The real Papa Owl

Professor Geoff Lilley was one of the UK’s leading aeronautical scientists in the last 100 years. His career spanned  a huge 20th century aviation journey from the Vickers Wellington to Concorde, and latterly to the implications for modern flight of the silent wing flapping of the owl. He was known to keep Owl’s in his freezer, which had been sent to him from Owl Sanctuaries when they died of natural causes, so he could study the feathers.

Sadly on the 20th September 2015 Professor Geoff Lilley died at the age of 95 at Highfield Nursing Home in Ryde, Isle of Wight, England. He died peacefully with family members present.

He had a long association with the Isle of Wight and his son Michael went to Bembridge School on the Island. On Saturday 4th March 1972 the family were booked on the hovercraft that travelled across the Solent between the Island and mainland England, which crashed. Fortunately they missed catching the hovercraft by seconds due to a delay in Michael’s Confirmation by Bishop of Portsmouth in Bembridge, who was also in the taxi with the family.

From 1964 Geoff always lived near and was linked with the Solent. He was a great ambassador for the aviation, space, ship & yacht science industries and was a big part of making the Solent one of the top international world leaders of astronautics and aeronautics in the 20th Century. In relation to yachting he was responsible for the development of ship science as a discipline and established the precursor of the Wolfson Unit of Marine Technology which now collaborates with America’s Cup yachting syndicates.

In a career  spanning 75 years his finest moment was leading the Concorde team negotiating with the Port Authority of New York, successfully persuading them that the revolutionary supersonic aircraft really did meet the strict US  noise levels. His work ensured Concorde entered commercial trans-Atlantic service. If he had failed the supersonic aircraft would have been scrapped.

Geoffrey  Michael Lilley- Geoff  to friends & colleagues- was born at Isleworth  in 1919.His father  Micholl  Morland Dessau was an American  inventor who  made & lost a great deal of money .He lived at Langham Place London  before his property was demolished to make way  for the BBC’s Broadcasting House. His fortune  crashed during the  depression  and Geoff’s father left the family  when Geoffrey -the youngest of four – was 12.

In 1935 Geoffrey Lilley left Isleworth Grammar School  to join the RAF as an apprentice  at Halton. His ambitions to fly were  thwarted  by  short sight and he left the service to  pursue a general engineering apprenticeship. He was always passionate about man-powered flight and is one of a very few men who has flown a man-powered aeroplane.

After attending a lecture on plans to  introduce air conditioning in a major London cinema  he met a senior  Kodak executive  who offered him a job.Geoff  really found his feet with Kodak  where he designed and installed a sophisticated  air conditioning  system  enabling the company to  store & process  the RAF’s vast requirement for high quality  reconnaissance  film  in the  war against Germany.

From  Kodak   Geoff  joined Vickers  at Weybridge  where he worked for a time with the  legendary Barnes Wallis . Geoff stayed in the aircraft industry throughout the war . At night school  he  completed a BSc  and then an Msc  while at the same time  devoting two nights a week  to Home Guard service on an anti-aircraft battery.

In 1946 he  decided to pursue  an academic  aeronautical career  becoming one of the  founders  of the  College of Aeronautics  at Cranfield,now Cranfield University. With a handful of war surplus aircraft, some seized  German wind tunnels and an influx of  generally mature  ex RAF  students looking for a place in  peacetime aviation GML  soon established  the college as a centre of excellence.

Much of his early research  was aimed at exploring  the effects of  supersonic  speed on  air crew,buildings , animals  & people blow the flight path . Supersonic flight then  was full of mystery  and  myth. David Lean’s 1952  film “Sound Barrier” popularised all sorts of misconceptions about  high speed flight  but John Derry’s  death at Farnborough the same year  emphasised  the  very real dangers too.

Geoff realised that while almost all military  aircraft then in service  could only go supersonic in a dive  the real future for high speed  air travel  was in level flight. His interest lead to  being appointed a member of the Govt’s  Supersonic Transport  Committee ultimately developing into his full involvement in Concorde design & engine noise suppression work using Cranfield’s  wind tunnel facilities to the full. Virtually all the noise  suppression  advances on British civilian jets  1955-72 were based on his work. Many patents were taken out ,often the proceeds were shared with  colleagues & students.”Lilley’s equation” is still a fundamental  tenet in all  noise  research.

In 1955 his career almost came to an end following a serious  car crash in America  which lead to loss of memory & temporary epilepsy. Two years rest brought him back to full vigour.

In 1963 he was appointed Professor of Aeronautics at Southampton University. During his tenure the department achieved world class  status branching out into all sorts of different but related  fields including ship design, rain spray control on heavy lorries and Formula 1 car research and ship science. The advancement of the speed of yacht racing does have a link back to Geoff.

But it Geoff’s handling  of the US noise  objections to Concorde  that became his finest hour. It was clear to many that despite  NASA’s huge  prestigious  space programme  some in the US were jealous of Concorde and the  fact that  America’s SST  programme had flopped. Geoff headed a small technical team  tasked with countering  the US technical objections  line by line. Through strict attention to detail, the  careful planning of flight paths & throttling back  points they  successfully made Concorde’s case  leading to the introduction of regular  trans Atlantic supersonic flight.

In 1981 Geoff was made  an OBE “for services to the government”. In 1983 he retired from Southampton  becoming Professor Emeritus and still had an office there until aged 94. However it was far from the end of his career. A life-long patriot and committed Solent advocator for creation of jobs from research at Southampton University (he wanted local people to benefit from local Universities) who resisted many tempting offers from  the US  for career advancement he nevertheless  had a huge network of research  contacts  eager to employ him including Lockheed, NASA and numerous foreign  universities .

He became particularly interested in the  possibilities of silent flight -both militarily and on civilian jets. The wing configuration of the  owl  became a focus of his attention ,his pioneering work being taken up by both the US and China. Visitors to his home were often  perplexed at the sight of  dead owls  lying in his fridge.

Geoffrey Lilley was a colourful character .He drove Alfa Romeo cars  at frightening speed and loved opera  particularly Wagner .He’d follow the Ring cycle with  score in the half light of a live performance  with his wife  happily  sleeping beside him. A keen raconteur  he loved telling stories often against himself. In the 50s & 60s he used to sign telegrams and letters  simply “Lilley”. To his great delight this often lead  people to presume he was a peer of the realm -a presumption  apparently confirmed by his  sartorial  flair -bow ties were de-rigeur-and his generally super confident presence.

He was innovating to the end and died in his room at Highfield Nursing Home, who called him “Prof”, with his current work on cosmology where he was questioning Einstein and Stephen Hawking’s theories.

The Owl Man was still thinking to the end. He was a keen on encouraging young people into science and with his son, Michael, was planning an archive and exhibition of the “Life and Times of a Jobbing Scientist and Engineer” with it to be shared between Southampton University, Island Schools and Winchester Science Centre, which he was a founder. Michael is now talking with IOW Age UK and local schools about making this happen. The exhibition will include his slide rule with which he could beat the NASA (World’s Largest) Computer and many other artifa One of  the  UK’s leading aeronautical scientists cts including pictures of Owls.

Geoff was pleased that the Isle of Wight branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society had reconvened after 30 years and was planning to go to its next meeting with his son. He was Life President of the Solent Branch. He also wanted to see the sight of Shanklin Pier where he danced with an “Elsie” in 1936. Elsie was killed in 1940 during the blitz.

Geoffrey Lilley  married Lesley Marion Wheeler “Peggy” , the eldest daughter  of  Cranfield  school’s headmaster  in 1947. A colourful character herself and a great support in his career Peggy pre-deacesed him 19 years ago. She loved the Isle of Wight and visited her friends there regularly. The couple had three children  Grete,Lisa & Michael, 5 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren. Michael is active locally but avoided aviation and has focused on the science of psychology.