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30 January 2008
Professor Austyn Mair
Professor Austyn Mair, CBE, the former Head of the Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge who carried out pioneering work on supersonic aircraft designs, has died aged 90.
Professor Mair was Professor of Aeronautical Engineering at Cambridge and headed the Department for a full decade, overseeing the introduction of new professorships, changes to undergraduate teaching, and the modernisation of facilities. Earlier in his career he had contributed to the design of the RAF's first jet aircraft.
William Austyn Mair was born in 1917 and educated at Highgate School, London, and Clare College, Cambridge, where he took a first with distinction in the mechanical sciences tripos.
He took a job at the aero-engine department of Rolls-Royce in Derby, but when World War II broke out and he was commissioned by the RAF and sent to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough. He spent the rest of the war designing and commissioning wind tunnels and testing and investigating the performance of fighter planes.
Professor Mair was particularly interested in the problems of aerodynamics at speeds approaching the speed of sound. At the time the behaviour of aircraft flying near and above that speed was not well understood. His work in this field contributed to an improved design for the Gloster Meteor - the RAF's first operational jet aircraft.
At the end of the war he was sent to Germany to discover what developments had been made there in aircraft and rocket technology. A year later he was decommissioned, and continued his experimental work in the academic sphere. He became director of the new Fluid Motion Laboratory at the University of Manchester, researching aspects of supersonic flow, before returning to Cambridge in 1952 as Professor of Aeronautical Engineering, aged just 35.
At the time Cambridge's aeronautics laboratory comprised three small, low-speed wind tunnels in a small wooden hut. Professor Mair designed and built a supersonic wind tunnel and a larger, low-speed wind tunnel, which was up and running by 1960. In 1961 he moved into research for Hovercraft Development Limited, examining problems caused by wind forces on both hovercraft and trains.
He became Head of Department in 1973 during the economic recession. Such was his success in guiding the Department through this difficult period that a second five-year tenure followed in 1978. This allowed Professor Mair to oversee numerous improvements to laboratory facilities, the appointment of a number of new professors of engineering and the introduction of a new four-year course for the Production Engineering Tripos, later known as the Manufacturing Engineering Tripos.
In 1975 he was awarded the Royal Aeronautical Society's Silver Medal. He also served on the Aeronautical Research Council and was on the editorial board of the Aeronautical Quarterly, which he also chaired. He was appointed CBE in 1969, elected to the Fellowship of Engineering (later the Royal Academy of Engineering) in 1984 and awarded an honorary DSc by the Cranfield Institute of Technology in 1990. He was a fellow of Downing College from 1953 and was elected an honorary fellow 30 years later. In retirement he worked as an engineering consultant, and published a book; Aircraft Performance (with D L Birdsall).
He is survived by his wife Mary, whom he married in 1944, and by their two sons. One of his sons, Professor Robert Mair, is Professor of Engineering at Cambridge and Master of Jesus College.
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