On an icy Friday morning in March 1947, Geoffrey Charles, Maurice Easy and Bill Sanderson, three recently demobbed squadron leaders, met for the inaugural meeting of their new company. Named after the locations they were travelling from, Chelsea and Kennington, Chelton was born. Little did the three founders know that 70 years later, they would spawn a pioneering aerospace group with an international market-leading reputation. The newly formed company, formally known as Chelton Electrostatics Limited, set out to investigate and overcome the problem of noise in aircraft communications caused by the discharge of electrostatic charges that built up on the surfaces of the aircraft during flight.
Even at the dawn of the company, the ethos of pioneering technology driven by talented people was evident. A new concept for static dischargers was established known as the famous (in the aviation industry anyway) Driwiks. Designed to release charge through a wick of cotton or nylon yarn, made conductive by the chemical impregnation of microscopic metallic silver particles, the wick was enclosed in a protective plastic casing except for the quarter-inch length exposed to release the charge. Without the Driwik, the Decca Navigation systems used in aircraft would have been blotted out by static and rendered unusable. After developing two types of Driwik for specific functions, and the development of the superseding products, the Miniprobe and Miniflex, Chelton became recognised as the leader in the highly specialised field of static dischargers.
Despite the post-war hardship of ration books, political turmoil and smog-filled streets, Chelton triumphed and went on to be accepted as a supplier to Boeing, fitting dischargers on the new Boeing 737. Akin to a royal seal of approval in the aviation industry, Boeing were impressed with the innovative and focused spirit running through the company and have been customers ever since.
Chelton prided themselves on never revelling in past glories, instead looking forward to future successes. Despite a short-lived foray into moulding beads and the world of costume jewellery, it was confirmed that Chelton’s future lay in its niche role in the aircraft industry. The young company set out on a path to meeting tough challenges and becoming a world leader, not just of static dischargers, but of aircraft antennas.
As the post-war economic boom continued, Chelton remained on an expansion course. Charles Cooper, an innovator and businessman, joined the company after responding to a two-line advertisement in the local paper simply calling for someone with ‘technical skills’. Charles was privy to a conversation with a colleague where he learned that British army helicopters were experiencing failure rates with their Ultra High Frequency (UHF) blade antennas and replacements were difficult to obtain. Seeing a market niche opening up, Chelton acted quickly, designing its first self-complete communications antenna for military use: type 16-1 UHF. Constantly taking RAF aircraft beyond their limit, these pilot-proof antennas continued to exceed expectations and perform where their predecessors couldn’t. The 16-1 UHF became a standard fit for UK-built military aircraft, from helicopters to supersonic fighters. But it was just the start of the antenna business. With ambition running through its veins, Chelton set out to combat the international market.
With its pioneering spirit, Chelton identified and challenged markets that other manufacturers would have walked away from. One of these was antennas for the US market. Having beaten out competitors to produce Very High Frequency (VHF) antennas for the US civil market, Chelton found that this market was too small and jumped on a requirement to create an antenna covering both VFH and UHF in the same shell for military aircraft. Although the US military antenna market at that time was considered ‘inaccessible’ to British manufacturers, Chelton’s antenna outperformed its competition thanks to its low drag, high strength-to-weight ratio and excellent signal sensitivity.
By the 1970s, antenna-making had become an art form following Chelton’s development of the first radio-silent tuneable antenna; and the company’s designs revolutionised tactical air-to-air and air-to-ground communications. The Tornado was Chelton’s first complete antenna suite success with installation on the tail, spine, nose and belly of the aircraft. Further expansion was an inevitability with two UK production sites in Plymouth, Dorset and Marlow, Buckinghamshire producing one or more versions of virtually every type of non-radar antenna fitted to the majority of British civil and military aircraft.
Long before the buzzword was even invented, Chelton have been customer-driven. Reacting quickly to customers’ requirements has always been a way of life and nothing defines this commitment better than during the Falklands War. When the Atlantic Conveyer ship was sunk by a missile, not only were the helicopters lost but also spare parts including antennas. The UK Government put out a call for help to Chelton to produce antennas quickly, no matter the cost. With staff working day and night, Chelton was able to deliver the spare antennas and contribute its effort in the national interest.
Fast forward to better times in the 1980s, and Chelton continued their mission to break America. Much like The Beatles, Chelton had a solid following in the UK and wanted to establish ‘Chelton-mania’ in the US. But there was a hurdle: America preferred to buy American products. A remote one-man sales office was set up in the US, and with a stateside sales tour in full swing, more and more companies became interested in Chelton and the need for a bigger site was clear. Eventually, Chelton, Inc. was set up in Lewisville, Texas to import and sell products, which ultimately outgrew this function to become an even bigger production site for dischargers.
Towards the end of the 1980s, Chelton was flying high on both sides of the pond. They caught the attention of two buyers wanting to add Chelton to their portfolio. One of those was Flight Refuelling Limited, the company set up by Sir Alan Cobham. Once a part of the Flight Refuelling Family (FR Group), Chelton doubled-down on acquisitions, buying out a series of companies in the next few years to build and strengthen their portfolio.
Thursday 19th May 1994, the Daily Telegraph reads ‘Concorde could be stopped from flying to America next year because of technical problems. British Airways is having difficulty with a new traffic alert radar system now required by the American aviation authorities for all flights entering the country’. Although Chelton had static dischargers and some antenna on the supersonic airliner, the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) – which monitors other aircraft in a 14-mile radius and warns the pilot if a threat is perceived – was another manufacturer’s design. Faced with the likely possibility of the Concorde fleet being completely grounded, US avionics group Rockwell Collins approached Chelton. Despite Rockwell Collins being customers for some years on the military side, this was Chelton’s first involvement with their civil operations. The TCAS was mandated for fitting by the end of 1993 by the FAA but there was a problem with the antenna radome subcontracted by Rockwell Collins to an American antenna manufacturer. During test flights, BA engineers noticed paint peeling on the radome which may have been caused by the extreme temperature changes during flight. With the FAA reluctantly offering a short extension, it was a race against time to save Concorde and Chelton’s expertise was necessary.
It was apparent that the problem was both electrical and mechanical – both areas Chelton were well-suited to respond to. If a solution was not delivered in the time frame, Chelton’s chances of doing business with Rockwell Collins’ civil air division would disappear along with Concorde. With on-the-job learning, extreme testing and empirical development, many hours, lost weekends and untaken holidays went into the new antenna. After numerous prototypes and ever-changing requirements, a superior antenna was ready for deployment. Not only was it compatible with the radome, it also performed technically and structurally better than the original; proving an extremely difficult engineering problem could be solved within a tight schedule and still meet the regulatory conditions. You may ask, ‘Why all this trouble for just 13 Concordes?’ The answer: technical and commercial progression. A lot was learnt during the TCAS project, which was then applied to subsonic antennas. It also raised Chelton’s profile and proved that British manufacturers could meet US aerospace criteria.
Critical communications was the next string to add to Chelton’s bow. In 1995, the Terrestrial Trunked Radio (TETRA) specification was published to define the communication between professional mobile radio and two-way transceivers. TETRA networks were designed to be used by government agencies such as the emergency services and public safety networks to communicate using their radios as both mobile phones and walkie-talkies. In addition to supporting voice services, TETRA was also designed for data communication to send short encrypted messages. This was adopted by the UK and by the year 2000, Chelton had gained a foothold in airborne TETRA thanks to their inception of a multi-band public safety radio to be used by the UK police force. Having been brought into the process of the move to TETRA quite late, there was little development time.
It was decided that the best way to provide airborne TETRA systems was to embody a Motorola vehicle radio, which the force was already using for seamless communication between officers on patrol and police support in the air. Along with a custom-produced Control Head capable of controlling multiple TETRA radios, this would allow police air support helicopters to hold simultaneous voice conversations. The Control Head incorporated control of the radio and was an enhanced design of an earlier product from previously-acquired company NAT. Chelton’s TETRA system is still in use in all police helicopters in the UK. Once the system was fielded nationwide, Chelton started attracting interest from international users of TETRA and became strongly positioned around the world. The TETRA system was developed further to use Sepura radios which enabled use outside of the UK. This third generation of the Chelton TETRA system is still deployed by many public safety agencies across Europe, Africa, Asia, South America and the Middle East.
As the 1990s turned into the noughties, Chelton was gaining further speed and altitude. Now trading as Cobham Antenna Systems, it was on a mission to expand its portfolio and entered the radio and audio market. In 2009, Cobham Antenna Systems developed the first all-digital airborne audio system known as the Digital Audio Control System (DACS). This proved popular compared to legacy analogue audio due to its reduced installation weight and reduced audio crosstalk. Widely adopted by Airbus, DACS became a standard fit in more civil production helicopters than any other system in the world. After noticing a trend for ‘more glass and fewer knobs’ in cockpits, Cobham developed RT-7000, the first, and only, touch-screen software-defined tactical radio supporting both multi-touch and gestures to improve the in-flight experience.
As a new decade unfolded, Cobham sought to embed itself in a new sector: the anti-jam market for the military. The company developed a number of anti-jam systems and antennas which were placed on popular platforms such as the Tornado, Eurofighter Typhoon and AW159 Wildcat. As threats developed, so did anti-jam technology and in 2017, Cobham announced a next-generation Anti-Jam GPS System which provides significant immunity to jamming attempts compared with conventional GPS antennas. The system consists of a Digital Antenna Control Unit (DACU) working with a GPS Controlled Reception Pattern Array (CRPA) antenna, offering a single solution for all air, land or marine platforms. Compact and modular, the anti-jam system provides optimised processing to combat the threat environment and allows the ability to null or steer beams to protect against jamming and spoofing challenges.
Recognised for its established public safety aviation units worldwide and highly sophisticated antennas, Cobham went on to be selected by the UK Home Office in 2019 to provide the Aircraft Communications System (ACS) which would form a key component of the new Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP). A world first as this would operate on a 4G LTE commercial network. As data-driven applications become increasingly vital for public safety and critical communications, the need for more broadband technology has been acknowledged as an essential component of public safety missions.
We’ve defined the avionics industry over many years with a number of world firsts: from tuneable antennas and Public Safety Radios to Digital Audio Solutions. Throughout our early history, our leadership established strong guiding principles that endure today, like a special appreciation for the engineering aspects of the company. From our founders’ entrepreneurship and strategic focus on niche markets, to the vision to diversify through acquisitions to reach an international market. Today, the portfolio ranges from Antenna Systems and Radio to Anti-Jam GPS and Electronic Warfare Systems. Our products and solutions are deployed and recognised globally and we continue to stay focused on our customers’ needs.
More than 20 successful years have passed since Chelton joined the Cobham brand and now we are set to go full circle and return to our brand roots as Chelton. Continuing Chelton’s journey to consistently overcome immensely complex challenges, our top-level talent combines ground-breaking technical capabilities with a matched drive and persistence. This, along with our innovative technologies and commitment to our customers, has led us to where we are now and where we are going in the future: securing success in some of the world’s most demanding environments. In days gone by, Chelton wanted to be known as ‘The Antenna Company’ of the 21st century, but we’ve gone above and beyond. From aerospace and defence communications, to navigation and electronic warfare: at Chelton, we’re proud to be on your team. Continuing our founders’ visions to deliver technological excellence and future vision – whatever your system ambitions.
The content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.