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23 January 2012
High flying academic loses fight against cancer

Academic colleagues and representatives from the world of ballooning have been paying tribute to Dr Janet Folkes - the high flying University of Nottingham academic who has died after a long battle with cancer.

Dr Folkes, an expert in the field of lasers and high powered water-jetting, was also recognised across the globe for her record-breaking achievements in hot air and gas ballooning. Dr Folkes also piloted the University’s own hot air balloon which featured regularly at events both in the UK and abroad.

Professor Paul Shayler, Head of the Department of Mechanical, Materials and Manufacturing Engineering said: “Janet has been a wonderful colleague, a high flyer in her academic achievements as well as her record-breaking ballooning adventures. She was a highly respected teacher and an outstanding researcher who excelled at finding industrial applications of her research. Her work ranged over topics as diverse as airships, lasers and waterjet cutting. She was exciting and rewarding to work with; always vitally interested and interesting. She leaves us an enormously impressive legacy of achievements and many fond memories to remember her by.” 

Janet’s colleagues in the Faculty of Engineering have described her as a special person, elegant, brave and adventurous – a great friend who will be sadly missed. Her distinguished track record in hot air and gas ballooning and her enthusiasm to pass her expertise on to others is also recognised.

Tributes from friends and colleagues

Many comments have been posted on the Periodic Tables BlogSpot. Janet was among the host of academics who are regular contributors to the Blog. Brady Haran – The University’s film maker in residence – who made a series of films with Janet, said: “I first met Janet through her scientific work but spent far more time with her making films about hot air balloons. Janet was a brilliant woman, genuine and brilliantly understated. We have been left with many great memories.”

Distinguished academic and balloonist

After 20 years of flying Janet Folkes holds a distinguished track record for ballooning in hot air balloons and gas balloons.

In April 2010 Janet Folkes was presented with the British Balloon and Airship Club’s Charles Green Salver for exceptional achievement.  The award, given only for exceptional flying achievements or services to ballooning, was shared with her co-pilot and Nottingham Alumna Dr Ann Webb (PhD Environmental Physics 1985). Together Janet and Ann broke the female duration world record while competing in the 2009 Coupe Aeronautique Gordon Bennett – a race established in 1905 to fly gas balloons as far as possible.

Janet established over 50 world records, most of which still stand today. She has competed in several Gordon Bennett and American Challenge gas balloon races winning the 10th America's Challenge gas balloon race in 2005 with her American co-pilot Bill Arras. They flew nearly 1,500 miles from New Mexico to Canada in 46 hours and 14 minutes giving her the British General distance and duration records by a large margin.

In an interview with the BBC, as she prepared for the 2010 Gordon Bennett gas balloon race, Janet talked about the chemotherapy she was undergoing to keep her breast cancer in remission. She said: “You should make the most of what you've got... if you can go and fly that puts your worries in perspective. Just to be able to get in the air and stay in the air - it's just amazing. You see the sunrise, you see the sunset, you just see the world from a different perspective up there."

Janet, who was recognised last year as one of Nottingham’s 100 women of substance, also flew helicopters, paragliders and hang gliders. The nominations were for women who had overcome professional or personal barriers; fought for the rights of others; worked selflessly to improve the lives of other or made a lasting impact on Nottingham.

Janet was made a Freeman of the City of London in 2008. As a result of her work for the Nissan Motor Company she holds two Japanese patents on the hardening of titanium.

Although Janet’s academic work and ballooning took her all over the world she returned regularly to her home in Burton Joyce, Nottinghamshire to spend time with her family and close friends.

The following website has been set up to as a tribute to Janet. Everyone is welcome to post photographs, messages and anecdotes.

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