Obituary: Gwen Alston
Tuesday 27 July 1993
GWEN ALSTON was a prominent scientist and researcher in the field of aerodynamics during the Second World War, and subsequently played a key role in promoting the teaching of aeronautics in schools and colleges.
She was born Gwen Shone in 1907 in Birkenhead, Cheshire. She was educated at Wallasey High School and Penrhos College, Colwyn Bay, and graduated from Liverpool University in 1927 with a B Sc in mathematics, to which she added a Diploma in Education the following year. While at university she took flying lessons and obtained her private pilot's 'A' flying licence in 1929 before spending five years teaching mathematics in Rotherham and Nottingham, and simultaneously working towards an MSc in Aerodynamics, which she was awarded in 1932.
In 1933 she joined the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, working in the Aero Department under H. Glauert. There she met her future husband, Peter Alston, a scientific officer, who was killed in 1939 at Martlesham, Suffolk, while flying as an observer aboard an American-built Harvard trainer in which Sqn Ldr Robert Cazelet was conducting spinning trials to determine the cause of a number of accidents following the introduction of the aircraft into RAF service.
During the war years Gwen Alston continued to work at the Aero Department, working primarily on stability and control problems. She also ran the department's spinning tunnel in which aircraft spin characteristics were investigated, was seconded to Ringway (now Manchester International) Airport to oversee problems associated with the introduction of troop-carrying gliders into the British Army's Glider Pilot Regiment, and completed the RAF basic and advanced pilot-training courses in Miles Magister and Harvard trainers. She became a founder member and Adjutant of the RAF Technical Flight.
As part of her work as an RAE scientist, Alston was called upon to fly as an observer on many hazardous test flights. Perhaps her best known work in this field was a series of trials flown in 1944 to try to discover the cause of fatal accidents involving the Fleet Air Arm's Fairey Barracuda torpedo bomber, five of which had crashed into the sea after releasing torpedoes. Her pilot was Lt-Cdr (later Capt) Eric 'Winkle' Brown, who was newly posted to RAE Farnborough as Chief Naval Test Pilot and was later to command the Aero Flight. Brown and Alston discovered that certain combinations of flap position and rudder input could cause the Barracuda instantly to roll inverted and dive. 'I shuddered at the thought of what the inevitable consequences would have been had I actually performed the test at sea level,' Capt Brown later remarked. 'I cannot leave the accident investigation without paying tribute to one of the flight-test observers involved in these tests - Mrs Gwen Alston. Mrs Alston was a truly remarkable 'lady boffin', who, despite having lost her scientist husband in a fatal crash while on a similar duty, never flinched at any risky flight and in all circumstances displayed the essence of courage.'
In 1946 Alston became an Associate of the Royal Aeronautical Society, in which year she was appointed an Inspector of Schools with special responsibility for inspection and advice on aeronautical matters, including training for the aviation industry, sport and recreational flying and air education in schools and colleges. Alston was the first recipient of the Air League Scott-Farnie Trophy, for services to aviation education, and in 1970 was made an Honorary Companion of the Royal Aeronautical Society 'for her valuable contributions to aeronautical education and training'. She was a founder of the Aerospace Education and Recreation Organisation (Aero), which provides advice and assistance to teachers and schools on air-related topics and organises courses in aviation studies.
In addition to her work in aerodynamics research and aviation education, Gwen Alston leaves an enduring legacy in the Royal Aeronautical Society's RP Alston Medal. Founded in 1940 in memory of her late husband, it was originally a prize for work in the field of air safety through stability and control, but since 1957 has been awarded as a medal for practical achievement in the flight-testing of aircraft. Among those who have won this much-coveted award are such celebrated British test pilots as 'Roly' Falk, Geoffrey Tyson, Bill Bedford, Roland Beamont, Pat Fillingham, John Farley and Dave Eagles.
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