As those involved with Tiger Moths, Chipmunks, many Austers and their like ought to know, the man responsible for the Cirrus or Gipsy engine powering these machines was one Major Frank Halford.
AS THOSE INVOLVED with Tiger Moths, Chipmunks, many Austers and their like ought to know, the man responsible for the Cirrus or Gipsy engine powering these machines was one Major Frank Halford. Others will recognise him as the designer of the mighty Napier Sabre engine–a 2,000 hp-plus behemoth that frightened the Hawker Typhoon’s adversaries and pilots in almost equal measure, until development made it reliable. Post-war de Havilland people will appreciate him as the man who provided the company with simple, effective and highly reliable gas turbine engines like the Ghost–at just the right time to make the Comet the world’s first jet airliner.
And that is just about all even the most interested people would have known about this fascinating man so vital to Britain’s aircraft industry, because his life story had not attracted any biographer until now. The Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust and Douglas Taylor have, at last, made up for the oversight. At half the length, Boxkite to Jet may not be so comprehensive and revealing as Bill Gunston’s Fedden from the same publishers (reviewed in Pilot, January 2000), and it falls well short of the literary school of biography exemplified by the Scott Berg Lindbergh book, but it still tells an inspiring tale of a fascinating man.
The young Frank Halford cut a dashing figure. Actually, ‘dashing’ is just the right word because he was a through and through speed fiend. Taylor writes at length on his exploits in racing motorcycles and cars, on and off the racetrack. ‘To accompany him in his car illustrated not only [his fascination with speed], but also how uncanny his talent was for spatial judgement,’ writes his daughter Patricia in her foreword, ‘in other words, we had what I would call some close calls.’
No surprise then that Frank should have been so taken with that other exciting invention that enlivened the opening years of the twentieth century: the aeroplane. He took his first lesson in August 1913 at Brooklands and, in just a few months, went on to become the youngest flying instructor in the country.
However, it was as an engineer, rather than a pilot, that Frank Halford donned RFC uniform during the First World War. He was sent to France to discover what he could about technical developments on the Continent; the British engine industry was lagging far behind and, Taylor reveals, in 1914 it lacked even production facilities for the essential magnetos. Returning from his intelligence gathering, Frank–now Major Halford–did wonderful things in ‘tuning’ other people’s aero engines and developing out their design errors.
Post-war, he worked with Harry Ricardo, enjoying success with motorcycle engines and overall design of the advanced Vauxhall four-cylinder shaft-drive prototype. However, Frank really hankered for aero engine work and he left to set up his own consultancy as early as 1923. He soon became involved with Airdisco–the Aircraft Disposal Company–where his first move was to select the 80 hp Renault V-8 engine and, through substituting an aluminium ohv head of his own design, put it out as a 144 hp engine for the civil market. Geoffrey de Havilland used it with success in the D.H.51, but was soon after a lighter engine for the small Moth biplane he had in mind. He approached Halford, who once again returned to the old Renault unit for the basic components, this time for a ‘four’, which emerged as the Cirrus and ultimately evolved into the Gipsy…
Through the 1920s and 30s, Halford’s consultancy business went from strength to strength, Napier becoming his second major client. ‘The Major’ valued his independence and only gave it up when he and his team joined de Havilland during WWII, forming the core of the new Engine Company. He quickly immersed himself in jet engine development, having made the transition to the new technology with ease, and would, no doubt, have added to his impressive portfol