RAE Bedford - The Beginning




The Beginning

While a considerable expansion of the UK aircraft industry had begun in the mid to late 1930s, it was the demands of World War II, in the early 1940s, which led to its huge growth in capability and size. As the tide of war began to turn in favour of the Allies, thought was given to the nation’s post-war prosperity and because of its technically advanced state, the aircraft sector was singled out as a primary industry for exploitation. However, it was realised that large and expensive research facilities would be required for such exploitation to succeed and as this would be in pursuance of national objectives, the provision of such facilities would have to come from central government sources. Accordingly it was decided to create an entirely new organisation to provide this necessary research capability. To be called the “National Experimental Establishment”, it was initially proposed that it should be sited at Farnborough and embrace the already-existing Royal Aircraft Establishment.

However for a variety of reasons, it was later decided that the new organisation would be built on land in North Bedfordshire embracing the war-time airfields of Thurleigh, Twinwood Farm and Little Staughton. It would also be more appropriately styled the “National Aeronautical Establishment”.

Indeed, in response to a question in the House of Commons from Sir Richard Wells, MP for Bedford, on 28 February 1945, Sir Stafford Cripps, the then Minister of Aircraft Production, replied “In view of the imperative necessity to provide adequate resources in research and development for our future civil and military aircraft construction, and of the many new problems that now have to be faced with the approaching achievement of supersonic speeds, the Government has decided that it is necessary to embark upon the construction of a new research and development centre in this country in which all the latest and best wind tunnels and other apparatus can be installed. After a very complete survey of the country, it has been decided to place the new research establishment in the vicinity of Bedford.”

This statement led to the creation of the National Aeronautical Establishment, subsequently (in 1955) renamed the Royal Aircraft Establishment Bedford.

Following some sensible scaling down of the original rather grandiose proposals, the Establishment was developed on two sites, one adjacent to Twinwood Farm airfield, to house an extensive and extremely capable suite of large wind tunnels, and the other, Thurleigh Airfield, which was rebuilt into one of the most comprehensive research airfields in the UK, in Europe and indeed, in the World.

Construction of RAE Bedford began in 1947, first with new roads, then the first wind tunnels on the “Twinwoods” site and finally the airfield at Thurleigh. Major building work continued to at least 1957.

Wind Tunnels


The 8ft x 8ft wind tunnel in 1982

The wind tunnel  provision consisted essentially of  four large high-quality research facilities,  which would allow the
testing of aircraft configurations and components at speeds from around eighty miles per hour up to a Mach number of 5, or five times the speed of sound. These were (in order of completion) the 3x3 supersonic tunnel, the 13x9 low speed tunnel, the 8x8 supersonic tunnel, and the 3x4 high supersonic speed tunnel (HSST). The numerals identify the working section dimensions in feet, width by height. The 8x8 and the 3x4 were the largest tunnels in their Mach number range in Western Europe. A low speed tunnel was also provided specifically to study the spinning characteristics of aircraft, which was a little understood phenomenon at the time. This Vertical Spinning Tunnel (VST) and the 13x9 low speed tunnel are still in use, the VST for skydiving and the 13x9 for the development of racing cars by Red Bull. A number of small tunnels were also built to provide for aerodynamic studies of a more fundamental nature.

These tunnels were fully utilised and served for the whole second half of the twentieth century and virtually every British aircraft project, and many from overseas, benefited from their advanced aerodynamic capabilities and from the quality and knowledge of the scientific, engineering and industrial people who staffed them. The contribution of the National Aeronautical Establishment (later the “Royal Aircraft Establishment Bedford”) to both the Nation’s security and to its industrial wellbeing was outstanding. Its legacy will continue to be felt and valued well into the twenty-first century.

Over a period between 1970 and 1972 a group of aerodynamics staff moved from the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) Teddington to RAE. The group that moved was largely the High Speed Aerodynamics Group of the NPL Aerodynamics Division. About 10 people moved to Bedford. The intention was that the high speed tunnels at Teddington would be dismantled and rebuilt, and the staff would go with them. In the event, although a lot of money was spent on design-studies for this purpose, no tunnels were ever rebuilt.

The Airfield


Bedford Airfield

The new airfield at Thurleigh required that the former WWII airfield be substantially re-built, to provide a new main runway 10500 x 300 ft, together with test facilities for naval aviation R&D.

Naval Air Department was the first unit to begin research on the airfield, in 1954, followed by the Flight Division of Aerodynamics Department, less formally known as “Aero Flight”, in 1955. The Blind Landing Experimental Unit (BLEU) moved in from Martlesham Heath in 1957.

More information about these units can be found by following the links given above.

The scientific and engineering challenges of the period between the mid 1950s and 1972 at RAE Bedford had by 1972 been resolved satisfactorily. As the fundamental and focused research of BLEU and that of Aero Flight were completing, the research direction needed to change. With the broad scientific and engineering capability and competency of its staff, diversification to address the impact of developing technologies at the time and the potential operational benefits to MOD and Civil operations were made. Many enabling technologies were showing considerable promise in the early 1970s not least of which were the rapid developments in digital technology. Nevertheless the departmental role continued to address customer requirements with the emphasis on innovation through application.

In 1974 departmental organisational changes took effect with a new departmental structure. This structure brought together the staff from BLEU and Aero Flight and the helicopter group from NAD which were then combined under Flight Systems Department. This department had several formats, sometimes with its administrative centre at Farnborough and sometimes at Bedford. Initially, for example, that part at Bedford was structured under three divisions, namely, Flight Dynamics (FS1), Operational Systems (FS2) and Common Services (FS6). The confusing details will not be elaborated further. Whatever the titles, work areas fell broadly into flight dynamics and flight control, operational systems and flight management, and flight simulation.

The widely recognised experience and knowledge of the new department staff allowed the department to address technology diversification with multi-disciplined teams. This approach also allowed the direct benefit of the research work to the MOD and Civil operating customers to continue and grow. This “total systems” approach was the key enabler to the provision of the many research products of RAE Bedford for the next thirty years.

The major work programmes with their aircraft and other facilities that made significant contributions to MOD and the Civil Authorities were:

The major work programmes with their aircraft and other facilities that made significant contributions to MOD and the Civil Authorities were:

1. Tactical Landing Guidance including guidance for helicopters to remote sites and ships, naval aircraft Carrier Guidance and visual approach and tactical aids. This work involved the aircraft HS748 XW750, Wessex XR503.

2. Radio Guidance developments, which included Microwave Landing Systems (MLS) and the Microwave Aircraft Digital Guidance Equipment (MADGE). This work involved aircraft Wessex XR503.

3. Terrain Following as applied to the Vulcan and Tornado aircraft fleets. This work involved aircraft Tornado ZA326.

4. Civil Avionics including Flight Management Systems and Area Navigation. This work involved the aircraft BAC 1-11 XX105.

5. VTOL developments including VIFF capability, Sea Harrier night and low visibility recoveries to ships, ski-jump and the VAAC programme. These and the VAAC programme with its Advanced Flight Control and Handling Qualities involved aircraft Harrier XW175 and made extensive use of flight simulation.

6. Helicopter research, including fundamental understanding of rotor aerodynamic performance and helicopter flight mechanics. This work involved Wessex Mk1 XM300; Scout XP191; the Lockheed XH51 on loan from NASA; Puma XW241; and Lynx ZD559.

7. Atmospheric turbulence, downbursts and windshear, and Vortex Wakes. This work involved the aircraft HS125 XW930.

8. Flight Simulation studies of all classes of aircraft, and of simulation technologies. Advanced Flight Simulator with its unique Large Motion System and the Real Time All-Vehicle Simulator.

The Flight Systems Department Research Aircraft (c 1983)


The new control tower was opened in 1957

In 1976 the Radar Flight Trials Unit (RFTU) was established  on the former NAD site as a “Lodger Unit” when a fleet of aircraft - Radar Research Squadron - moved from an airfield at Pershore to Thurleigh.



RFTU - the Radar Research Squadron in Hangar 4

Aircraft Department supported flying operations by providing aircraft maintenance and specialized installations on aircraft. RAE Bedford was privileged to have design authority to make changes to aircraft.

Other significant groups supported research work at Bedford, such as Air Traffic Control, Fire Services, Workshops, MoD Police and Administration.

Thurleigh airfield closed officially at 11:00 GMT on 31st Mar 1994. Research flying re-located to Boscombe Down. The airfield was sold to St Modwen in 1996. A scientific enclave was, however, retained under DRA/DERA management, and finally QinetiQ, until 2008.


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This page last updated - 07/02/2017

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