Ada Lovelace Day 2012: Anne Burns

One of the immediate spurs for me posting again was Ada Lovelace Day; as I have done previously, I thought I’d write about a female RAE engineer that I’ve come across during the PhD research.

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I first came across Anne Burns, engineer, RAE flight test observer, and champion glider pilot, in Richard Dennis’s book Farnborough’s Caterpillars. Born Anne Pellew, and only the second woman ever to study Engineering Sciences at Oxford, she graduated with a first and went on to do research with Professor RV Southwell, including a paper on Rayleigh-Benard convection that was published in the Royal Society’s Proceedings. At the outbreak of the Second World War she attempted to join the Air Transport Auxiliary, but her engineering expertise meant she was turned down and drafted to do work at the RAE. At Farnborough she worked on flutter behaviour, and stayed after the war as a flight test observer. She worked on the Comet crash investigation, and was one of the observers for the RAE’s flight test programme on an unpressurised Comet. Apparently all the staff onboard wore oxygen gear and parachutes fitted with barometric releases; the hope was that if the aircraft broke up in flight and the crew were thrown clear, they might survive even if unconscious, so long as the chutes triggered at the right altitude. For her part in the tests, Burns was awarded a Queen’s Commendation, as well as a medal by the Royal Aeronautical Society. She continued to do flight test work at the RAE, in particular investigating clear-air turbulence, for which she carried out some of the flight programme in her motor-glider. She was awarded another Queen’s Commendation for her work in 1963; other awards included the Royal Aeronautical’s Silver Medal, as well as it’s inaugural Whitney Straight Award for women in aviation. She retired from the RAE in 1976.

Burns had taken up recreational gliding in the 1950s, and in 1966 became the first female British Gliding Champion. However, she had another notable achievement still to come: in 1977 her glider suffered a birdstrike, and she took to her parachute to escape from the damaged aircraft; this made her the first female since the 1930s to become a member of the Caterpillar Club, and at 62 its oldest member ever. Though this led her to take up the somewhat more sedate sports of golf and fly fishing, in typical fashion she became expert at these as well. Burns died in January 2001.

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