Helen Muir, 1946-2010

April 15, 2010

One of the world's leading experts on air passenger safety has died.

Helen Muir was born on 13 May 1946 and educated at Kendal High School.

A first degree in psychology at the University of St Andrews was followed by a DPhil at the University of London and a diploma in advanced counselling at South West London College.

In 1984, Professor Muir took up a position as a lecturer at Cranfield University and rapidly moved into the field she would make her own. She was made professor of aerospace psychology in 1993, and served as dean of engineering from 1995 to 1998 and pro vice-chancellor from 1999 to 2002. She was appointed OBE in 1993.

Building on her background as a psychologist, Professor Muir set up and ran a research team that examined the best ways to encourage safe behaviour among passengers caught up in critical situations.

She could draw on the resources of a unique facility she created with the Civil Aviation Authority, where evacuation trials could be carried out in a full-scale cabin simulator. Such research led to a number of recommendations about aircraft design and cabin-staff procedures that were widely adopted and generally agreed to improve safety standards.

Professor Muir also contributed to improvements in the rail industry, when she chaired the first national steering committee to establish the confidential incident reporting and analysis system, allowing employees to register safety concerns without fear of reprisal.

A number of prestigious recent awards paid tribute to Professor Muir's contribution.

In 2004, she received the Sir James Martin Gold Medal from the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators, "in recognition of research work into aviation safety leading to enhanced survival of both air crew and passengers". In 2006, Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, described her work as one of the top 100 discoveries and developments in UK universities in the past 50 years.

Two years later, she became the first Briton to be given an L. Welch Pogue Lifetime Achievement Award for her visionary and pre-eminent leadership in aviation.

Philip John, head of the department of systems engineering and human factors at Cranfield, remembered Professor Muir as "very wise, always able to identify the key things in complex situations and always worth listening to. She was calm, comfortable with people and always the same, whether addressing a committee in the House of Lords or briefing a student about a project."

Professor Muir died of cancer on 20 March and is survived by her husband, Jim Turvey.


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