Obituary: Gwen Alston

Hannah Gwendolen Shone, aerodynamicist, educationalist: born May 22 1907; teacher 1929-33; scientist and flight test observer, RAE Farnborough 1933-45; Inspector of Schools 1946-72; married 1935 R. Peter Alston (died 1939); died 14 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.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea