Mr Sam Sterling

MR Sam Sterling, from Ballynahinch, who died on June 7 at the age of 85, was a highly respected lecturer in aeronautical engineering at Queen’s University, who also gave a lifetime of service to the Scouting movement.

Born in Tandragee in Co Armagh, he attended the local primary school and Portadown College.  On leaving school he gained a place on the Short Bros Aeronautical Student Apprentice scheme through which he studied at Belfast College of Technology. 

His apprenticeship started on the shop floor and he worked his way through a number of roles, progressing to a staff appointment in the Structural Development section and Engineering test facility.

He subsequently moved to London for three years where he graduated with a BSc in Engineering from London University.  A keen sportsman, he played rugby for London Irish during his student years.

He also attended Cranfield University and graduated with an MSc in Aircraft Design. He also obtained a private pilots licence on Auster Aiglets and flew in flight test courses on the twin-engined De Haviland Dove and on the Moraine-Saulnier Paris, a twin-engine jet.

During a second spell at Shorts he designed the Auto Land test rig for the Belfast Freighter in the Engineering Test Department.  His career path then took him to the stress office at Fokker in Amsterdam where he worked on the F27 Friendship and on the F28 Fellowship.

It was at this time that he married Joan Black to whom he was happily married his entire life.  They lived in Amstelveen, close to Amsterdam, and immersed themselves in Dutch life. He became a fluent Dutch speaker and continued to read books in Dutch through his life.

Mr Sterling returned to England and worked for ICI in their Plastic Division in Welwyn Garden City on the design and stress analysis of thermoplastic structures. This was a new material and he continued to work at the leading edge of engineering technology.

In 1968 he was appointed to a lectureship in aeronautical engineering at Queen’s where he served notably for 44 years.  During his time at he held many roles, including Advisor of Studies in Aeronautical Engineering and Assistant Dean of the Faculty of Engineering. 

Mr Sterling was an engine of activity. He established the Aircraft Structures Laboratory at Queen’s and set up student exchange programmes with the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands, Aachen University in Germany and with Chalmers University in Sweden. 

These programmes enabled Queen’s aeronautical students to gain valuable international experience and allowed Dutch, German and Swedish students to spend a similar period at Queen’s.

He was appointed as an external examiner in aircraft design for Cranfield University in Bedfordshire and for the National Test Pilots School in Mojave in California. He became a student member of the Royal Aeronautical Society while an apprentice, eventually being elected as a Fellow in 1999. He was also a chartered engineer.

Mr Sterling was an inspiration to the many students who passed through Aeronautical Engineering. He was someone who imprinted values of organisation, diligence and ensuring things were done to a high standard.

But above all he loved people. His spirit of building a team that shared values and worked together has nurtured several generations of successful QUB engineers.  He was always proud of everyone and shared in the joy of all their successes.

He lived in Ballynahinch, for over 50 years. He built his own house and several extensions, plus a shed which became his woodworking and carpentry area, where between there and the former Ballynahinch Technical College, he built many pieces of furniture and doors. He gained a City and Guilds in Machine Woodwork at the college.

Mr Sterling was devoted to Scouting. He was a Queen’s Scout and became District Commissioner for Ballynahinch and Downpatrick.  He was also the chairman of the County Down Scout Council and is the holder of a Silver Acorn Award in recognition of “specially distinguished service to Scouting”.

In view of his long service to Scouting he was appointed as Honorary Vice President of the County Down Scout Council in 2016.

He brought his engineering skills to bear when the scouts erected a standing stone to mark the Millennium, with the ropes and pulley system tested in a laboratory.

He and his wife loved gardening and were members of Ballynahinch Gardening Club. They also opened their garden to the public at one point. 

Remaining ever interested in global connections, Mr Sterling spent some 14 years learning Spanish in classes in Downpatrick and at international language schools in Puerto de la Cruz in Tenerife.

He is survived by his wife, Joan, son Michael, daughter-in-law Joanna, his four grandchildren, Eva, Scarlett, Bonnie and Max, and his sister, Margaret, in Spain.