Ray Dolby

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Ray Dolby was elated after his first flight at age 14, and decided that someday he would learn to fly. He got busy with his education, spent two years in India with UNESCO, then invented and patented the ubiquitous noise reduction system that carries his name. When Ray returned to flying in 1990, 43 years after his first flight, he immersed himself in it. He holds a commercial certificate with instrument, seaplane, multi-engine and helicopter ratings, owns a Pilatus PC-12, an Enstrom 480 and a Cessna T-206 and flies them all frequently. In this month's Profile AVweb's Joe Godfrey talks with Ray about learning to fly later in life and the Dolby fleet, and Ray shares his thoughts on his 1998 circling-approach-at-night accident at Truckee that totaled his TBM 700.

Ray DolbyRay Dolby was born January 18, 1933, in Portland, Ore. During 1949-52, he worked on various audio and instrumentation projects at Ampex Corporation, and during 1952-57 he was mainly responsible for the development of the electronic aspects of the Ampex videotape recording system.

In 1957 he received a B.S. degree from Stanford University, and upon being awarded a Marshall Scholarship and a National Science Foundation graduate fellowship, left Ampex for further study at Cambridge University in England. He received a Ph.D. degree in physics from Cambridge in 1961, and was elected a Fellow of Pembroke College (Honorary Fellow, 1983). During his last year at Cambridge, he was also a consultant to the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority.

In 1963, Dolby took up a two-year appointment as a UNESCO advisor in India, then returned to England in 1965 to establish Dolby Laboratories in London. In 1976 he moved to San Francisco, where his company established further offices, laboratories, and manufacturing facilities. He holds more than 50 U.S. patents, and has written papers on videotape recording, long wavelength X-ray analysis, and noise reduction.

Dolby is a fellow and past president of the Audio Engineering Society, and a recipient of its Silver and Gold Medal Awards. He is also a fellow of the British Kinematograph, Sound, and Television Society and an Honorary Member of The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, which in the past has also awarded him its Samuel L. Warner Memorial Award, Alexander M. Poniatoff Gold Medal, and Progress Medal. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted him a Scientific and Engineering Award in 1979 and an Oscar in 1989, when he was also presented an Emmy by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. In 1986, Dolby was made an honorary Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE). In 1997, Dolby received the U.S. National Medal of Technology, the IEEE's Masaru Ibuka Consumer Electronics Award, and the American Electronic Association's Medal of Achievement. That year he also received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Cambridge University, and in 1999 was awarded an honorary Doctor of the University degree by the University of York.

When was your first flight?

From a very early age I was interested in cars, boats, engines, airplanes — anything that went. My first airplane ride was at age 14. My friend had just turned 16 and got his pilot's license, and a few days later he took me flying in an Aeronca Champ. I totally trusted him, and we did a series of steep turns, stalls and spins. The image of the earth turning around stayed engrained on my mind, but it was a long, long time before I had the chance to experience that again. By the time I learned to fly, in 1990, spins had been eliminated from the training. At one point I asked my instructor "What about spins?" and he said "We don't do that anymore," and I said "What do you mean? I've been looking forward to learning spins for over 40 years!"

He eventually realized that I was serious about it, but the airplane were using — my 206 — wasn't certified for spins. So we rented a 152, which was certified for spins, and then my instructor said "We'll have to get some parachutes." That surprised me. Then by the next lesson he figured out that we didn't need them, but I wondered how many spins he had actually done. It felt like the blind leading the blind. We eventually did go up and did an hour's worth of spins, and that gave me much more confidence.

You had the airplane before you had the certificate? How did that happen?

I was 57 years old when I decided to learn to fly. I went to the flight school and the first thing the chief instructor did was try and discourage me. He said "You're old, your brain is shot, you can't expect to learn something like flying at this stage of your life". Throughout my life I had been into boats, and motorcycles, and Jeeps, and skiing, and I was convinced he was wrong. The fact that he discouraged me gave me some doubt, but it also gave me something to work toward.

I had to jump through some hoops with the FAA, because I had had a heart attack six years before. But I had changed the way I ate, got more exercise, and took the pills I needed to keep that from happening again. The medical approval took about three months, and as soon as I got my medical I soloed — in a 152 —which gave me a tremendous sense of elation. I had proved I could do it and I went out and bought an airplane.

For one thing, I was fed up with the airplanes I was renting. Every airplane at the school was an older airplane and each one I preflighted had something different wrong with it. I started researching airplanes and I decided that a Cessna Turbo 206 would be the perfect airplane for me. It was ugly, but it was a heavy hauler. I went to Wisconsin with the broker to buy the airplane and we flew it back to Gnoss. When the chief instructor at my school found out about it he said, "You're going to have to start all over again. You can't fly this solo until you get 25 hours in it." I did my private pilot checkride in the that airplane, then had it outfitted with new avionics, and went on to do my instrument rating in it.

My family and I flew all over the western half of the U.S. in the 206. I thought I might want to put the 206 on floats, but I discovered that it wasn't a good idea to put floats on a plane that had not been corrosion-proofed during manufacturing. So now it's a spare airplane and my younger son uses it. He has flown it all over the country.

If you were that elated at age 14, why did you wait until age 57 to learn to fly?

I took about eight hours of lessons during college, but I realized that it was an expensive proposition, and I didn't have any money. I also didn't have the time it would take to learn, so I put it on the back burner. I just didn't realize how long it would stay there.

How did you go about making it happen?

Ray Dolby
The Dolbys at St. Johns, Newfoundland, the jumping off point for the southern route to Europe via the Azores, a 1350 nm leg; April 1996

One day I started buying flying magazines. I think that's when my wife Dagmar knew the handwriting was on the wall. She and my two kids — who were still small then — told me how dangerous it was, but I prevailed and convinced them that it wasn't, and finally everyone came around and grew to like the idea.

When did you get the TBM 700?

In 1993. I placed the order in 1991, before I got my instrument rating. I knew I wanted to do interesting things with airplanes, and I put myself on as fast a track as possible to be able to do that. When I ordered the TBM, there was a long list. My wife and I visited the factory in Tarbes in 1992 to see the progress, and then when the airplane was ready we flew over with the ferry pilot to pick it up and fly it back. I was able to put about 20 hours on the airplane in that process and that helped me a lot when it came to satisfying the insurance requirements.

Can we talk about your accident at Truckee? What lessons can you give us?

I had 1,400 hours in the TBM at the time of the accident, and a little over 2,000 hours total time. It was a classic. I was making a 270-degree circle-to-land approach. There were no lights surrounding the airport and it was a dark, moonless night. I made the mistake of doing what you're told you should do on a circling approach, which is to keep the airport in sight. But when you work out the geometry of this approach, there's an arc of somewhere between 120 and 150 degrees from which it's impossible to see the airport. So what's the use of sticking your head out the window to look into inky blackness. I should have had my eyes on the instruments. I should have treated that phase of the approach as an instrument phase. The FAA didn't fault me for anything I did, except they stuck to their guns on a circling approach being a VFR approach that's supposed to be flown with your head out the window. My argument was that there should be an approach that's sort of halfway between instrument and visual, and declare it as such, so that you would guide yourself from one waypoint to another through the approach. In talking to people since the accident I think that maybe that's the kind of approaches we'll see in the future.

At one point in the turn back to the airport I was very steeply banked and descending, but I thought I was flying a level constant-rate turn. As soon as I realized what was happening I corrected the attitude, leveled the wings and started pulling up, but a fence tripped me and I couldn't get the aircraft up again. So we went into the snow, the deceleration ripped the landing gear off the airplane, and we skidded along in the snow.

Did you have passengers?

Yes. My wife and my younger son and his girlfriend. Everyone was okay. We all walked away. We were practically at the end of the runway. But enough damage was done to the landing gear, the engine and the wing spar that the insurance company decided not to repair it.


I was not very proud of the accident, but it sure taught me a lot of lessons. I will never treat a circling approach as a VFR approach again. I want all my instruments available to guide me around the turn.

Ray Dolby
Arrival at Ol Malo, Kenya, north of Nairobi, a 3000 ft dirt runway, June 1999, with the Pilatus PC-12. The airport guard, Dagmar, Ray, and son David, also a pilot (commercial, instrument, fixed wing , and helicopter, private). Two months after this picture was taken the guard was gored to death by a buffalo.

Was it hard for you to "get back on the horse" after the accident?

Not at all. About two days after the accident I resumed my helicopter lessons, because I wanted to polish off that rating. Then I started researching airplanes, because I wanted to get back into it right away. We loved using the TBM 700. We had one son in school at Santa Barbara, another at Hotchkiss school, which is a difficult place to get to in upstate New York, and with the TBM we could see our children frequently with very little hassle. It helped a lot as we were researching colleges, too. What I loved about the TBM was the range, but the Pilatus has even more range than the TBM, and it offered a chance to try a different airplane.

There wasn't a lot to choose from that could handle the 3,300-foot runway at Gnoss and still give me the range I wanted. The small jets wouldn't do what we wanted to do. I'm waiting for a small, single-pilot jet that has the range, and the one on the horizon is the Sino-Swearingen SJ30-2. I've had one on order since December, 1991.

Where are your favorites places to travel?

I've flown 15 Atlantic crossings, including the initial ferry trip. We normally go the northern route, through Greenland and Iceland, but I've also flown the southern route through the Azores. It's 1,355 nautical miles from St. John's, Newfoundland to the Azores, and that's about a six-hour flight.

Do you enjoy flying in Europe?

It's not as easy as flying in the U.S. In Europe they don't have FBOs the way we know them, where you can order your fuel, pay for your fuel, get your weather, plan your flight, file your flight plan, all over one counter. Outside the U. S. typically you have to walk from office to office, or sometimes from building to building, to get all the information you need and get turned around and on your way. It's more work, but it's doable.

And how about flying in Africa?

That's a different story. It's hard work in Africa, and often you don't get all the information you need. We went to Morocco in '97 in the TBM, and to East Africa in '99 in the Pilatus. There's no radar in most of Africa so you're constantly giving position reports. It's very hard to get the weather there. Sometimes the weather office at the airport will only have the weather for that airport, so you wind up calling your destination, or making guesses.

We started the East Africa trip in Egypt, and flew over the Red Sea because of the wars and the flight restrictions in Sudan. There were also problems in Somalia and Ethiopia, so we made our way to Kenya by squeezing through Djibouti. We landed at Nairobi Wilson airport, then we headed out into the bush to a 3,000-foot gravel strip north of Nairobi. We had a great time looking at the animals. That's about all there is to do there, so everyone goes on safaris. These days they're almost all photographic safaris, and I learned a lot about animals and how they behave. Animals have seen and heard Land Rovers for so long that it's just like another hippopotamus. It makes a rumbling noise and moves around and it's just part of their environment. You can drive the Land Rover right up to lions, and elephants, and it's an amazing way to see them.

Have you flown to Japan?

Ray Dolby
Ray at Gulfoss Falls, Iceland; May 2000

I've thought about it for years. You can get out to Alaska, then over to Hokkaido Island, but up until just recently there wasn't enough parking to stay overnight on the island. You wouldn't want to just refuel and press on to Honshu. At past NBAA shows there was a Japanese government booth promoting flying to Japan, but at the same time they're telling you that it isn't really practical. They were very apologetic about it, but offering no real solution. So I had decided Japan would wait until we got the Swearingen. Then at this last NBAA show I heard that you can stay overnight at Hokkaido now, so maybe we will plan a trip there.

The half-duplex AM VHF radios in airplanes must be at least as frustrating to you as they are to the rest of us. Did you ever consider designing a Dolby line of com radios or headsets?

It's not enough just to put one's brand name on a product. You have to bring some new technology to the table. And it's possible to think about veering off in many directions in one's business, but I think you have to stay focused to stay in business. If you veer too far off the original track you can lose your way. We know the players in the business that we're in, we know the manufacturers, and we know the distributors, we know how the business works. But aviation is an entirely different thing. I've been to NBAA and I read about what's going on, but I wouldn't say I know enough about that business to get into that market and compete.

I noticed Bose headsets in the cockpit of the Pilatus. Did you try a lot of brands before you settled on the Bose?

I tried a lot of them in the 206, and I still have a lot of them. It's a six-place airplane and I think each seat has a different brand. I have the Bose Series II in the Pilatus and the X in the helicopter.

You moved through the private, instrument, commercial, multi and helicopter ratings pretty fast. What other goals have you set for yourself?

I'm saving the glider rating for when the FAA takes away my medical.

You talked about spin training for the private. Are you interested in aerobatics?

Not really. Chandelles and lazy-eights are about as close as I've got to aerobatics.

Would you like to teach flying?

I've thought about it, but I'm not sure I would be a good teacher. You have to be able to speak effortlessly and have a constant stream of wisdom, but it's my nature to keep my mouth shut most of the time, and that wouldn't make me a very good teacher.

How did you get to be an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire?

It's a mystery. You aren't told why, and you don't ask why.

Ray Dolby
The Enstrom approaches the Dolby lakeside lawn at Lake Tahoe, California

How were you notified and what's the ceremony like?

The ceremony took place at the British embassy in Washington, with the Ambassador and an assistant. That was all I could fit into my schedule at the time. I've met the Queen on other occasions. Princess Anne is a real film buff, and was good enough to come and open my new factory in England a few years ago.

What was the very first record that used Dolby noise reduction?

It was Ashkenazy playing Mozart. It started out as an audiophile, classical music thing, then it caught on with other styles.

What's on the drawing board at Dolby Labs?

Some years ago we reached the point at which we can make the output sound equal the input sound. For about a century we pursued the goal of being able to make a perfect recording, and now that problem is solved. The goal now is to make it more accessible, cheaper, more compact, more convenient, and that's what we — and, I suppose, other audio companies — are working on.

Do you listen to music when you fly?

I'm usually too busy. By the time I land someplace I don't stay on the ground too long because before I landed I've already got the weather for the next leg and filed my departure flight plan from the air. Even on the long trips I usually find that I'm too busy flying, talking to ATC and planning ahead and music and sound would just be a distraction.

If you or someone you know has an interesting aviation story to tell, please send an Email to Joe Godfrey.