By Dan Walton
Few pilots can claim a bigger stake in the marvel of human flight than Geoffrey Melvill-Jones, but, even at 91 years old, he is still learning about it which is why he was training at the Invermere Soaring Centre last week.
Born during the infancy of airplanes, Geoffreys been involved in aviation since he was a twinkle in his fathers eye.
In the early 1910s, Geoffreys dad, Sir Bennett Melvill-Jones, left the steady field of mechanical engineering to take a leap into what then seemed like science-fiction the aviation industry. Sir Bennett is renowned for refining the theory of aerodynamic drag (friction created by moving through air), a theory first conceptualized by the philosopher Aristotle.
More drag equals less efficiency or distance, Geoffrey told The Pioneer. It was very commercially significant.
Sir Bennett served in the First World War in Englands Royal Aircraft Establishment, and was later transferred to the Air Armaments Experimental Station. He was trained as a gunner with his brother, Benedict, as pilot. Geoffrey was never able to meet his uncle, as Benedict died on an experimental flight in 1918.
Upon the wars conclusion, Sir Bennett found employment in 1919 through the engineering department at the University of Cambridge, where he earned his degree ten years earlier. As he remained active in aviation research, Bennett brought Geoffrey and his older brother Warren along for many experimental flights in the 1920s and 1930s.
Sir Bennett was the first-ever professor of aeronautical engineering at Cambridge, where he taught for over 50 years until 1972. He had Sir added to his title after the King of England, George VI, ordered his knighthood in 1942.
Geoffrey said his father was even a close and personal friend of Oreville Wright one of historys first self-propelled pilots.
As a young adult, Geoffrey followed in his fathers footsteps and earned a degree at the University of Cambridge. He was en route to becoming a surgeon, but fate wouldnt let him sway from his bloodline. Shortly after the Second World War, Geoffrey just like his father in the previous war was drafted by England, and put to use in the laboratory rather than the battlefield.
Serving as a medical officer, Geoffrey conducted experimental research in the physiology of flight through the Aviation Medical Laboratory in Farnborough.
Shortly after arriving for duty, Geoffrey was impressed when he noticed that other medical officers were responsible for flying the countrys state-of-the-art aircrafts, which lured him back into the family business.
He studied how to maximize the abilities of human physiology and dynamics while operating an aircraft. As aerial innovations allowed for increased speeds, pilots would black-out mid-flight. Along with his team of researchers, Geoffrey was tasked with figuring out how to avoid the hazards of spacial disorientation.
Still working in Farnborough through the Royal Airforce, he witnessed another stride in aviation technology in the 1950s, as the military was quick to appreciate the advent of jet-propelled engines. This created a new set of challenges for the team looking to offset the effects of gravitational force experienced when travelling at rapid speeds.
His team came up with anti-gravitational pants, which applied pressure to the pilots legs, preventing blood from accumulating in the limbs, as it is needed for the vital organs.
We studied the integration between man and machine, he said. If either the man or the machine isnt used properly, man can break the machine hes using, and likewise the machine can break the body using it.
To figure out how to make pilots and their gear land safely, the dynamics of free falling were studied by Geoffrey in the 1950s; and, according to Geoffrey, an exciting example of how many of the same principles are still being dealt with today is Felix Baumgartner, who was the first and only human to break the sound barrier without propulsion in 2012. A large challenge Felix faced was figuring out how to stabilize the spinning force caused during a free fall.
That same problem, to a lesser degree, was experienced by Geoffrey in the 1950s while working in the deserts of Libya with access to some of the worlds earliest digital tehnology, the research team used three cameras to take the most accurate measurements of spinning observed during test drops (dummies were being used). And through trial and error, they were able to figure out how pilots could make the ambitious landings safely.
During his time off as a flying doctor, Geoffrey and his colleagues took up a new hobby gliding. There were only five or six clubs in the country at the time, as the sport was less than 20 years old. (Gliding originally became popular in Germany in the 1930s when the country was prevented from owning a surplus of airplanes because of sanctions resulting from the First World War.)
But Geoffrey had to put his gliding hobby on the shelf after 1960, as a new career opportunity had come out of the blue. As a complete surprise, Geoffrey received a letter from the Canadian Government (Defence Research Board) inviting him to single-handedly establish a new aerospace medical research unit at a Canadian university. McGill University was awarded the tender for the program, and Geoffrey found himself on a flight to Montreal the following year.
He arrived in Canada just in time for the Space Age, and, through his position at McGill, was one of the pioneers to study manoeuvrability in a zero-gravity environment. Working in tandem with a newly-formed space agency called NASA, he found himself sharing his discoveries with and training some of the worlds first astronauts.
The laboratory he immigrated to Canada to start up the McGill Aerospace Medical Research Unit has since been expanded and is still very active today.
Geoffrey spent 30 years as a professor at McGill before his retirement. Now a resident of Calgary, and now an active adjunct professor of clinical neurosciences at University of Calgary, Geoffrey recently booked a weeks worth of lessons at the Invermere Soaring Centre, which spanned the end of June until beginning of July.
Hes maintained a sharp memory, and presents in conversation a witty sense of clarity that is characteristic of someone decades younger than his 91 years.
Out of enthusiasm for keeping his mind active, Geoffrey figured it could be useful to reactivate the neurons that were used in the 1950s when he first tried gliding.
That was an awful lot of learning again, he said. Some things are the same as they were before, but the details of controlling the gliders have changed.
He was trained by 22-year-old Chris Hildebrandt from the Soaring Centre, and stayed at the Mountainview Bed and Breakfast in Invermere.
The scenery he witnessed was unbelievably beautiful, he said, citing a tour of the Bugaboos in particular. Geoffrey spent about ten hours combined in the air, taking three to four flights each day.
With his gliding skills sharp again, Geoffrey has no intention to stop learning or relearning anytime soon.
He was never musically inclined before the 2000s, but since turning 80, Geoffreys begun learning how to play the piano and violin.