Simon Henley

Rear Admiral Simon Henley MBE BSc CEng ChPP FRAeS FAPM
Aeronautical engineer

I studied A Levels in Maths, Physics and Chemistry at Collyer’s from 1968-1975. I remember my time at Collyer’s very fondly and I am still friends with many of my classmates and year group. I particularly benefitted from my time in the Navy section of the Combined Cadets Force (CCF) under the tutelage of two amazing teachers, and I remained in touch with one until his death. The core values of respect and duty sound a bit trite, but those foundations were set for me by my time at Collyer’s, as well as by my parents and family.

I joined the Royal Navy straight from Collyer’s and after completing the mandatory year of Officer training and shipboard experience undertook a 3-year BSc in Mechanical Engineering at the Royal Naval Engineering College in Plymouth, followed by a year of post graduate training in Aerospace Engineering, in order to qualify as an Aircraft Engineering Officer

I completed a full 32-year career in the Royal Navy and was employed on a variety of Naval Air Squadrons and Ships, working on a variety of helicopter types including the Sea Harrier. This culminated in leading the project to bring the F-35 Lightning II aircraft into service in the RAF and Royal Navy. I retired in 2007 in the rank of Rear Admiral, and my last role was as Technical Director for the MoD’s Acquisition and Support Organisation (Defence Equipment and Support).

I subsequently joined Rolls-Royce in Bristol, and worked for them for 6 years, firstly as a Programme Director covering all new military systems, including the F-35 Lightning II Lift System, unmanned air vehicles and helicopter engines. Then as President of Europrop International I was responsible for the introduction to service of the TP400 turboprop engine for the Airbus A400M aircraft. Since then, I have worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Marshal Aerospace and Defence (Director of Major Projects), culminating in the current role as an Adviser to Reaction Engines Ltd, helping develop a revolutionary new rocket engine to power a Space Plane, but also inventing technology to improve performance in anything from top end Motorsport through to zero emission aircraft and electric vehicles.

I am professionally qualified to Chartered standard as both an Engineer and Project Manager and I am active in both the Royal Aeronautical Society, I was their President in 2018/19, and I am an Honorary Fellow of the Association for Project Management and assessor for the Chartered Project professional qualification. I was awarded an MBE in 1990 for my contribution to rapid modifications to aircraft involved in the conflict between Iran and Iraq, which preceded the Gulf War. I survived the sinking of SS Atlantic Conveyor by two Exocet missiles in the Falklands War and ended up swimming in the South Atlantic Ocean. One of my bucket list items is to go back and see the Falkland Islands in peacetime. I was also in Washington during the events of 9/11, so have learned to cope during times of extreme stress and personal challenges.

I believe I have made a difference in people’s lives. It was an absolute privilege to be involved from the very early days of the F-35 programme as I worked in Washington DC on the Joint Strike Fighter Programme Office between while we created the Requirements for the F-35 aircraft. We then saw the programme right through to delivering the first production Lift System for F-35 from Rolls-Royce in 2008. That aircraft is now the backbone of defending the UK, US, and other nations from the air. Every time I see an Airbus A400M fly past my house I think of the challenges my team overcame to get that engine into service – the biggest turboprop engine ever produced in the western hemisphere! In my current role I am contributing to advancing space exploration and accelerating the advent of zero emission travel.

Through my work with the Royal Aeronautical Society, I have contributed to raising awareness of the necessity to accelerate zero emission flight, and to encouraging more young people into the engineering profession from more diverse backgrounds.

In terms of my day, there is no such as a typical day. I can be doing everything from devising a new business strategy through hosting a senior government minister or heading off to the Royal Air Force for a factory visit to staffing a stand at the Farnborough Air Show.

I love my job as the technology which is now being developed by the young engineers in Reaction Engines will change the world in Space Exploration and battling Climate Change. I love working with those engineers to provide guidance and to help identify how we can bring their products through to realisation in real-life projects. We are at the forefront of aerospace technology and really are making a difference, despite being only a 200-person company.

For someone looking to get into a similar role start with an Engineering degree – it opens up so many horizons. As the world becomes increasingly dependent on technology, being able to understand how things work will be a great enabler to thriving in a huge variety of roles. Then you need engineering and project management skills to understand how the technology works and where it might best be applied. I use the business skills I have acquired over time to then help set strategy and advise the business how to tackle challenges such as funding, political support, and technology sharing across international borders.

Looking back, I really only found my niche once I was working in the real world facing actual problems. I was never a great student. You will find a career path that suits you and really blossom once you find your place on that path. If you are not enjoying it, find another path as enjoying your work is an essential part of a balanced life. I have been lucky enough to have worked abroad, three years in Washington DC and three years in Madrid. Working in other countries with different cultures really broadens your approach to challenges, as well as being great to see new places.

What next Simon? I keep trying to retire but I enjoy what I am doing too much to give up entirely. However, I now have three grandchildren, and my family have tolerated a life which has been heavily skewed towards work for long enough – time to restore that balance and play more golf!