Engineer of the Week No. 29: Today we remember aeronautical engineer and pioneer g-force-pressure suit designer, Helen Grimshaw
Helen Grimshaw, OBE, BSc, PhD(6th August 1904 - 16th December 1987)
Helen Grimshaw was born in London but her upbringing was in Surrey. Her father was a civil engineer working for one of the electrical supply companies and presumably fairly prosperous as the family had 3 servants during her childhood and she was educated at a private girls’ school in London, the Frances Holland School. In 1924 she became an engineering student at the University of London and applied for student membership of the Institution of Civil Engineers, becoming one of their associate members the following year. She graduated from UCL in 1930 with a BSc (Special) Engineering and re-entered to spend the following year doing practical training in the engineering workshops.
In 1936 she gained her doctorate from UCL for her thesis “Some applications of photo-elasticity to engineering problems and an investigation of thermo-elastic methods in the treatment of such problems”, under Professor Ernest Coker, whilst also working as his assistant and thereby only paying half-fees.In 1937 she joined the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) Farnborough where she remained for the whole of a very eminent career. Initially she was in the Instruments Department, where she specialised in de-icing equipment, oxygen equipment, pressure suits and the flight testing of instruments and other safety equipment. She was part of the team which helped Flt. Lt. Adams gain the world altitude record for aeroplanes in 1937 in the Bristol 138 Aircraft.
From 1941 Helen ran the flight test programme. She had been allocated the duties of a senior technical assistant who had been posted away and then killed. It was felt by the RAE that it was “too embarassing” to seek permission to promote her so instead they asked if they could pay her a gratuity of £100 to bring her past year’s pay up to that of the man she had replaced. From she also did work on parachute development before returning to oxygen equipment, rescue dinghies and pressure suits. She would have authored or contributed to innumerable reports, one of the most extensive which was “Instructions to Experimental Establishments in Relation to Flying Trials,” a manual in nine parts covering safe practice including glider tug loadings, glider performance control, stalling speeds and other aspects of flying and towing gliders (1942), relating to a project on troop-carrying gliders. As well as flying as a test observer herself, like many other staff at the RAE, she took advantage of the free flying lessons and, in 1947, flew her first twin-engined solo flight in an Oxford as a member of the RAE Technical Training Flight.
From 1953-61 she was posted to the RAE’s headquarters office but in 1961 returned to become the RAE Project Officer on development of the full pressure suit, responsible for technical monitoring suit development in industry and for associated investigations at the RAE. These early pressure suits, to enable pilots to withstand the physical effects of speed-related gravity forces and high altitude pressures, were those which ultimately became the first attempst at space suits. Many bizarre ideas were tried and the helmets in particular were very basic, almost bucket-like. Later she was in charge of the Personal Equipment Assembly Section in the Human Engineering Division. On her retirement in 1969 one of her retirement presents from colleagues was a model figure dressed in the pressure suit which she helped to design, of the Haldane-Davis style. Other female colleagues made similarly important contributions to dealing with the effects of altitude and g-forces on the human body, Beatrice Shilling worked with her on pressurised cabins and rather later (1970s/1980s) Sue Adcock, who had to become the UK’s first fast fighter jet pilot for her own test work on pressure and g-force suits. Her expertise was recognised on the national stage by her 1968 appointment as Research Liaison Officer to work with the new British Standards Institute panel coordinating R&D over the whole field of civil and military protective clothing.
In 1966 Helen Grimshaw was awarded the RAeSoc Wakefield Gold Medal "for her outstanding work over many years on human engineering problems" and in 1969 she was awarded the OBE. She was a member of the Woment’s Engineering Society for all her working life. She died in a nursing home in Surrey in 1987.