Anne Burns was an eminent aeronautical scientist and a champion glider pilot; she also played a key role in investigating the causes of some of Britain's most serious aircraft disasters.
In 1954, two BOAC Comets broke up over the Mediterranean, one over Elba and the other above the island of Stromboli. Both planes had been flying at more than 25,000 ft. Coupled with an earlier disintegration over Calcutta, these disasters jeopardised the future of British civil aviation. Anne Burns had been appointed principal scientific officer at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) in 1953, and the following year she took part in months of tests which eventually led to the detection of metal fatigue in the Comet jet airliner.
The only woman in a team of 20, she would spend hours at a time in an unpressurised cabin, often at an altitude of 40,000 ft, probing for solutions which had to be found speedily if BOAC was to restore passenger confidence. "We just flew about," she later recalled, "waiting for the windows to fall out."
The conditions were, in fact, extremely hazardous and when an inquiry was later conducted into the Elba crash, Sir Lionel Heald, who was representing the Crown, praised Anne Burns's bravery, describing how on each of her experimental flights, designed to produce the actual conditions of the crash, "no one knew what had really happened or what danger there was". In 1955 she received a Queen's Commendation for Valuable Services in the Air in recognition of her considerable contribution to aircraft safety.
She was born Anne Pellew on November 23 1915, the daughter of Major Fleetwood Pellew whose forebear Sir Edward Pellew was a naval hero of the Napoleonic Wars. Anne was educated at Abbey School in Reading and aged 12 made her first flight in a Gipsy Moth from Woodley aerodrome. She later went up to St Hugh's, Oxford where she took a First in Engineering Science. As an undergraduate, she owned a noisy sports car in which she would career around the city until, fearing the worst, the proctors impounded the vehicle. However, she directed some of her enthusiasm and prodigious energy to sport, winning a hockey Blue and squash Half Blue.
Following research work under Professor Richard Southwell at the university's engineering laboratory, she joined the RAE in 1940. There she qualified for a pilot's licence in a de Havilland Tiger Moth biplane trainer, and was involved in flight test programmes for RAF and Fleet Air Arm aircraft of many types. At the RAE she also met her future husband, Denis Burns.
As a member of the RAE's structures department Anne Burns was mainly concerned with the measurement of structural loads in flight and the effect of such loads on the fatigue life of aircraft. For some years she also conducted an investigation into atmospheric turbulence in relation to aircraft structure, pilot performance and flying procedures. She played a leading role in the testing of the English Electric Canberra - Britain's first jet bomber - flying at low levels in Britain and North Africa and at high altitude in Australia and the United States.
Her contributions to reports on turbulence were of great significance. She became an expert on CAT - clear air turbulence - the rare natural phenomenon sometimes encountered by airline captains of flying into a "brick wall" in the sky. Her interest in this area led her to buy an ultra-light French-built RF-4, which was, in effect, a glider with an outboard engine capable of being switched on and off. In this rather fragile plane she would fly over the Pennines and the Welsh mountains looking for "brick walls". "Luckily," she explained, "my husband is both a scientist and a glider pilot and we have no children. He doesn't worry. In a way it's rather exciting - like skiing in the sky - quite apart from the thrill of scientific discovery."
Burns's enthusiasm for gliding had begun during the war when she took part in launch tests for wartime troop carrying gliders. She later went on to gain a formidable reputation in recreational and competition gliding. In 1955, after only a year's experience flying glider planes, she established a women's gliding record of 134 miles when she flew from Lasham in Hampshire to Market Drayton in Shropshire. With typical modesty, she ascribed her win to "beginner's luck".
In 1957 she became the first woman to cross the Channel in a glider. She consistently bettered her own record times and in South Africa in 1961 she and her husband broke five world and 12 British records. At the age of 50, as the holder of multiple gliding records, she was awarded the Lilienthal Medal of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, and in 1967 she received the Founder's Medal of the Air League.
Other gliding awards include the Jean Lennox Bird Trophy in 1959, the Brabazon Cup in 1961 and 1963, and the O P Jones Cup in 1966, which recognised her as the national gliding champion of Great Britain. In 1962, Denis and Anne Burns were jointly awarded awarded the Royal Aero Club's Britannia trophy for their gliding achievements, which were described at the time as the most "dazzling display in any field of aviation since the beginning of flying history".
Anne Burns's distinctions as an aeronautical scientist were no less impressive. She won another Queen's Commendation for Valuable Services in the Air in 1961, the Royal Aeronautical Society's R P Alston Medal (1958) and the Whitney Straight award in 1968. In 1977 a glider she had been piloting near Andover hit a bird and went into freefall. As she bailed out, Anne Burns became entangled in her parachute and ended up landing in the branches of a tree.
Although this automatically entitled her to membership of the Caterpillar club - whose members are pilots who have jumped for their lives - she decided that her flying days were over. Her husband, Denis Owen Burns, whom she married in 1947, died in 1990.