David Gibbings, Westland Chief Flight Test Engineer; Rotorcraft Historian
Born June 20, 1932, Gibbings grew up in the port city of Plymouth in southwest England, and received his secondary education at Plymouth Tech. In 1949, he joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) as an apprentice at No. 1 School of Technical Training at RAF Halton, and left the service as a navigator. In 1955, he joined Fairey Aviation to work on guided weapons. Later he had the good fortune to work in the small team led by August Stepan developing the Rotodyne tip jet and he would go on to fly in this revolutionary aircraft as well. While at Fairey he received flying tuition from Lettice Curtiss, one of the wartime Air Transport Auxiliary women pilots, using the Tipsy Trainer operated by the company’s flying club.
Moving to Yeovil when Westland and Fairey were merged, his flight test career continued and would be marked by many firsts. He was particularly pleased to have been one of the crew for the first flight of the WG.13 Lynx. Gibbings was to lead the early and formative development trials of electric rotor ice protection, Advanced Sea King trials (including experiencing the unplanned demonstration of the effectiveness of its flotation equipment off the coast of Marseilles), and the very successful flight test of the Westland composite main rotor blade for the US Navy’s Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King at Naval Air Station Patuxent River.
His professional, careful and determined approach to flight test would culminate in his appointment as the Chief Flight Test Engineer, a post he held until his retirement in 1993. He was able to claim involvement in every Westland helicopter from the WS-51A Widgeon on, ending with over 3,000 hours of flying time as flight test crew, including substantial fixed-wing time.
In 1993, he received the Society of Flight Test Engineers (SFTE) Kelly Johnson Award for outstanding achievement in his field, the first recipient to receive the award outside the US; he was recognized as a SFTE Fellow in 2010.
In 1998, Gibbings was formally diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. He dealt with this condition in the only way he knew how: he met the condition head on, was never cowed by it, and simply refused to let it dominate his life. If the ancient Greeks had not already defined the term, then Gibbings would have invented stoicism to describe his determination to live the life he wanted no matter what was thrown in his path. He was often heard to say that “I may have Parkinson’s, but Parkinson’s has not got me.”
He was a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society for more than 70 years, starting at Halton as the secretary of the branch formed there and he was still engaged with the Yeovil branch committee right to the day of his passing. In 2021, he received the Society’s Long Service award in recognition of his long and meritorious support to local branches at Halton, White Waltham, and Yeovil. Gibbings was at the forefront of supporting the apprentices and younger engineers in all they did; he was a regular invitee to their achievement ceremonies where none paid any attention to the age difference in the room.
Having a lifelong interest in the historical achievement of the aeronautical industries of the world, it was natural that in retirement he would take on the role of custodian of the Yeovil historic archive reaching back to 1915. His efforts have helped to protect and maintain this material for posterity, and in 2014 he was recognized for his contribution to Aviation Heritage and Support to the Defence Industry by the award of the Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list.
Gibbings was a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society (FRAeS), a Chartered Engineer and a European Engineer (EUR ING). As a member of VFS, he contributed regularly to the Society’s History Committee with great confidence and value, born of his extensive knowledge of UK and European rotary-wing achievements. After the merger with Agusta (and its later rebranding to Leonardo), he became active in helping to promote and preserve the history of Leonardo. He was the impetus for awarding the VFS Vertical Flight Heritage Site designations to Weston-super-Mare Airport in Somerset, UK (2018) and Leonardo da Vinci’s Studio in Milan, Italy (2017), attending both ceremonies.
Gibbings presented the 43rd Cierva Lecture to the Royal Aeronautical Society in 2003, speaking on the topic of Rotodyne and published the definitive book, “Fairey Rotodyne,” in 2009, as well as several other publications that can be found in the VFS Online Store, including, “A Quiet Country Town: A Celebration of 100 Years of Westland at Yeovil — An Anthology” (2015). He was awarded the VFS John J. Schneider Historical Achievement Award in 2015 at Forum 71 in recognition of “distinguished achievement in encouraging appreciation of, and enhancing access to, the history and legacy of vertical flight aviation.”
He was a “lover of the arts” including all genres of music. He is perhaps best known for his own aviation-oriented paintings, of which over 200 were completed, and very many charcoal vignettes. Gibbings was a founding member of the Guild of Aviation Artists, later being granted Honorary Associate Membership of the Guild of Aviation Artists in April 2016. His iconic painting of the first flight of the Westland Lynx prototype is the featured image for May in the Society’s 2023 VTOL History Calendar.
Jeremy Graham, FRAeS, noted that, “His circle of friends was truly worldwide, far too numerous to count but we will all share one thing at least in common: we will all miss him greatly.”
Following a short stay in the hospital, David Eveleigh Gibbings, passed away on Oct. 18, 2022 at the age of 90.
In Memoriam: Vertiflite January/February 2023