High Flyers in Canada’s Aeronautics Industry

I was contracted by the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute to write this profile of Dr. Bert Blevis and Dr. Gerry Marsters, two highly-respected members of Canada’s Aeronautics and Space scientific community. 

If you know the aerospace industry in Canada, the names of Dr. Bert Blevis and Dr. Gerry Marsters will no doubt be familiar to you. Though they modestly insist they don’t deserve to be this month’s cover models for the CASI Log (“There are lots of more important people out there,” says Dr. Marsters), the fact remains both men have impeccable credentials in the fields of satellite communications and aerospace research.

These past presidents of CASI recently lent their impressive reputations as well as their time and talents to a unique partnership known as “After the Arrow.” Participants plan to produce a film, book and CD-ROM which will tell the story of the renaissance of the Canadian aerospace industry after the devastating cancellation of the Avro Arrow in 1959.

Both men have a very personal reason for supporting the After the Arrow project – they want to celebrate this country’s many successes in a highly demanding field. In their eyes, the continuing focus on the Arrow debacle in this country has taken attention away from the Canadian ingenuity, tenacity and inventiveness that will move us to fourth place in the world’s aerospace industry by the millennium.

“I very much regretted the decision to cancel the Arrow, but it was not the end of aerospace in Canada. A lot of people who were casualties of the Arrow went on to make significant contributions. This country has contributed a great deal more (to the world) than could be expected in terms of our Gross National Product,” Dr. Blevis points out.

“I am involved with the After the Arrow project because I would like to be sure the legacy of what we’ve done since the Arrow is preserved. All too often, we as Canadians hide our lamps. In a country this size, to produce something like the Canadarm and the best business jet in the world (Global Express), to say nothing of the early launch of our satellites (third in the world), is amazing,” adds Dr. Marsters.

Both men have contributed significantly to these accomplishments, both as a scientist (Dr. Blevis) and an engineer (Dr. Marsters).

The name of Dr. Blevis can be found near the top of the list of Canadian space pioneers, and not just because “B” is the second letter of the alphabet. After earning his PhD in Physics at the University of Toronto at the tender age of 24 (“My supervisor was determined to get rid of me,” he says with a smile), the newly-minted doctor moved to Ottawa in 1956 to take a position with the Defence Research Board. He had been offered three other positions, however, far-flung places like Valcartier did not appeal to the Toronto-born and -bred city boy. “Already Ottawa seemed like the end of the world,” Dr. Blevis says.

From the young man who thought “bouncing a radar signal off the moon seemed exciting” when he began his ground-breaking work, Dr. Blevis developed into a well-respected scientist whose research proved integral to the development of communications satellite technology. A strong nationalist, Dr. Blevis was intrigued by the particular problems of communication in Canada – from the effects ot the aurora borealis on radio waves to the challenge of breaking through the isolation of the far north. He was a key figure in the research for the Hermes satellite, the most powerful non-military communications satellite of its kind, which opened the way for direct broadcast of medical data, educational and TV programs to the remotest parts of world. As a matter of fact, Dr. Blevis and his team were given an Emmy Award in 1987 in recognition of their work on the satellite.

Among the highlights of his career, Dr. Blevis lists his involvement in the SARSAT (search and rescue satellite program) agreement, which was signed by representatives of the United States, Canada, France and the country formerly known as the Soviet Union. SARSAT was hailed as a prime example of international co-operation forged by the introduction of space technology and has been instrumental in saving hundreds of lives. In 1995, Dr. Blevis received the CASI Alouette Award which noted his contributions to the multinational, satellite-aided search and rescue programs.

While Dr. Blevis focussed his considerable gifts on studying the atmosphere above the ionosphere and beyond, Dr. Marsters kept his eyes just a little closer to the earth. He recalls being always fascinated by airplanes, even as a young farm boy in Nova Scotia. He had a modest sideline as a model-building entrepreneur – his skillfully-crafted tiny replicas bought and displayed by others. He also remembers an extensive collection of special cards showing three-views of aircraft. “I had a mental database of about 1000 airplanes,” he says.

There was little doubt the man whose favourite poem is “High Flight”(written by Royal Canadian Air Force Flight Lieutenant John Gillespie Magee, Jr., shortly before his death in the line of duty at age 19) would someday “slip the surly bonds of earth” and become a pilot himself. He entered the air force at 19 and was chosen for flight training, which he recalls as a “marvellous experience.” His favourite airplane was the Harvard, a demanding aircraft which took a great deal of skill and concentration to fly well.

“They’ll bite you, but they are a super airplane,” Dr. Marsters says.

Before long the ambitious pilot was promoted to flight instructor. However, he soon realized with “peace breaking out all over” in the late 1950’s, there would be little advancement in the Air Force. Leaving the forces, he obtained a mechanical enginering degree from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. He then entered New York’s Cornell University on scholarship, was awarded his PhD in aerospace engineering, and secured a teaching position at Queen’s.

Dr. Marsters took advantage of several sabbatical opportunities from his professorial duties, working with deHavilland during the heady days of the Dash 7 roll-out and later in the high-speed aerodynamics lab at the National Aeronautical Establishment. He then accepted an appointment as Director of Airworthiness at Transport Canada. If an aircraft required approval to fly in this country, the buck stopped at Dr. Marsters’ desk. If a Canadian aircraft experienced a significant in-flight incident or accident, Dr. Marsters stood directly in the press firing line. His soft-spoken manner and consensus-building style stood him in good stead – not only in those stressful circumstances but in his work toward a new Bilateral Aviation Agreement between the U.S. and Canada, the first signed since 1939. In recognition of his efforts and success at fostering better relations between the U.S. and Canada in this area, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration awarded Dr. Marsters a gold medal – one of only a small number Canadian to be so honoured. “Dr. Marsters has earned the respect of the world aviation community,” reads the award plaque.

After nearly five years as Director of Airworthiness, (“any longer than that was heart attack time,” he says), Dr. Marsters moved on to the National Research Council where he oversaw the Institute of Aerospace Research. There a group of highly innovative scientists and engineers undertook groundbreaking research using Canadian-designed tools such as the bird gun, wind tunnels, artificial vision systems and flight simulation under his guidance.

Both Dr. Blevis and Dr. Marsters have retired from the government, however, their expertise as private consultants with Astrocom Associates and AeroVations Associates respectively is much in demand. In addition, they continue to devote many hours to encouraging aerospace endeavours in Canada. Their hope is the path to the stars they have helped to build will be climbed by a whole new generation of Canadians.

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