Mathematics and aviation: the Handley Page ‘Gugnunc’

By: Dr David Rooney, Keeper of Technologies and Engineering
Reading time: Approx 7 minutes

Without mathematics, the dream of flight for the masses would have come crashing down to Earth. 

In September 1929 a series of experimental aircraft took part in trials at a military air base twenty miles east of Manhattan. At stake was the future of the civil aviation industry, which would only get off the ground if passengers believed aircraft were safe to use. 

The birth of civil aviation

One of the UK’s first civil airliners was converted in 1919 from a First World War military bomber

Civil aviation in the UK dates from the end of the First World War (1914–18) when the first civil airlines were set up based on military aircraft.

However potential passengers could not shake off the image of aircraft as military weapons – vital in times of war, yet unsafe and unreliable in peacetime.

A decade later, in 1928, an American magazine commented, ‘Now that the days of wonder at airplanes are past, now that we send an air-mail letter for a dime, purchase a pleasure ride for a dollar or two, and expect airplanes to hop off for foreign ports daily, the principal question about flying is: “Are airplanes safe?”’

Mathematicians and the aviation industry

Aviation had been a popular employer for Britain’s top mathematicians since the First World War. They were trained in aerodynamics and structural stress at places such as Imperial College London and Cambridge University.

One, Letitia Chitty, had read mathematics at Newnham College, Cambridge, before working for the Admiralty Air Department.

Mathematicians, engineers and designers at the Admiralty Air Department in the First World War, including Letitia Chitty (third from left, middle row) helped transform aviation in peacetime
© The Royal Aeronautical Society (National Aerospace Library)/Mary Evans Picture Library

After the war ended, she moved briefly to the Bristol Aeroplane Company before starting a career at Imperial College as a mathematician and civil engineer.    

During the 1920s, aircraft manufacturers around the world realised they needed a better understanding of aerodynamics and stress in order to build aircraft that flew safely. Aviation had always been a highly pressured industry and in peacetime more lives than ever were at stake.

There were no programmes, no calculating machines … we relied upon our slide rules and arithmetic in the margins …

Lives were at stake and we couldn’t afford to let anything go through wrong.
— Letitia Chitty, recalling Admiralty Air Department work in the First World War

Are aircraft safe?

 Guggenheim’s  investment in aviation research prompted a wave of innovation in engineering and mathematics © Universal History Archive/UIG /  Science & Society Picture Library

Guggenheim’s  investment in aviation research prompted a wave of innovation in engineering and mathematics
© Universal History Archive/UIG / Science & Society Picture Library

At the heart of aviation research was collaboration between engineers and mathematicians, as both professions worked to understand the complex airflow around aircraft and the forces acting on their structures.

This research needed financial investment. In 1926, the American industrialist and philanthropist Daniel Guggenheim responded by founding his ‘Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics’ to promote education, develop commercial aircraft and contribute to aviation science.

His endowment totalled more than $2.5 million in 1920s money.

Frederick Handley Page

One of Britain’s first airline services was the Handley Page Air Service between London and Paris

One aircraft manufacturer quick to take advantage of Daniel Guggenheim’s investment in aeronautical research was Frederick Handley Page.

By 1909, Handley Page had flown trial aircraft over marshland near Barking in the UK. During the First World War, he remained a hands-on mathematician as his firm expanded rapidly, often working overnight to check the stress calculations for new components.

According to his biographer, Handley Page was ‘an avid reader with a photographic memory and a strong sense of mathematical logic’ who intuitively understood the mathematical basis for flight.

After the war ended, his firm rapidly diversified into civil aviation.


The Safe Aircraft Competition

The Handley Page ‘Gugnunc’ aircraft, seen here in pre-competition trials at Cricklewood, London, was a pioneer in safe flight
© Mary Evans Picture Library

In 1927, as part of his philanthropic investment project, Daniel Guggenheim mounted a first prize of $100,000. It would be awarded to an aircraft that could fly safely, even at slow speeds and during steep takeoffs and landings when there was the greatest risk of stalling and crashing.

Two years later, only two aeroplanes made it to the competition final. One was by the American firm Curtiss, and the other was an entry by Handley Page known as the ‘Gugnunc’ after a popular Daily Mirror cartoon catchphrase of the time.

Numerous aircraft took part in trials near Manhattan in September 1929 but only two made it to the finals
© CriticalPast

‘The greatest advance in airplane design since the Wright Brothers’

At the heart of both finalists in the safe aircraft competition was the slotted wing. This development, designed by Frederick Handley Page, involved an adjustable mini-wing on the front edge of the main wings together with a flap on the rear edge.

Todays airliners, based on streamlined 1930s aircraft such as the Boeing 247, employ sophisticated mathematical analysis as well as deep engineering skill 

These slots and flaps controlled the potentially catastrophic breakdown of airflow that occurred in slow-speed stall conditions, the most dangerous situation in flying. Commentators at the time described the system as ‘the greatest advance in airplane design since the Wright brothers flew’.

In the end, Handley-Page’s competitor, Curtiss, won Guggenheim’s first prize of $100,000, with Handley Page coming a close second.

Crucially, the Guggenheim fund had stimulated a wave of engineering and mathematical innovation and research in the aviation industry as it struggled to convince a sceptical public that flying was safe.

With slotted wings and other technical developments – many of which underpin today’s aircraft design – flying became a viable option for the public and the seeds of a global industry had been sown.

Header image: People boarding a Boeing 707C aeroplane to Canada, 19 May 1969 © Manchester Daily Express / Science & Society Picture Library