Dennis John Lyons
who has died aged 94, was an innovative scientist who led the early Arnold leedevelopment of Britain’s Blue Streak and Black Knight rockets at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), in Farnborough, Hampshire. In 1967, while the director of the Road Research Laboratory (RRL), now the Transport Research Laboratory, at Crowthorne, Berkshire, Lyons proposed the bombing of the oil tanker Torrey Canyon, which had caused a major oil spill off the coast of Cornwall.
Dennis Lyons with Barbara Castle during the opening of a new wing at the Road Research Laboratory.
The supertanker, carrying 120,000 tonnes of crude oil, was attempting to take a short cut when it was wrecked on rocks between the Cornish mainland and the Scilly Isles. With its leaking oil contaminating 50 miles of French and 120 miles of Cornish coastlines, Harold Wilson’s government summoned Lyons to propose ways of dealing with it. He suggested setting it on fire, and the Royal Navy and RAF took turns with Buccaneer, Hunter and Sea Vixen aircraft to launch 42 bombs, some with napalm, on the oil slick. Many of the bombs missed what was a large target, and high tides soon extinguished the fires, but the tanker eventually sank.
It was with mutual relief that Lyons, after 28 years at the RAE, was finally transferred to head transport and road research in 1965. He had clashed for years with Whitehall and the Treasury, who refused to let him spend more than £2m a year on what the latter regarded as expensive toys. Successive governments had insisted on replacing Britain’s missiles first with the US airborne Skybolt, and when that was cancelled, with Polaris submarine missiles.
While adapting Polaris, Lyons maintained that Britain’s weapons could do everything that Polaris did, but much better. He was involved in years of controversy during which Black Knight became a space launcher called Black Arrow, which was then cancelled just before it successfully launched Britain’s first national satellite, called Prospero. During the same period he had been heavily involved in the much bigger Blue Streak, including many visits for test firings in Woomera, Australia. When that, too, was cancelled, Britain was unique in being the only country to have developed a capability both to build and launch its own satellites and then abandon the technology.
Lyons was then marginally involved in the negotiations with a reluctant Europe to accept Blue Streak as the basis for an international space organisation, which subsequently developed into what is now the European Space Agency.
Lyons, always known as Joe, was born in east London, the son of a compositor. He attended Grocers’ Company school (now Hackney Downs school) and obtained a first-class degree in civil and aeronautical engineering at Queen Mary College, University of London. He joined the RAF volunteer reserve in 1935 and obtained his pilot’s licence while studying. He arrived at RAE’s aerodynamics department in 1937 and by the outbreak of the second world war was training young fighter pilots until migraines grounded him. As a test pilot at the start of the war he introduced modifications to the controls of the Mosquito bomber to prevent the aircraft breaking up during manoeuvres.
One of his innovations at the RRL was to introduce the mini-roundabout. He spent much time travelling the world to exchange information on transport problems with major countries. From 1971 to 1976 he was the director general of research for the Department of the Environment, which involved forestry and water, as well as road, rail and air transportation. Throughout all this he kept in touch with aeronautical matters by sharing, with Sir John Charnley, another distinguished Farnborough scientist and earlier a fellow rugby player, the job of handicap-scoring air races such as the annual King’s Cup.
Lyons was appointed CB in 1972. In his 80s, he revived his old skills by flying a Tiger Moth out of a private field in Hampshire, and completing loops and nearly 70 barrel rolls. He was still playing croquet at 90. His other interests included pottery, philately and gardening – his knowledge of plants was encyclopedic.
Lyons married a Swiss nurse, Elisabeth Müller, in 1939. She died in 2009. He is survived by five sons and two daughters.
- Dennis John Lyons, rocket scientist, born 26 August 1916; died 29 March 2011