Mad Scientess Jane Expat (nanila) wrote,
Mad Scientess Jane Expat

Women in Aviation and Aeronautics at the RAeS

I attended the Women in Aviation and Aerospace conference at the Royal Aeronautical Society a couple of weeks ago and I finally had a chance to type up my notes. It proved to be an inspiring experience. I met some fantastic people - helicopter pilots, aircraft designers and engineers, young and old - and all women.

Update 07/11/2011: Web site for the event, with some presentations available.

Conference Notes

From Clare Walker’s introduction: “This is one of the few occasions when there aren’t enough women’s toilets available at the [Royal Aeronautical] Society.”

Lee Balthazor: For the first time, three of the four key lectures at the RAeS will be delivered by women this year. Currently aviation and aerospace careers average around 9% women. This is pretty sad. The aim is to get to 25% by 2015, and the eventual hope is that one day conferences like this will not be necessary because parity will be achieved.

I’m not holding my breath.

The keynote speaker was Professor Dame Ann Dowling, Chair of Engineering at the University of Cambridge - the first woman ever to hold this position. She was absolutely inspiring. She’s the sort of person you’d expect to have green lasers shooting out the top of her head or be physically imposing or have a loud, strident voice. Instead, she’s the kind of lady you’d expect to see placidly knitting on the train or absorbed in a book. She seemed comfortable in her own skin. In my experience, this is an uncommon thing for an ambitious high-achiever to be. Her talk was pitched at exactly the right level for an audience with technical backgrounds in diverse areas.

Her topic, the design and development of a silent, environmentally friendly passenger aircraft, was both timely and relevant. Although aviation currently accounts for only 2% of global CO2 emissions, the sector is growing, so it can’t afford to be complacent. The problem with conventional aircraft is that they’ve pretty much reached the optimum fuel burn and noise levels. Returns on refinement of the current design are severely diminished now. This means that a radical change is required to lower fuel consumption levels and make aircraft quieter.

Prof. Dowling presented several choices:
  1. Make aircraft lighter using composite materials.
  2. Use high-temperature alloys in the engines to make them more efficient.
  3. Use biofuels.
  4. Redesign aircraft.

The first, she said, has already been done to the degree that is possible without making radical manufacturing changes. The second works, but has the unfortunate side effect of increasing the amount of NOx released into the troposphere (that’s the bit we breathe). Breathing NOx is bad for humans. The third is of questionable “green” credibility, because the amount of processing required to make biofuels suitable for airplane fuel is enormous. This is wasteful, when biofuels can be used elsewhere without such processing. Additionally, the unreliability of biofuels when relighting at altitude (which is necessary, otherwise plane falls out of sky) makes them unsafe. The best solution is to redesign the aircraft body and engines completely into a blended wing configuration like that currently used for bombers. For comparison, here are pictures of conventional aircraft and the Sax 40 Silent Aircraft.

This will, of course, cost money, because airplane manufacturing techniques will have to undergo a dramatic shift. Only if an institution awash in cash (like, say, the US Department of Defense) decides to adopt and build this design will it become, eventually, commercially viable.

One of the many advantages of the new design is that the wings can be tweaked to get the best lift curve. Once this is done, planes can land more slowly, reducing the noise of approach, and slow down more quickly once on the ground, reducing the fuel cost. Prof. Dowling then played us sound clips of the relative noise levels of conventional and silent aircraft during take-off and approach, and the reduction was dramatic.

A step that can be taken while the silent aircraft goes from development to physical testing is to put enclosed engines like those on the silent and on military aircraft into conventional aircraft. This will help reduce fuel burn in the meantime.

The last question asked of Prof. Dowling was about windows. The Sax 40 doesn’t have them, because they’re heavy and reduce fuel efficiency. Her answer to this was that by the time silent aircraft go into civilian passenger use, video technology will be good enough to let passengers see the whole of the outside world projected in detail onto the interior of the cabin if they want!


Four talks took up the rest of the morning. The first was given by Gail Hewlett, granddaughter of Hilda “Billy” Hewlett. Gail Hewlett wrote a biography of Hilda, the first female pilot, entitled Old Bird. Amusingly, Hilda’s spouse was a romantic novelist. Ms Hewlett opened her talk with, “When you tell people at parties that one of your grandparents was a pilot and the other a romantic novelist, they usually get the sexes the wrong way round.” Though her speech was prepared, it was still a marvelous tour of Hilda’s Bohemian life. She left her husband for a French engineer and ran a flying school and then an aircraft manufacturing plant during the first World War. She got her flying license in 1911, becoming the first woman to do so. She trained the women who worked in the manufacturing plant during the war, calling them her “war babies”. The talk left me eager to read Old Bird, so I’ve since ordered it from Amazon.

Emily Teesdale, a patent attorney with a background in aerospace engineering, gave the second talk. She clearly explained the differences between trade secrets, patents and design protection. She went on to talk about female inventors and how few women hold patents. Only 8.5% of those in aerospace are held by women. Her goal was to make women more aware of the possibilities afforded by patenting technology, and to encourage us to keep secret any ideas that we think are potentially patentable. Probably not the most immediately useful talk for me, but her accounts of the achievements of female inventors was rather inspiring.

The third talk, Innovation in Aerospace, was given by Ruth Mallory. I’d tell you what she did and who she worked for, but I honestly wan’t all that clear about it. I spent this talk veering wildly between being bored by what I see as high-falutin’ platitudinous BS (e.g Innovation is disruptive and open while supply chains are structured and closed. This must change for aerospace to evolve.) and being fascinated by the insights into investment policy. I got the sense that this is the sort of hazily defined area (Knowledge Transfer) that determines the distribution of very large pots of money. Her suggestions for us, as young members of the aviation & aerospace industry, ranged from the slightly ridiculous (“Become a school governor.”) to the extremely practical (“Do as much outreach as possible. Children don’t become engineers because it’s not a career they’ve heard of.”). This talk left me feeling as if I’d been asked to drink the Kool-Aid and had uneasily refused.

The final short address was given by Brenda Horsfield, formerly the second Chair of the British Women Pilots’ Association (WPA). She helped define the terms of the UK’s 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. At the time, WPA members couldn’t fly planes for the major airlines, only the smaller airlines, meaning they were restricted to short-haul routes. They were not pleased about this. Some of the members got to chatting with a certain Baroness, who suggested that the WPA should bring their case before the government and formed a committee to draft the Act. The committee spent a year on it, because it wanted to include things like a finance bill so that women could obtain mortgages without the signature of a man (husband or father). It became the Equal Opportunities Commission, which still exists. Ms Horsfield recalled that one of the most vociferous opponents of the Act were the golf clubs, who “rattled their striped trousers and wrote home to their mothers” about having to give equal consideration to women for national awards. She also recalled the decision to leave the Church out of the Act because, as she said at the time and claimed to be slightly embarrassed to admit now, “They were more committed to molesting small boys than to caring about women.” She closed with a joke.

A man meets an angel. “Wow,” he says. “You’re an angel!”
“Yes,” replies the angel patiently.
“So, does that mean you know God?”
“Of course.”
“Can you tell me about God?”
The angel looks reluctant. “You’re not going to like what I say.”
“Please tell me!”
“Well,” the angel says slowly, “For a start, she’s black.”

What a marvelous woman.


We then broke for lunch and networking, after which there were three seminars we could choose to attend on different topics. I’ve posted my notes from the one I attended elsewhere, and as they were quite interest-specific, I don’t think I need to mention any more about them. We reconvened at 3:30 PM for the last talk of the day, To Mars!, given by astronomer and spacecraft instrument designer Dr Helen Walker from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. She works on Mars Express, which has been orbiting Mars for almost as long - 10 years - as the four Cluster spacecraft have been orbiting the Earth. She gave a succinct overview of Mars exploration and our changing view of the planet, from a dry desert wasteland to an analogue of Earth in early days, with oceans and potentially still harbouring microbial life. She reminded us that the Opportunity rover has now covered 25 km in its seven year lifetime. Not bad for a robotic spacecraft that was only supposed to last for little over 90 days. Then she started talking about the future of Mars exploration and the kind of tools that will be needed to explore its surface and atmosphere more efficiently. There are lots of ideas under development - new rovers, a hopper that uses CO2 to fuel ballistic hops, gliders, balloons and even flying carpets. And of course, the last thing she talked about was potential human exploration of Mars. The European Space Agency (ESA) Aurora programme directs the long-term strategy that will be needed to bridge the gap between robotic and human exploration for Europe. It’s likely, however, that someone else will make that jump first - or that it will have to be a truly global endeavour.

I liked that as an end to the official programme of the day. Hopeful, but pragmatic.
Tags: conference, gender, science

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