The High Flier
Gordon McConnell is internationally recognised as Chief Engineer of the iconic and innovative Airbus A350, the ultra-long range aircraft transforming the future of air travel. He has won several honours, including an honorary doctorate from UWS in 2008 and the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Gold Medal in 2014. The first recipients of the medal, awarded for outstanding work in aerospace, were Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1909: Gordon also shares the distinction with Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle, who invented the turbojet engine, and Captain Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, designer of the Mosquito warplane.
But as a pupil at Ayr Academy, Gordon was far from certain about his future career.
“When I’m advising young people, I say ‘Get in your mind what you really love doing and then go for it.’ But I remember my father being very frustrated with me because I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
Gordon’s father was commercial director of Scottish Aviation at Prestwick, and sent his son for an interview with the company’s technical director. “He asked if I was interested in mechanical things.” It was exactly the right question. Even as a toddler, Gordon had loved finding out how things worked. Aged four, he dismantled the tricycle he had been given as a birthday present, losing all the ball bearings from the wheels. He was more expert as a teenager, successfully stripping down an old motorbike.
“He said I needed to be an engineer. I’m very glad he gave me that advice, because it’s been a great career.” But it was a bumpy start. Gordon went to Strathclyde University and failed his first year exams, “mainly because I was mucking about.” Rather than resit, Gordon opted to start again at the then Paisley College of Technology.
“Paisley had a sandwich course, which seemed interesting and a lot more practical. The classes were much smaller and you had real lecturers in front of you. I really, really enjoyed it, and it was very rewarding. We had great lecturers who inspired us to be good engineers.”
The lecturers did engineering consultancy work, and everything the students learned always related back to the real world, with the sandwich element ensuring that they found out how industry actually operated. “I’ve always looked for practical solutions and not tried to make problems more complicated than they are. I have a keep-it-simple attitude which has stood me in good stead throughout my career,” Gordon says.
“And I’m absolutely sure it came out of the training I got at Paisley, which was down to earth and never purely theoretical.”Gordon performed so well that he was put in the honours stream, something he had never considered when he started. And in 1975, he graduated with a First Class BSc Hons Mechanical Engineering, also picking up the Institute of Mechanical Engineering Prize.?
He applied successfully to the RAF, but he had just met his future wife, Margaret, and was reluctant to move away. It was a good decision: they have just celebrated their Ruby Wedding.
Gordon took a job with Scottish Aviation which became a division of British Aerospace in 1978. He rose to be Technical Director in charge of engineering for all the Jetstream turboprop and BAE 146 families, and in 1997 was invited to join Airbus in Toulouse as Chief Engineer of all the wide body aircraft including developing the A340- 500/-600 long range aircraft.
“French engineers are very efficient and very committed, which suited my style.”
In 2007, he became Chief Engineer of the Airbus A350 project. The daunting remit was to build an extra-wide-bodied plane which could take 315 passengers and travel 7,800 miles (Europe to the Far East) – on 25 per cent less fuel. Key to its development was designing the entire plane’s structure, both fuselage and wings, in carbon fibre, the first time this has ever been done on an Airbus. The technology development was massive but project was completed on time, with the first flight in 2013.
Then came a 15-month flight test programme and further intensive ground tests including a “cold trial” in Greenland at -40C and a “hot trial” in the Middle East at 50C. In order to comply with European and American requirements, 1600 certification reports had to be produced to demonstrate compliance with the stringent airworthiness regulations.
So far, more than 781 of the aircraft have been sold to 30 airlines across the world.
Gordon retired from Airbus last year (2014) after 40 years in the aviation industry. He now runs his own consultancy, not only providing continuing support on aircraft design, but also working with a company which enables in-flight connectivity for Internet and GSM mobile phones for passengers and aircraft data for navigation, weather and health monitoring.
These commitments mean he has so far had little success with his plan to play more golf. And while he is happy to be back in Ayr, there is a downside to leaving France. “I do a bit of cycling, but the weather in Scotland isn’t so good. I’m used to cycling in sunshine!”
Since this article was published in 2015 Gordon McConnell has been inducted into the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame.