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Obituary: Professor William Penny CBE – developer of the modern black box flight recorder and co-founder of Penny & Giles

PROFESSOR William Penny CBE, who was instrumental in developing the black box flight recorder which improved the safety of air travel, has died at the age of 95.

One of the co-founders of the aerospace and industrial technology firm Penny & Giles, it was his work with James Giles in the 1950s which revolutionised air crash investigations.

The black box, which records flight data, had been invented in 1954 by an Australian scientist. Three years later Christchurch-based Penny & Giles produced the first black box with magnetic recording.

Professor Penny was given an honorary doctorate from Bournemouth University
Professor Penny was given an honorary doctorate from Bournemouth University

Professor Penny, who lived for many years at Beachern Wood, near Brockenhurst, with his wife Beryl, had also developed transducers which could measure air speed and altitude acceleration, and control surface positions. The information they gathered was then recorded by the black box together with voices from the cockpit.

These improvements vastly increased the amount of data available to air accident investigators following a crash, leading to advancements in air safety.

It was just one in a series of innovations for which Penny & Giles became famous.

Born in Wiltshire, Professor Penny qualified as an engineer and spent his early years working at a government establishment at Boscombe Down on the transition to transonic flight and the development of gas turbines.

This work involved measurement of air turbulence, icing and numerous data recording parameters for flight control and recording.

He then went to work at the Kelvin Hughes company in London.

It was here that he met James – known as Jim – and the two formed Penny & Giles which quickly expanded into a diverse group of companies in the Christchurch area and in South Wales.

By 1992 the company employed 1,200 people. Known to employees as ‘The Prof’, Professor Penny had a “hands-on” approach to the engineering and development of new products, according to former managing director Ray New.

“He was driven throughout his life by a passion to improve air safety,” said Mr New, who worked for the company for 42 years.

“At heart, he was always an engineer, and in his 80s he was still developing ideas. He was a brilliant man, a pioneer, and respected by all who knew him.”

Apart from running the company, Professor Penny also lectured at City, University of London.

In 2002, Penny & Giles was bought by US-based Curtiss Wright, but Professor Penny continued to work there as a consultant.

A spokesperson for the company said: “Professor Penny was a huge figure in the Penny & Giles and Curtiss-Wright story in the UK over many years, and his sad death marks the end of an era.

“Many of the UK team have fond memories of working with Bill Penny, and his legacy can be found in the success of our businesses today.”

According to Professor Penny’s family, his “guidance and mentoring” over the years have helped develop the careers of many engineers.

“Beyond Penny & Giles there have been many successful companies set up in the local area by former employees who were inspired and encouraged by Professor Penny, and through them all his legacy will live on.”

In 1989, Professor Penny was appointed CBE for services to industry, and in 2010 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Bournemouth University.

Jonathan Goode, head of alumni relations at the university, said: “Professor Penny was a valued member of the BU community, having served as a board member of the university and, later, presented with an honorary doctorate in recognition of his contribution to aerospace.

"Throughout his career he promoted links between education and industry, which benefited many students, and we send our warmest condolences to his family and others who knew him.”

A keen yachtsman, golfer and musician, he had a farm in Scotland where he enjoyed breeding cattle. He moved there a few years ago following the death of both his wife and daughter.

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