Born: United Kingdom
Primarily active in: United Kingdom
Don Berrington, Westland Engineer and Leader
Born in 1934, Donald “Don” Kenneth Berrington’s early life in rural Shropshire was set in the humblest of agricultural settings. The daily walk to school of two miles from the age of five was taken for granted, as was the lack of running water and electricity at home. The local village school provided an education from five years old to school leaving age at 15, but also offered children the opportunity to sit the entrance examination for the County High School. Berrington was admitted to Bishop’s Castle County High School in 1945 at the age of 11.
The majority of his male cohort were destined to work in agriculture, but for Berrington the call of engineering in some guise was strong, if not yet well formed. In his final year, and with the encouragement of school staff, he wrote to Rolls-Royce and Westland enquiring about engineering apprenticeships. Rolls-Royce had already filled their annual quota, but Westland offered Berrington a place on the strength of his letter and without an interview. What would become a 43-year career was about to begin.
Berrington came to Yeovil and joined the company at the age of 15, but could not sign his apprentice indentures until his 16th birthday, six weeks later. There he was thrown into learning the practical skills associated with aircraft building, while also advancing his academic studies through courses taken at night school.
He was 21 when he passed his final exams and now working in the mainstream technical organization of the company. To Berrington’s surprise, the company offered sponsorship to attend Cambridge University if he was able to pass the entrance conditions. An introduction to the Tutor of Corpus Christi College was arranged and, as a result, it was clear that Berrington had the academic knowledge required but with one exception: a qualification in Latin was required.
This was solved by his attendance at remedial evening classes run by the Yeovil Girls High School! At the age of 22, Berrington found himself a student at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, studying mechanical sciences.
On completion of his studies, Berrington returned to full-time work at Westland, which was by then fully committed to the helicopter.
Amongst his early tasks was assignment to a small group using computer simulation to aid the autopilot design for the Wessex HAS3 (derived from the Sikorsky S-58). The equipment installed by Westland for this activity was the same as being used by NASA to support manned space flight. Techniques taken for granted today were pioneering in 1961.
When, in 1965, the Westland Sea King was adopted by the Royal Navy, Berrington was appointed as the “Engineer in Charge” of the program to develop and adapt this Sikorsky design for use in the UK. His intimate knowledge of the aircraft and its systems meant that the Westland export sales team would often call on him for guidance, and his travel experience quickly included most European nations, India, Pakistan and Australia. The Westland Sea King would be widely and quickly adopted around the world. Berrington was appointed Deputy Chief Designer for Westland Helicopters in 1971, and was two years later promoted to the Chief Designer position. In these roles, he led the design teams that brought the Westland Lynx to its production status and entry into service.
In 1980, he was appointed as the Division Director for Military Export. Here he was able to further develop Westland’s reputation as both willing and able to create customer-specific versions of its products, often by way of significant product modifications. He would describe the greatest achievement of the division to be the sale of the Advanced Sea King to the Indian Navy as the Mk42B, the largest export contract received up to that date. The Mk52B was, and remains, the most sophisticated Sea King weapon system ever produced.
As 1985 dawned, Westland’s financial position shortly became precarious. This would come to a head in June when the key positions in both the Westland Group and Westland Helicopters boards of directors were vacated overnight (due to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher government’s so-called “Westland Affair”); Berrington was invited to take on the role of Managing Director for the helicopter company. His reputation for calm and measured action was well established and he was able to make a significant contribution to the wider restoration of business confidence that was the outcome of the business restructuring that followed.
At the height of the company’s financial crisis, a plan was hatched to set the helicopter world speed record using the rotor system developed under the soon-to-conclude third phase of the British Experimental Rotor Programme (BERP III) research program. Berrington’s role as an advocate for the enterprise would prove crucial and the exercise was a complete success. The speed record established by the Westland Lynx (G-LYNX) in August 1986 — an average speed of 400.87 km/h (249.10 mph) — stands to this day. Immediately, the status of the company was transformed from a failing enterprise to a world-class designer of advanced rotorcraft.
During 1986, Berrington was promoted to the role of Technical Director for the entire Westland Group. In this role, he was particularly influential in securing the Canadian contract for the supply of EH101 aircraft for shipborne missions and a second variant configured for search and rescue. Within a year this achievement would be overshadowed by the decision of the incoming Canadian Government to cancel the contract, though the EH101 Cormorant would later win a competitive tender for the same search and rescue role.
Berrington retired from Westland in 1992. In 1994, his service to the helicopter industry was recognized by the award of Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List.
Westland engineer Jerry Graham remembered Berrington: “He will be sorely missed by family, friends and neighbors alike. For those of us who had the good fortune to work for or alongside him, Don will be remembered with rare fondness. The most capable yet modest of engineers, clear thinking, democratic, mindful that status should never impede debate, and at all times personable, he was the archetypal ‘gentlemen engineer.’”
Don Berrington died at the age of 88 on Feb. 13, 2023, in Yeovil, Somerset, England.
VFS Update: Vertiflite May/June 2023