Until his retirement this year, Emeritus Professor Peter Bearman had been at Imperial College London’s Department of Aeronautics for fifty-one years. During that time, he specialised in Experimental Aerodynamics and had a ten-year tenure as Head of Department. As College Pro-Rector and later Deputy Rector, he played a key role in delivering renovated and new buildings across the South Kensington campus, including the Main Entrance, the Business School and the Faculty Building.

We spoke to Peter to reflect on what has been a wide-ranging and impressive career.

Early Years

Born before the Second World War, Peter Bearman was born in Norfolk and spent his early years there. At the time, the United States airforce and the RAF had a significant presence in Norfolk. “I saw plenty of aircraft when I was a small boy,” Peter says “maybe this had some effect on me, I don’t know!”

After the war, Peter and his family moved back to Leyton, East London. “It was a time when England still ran the eleven-plus, and I was lucky to scrape into grammar school. Few children in primary school passed the 11-plus, so it really changed my life. If that hadn’t happened I doubt I’d have ended up doing what I did.”

At grammar school, Peter befriended others who were interested in aircraft and aeronautics and joined the air training corps (the Cadet Force). “Around that time, we went to the Farnborough Air Displays once a year: you could view aircraft that had gone through the sound barrier and experience shock ways - something that wouldn’t be allowed now!”

When Peter was a teenager, National Service was still expected of young males aged 18-21. “I’d already secured a place at Cambridge University, but I still would need to do two years of National Service before or after my degree, and frankly I wanted to get it over with!” At the time Peter thought he would end up working for an aircraft company after University, so National Service with the RAF seemed like a natural fit. Despite this, Peter jokes “I never saw an aeroplane, but I was taught how to use firearms!”

However, the RAF allowed him to take a day off per week, where he studied Aeronautics (at what is now the University of the West of England, in Bristol) and took the first year of the HND (Higher National Certificate). 

“While I was doing national service it came to an end, but not for those doing it! Although it was useful in the sense that it prepared me for University - so I was able to really hit the ground running at Cambridge.”

University and Early Career

Peter studied Mechanical Sciences at Cambridge, with a third-year specialising in Aeronautics (with a heavy emphasis on aerodynamics). “After that, I decided I didn’t want to work for an aircraft company, instead I wanted to continue with aerodynamics research. Therefore, I stayed and studied for a PhD in experimental aerodynamics for a further three years at Cambridge.”

Peter decided to work in research, and explains that “the country had plenty of research of establishments in those days - research wasn’t all University-based.”

In 1965, Peter joined the Aerodynamics Division at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL). At that time, it had a formidable reputation in aerodynamics research (it was where the foundations were laid for the aerodynamic design of wings to be used on Airbus aircraft).

He was recruited into a group working in ‘Industrial aerodynamics’: an early manifestation of what is now called wind engineering, which is mainly involved with the wind forces on buildings and structures.

At the NPL, Peter’s role was to work on basic research relating to the expected wind loading on the World Trade Center (the Twin Towers in New York City that opened in 1973 and suffered fatal terrorist attacks in 2001).

“It was vitally important that tall towers didn’t sway or vibrate in the wind beyond a critical level. For the people working in the offices at the top, because they had a point of reference with the other building, they would be able to see it swaying ever so slightly. Also, the vibration frequency could be such that it might induce a form of seasickness.”

The designers of the Twin Towers had commissioned model tests in a wind tunnel at Colorado State University, and found the towers would be stable when exposed to wind. However, model tests that had been carried out at the NPL predicted the towers would vibrate at an unacceptable amplitude.

“So the question was: is there a difference between the air in the UK and the air in the USA? In the Colorado model tests, they could reproduce a simulation of the atmospheric boundary layer: the way the natural wind speeds up with increased height and is turbulent. At the NPL, the tests had been carried out in an aeronautical tunnel with uniform flow and a very low turbulence level. The effect of turbulence on the aerodynamics of buildings and other types of bluff body was the focus of my research at the NPL.”

When Peter was employed at NPL, he became involved in the design of a large wind tunnel to test building models. Although it never materialised, the experience of wind tunnel design would be invaluable to him in future.

Joining Imperial and F1

By the end of the 1960s, it became clear that funding for basic research would be channelled into Universities rather than research establishments like the NPL.

In 1969, Peter was offered a Lectureship at Imperial College London. He wasn’t the only one to leave NPL for Imperial: Peter Bradshaw (famous for his studies of turbulent boundary layers) joined during this time too. Peter Bearman recalls “Imperial was an interesting place, full of interesting people. For staff meetings, all the Aeronautics Department’s academic staff could sit around one table. There was also a surprising number of wind tunnels; if every piece of equipment that could blow air is counted as a wind tunnel then there were around twenty.” 

Not long after Peter arrived at Imperial, fellow lecturer John Harvey invited Peter to join him in some wind tunnel tests on a model of a Formula 1 racing car.

“From an aerodynamic point of view it proved to be very interesting, but it was at a time when the sport was particularly dangerous with too many fatalities.” By improving the aerodynamic design of cars, along with other developments, the cars could be made safer to drive. “Over the years it is impressive how much safer F1 cars have become and some of these advances can now be found in our road cars.”

“When I arrived at Imperial, working with industry could be frowned upon, whereas now it’s quite the opposite - that’s one of the major changes that I observed during my time at Imperial.”

Imperial College’s history with motorsport cannot be described without mentioning Professor John Stollery. He had been involved with Donald Campbell’s world speed record attempts on land and water. Bluebird was the first high-performance car to be tested in one of the Department’s wind tunnels, and Stollery had been instrumental in acquiring moving floor equipment from RAE Farnborough. With a car model static in a wind tunnel, a moving floor provides a more realistic simulation of travelling along a road. Peter adds “Moving the floor made such a difference to the aerodynamic forces acting on a race car that F1 team after team came to test in the wind tunnel at Imperial College.”

The Honda Wind Tunnel

Peter and John Harvey carried on from Stollery’s work when he eventually left the Department.  As the involvement with F1 progressed, a wider interest in improving road vehicle aerodynamics developed, driven mainly by the need to reduce fuel consumption. “In the late 1970s, we submitted a research proposal to the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) for a new, larger wind tunnel suitable for studying the aerodynamics of road vehicle models.” The aims were to reduce aerodynamic drag and to research into the effects of side winds on-road vehicles.

Disappointingly, the proposal was rejected and the Department was advised to look for suitable tunnels that already existed elsewhere in the UK. However, shortly afterwards the Honda R&D Company approached the Department about model vehicle testing in wind tunnels: “They wanted to improve their expertise in road vehicle aerodynamics, and they were enthusiastic about our proposal for a new tunnel. So with some help from the College, they agreed to fund the majority of the construction of the tunnel and the associated research projects.”

The Honda Wind Tunnel (now known as the 10x5 wind tunnel) officially opened in 1985. Since then, it has been an important asset to the Department’s experimental aerodynamics research activity and is now recognised as a National Wind Tunnel Facility.

Realising the advantages of having such a tunnel, F1 companies built their own facilities, incorporating much of the technology developed at Imperial College. Nowadays, the 10x5 tunnel is frequently used for investigating the wind loading and wind environment around building models.

Nevertheless, the Department’s links with F1 remain strong. Peter explains that “more than fifty graduates from the Department have worked or currently do work in F1 companies, in a few cases rising to the level of Chief Designer. There is also still an active research relationship with the F1 industry, including applying computational fluid dynamics to predicting aerodynamic performance.”

Research breakthroughs

When Peter first joined Imperial, the aerospace industry was going through a tricky period: “The student numbers at all levels were much lower than they are now.”

To help counter this, then Head of Department Professor Paul Owen encouraged broadening the application of aeronautical science. “Professor Owen made it respectable to work in areas other than aeronautics, which allowed for the applications to be diversified, and for the department to adopt a more interdisciplinary outlook. That was key to where we are now.”

Owen secured a large grant from SERC for a project entitled ‘Industrial applications of turbulent research’. Peter explains “This provided freedom to follow various lines of fluid mechanics research. Around this time, the Department already housed PFSU (Physiological Flow Studies Unit) which eventually led to the founding of Bioengineering at Imperial.” 

“In another application area, Marine Technology, I worked with Mike Graham,” Peter explains. The discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s offered ample opportunities for fluid mechanics research. “Oil companies were keen to collaborate with us and supported research into the interaction of waves and currents with structures in the sea.” This work has its legacy in the Department’s Hydrodynamics Flume.

Peter acknowledges that carrying out research related to the extraction of oil, while good for the economy, was not environmentally -friendly. However, he points out that there were advantages in the long-run. “With the importance of electricity generated by offshore wind, this research has found a fresh application. Mike, for instance, continues to work on the generation of electricity from offshore wind.”

“Likewise, with F1, the aim is to reach net-zero emissions by 2030 and the need for sustainability will guide further advances in motorsport.”

Head of Department

In 1989, Peter was appointed Head of the Department of Aeronautics. “I found it very interesting, and quite enjoyed it! In 1994, I was appointed for another five years, and by that time I knew exactly what to expect.” 

Peter during his time Head of Department

A significant change during Peter’s tenure happened in teaching.

“What I was most pleased about was dropping the 3-year BEng course and moving to the 4-year MEng course for undergraduates. It was a risk and at that time we were the only Aeronautical Engineering department to make this change. Would students want to study this long, with its associated extra cost?” 

Peter argued that the increased project work and the possibility of a year abroad would make the course more attractive. Eventually, it became the norm for the majority of undergraduate courses in Aeronautical Engineering in the UK.


After his time as Head of Department ended in 1999, Peter became pro-rector of the College. This role saw him overseeing building projects including the Flowers Building, the Faculty Building, The Management School and the renovation of the College’s Main Entrance in South Kensington, which opened in 2004. The refurbishing of the Royal School of Mines building and the modernisation of the Biochemistry happened around this time.

Peter explained that the renewal of the College infrastructure was desperately overdue at the turn of the millennium. “At Imperial, nothing really had been changed since the 1960s. We were fortunate that the Government at the time realised this and invested in University campuses. Now looking at these buildings and the College Entrance, we can appreciate that the architects, Foster and Partners, did a very nice job and I’m pleased to have been involved!”

Deputy Rector  

In 2001, Peter became Deputy Rector (this was a time before the College had a President and Provost). “The Rector at the time was Sir Richard Sykes who had been CEO at GlaxoSmithKline. This was another interesting time as the College was establishing a management system based on faculties rather than having every department reporting directly to the Rector. Personally, it was fascinating to work with a person who had been at a pinnacle of the pharmaceutical industry.”

During this period, Peter continued to work on projects from his previous role, and to supervise research in the Department of Aeronautics.

When it came to his official retirement, aged 65, Peter became a Senior Research Investigator: “I’ve spent 16 years since retirement as an SRI - that’s nearly a third of my career at Imperial College!”

Peter is now an Emeritus Professor, a title awarded to those who have made a significant, outstanding contribution to the College, and that’s certainly the case for Peter. 

Looking back

Peter says that he is most pleased that he took the opportunities presented to him. “A career is a progression, and you learn something from every area you are in. When opportunities arise, take them.”

“I have been impressed by many people in my time at the Department and the College. But particularly I must say I’ve been very fortunate to have very good support from the technician staff throughout my time in experimental projects.”

Peter is also confident about the future of Aeronautics, and argues that the discipline’s adaptability is key to its relevance: “It’s interesting how the Department has survived and thrived - its reputation in basic research continues while applications continue to broaden more and more. As I understand it, more and more undergraduates are interested in aeronautics - even with aviation experiencing uncertain times.”

On the environmental impact of aviation and realising Zero Carbon by 2050, Peter finished by saying: “This is a key area for the future of aviation, and one in which the Department has an important role to play.” 

Interview conducted by Tom Creese

Published: 17 December 2020