Forget those endless debates about what type of university degree Britain’s engineers should be studying. James Labouchere dropped out of his engineering degree course at Salford University 15 years ago.
Now, aged 34, he is an accomplished designer of racing yachts and aircraft, runs his own company and is, he believes, on the verge of something big.
Labouchere was at the Farnborough Air Show last week looking for industrial backers for a novel seaplane, the Centaur, that cuts through the water like a racing catamaran on take-off and landing. The benefit is not just faster take-off: the Centaur can land and take off in much choppier water than other seaplanes. Labouchere’s concept draws on his dual design passions: high-tech composite racing yacht hulls and light aircraft.
‘This is a lifetime project,’ he says. ‘The implications are terribly major. It is the greatest opportunity to get general aviation off the airfield and onto water. You can see the market implications for island chains, Indonesia and countries with a rugged coastline like Chile.’
This project is more than a lone inventor’s pipe dream. Some of Britain’s top aviation and hull designers have collaborated on the Centaur. Labouchere has researched the global market for seaplanes at Stamford University, Connecticut. And as an engineer, albeit with no formal qualifications, he knows what he is doing.
Labouchere grew up in a family of flyers and aviation enthusiasts, designing and building radio-controlled aircraft. His father was an RAF pilot and engineer. His uncle restores De Havillands. During his A-levels, he sent $25 to the US for the plans of a build-your-own, full-size, single-seater biplane, which he built, flew, and crashed.
‘It damn nearly killed me. It was not really airworthy, and there were fundamental flaws in the design. But I rebuilt it and carried on flying. It taught me a lot,’ he says.
Taking aeronautical engineering as a degree seemed an obvious next step, but after a year’s study at Salford University, Labouchere quit. He dislikes the term drop-out. ‘I was up to date with my studies, but was not interested in going on to design jet fighters or missiles,’ he says.
‘I thought long and hard about it,’ he recalls. His tutor was supportive, he says. ‘I may regret it yet. No one’s really asked me for qualifications, but I am lucky to be able to call in the people with the relevant qualifications.’ He was already a design consultant for a Lymington-based firm called Green Marine, which specialised in composites, and was designing a racing catamaran.
In his twenties, Labouchere continued his aeronautics education using technical libraries, such as those at Cranfield, or the Royal Aeronautical Society’s. ‘If you have the basic mathematical ability and need to apply what you are reading to a specific problem, you can get more out of textbooks than if you are trying to pass an exam,’ he says.
The Green Marine project led to Labouchere starting a small company with marine designer David Alan-Williams, who designed the fastest boat to sail round the world. The group was to design a racing catamaran which included a novel concept of Labouchere’s. ‘The boat could fold back like a music stand to fit into a monohull berth,’ he says.
Venture capital was attracted, but as the recession hit in 1990, the boat was never developed.
However, Labouchere’s reputation was growing. He won a contract to collaborate on a world speed record challenge for land yachts. The craft will attempt to beat the 88mph record this autumn. ‘It’s all Formula One engineering, with a lot of aeroplane in it,’ he says. ‘It sails at five times the wind speed, and should do serious damage to the record.’
Labouchere’s consultancy work continued, including certification work on a two-seat acrobatic plane and development work for fast boats and high-tech composite structures. In 1992, his plans to bring all the disciplines together with Centaur was given a fillip with a £5,000 Handley-Page grant from the Royal Aeronautical Society. Loans from the DTI and family followed, and aviation designers became involved in the project.
The design is now complete, but without funds to build a prototype to aim for certification, the project is at a watershed. ‘Suddenly it has got very serious,’ he says.
Labouchere remains chief designer, but is also now managing director and chairman of Warrior Aero Marine, the company created to develop Centaur. ‘I am managing and administrating the project, which I don’t think is my strongest point,’ he admits. ‘Part of me would like to fall back on design, because that’s what I am best at.’
If Centaur fails to win industrial backers, Labouchere may return to design consultancy. But by the end of the Farnborough Air Show, he had some serious leads. He believes there is a market for several thousand plans of this type, and that the six-seater Centaur could just be a stepping stone to larger, 14-seater, aircraft. If a large industrial partner steps in to produce the Centaur, possibly using spare capacity at a plant that could be anywhere in the world, Labouchere will once again find his career at a crossroads.
After more than 15 years of autonomy and freedom, the university drop-out may become the ultimate company man.
James Labouchere at a glance
Education: Bryanston School, Blandford, Dorset;
Salford University: first year of BSc Aeronautical Engineering
First job: consultant, Green Marine
Present job: managing director and chairman, Warrior Aero Marine