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.