Attendees at the unveiling of the heritage plaque

 An aeronautical heritage award from the Royal Aeronautical Society was unveiled at Cranfield University this week, paying tribute to one of the world’s leading experts on air passenger safety. The plaque was given in recognition of Professor Helen Muir’s significant work in developing passenger safety, which influenced the design of today’s aircraft and has resulted in safer air travel.

The Plaque was unveiled by the President of the Royal Aeronautical Society Retd. Air Commodore Peter Round with Professor Iain Gray, Director of Aerospace at Cranfield. The event was attended by members of Helen Muir’s family and by Cranfield staff and alumni who had been involved in the evacuation trials.

Awarded by the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS), the Aeronautical Heritage Award plaques celebrate and commemorate technical or operational achievements that made an original and unique contribution to aeronautics, and which are of world significance.

Professor Helen Muir OBE was Professor of Aerospace Psychology at Cranfield University, also serving as Dean of Engineering and Pro Vice-Chancellor. She was an acknowledged world leader in passenger safety, and an expert in human factors. 

After the Manchester air disaster in 1985 when 55 people died in a fire despite the fact that the aircraft was on the runway, it was work led by Helen with her team on cabin evacuation trials which made a major contribution to improved cabin design and cabin crew training in civil aircraft. She developed cabin evacuation test procedures which are mostly still in place today. 

Helen was the first chair of the RAeS’ Human Factors group, and was a key player in setting up the Women in Aerospace and Aviation Committee.

In 1999, Professor Muir was awarded the prestigious Whittle Award for her outstanding contribution to airworthiness. In 2004, she received the Sir James Martin Gold Medal from the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators and in 2008 was the first Briton to be given the L. Welch Pogue Lifetime Achievement Award for her visionary and pre-eminent leadership in aviation.

Professor Dame Helen Atkinson DBE FREng, Pro-Vice-Chancellor – Aerospace, Transport and Manufacturing at Cranfield University, said: “Many of Professor Muir’s cabin evacuation trials took place at Cranfield and her work here changed aircraft design and made air travel safer. A number of Cranfield staff and students were involved in the evacuation trials in the late 1980s and early 1990’s and remember the experience acutely. The influence of her pioneering work still resonates today – and this heritage plaque is a fitting tribute to her ongoing legacy.”

David Edwards FRAeS, Chief Executive of the Royal Aeronautical Society, said: "Aviation is undoubtedly a team effort, so it is sometimes hard to pinpoint one person and say they made flying safer. But Helen Muir is one such person. Her work and research have made us all safer when we fly and whilst those outside of aviation may not recognise her name, they will be aware of her impact. Today, on every commercial flight around the world, cabin safety briefings include instructions which resulted directly from her work. 

“We should be enormously grateful to her, and the Royal Aeronautical Society is pleased to celebrate her life with this Aeronautical Heritage Award plaque."

The plaque will be mounted outside Building 83 on Cranfield’s main campus. Cranfield University is launching a Helen Muir PhD Scholarship fund to commemorate Helen and her work by supporting a PhD student to carry out further work on cabin safety.

Do you have vivid memories of participating in Professor Muir’s cabin evacuation trials in the late 1980s and early 1990s? Would you be happy to share those memories with us? As part of the University’s 75th anniversary year we are hoping to capture memories of Professor Muir’s pioneering work to add to our archive and share with both alumni and prospective students. To share your memories please complete this form.