Nationality British
Education Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
Spouse(s) Claude Munier
Children 3 daughters
Parent(s) Sir Ernest Willoughby Petter
Engineering career
Engineering discipline Aeronautics
Employer(s) Westland Aircraft, English Electric, Folland Aircraft
Significant design Westland Lysander, Folland Gnat
Significant advance Canberra, Lightning
Significant awards John Bernard Seely Prize for Aeronautics, Royal Aeronautical Society silver medal[1]

William Edward Willoughby "Teddy" Petter BA,FRAeS,CBE (8 August 1908, Highgate in Middlesex - 1 May 1968, Béruges) was a British aircraft designer. He is noted for Westland's wartime aeroplanes, the Canberra, the early design of the Lightning, and his last plane, the Folland Gnat.

Early life[edit]

Westland Aircraft factory site in Yeovil in Somerset

Edward 'Teddy' Petter was the oldest of the three sons and one daughter of Sir Ernest Petter (co-founder of Westland Aircraft Works) and his wife, Angela Emma. Because his father spent much time in London, Teddy's early childhood was spent mostly with his mother, from whom he inherited a strong religious conviction and firm ethical principles.[2] He was educated at Marlborough College in Wiltshire then Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. During his first two years at Cambridge he focused his studies on subjects relevant to oil engines, the traditional product of Petters Limited, but in his third year he concentrated on on aerodynamics and aircraft engineering.[3] In 1929 he was awarded a first class in the mechanical sciences tripos and shared the John Bernard Seely prize in aeronautics.[1]



Early career[edit]

Petter joined Westland Aircraft Works as a graduate apprentice in 1929 and for the next two and a half years he worked in every department, not seeking any favour despite being the chairman's son.[4] In the drawing office it was noted that he was a very poor draftsman but had good ideas. [5][6] Years later he said "I looked on this as sheer drudgery at the time, but knew afterwards that without workshop knowledge I would never have become a designer".[7]

In May 1932 he was appointed as personal assistant to the managing director, Robert Bruce, a position previously held by Petter's friend and colleague Harald Penrose. [6] Bruce did not welcome the appointment and ignored him, leaving Petter spare time to modify and compete an Austin 7. [7] Despite his interest in sports cars, Petter had no interest in learning to fly. Penrose gave him a flying lesson at this time, but later commented that Petter had a 'lack of the requisite sensitivity coupled with hopeless judgment of speed and distance'.[6]

His father appointed Petter to the board in May 1934, making him technical director (at the age of 26) in preference over more experienced engineers such as Arthur Davenport and Geoffery Hill. This was not welcomed by the older members of the management, ultimately prompting Bruce and Hill to resign, and placing the older and more experienced Davenport in an intolerable position as his subordinate.[8] One of his first actions as technical director was to terminate development of Hill's Pterodactyl, a pioneering tailless swept wing aircraft.[9][10]

However, other business decisions by Ernest Petter infuriated Teddy. In July 1935 Ernest Petter convened a shareholders meeting to propose a merger with British Marine Aircraft for the purpose of expanding Westland's workshops.[Note 1] This proposal was thwarted by Teddy and Peter Acland who threatened to resign. But In July 1938 Ernest Petter sold the controlling shares in Westlands to John Brown Ltd, forming Westland Aircraft Limited as a separate company and with Eric Mensforth brought in to share the managing directorship with Peter Acland.[11] Teddy saw the loss of family control of the company as the loss of his birthright, and this dispute would divide the Petter family for years, not being resolved until shortly before Ernest Petter's death in 1954.[12]


Westland Lysander at NASM in Washington DC

The Air Ministry was initially reluctant to award Westland contracts due to Petter's inexperience, but his reputation as a successful designer was strengthened after it was demonstrated the automatic slats on the PV 7 were both effective and reliable. As a result, and after internal discussion, the Air Ministry added Westland to the list of bidders for Specification A.39/34 (the replacement for the Hawker Hector army co-operation aircraft).[13][14] Petter started the design by interviewing the Army Cooperation pilots and ground crew.[14] Based on this information, he placed pilot visibility, the ability to take off and land in small spaces, and ease of ground maintenance as the prime requirements.[citation needed] The resulting design, the Westland P8 (later named the Lysander), was clearly an evolution of Westland's high winged monoplane designs, but Petter incorporated a number of innovative features including extensive use of extruded sections throughout the airframe, something that would be a feature in his future designs. [15][16][17]

The early flight testing revealed attitude control problems that the wind tunnel tests had not predicted. Petter instructed Penrose to conceal these problems from Ernest Petter.[18] Later, when these problem had been addressed by a larger, variable incidence tailplane, it was realized that if a landing was aborted and the throttles opened up fully, the Lysander could rear up and stall. While Penrose and RAF test pilots lobbied for modifications, Petter refused because redesign would affect production.[19][20] Also, in his zeal to reduce weight, Petter had used glider fabric instead of specification Irish linen to cover the wings on the second prototype. This nearly caused a disaster when an RAF Pilot dived it to the limit, causing the fabric on the top surface to tear off.[21]


Westland Whirlwind plane

Petter's next fixed wing aircraft design was a radical departure from the Westland's typical high wing fabric covered airframe, The Westland P9 was a low winged twin engined aircraft employing the latest technology. It was designed to meet Air Ministry specification F.37/35, which called for a single seat cannon armed fighter, at least 40 mph faster than a contemporary bomber and not less than 330 mph at 15,000 ft.[22] To obtain this performance Petter and Davenport chose to minimise drag; the two Rolls Royce Peregrine engines were fitted in closely streamlined nacelles and their radiators were fitted inside the inboard section of wing (something that would be later copied in the Mosquito and the Tempest I).[23] In the two prototypes the engine exhaust was routed through the fuel tanks in the wings to reduce parasitic drag. The Air Ministry thought this was dangerous and insisted that conventional exhaust stacks were fitted.[24][25][Note 2]

The airframe was thin walled stressed skin construction, with the rear fuselage skinned in magnesium alloy. Like the Lysander, it made extensive use of extrusions in the airframe.[26][25] To reduce the landing distance the wing incorporated automatic Handley Page slats coupled to the Fowler Flaps, with the radiator gills also coupled to the flap control, which was advanced at the time.[citation needed]

The prototype first flew in September 1938, and while it was one of the fastest and heavily armed fighters of its era, faster than the Spitfire Mk 1, its development was problematic and protracted. The engines overheated, the hydraulic engine controls were imprecise, the slats slammed open, production was slow. [27][28]

Petter was frustrated by its lack of operational status in the RAF. In November 1940, he wrote a memo to Sholto Douglas stating "The Whirlwind is probably the most radically new aeroplane which has ever gone into service... New ideas I am afraid, even with the greatest care, always mean a certain amount of teething trouble... I really do not think these troubles have been any worse than they were on, say, the Spitfire... " In reply Sholto Douglas wrote, "... it seems to me that your firm is concentrating on producing large numbers of Lysanders, which no body wants... instead of concentrating on producing Whirlwinds which are wanted badly." [29] Shortly after this exchange 263 squadron became operational, but Petter always regretted that the Whirlwind was not operational during the Battle of Britain and blamed Eric Mensforth for the delay in production [30][31]

Spitfire development[edit]

By 1942 Westland was mostly building Spitfires under contract.[32] One of the problems with the early marks of Spitfire was variability of longitudinal stability, leading to aircraft getting dangerously out of control and contributing to the risk of structural failure .[33] Petter made a significant contribution to improving the longitudinal stability of the Spitfire because he was the first to appreciate that aerodynamic modification to the elevator could provide additional stability. On his own initiative he had Penrose collect flight test stick force data and trim curves on a Spitfire at various center of gravity loadings, then produced a prototype elevator with a bulged aerodynamic section, which produced a 'remarkable' improvement in stability, later being known as the 'Westland Elevator'.[34]


In 1940, the Air Ministry was motivated by the threat of high altitude bombers such as the Ju86P to issue a specification for a high altitude interceptor, F4/40, followed by a revision F7/41 in 1941. Petter submitted two designs. His first was an innovative low drag aircraft (P13) ,[35] which featured a pair of staggered Merlins in the fuselage,o ne behind and slightly above the other, driving a pair of contra rotating propellers. His second submission was a conventional design (P14), describing it as 'a logical development of the successful Whirlwind...".[36] This was selected and became the Welkin.

Specification F7/41 required a minimum speed to 415mph at 33,000ft with a maximum ceiling of 42000ft. The Air Ministry also wanted low altitude manoeuvrability and a 9G ultimate load factor. The speed was equivalent to a Mach number of 0.62[35] while the loading condition caused Petter to select a thick wing section which would later be demonstrated to have a critical Mach number of 0.6.[37] The significance of the thick wing section may not have been understood by Petter[35]because compressibility effects had only started to be encountered by aircraft designers.[citation needed]. During test flying the effect of compressibility was experienced by Penrose who wrote, "In speed runs at the the ceiling the wings and fuselage sometimes shook as though the machine was bumping over cobblestones." Petter was reluctant to believe Penrose or accept that the wing would not be acceptable for high speed at altitude.[38]

While the cabin pressurization was innovative and worked well, the heat from the compressor 'was like sitting in an oven'. Petter was unconcerned and reluctant to modify the system, Penrose thought that "It was the machine's performance which interested him, not that of the pilot".[39] Petter only devised a better method for cooling the cabin after Penrose developed pneumonia attributed to this problem.[40]

Penrose said later that "At this time Petter's intellect put him ahead of most contemporary designers as shown by his introduction of pressurization and extensive use of remote electrical controls which subsequently became standard practice. By the time of the Welkin he had learnt the lesson that it takes as long to develop an aeroplane as to design it... [41] Petter was an outstanding organiser and could envisage construction time-scales with greater knowledge than Fearn and Wheeldon.[Note 3] ...it was his lack of understanding people and their motives that became his major failure.[42]

B1/44 Proposal[edit]

Westland's successful manufacture of Spitfires meant that Petter was well thought of by Sir Wilfrid Freeman, chief executive officer at the Ministry of Aircraft Production and by N.E.Rowe its director of technical development. Discussions between all three lead to Specification B1/44 for a jet powered replacement for the Mosquito bomber.[43] Petter developed his proposal for B1/44 as a private venture. This was a 56 ft span medium bomber powered by two Metrovick F.2/4 "Beryl" engines located within the fuselage and he persuaded the Westland board to put up capital to manufacture a mock-up of the fuselage. This was his fifteenth wartime design study and his final design for Westland. [44] [42]

Throughout his career when under stress, Petter would leave work without warning for periods of up to six weeks. In April 1944 he suddenly left work and it was rumoured that he had travelled to Switzerland, possibly to a monastery or a religious commune. In his absence Mensford switched the design effort from the B1/44 bomber to work on specification N11/44 for a Naval single seat fighter that would eventually become the Wyvern.[45]

When Petter returned he was furious with Mensford. He knew Westland would not have the resources to develop and build both the fighter and the the bomber.[45] Also, to avoid the delays in production of the bomber he wanted Mensforth to give him full powers of a chief engineer responsible for every department concerned with its construction.[42] He believed that in his absence the management had conspired to eliminate his project. As a result of this conflict he resigned in June, leaving the company in September 1944.[46] He took with him the B1/44 design proposal and his large database of extrusions with their load capacities.[47]

English Electric[edit]


English Electric Canberra WK165 in Port Adelaide SAAAM

Petter left Westland in December 1944, after wanting to take over production as well as design. They chose to concentrate on helicopters through a link-up with Sikorsky.

He went to English Electric as Chief Engineer who were then moving into aircraft design, at Warton near Preston, having been involved in building aircraft under contract during the war. While at EE, under the leadership of George Nelson, he designed the Canberra. This plane was based on a Westland design for a jet bomber, created by Westland's Chief Engineer, Arthur Davenport. The aircraft would stay in operation in the RAF for 57 years until June 2006. In the United States, the Martin Company built the design under licence from 1953, as the Martin B-57, which was operated by the United States Air Force (USAF), NASA, the Pakistan Air Force and Taiwan Air Force. While the type was retired by the USAF in 1983, NASA still operates three.


English Electric Lighning XM215 at Farnborough in 1964

He started the work on what would become the Lightning. He split with EE in 1950 over the direction of aircraft design, he favouring the small over the large. He also wanted to be in charge of production as well as design. Petter was replaced as Chief Engineer by Frederick Page, previously his assistant.

The Lighting remains the only all-British Mach 2 aircraft. The plane has been described as "fifteen tonnes of screaming aluminium".[citation needed]

Folland Aircraft[edit]

Privately owned Folland Gnat

Petter joined Folland Aircraft Limited in Hamble, Hampshire as Chief Engineer in 1951, and took some colleagues from English Electric. At Folland, he designed the Midge, which first flew 11 August 1954, and the Gnat training jet (first flight 18 July 1955). He was also responsible for early work on the Red Dean air-to-air missile before this work was transferred to Vickers.[48] The Gnat was entirely his design; it was his attempt to make an affordable and easy-to-build fighter. He felt that other contemporary fighter aircraft were too big and expensive.

Petter became Managing Director of Folland in 1954 when Henry Folland died. Folland Aircraft was bought by Hawker Siddeley in 1959, which kept the Folland name until 1963. Petter left when Hawker Siddeley took over; he did not like working for large organisations, preferring to run projects himself. Colleagues found him authoritarian and eccentric - some described him as likeable but difficult. His manner was likened to that of a sixth form maths tutor. He was known as an excellent leader of teams, so long as things went as he wanted.

On leaving Folland / Hawker Siddeley, Petter left the aircraft industry completely. He moved to Switzerland.

Personal life[edit]

Petter had two younger brothers and a younger sister. He married and had three daughters (including two born in 1936 and 1938). He died in Poitou-Charentes in France aged 59. Petter married Claude Marguerite Juliette Munier, from Geneva. She died in 1975, having suffered for a long time from Parkinson's disease.


  • US application 2841346, William Edward Willoughby Petter, "Jet-propelled aircraft", published 1958-06-01, assigned to Folland Aircraft Ltd 

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ironically, British Marine Aircraft would become Folland Aircraft in 1937
  2. ^ Penrose (1984 page 179) describes a test flight in the second prototype which nearly ended in disaster when a fractured exhaust pipe burnt through the aileron control rod
  3. ^ John 'Daddy' Fearn ,Edward Wheeldon were Westland's 'Works Manager and Works Superintendent and responsible for production



  1. ^ a b Pimlott Baker (2004).
  2. ^ Davies (2014), p. 13.
  3. ^ New Scientist (1958), p. 620-621.
  4. ^ Penrose (1984), p. 78.
  5. ^ New Scientist (1958).
  6. ^ a b c Penrose (1984), p. 112.
  7. ^ a b Davies (2014), p. 15.
  8. ^ Penrose 1984, p. 137.
  9. ^ Davies (2014), p. 16.
  10. ^ Penrose (1984), p. 148-149.
  11. ^ Penrose (1984), p. 172.
  12. ^ Davies (2014), p. 36.
  13. ^ Davies (2014), p. 16-17.
  14. ^ a b Penrose (1984), p. 150.
  15. ^ Flight (1938), p. 570-576.
  16. ^ Davis (2014), p. 47.
  17. ^ Penrose (1984), p. 151.
  18. ^ Penrose (1984), p. 161.
  19. ^ Penrose (1984), p. 162.
  20. ^ Davies (2014), p. 29.
  21. ^ Penrose (1984), p. 163.
  22. ^ James (1991), p. 257.
  23. ^ Davies (2012), p. 44.
  24. ^ Penrose (1984), p. 179.
  25. ^ a b Davies (2014), p. 47.
  26. ^ Davies (2014), p. 44.
  27. ^ Penrose (1984), p. 177.
  28. ^ James (1991), p. 263.
  29. ^ Bingham (1987), p. 42.
  30. ^ Davis (2014), p. 38.
  31. ^ Davis (2014), p. 53.
  32. ^ Penrose (1984), p. 204.
  33. ^ Quill (2012), p. 253.
  34. ^ Quill (2012), p. 254.
  35. ^ a b c Davies (2013), p. 57.
  36. ^ Davies (2013), p. 58.
  37. ^ Davies (2013), p. 76.
  38. ^ Davies (2013), p. 63.
  39. ^ Penrose (1984), p. 213.
  40. ^ Penrose (1984), p. 212-214.
  41. ^ Penrose (1984), p. 229.
  42. ^ a b c Penrose (1984), p. 228.
  43. ^ 2012 (Davies), p. 65.
  44. ^ 2012 (Davies), p. 66.
  45. ^ a b 2012 (Davies), p. 67.
  46. ^ Penrose (1984), p. 228-229.
  47. ^ 2012 (Davies), p. 47.
  48. ^ 'Folland', British Aircraft Directory (1 May 2004) Retrieved 20 May 2005

Cited sources[edit]

  • Quill, Jeffery (2012). Spitfire A Test Pilot's Story. Crecy Publishing Limited. ISBN 978-094755-472-9. 
  • James, Derek, N (1991). Westland Aircraft since 1915. Putnam. ISBN 0-85177-847-X. 
  • Bingham, Victor (1987). Whirlwind, The Westland Whirlwind Fighter. Airlife Publishing Ltd. ISBN 1-85310-004-8. 
  • "AN OUT-of-the-ORDINARY MILITARY AEROPLANE". Flight. 9 June 1938. 
  • The Guardian 11 September 1955, Page 5
  • The Times 27 May 1968, Page 10

Origin of this Petter family in North Devon see "Some men who made Barnstaple..." Pauline Brain 2010

External links[edit]

Video clips[edit]