Saturday, April 14, 2007

A Gentleman Flyer

Squadron Leader Neville Duke, who died yesterday, surely exemplified all that was best about the British of an earlier era and pointed up all that is wrong with the present one. For he was of much the same age when he first flew a sortie over occupied France in his Spitfire as were the hooligans who aided and abetted Miss Rachael Bell in the trashing of her parent’s house.
Neville went on to become one of the top scoring fighter aces of the war. Subsequently, he went to the Empire Test Pilot’s School at Boscombe Down and flew many sorties investigating the problems of supersonic flight.
Test piloting, in spite of its popularly glamorous image, is exacting and sometimes hazardous work, but work that suited his calm personality perfectly.
Joining Hawker, he flew their Hunter through the sound barrier and claimed the world air speed record for Great Britain. This was soon eclipsed by the US in their rocket propelled Bell X1 and by the North American Sabre, although this was only achieved in a shallow dive.
His cool courage was recognised by Winston Churchill who sent him a message following the tragic loss of his friend, John Derry, whose aircraft had broken up over the crowd at a Farnborough Air Show whilst breaking the sound barrier. As soon as the runway had been cleared of debris, Neville took off in his Hunter and dazzled the crowd with an aerobatic display, culminating in a supersonic run over the airfield. He said later it was a tribute to his friend.
I met him often in later life when our flight paths crossed at Ronalsdway Airport in the Isle of Man. At the time he was flying a De Havilland Dove for the Dowty Rotol Company. In those halcyon days, transient pilots were welcome to climb the stairs to the control tower where the staff would brew up mugs of tea for us, rather as though we were superannuated cabbies.
One day, a light aircraft fluttered in from a local flying club. The young student pilot clumped his way upstairs to have his logbook endorsed, a step toward his Private Pilots Licence. Neville, who was dressed rather in the style of an off-duty gentleman farmer, enquired how his flight had been. The lad eagerly explained all the ins and outs of the aviation business in great detail to which Neville listened attentively, without revealing his identity.
After the embryo pilot had left I asked him why he hadn’t mentioned who he was.
“Well, you can’t, can you? It’s a bit embarrassing,” he said.
Neville Duke was a highly decorated war hero, impeccable test pilot and gentleman, self-effacing and modest. He wrote several books, all of which are unassuming records of his life as a pilot, in sharp contrast to the egotistical auto-biography churned out by his American contemporary, Chuck Yeager.
For his long and dedicated service to his country, he received the OBE. Of course, had he just been a member of a lucky but indifferent cricket team, he could have picked up an MBE with far less effort.
And I wonder how many of those who attended Miss Bell’s “rave” will do as much for their country?
When marines go into action carrying their iPod, it makes you wonder.

There will now be a slight intermission as I’m off to the The London Book Fair next week. Back soon.

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