Imperial College London

Obituary: Dr David Ronald De Mey Warren (1925-2010)

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Illustration: Donna McKenzie

Whenever we hear of a plane crash, the report inevitably turns to the aircraft's `black boxes', the Cockpit voice recorder and Flight Data recorder.

Born in 1925 on Groote Eylandt, Australia, Dr David Warren was one of four children to parents Hubert Warren and Ellie Potter. His father, an Anglican missionary, died in an unsolved plane crash when David was nine years old.

After studying chemistry at the University of Sydney, David taught at Geelong Grammar School in victoria and then later at Sydney, and in 1948 he was appointed the Scientific Officer at Woomera Rocket Range. His research into rocket fuel brought him to Imperial in 1949, where he took a PhD in chemical
Engineering.

In 1952 he returned to Melbourne to work at the Aeronautical Research Laboratories (ARL) as principal research scientist. A year later he was invited to join the technical committee investigating two fatal De Havilland Comet jetliner crashes; the accidents remained unsolved and led David to begin developing his idea for an in-flight recording device. “I had seen, at a trade fair, a gadget which fascinated me,” he later explained. “It was the world’s first miniature recorder to put in your pocket. I put the two ideas together. If a businessman had been using one of these in the plane and we could find it in the wreckage and we played it back, we’d say, ‘We know what caused this’.”

His idea was not well received initially. Pilots rejected the concept, fearing that black boxes might be used to spy on crew. The Royal Australian Air Force did not think the device was required and that “the recorder would yield more expletives than explanations”. Despite the lack of support, David outlined his idea in a 1954 paper and by 1956 he had created a prototype, named the ARL Flight Memory Unit, which allowed the storage of up to four hours of voice and flight-instrument data.

It was not until 1958, when the Secretary of the UK Air Registration Board visited ARL that Warren’s ideas were finally taken seriously. Sir Robert Hardingham brought David back to London and after a resounding response to demonstrations of the prototype, a company was contracted to make the devices, which have always been coloured red.

In 1963, following two fatal aviation disasters, Australia became the first country to make flight recorders a mandatory legal requirement. Despite never receiving financial reward for his invention, in recent years Warren’s contribution to aviation safety was officially recognised. In the 2002 Australia Day honours list, he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia and in 2008 Qantas named one of its Airbus A380 aircrafts after him. David is survived by his wife, Ruth, four children, eight grandchildren, one great-grandchild and a sister.

Illustration: Donna McKenzie

This article first appeared in Imperial Magazine, Issue 36. You can view and download a whole copy of the magazine, from www.imperial.ac.uk/imperialmagazine.

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Kerry Noble

Kerry Noble
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