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Blackwell, Sir Basil Davenportfree

(1922–2003)
  • Samuel Eilon

Sir Basil Davenport Blackwell (1922–2003)

by unknown photographer, 1985

UPPA/Photoshot

Blackwell, Sir Basil Davenport (1922–2003), engineer and industrialist, was born on 8 February 1922 at 72 Hollyshaw Lane, Whitkirk, Yorkshire, the son of Alfred Blackwell, engineering company manager, and his wife, Hilda Kathleen Sophia, née Bretherick (later Lloyd). He was educated at Leeds grammar school and St John's College, Cambridge, where he studied for the mathematical tripos. He graduated as a wrangler in 1942, and won the Hughes prize. Not content with these academic achievements, and determined on a career in engineering, he later pursued his studies at London University and was awarded a first-class honours degree in engineering in 1948. On 4 September that year he married Betty Meggs, aged twenty-four, daughter of Cecil John Meggs, an engineer captain in the Royal Navy. They had one daughter.

After graduating from Cambridge Blackwell had joined the directorate of scientific research at the Admiralty to engage in research on anti-submarine warfare, including depth charges and torpedoes. In 1945 he went to Rolls-Royce in Yorkshire and started work on jet engines (while pursuing his engineering studies). In 1949 he went to Bristol Aircraft to work on aero-engines including Proteus, Orpheus, and Olympus 200. He became assistant chief engineer in 1957 and deputy chief engineer of the aero-engine division two years later, when Bristol Engines was formed. His abilities were recognized in the early 1960s and he was appointed commercial manager in the aero-engine division and in 1965 became managing director of the small engine division, which later became part of Rolls-Royce Ltd.

Blackwell's career with Westland Aircraft started in 1970, first in the capacity of commercial director, followed by a meteoric rise to managing director of Westland Helicopters (1972) and then chief executive of the Westland Group (1974). He persuaded Lord Aldington to become chairman of the Westland Group in 1977. Aldington, a barrister and former government minister, had held a long string of directorships and was well respected in the business world. He and Blackwell forged a strong partnership in planning Westland's strategic future. When Aldington stepped down in 1985 Blackwell took over as chairman for a short while. He was also chairman of the British Hovercraft Corporation (1979–85), which was part of the Westland Group, and chairman of Normalair Garrett Ltd (1979–85), also within the Westland Group but partly owned by American interests.

From his early days at Westland Blackwell was convinced that the company needed strong alliances with foreign enterprises, to build on the already existing collaboration with the American Sikorsky helicopters. Westland had secured an agreement as early as 1946 to build Sikorsky designs under licence and in 1948 the Sikorsky S-51 Dragonfly was produced, followed by other models, including the WS-55 Whirlwind (1952), the W3-58 Wessex (1957), and the successful SH-30 Sea King (1967). Blackwell was keen to nurture this alliance and ensured that design and technical know-how flowed across the Atlantic in both directions. He also pursued alliances in Europe, notably with the French Aérospatiale to produce several aircraft, such as the Puma, the Gazelle, and the Lynx, and with Agusta of Italy to establish a joint venture (which later, in 2000, became Agusta Westland) to produce the versatile EH101 helicopter, aimed at both the military and civilian markets for combat and non-combat uses, such as civilian search and rescue, VIP personnel transport, and law enforcement.

These alliances with Sikorsky, Aérospatiale, and Agusta were designed to provide the enormous financial resources needed for innovation, development, and design of new products, and to spread the costs among the major companies in the helicopter industry. But the ensuing financial strain became too much for Westland and by the early 1980s it became evident that the company could not sustain the burden on its own. A takeover by a major aircraft or engineering company seemed inevitable, but no ‘white knight’ came forward to the rescue, until Bristow Rotorcraft announced its intention to bid for Westland Aircraft in 1985. At first Blackwell had reservations about such a linkup, but then (in the absence of better prospects) recommended the bid to the shareholders, only to be rebuffed by Bristow's sudden withdrawal from the bid. This was the last straw for Blackwell, who resigned as chairman, to be succeeded by Sir John Cuckney. The tribulations at Westland and its uncertain future led the following year to the unfolding of what became known as the Westland affair, a row at cabinet level that culminated in the resignation of two cabinet ministers, namely the defence secretary Michael Heseltine, who preferred Westland to become part of a European consortium, and Sir Leon Brittan, the trade and industry secretary, who championed a possible bid by the American Sikorsky, also the preferred option of the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

During his fifteen years at Westland Blackwell was showered with honours and tributes. He was a council member of the British Institute of Management, the Confederation of British Industry, the National Defence Industries Council, the Council of British Aerospace Companies (of which he was president 1979–80), the Engineering Employers Federation, and the Association Européenne des Constructeurs de Matériel Aérospatial (of which he was president 1984–5). He was knighted in 1983. His contribution to the technical and commercial success of Westland's products was widely acknowledged, but in the end the mounting political and financial pressures prevented him from finding a means to secure a long-term future for Westland.

After his resignation Blackwell devoted time to various charities and causes, most notable being his tireless work for the University of Bath, where he collaborated closely with the vice-chancellor to restructure the long-term planning and decision-making processes of the university, of which he became an honorary fellow. His experience in the aircraft industry led him to investigate the financial implications of research and development of numerous products, such as camcorders, cars, computers, electrical white goods, pharmaceuticals, and many others. He published many papers and articles in scientific and professional journals. He coined the related concepts of ‘critical mass’ and ‘characteristic unit price’ to emphasize the minimum sales volume needed to sustain the viability of any given product in the face of ever pressing competition. He expounded his ideas in a book, which he wrote jointly with Samuel Eilon, The Global Challenge of Innovation (1991), highlighting the mounting financial resources needed for research and development in industry.

Blackwell was a keen gardener. He designed his own garden at his house in Sherborne, Dorset, and also the garden of the country house owned by Westland, where many visitors from all over the world had an opportunity to appreciate his outstanding talent. He had an innovative and vibrant mind that was greatly admired by all who knew him. He died at his home, High Newland, 1 Newland Garden, Sherborne, on 18 May 2003, and was survived by his wife, Betty, and their daughter, Susan.

Sources

  • Daily Telegraph (22 May 2003)
  • The Guardian (27 May 2003)
  • WW (2003)
  • personal knowledge (2007)
  • private information (2007)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1985, Photoshot, London [see illus.]
  • obituary photographs
(1849–)