Johanna Weber Against all odds

Johanna Weber

Johanna Weber succeeded in a man’s world and was instrumental in the development of Concorde. But at first, it looked as though this German mathematician’s career was over before it had truly begun.

Johanna Weber in 1948, soon after she arrived in England

That Johanna Weber would even have the chance of a professional career seemed unlikely. Born in the German town of Düsseldorf in 1910 to a poor family, her father was killed during the First World War. She was a very shy girl, at a time when it was hard enough for women to get ahead. 

Nevertheless, Weber’s academic excellence secured her a place to study mathematics and chemistry at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen. She graduated with top grades in 1935 – two years after the Nazis had seized power in Germany.

Weber refused to join the Nazi party, meaning she was not permitted to pursue her dream of teaching. Instead, she began to work for weapons manufacturer Krupp as a ballistician. At that point, there was nothing to suggest that she would one day be involved in developing one of the most legendary aircraft ever made: Concorde.

A beautiful friendship

The turning point in Weber’s life came when she applied for a position at the Aerodynamischen Versuchsanstalt Göttingen (AVA) – a forerunner of the German Aerospace Center. Despite admitting that, at the time, she “really knew nothing” about aerodynamics, she got the job. 

Despite admitting that, at the time, she “really knew nothing” about aerodynamics, Weber got the job

On her first day, Weber met engineer Dietrich Küchemann, with whom she          would later make aviation history. While working at the AVA, Weber and Küchemann’s main focus was on the aerodynamics of coolers and engine intakes. Colleagues of theirs were working on a theory of air currents for the entire aircraft and Weber was tasked with analysing and improving the wind tunnel results.

In an interview, Weber later described her friendship with Küchemann as “simply wonderful”. The two worked closely together and complemented one another. “Because I was shy, I didn’t want to give any lectures. He handled that side of things – he was different from me,” Weber said. She let him have the spotlight, while she herself felt much more at home in the laboratory.

Goodbye, Germany

In 1946, the two went their separate ways for a short time. Küchemann headed for Farnborough to work for the Royal Aircraft Establishment. Weber would follow him just one year later.

At that time, the British regarded German scientists as ‘enemy aliens’. However, Weber would later tell of having nothing but positive experiences with people in her adopted home: “They were all exceedingly friendly. In all my life there I never once heard an unkind word.” In 1953, she became a British national. 

The Concorde had its heyday offering a commercial service between 1976 and 2003

Weber and Küchemann helped develop the swept wing for the Handley Page Victor bomber and, in 1956, joined the British-French Concorde team.

Weber would make two fundamental contributions to supersonic flight: she devised methods for predicting the drag on an aircraft with slender delta wings during supersonic flight and she also optimised the wing shape to create air vortices at the leading edge of the wing, thereby boosting lift during slow flight.

The legendary Concorde – complete with its aerodynamic wings – took off on its first commercial flight on 21 January 1976

Johanna Weber joined the Low Speed Wind Tunnels division at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in 1946

Influencing Airbus’ success

Airbus A300B flying over Rio de Janeiro bay, Brazil

Weber and Küchemann also developed special wings that were first used for the VC10 fighter and later adapted for commercial aircraft. This design formed the basis for the wings used on the A300B, the world’s first large twin-engine aircraft

Their work helped give Airbus a significant advantage over its rivals in terms of performance and fuel efficiency. This proved one of the most critical aspects in the company’s early success and this pioneering approach continues in Airbus designs today. 

Weber and Küchemann’s design formed the basis for the wings used on the A300B, the world’s first large twin-engine aircraft.

Professionally, Weber and Küchemann were almost inseparable and the two collaborated for the remainder of their professional careers until Weber retired in 1975. Privately, too, they were close and although Küchemann died the year after, Weber retained close ties with his family. 

Tribute to “Auntie Jo”

In 2014, Küchemann’s son wrote in an article for the international network European Women in Mathematics: “Though she vowed to turn her back on aerodynamics when she retired, she, understandably, talked increasingly about her working life in her last years. I think she was very pleased and somehow very grateful for what she had achieved.” The article served as an obituary for his “Auntie Jo”, who had died shortly before at the age of 104 in her adopted home of England.

Peter Pletschacher