Friday, August 18, 2023

Lucas - King of the Air

Lucas occupied a special place in the aircraft industry supplying electrical systems for aircraft.

The number of aircraft manufactured in the UK before and during WW2 was enormous and under continuous development, and so Lucas engineers were busy not only manufacturing but researching and designing new products. For example, some 200,000 Rotax magnetos had been supplied for Rolls-Royce Merlins.

After the war, they designed brand new magnetos for Rolls-Royce Griffins for Avro Shackletons and also for Bristol Hercules 730s. With the coming of the V bombers, Rotax supplied complete electrical systems for the Vickers Valiant. The Vulcan and Victor also had significant input from Rotax. This work flowed into a contract to equip the Rolls-Royce Dart for the Vickers Viscount; they also equipped the Bristol Britannia, de Havilland Comet and Hawker Hunter.

The increasing complexity of aircraft and the associated demand on the electrical supply partly wrong footed Rotax allowing English Electric, which had taken a license to manufacture Sundstrand constant speed drives for aircraft generators, a foothold in the supply chain.

As Gas Turbine engines became ever more powerful, the issue of the ignition unit became ever more contentious. This allowed Plessey and BTH another toehold. Lucas was never a company to be beaten for long, and it was Lucas that developed the electronics for the Rolls-Royce Avon.

Eric Earnshaw had been a driving force at Rotax and had begun a policy of diversification when he saw the market under pressure. One was the solid-rotor alternator developed for aircraft but also employed to advantage in the Chieftain tank. Another was the heat pump – many years before its time. Earnshaw’s focus and energy ensured that Lucas was at the head of the pack with aero-engine technology.

With the purchase of Bristol Siddeley by Rolls-Royce, he saw the need to combine component suppliers and went about a programme of purchases devoting much money, time and effort to support Rolls-Royce with the development of the RB211. This could so easily have been disastrous when Rolls ran out of money. The Lucas position was saved by the nationalisation of their customer and their work continued.

The focus of Lucas work in aviation was sharpened further by its renaming as Lucas Aerospace. Lucas Aerospace worked on the re-heat system to provide bursts in increased power for the Phantom. They also developed digital fuel control for jets which by their nature experiences extreme conditions. Little of this work was done in isolation. Lucas worked with Rolls-Royce but also with Bosch and computer manufacturers Marconi-Elliott.

Image with thanks to the British Motor Archive


 I write more in my forthcoming book, Vehicles to Vaccines.

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