Surgeon-Commander Herbert Ellis was a Navy doctor who conducted experiments on himself and helped to develop 'goon suits’ and the 'bone-dome’
Ellis coming to an abrupt stop in a rocket sledge
Surgeon-Commander Herbert Ellis, who has died aged 93, was a naval aviation doctor who conducted experiments on himself and was the inventor of the audible warning “beep”, today commonplace in motor vehicles.
William Herbert Baxter Ellis was born on July 2 1921 in Newcastle, where his great-grandfather had been Lord Mayor; his grandfather had won a gold medal for distance cycling on a penny-farthing, and his father, as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, had been shot down and became a prisoner of war. Ellis later recalled that, as a child before the war, he would sit on his mother’s lap in the rear cockpit of a biplane while his father, a co-founder of the Newcastle Aero Club, flew them to a beach in Northumberland, where they would land for a picnic.
Educated at Oundle, Herbert read Medicine at Durham University, and after a spell as a locum GP at Stocksdale in the Tyne valley, he joined the Navy in 1945 as a surgeon-lieutenant.
In 1948 he found himself sharing a cabin at HMS Siskin, the Royal Navy air station at Gosport, with the war veteran Lieutenant (later Rear-Admiral) Ian Robertson, DSC , who was teaching young officers to fly. Robertson took Ellis up for (unauthorised) flying experience in a Tiger Moth. Ellis did not realise that Robertson was actually teaching him to fly, and was astonished when after only a very few hours Robertson climbed out of the aircraft and announced: “Off you go!”
When the Admiralty called for volunteer medical officers to learn to fly officially, Ellis jumped at the opportunity. He joined No 8 Flying Training Course, sombrely noting that of the 33 embryo pilots, 11 failed in the early stages, five died and only three qualified as fully operational pilots.
Ellis served one appointment as medical officer in the carrier Vengeance, flying Fairey Firefly fighters (in non-combat roles) before being sent on a jet conversion course. He was first stunned, then euphoric.
In 1950 he joined the Institute of Aviation Medicine at Farnborough, where he found a cadre of doctors as distinguished for their brilliance as for their eccentricity. It was an age when British science was at the forefront in all fields of aviation technology; several British independent aircraft manufacturers were vying with one another and with American manufacturers for contracts, and new types of aircraft models were being pushed up to and beyond their design limits.
Ellis as a 35-year-old naval officer
As one of the few doctors qualified to fly, Ellis took part in a number of medical and physiological experiments, which led to the design of the “bone-dome” for pilots (on psychological grounds, the term “crash helmet” was avoided), the introduction of the underwater ejection seat for pilots who ditched at sea, and “goon suits” to protect ditched crews from hypothermia. When steam-driven catapults to launch aircraft from carriers were introduced, Ellis helped to invent a rocket-powered sledge with which to conduct experiments on the G-forces to which aircrew would be exposed. He particularly liked tests of an anti-gravity suit, or “G-suit” which he wore during many hours’ flying, inducing high-gravity conditions in the Mark 22 Spitfire.
In the course of his research, Ellis also turned his attention to the behaviour of seagulls. He realised that, when they were turning and banking, their heads and eyes remained parallel to the land, and that this was the best posture for pilots to adopt in order to avoid disorientation and false perceptions of motion.
When an elaborate experiment showed that pilots preparing to land on carriers were watching their airspeed on dials inside the cockpit, and not their position relative to the ship’s flight deck, Ellis invented the auditory air speed indicator or “beep” – he was only sorry that he did not patent a similar device for motor vehicles.
In the late 1950s Ellis was lent to the US Navy School of Aviation Medicine, where high gravity experiments were being conducted on chimpanzees, which were afterwards killed and their corpses subjected to post-mortems. Ellis observed that the chimpanzees realised that their colleagues had not come back, and thought that they were grateful when he was allowed to take part in the first human trials. He also tested the simulator for the rocket-propelled aircraft the X-15, which set speed and height records in the 1960s, and was the precursor of the first American space flights.
Ellis flew more 2,000 hours on more than 46 types of aircraft, including an experimental version of the Meteor in which he flew the aircraft from a prone position. His flying hours were surprisingly accident-free, save for a night flight over the New Forest when he was testing a new low-speed audible warning device in a dual-control aircraft, with a female doctor in the second-pilot’s seat. As he waggled the stick from side to side to “feel” for the stall, his passenger slapped his face, dislodging his oxygen mask. The aircraft went into a spin from which he was barely able to recover.
Herbert Ellis in a Gypsy Moth, circa 1924
As a result of using himself as a human guinea pig, over the course of his career Ellis suffered a broken neck and fractured vertebrae. In his later years he had to take morphine to dull the pain.
He retired from the Navy in 1959 and worked in the motor industry from 1960 to 1971, researching the human causes of road traffic accidents. From 1971 to 1973 he was director-general of Dr Barnardo’s, and he served on the boards of several companies and as an adviser to the Department of Health. For 34 years he was involved with the Order of St John, first as regional chairman in Gloucester, and from 1989 to 1991 as Chief Commander of the Order .
Ellis loved fast cars, books and travel. In 1997 he published a memoir, Hippocrates, RN, and Why Not Live a Little Longer?, setting out his philosophy of life.
His awards included the AFC (a rare distinction for a doctor of any service) and the Gilbert Blain Medal, presented by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons to medical officers of the Royal Navy for meritorious service .
Although professing to be terrified of women, Herbert Ellis was married three times: to Margaret Limb, with whom he had a son and a daughter; to Molly Clarke; and, finally, to Jean Gross (née Stanley-Stawell).
Surgeon-Commander Herbert Ellis, born July 2 1921, died October 4 2014