Born: United Kingdom
Primarily active in: United Kingdom
Ralph Hooper, Harrier Chief Designer
Ralph Spenser Hooper was the Chief Designer of the Hawker Siddeley P.1127, Kestrel and Harrier jump jet, recognized chiefly for his innovation integrating the concept of the Pegasus engine and the layout of the vertical and/or short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) aircraft. In the 1970s, he led the team that designed the Hawk jet trainer, still flown today by the Royal Air Force (RAF) as the BAE Systems Hawk (and was the basis for the Boeing/BAE T-45 Goshawk for the US Navy).
Hooper was born in Hornchurch, in East London, England, on Jan. 30, 1926. His family moved 150 miles (250 km) north to Hull when he was seven. At age 15, during World War II, he entered a five-year apprenticeship at Blackburn Aircraft Company in January 1942. According to his obituary in “The Times,” Hooper “started work in the fitters’ shop, moved to the welding research shop, and took night classes at Hull Municipal Technical College, where he studied technical drawing, mechanics and design.” Through this, he earned a diploma in aeronautics from University College Hull (now the University of Hull).
Hooper was one of the first students to join the Cranfield College of Aeronautics (now Cranfield University) in 1946 and graduated with a Diploma in Aircraft Design in 1948. He joined Hawker Aircraft in 1948 as a draftsman in the company’s experimental drawing office.
Working from 1957 with the designer of the Bristol Siddeley Pegasus engine, Gordon Lewis, they came to an arrangement of engine and aircraft design, resulting in the initial designs of the Hawker Siddeley P.1127. Lewis had the idea of diverting the bypass fan air into two front nozzles for vertical lift. Hooper conceived of bifurcating the high-temperature engine exhaust into two additional vectoring nozzles.
By March 1958, Hooper had arrived at what would become the design of the Harrier, with its distinctive anhedral wing design and undercarriage with wing-tip outriggers. Notably, the aircraft was being developed without UK government support until shortly before the first tethered hover of the P.1127 on Oct. 21, 1960, with a Pegasus 2 engine. The first free flight took place a month later, and the first full transition from vertical to conventional flight was made on Sept. 12, 1961. During this time, Hooper was the P.1127 Project Engineer, responsible for technical control.
Based on the promising results of the P.1127, Hooper’s P.1154 design for a supersonic V/STOL aircraft won the 1962 NATO Basic Military Requirement NBMR-3 design competition. However, the project was cancelled by the new Labour government in 1965, when the aircraft was in assembly.
Nonetheless, the subsonic aircraft design continued to evolve over the years under his guidance as the Assistant Chief Designer, beginning in 1963. The P.1127 design grew and was improved with a more highly swept wing and a more powerful Pegasus 5 engine; in November 1964, the new configuration was designated as the Hawker Siddeley Kestrel, and was tested by pilots from the RAF, the German Luftwaffe and the US Air Force. The design continued to grow, with a Pegasus 6 engine, a new design of air intakes, and redesigned wings to improve longitudinal stability. In December 1966, the UK government ordered 60 aircraft that were soon christened the Harrier.
Eventually, more than 800 Harriers were built for the RAF, Royal Navy (as the Sea Harrier) and the US Marine Corps, and has also served with the militaries of India, Italy, Spain and Thailand. With support from McDonnell Douglas in the 1970s, the concept evolved into the Harrier II, still in operation today.
Hooper was promoted to Hawker Siddeley’s Chief Engineer in 1968 (also becoming an Executive Director of the company) and continued in leadership roles as the company merged into British Aerospace in 1977; he became the company’s Deputy Technical Director, before retiring in 1985.
For his work, particularly on the Harrier and Hawk, Hooper was appointed as an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1978 and received the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) Gold Medal in 1986. Hooper was named a Fellow of the RAeS in 1970 and a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 1999, the highest honor for an engineer in the UK. He was recognized with a Distinguished Alumnus Award from Cranfield University in 2019.
In 2008, at the joint International Powered Lift Conference (IPLC) with VFS, RAeS and SAE International, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) V/STOL Aircraft Technical Committee presented Hooper with its highest honor, the F.E. Newbold Award, presented “to recognize outstanding creative contributions to the advancement and realization of powered lift flight.”
Ralph Hooper, one of the UK’s most important post-war aircraft designers, passed away on Dec. 12, 2022, at the age of 96.
VFS Updates: In Memoriam, Vertiflite March/April 2023