Officer who became the wartime RAF's highest-scoring fighter pilot in the Mediterranean theatre and later a test pilot of supersonic jets
RAF fighter ace dies at 85
NEVILLE DUKE, one of the most remarkable pilots of the Second World War, whose death aged 85 was announced yesterday, was decorated for gallantry six times and became one of the world's foremost test pilots.
At Dunkirk in 1941 Duke, in a Spitfire, shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109, followed a few weeks later by a second. Posted to the Middle East, where he flew Tomahawks, he was shot down twice in six days. His squadron was re-equipped with the superior Kittyhawk and with eight confirmed victories he was awarded the DFC. By the time Duke had finished his third tour, completing 486 operational sorties, he had destroyed 27 enemy aircraft and probably three more, making him the RAF's outstanding and highest scoring fighter pilot in the Mediterranean theatre. He was then 22 years old.
After the war, as chief test pilot of the Hawker Aircraft Company, Duke established a world airspeed record at sea level of 727.63 mph. He and his wife Gwen regularly flew to airshows. On Saturday he became ill while flying his aircraft with his wife, but landed safely. He collapsed as he left the aircraft and died later that evening.
Duke explored the extreme edges of high-speed jet aircraft performance and the effect of compressibility when approaching the speed of sound.
SQUADRON LEADER NEVILLE DUKE, who has died aged 85, had a remarkable record as a fighter pilot during the Second World War; he was decorated for gallantry six times and went on to become one of the world's foremost test pilots.
Duke was the chief test pilot of the Hawker Aircraft Company at a time when transonic and supersonic flight was at a highly experimental and extremely dangerous stage. He was one of a small group of test pilots, some of whom would lose their lives, exploring the regions of the "sound barrier". On September 6 1952 at the Farnborough Air Show he was to fly the supersonic Hawker Hunter jet fighter. He was scheduled to take off at the end of a display by the new de Havilland DH 110. As John Derry and his observer Alan Richards flew over the airfield at high speed, the DH 110 disintegrated, killing 28 spectators and the aircraft's crew.
Without hesitation Duke took off as soon as the runway was cleared. Although deeply saddened and shocked by the disaster and by the loss of his close friend Derry, Duke, ever the professional, flew an immaculate display, ending with a sonic boom in salute to his dead friends. "My dear Duke," the Prime Minister wrote to him the next day, "it was characteristic of you to go up yesterday after the shocking accident. Accept my salute. Yours, in grief, Winston Churchill."
Neville Frederick Duke was born on January 11 1922 and attended Judd School, Tonbridge. Fascinated by flying as a small boy, he would save his pocket money for flights in joy-riding aeroplanes including several from Sir Alan Cobham's Flying Circus. In the summer of 1939 he applied to join the Fleet Air Arm, but was turned down. He joined the RAF in June 1940.
After completing his flying training, Duke was commissioned and posted to Biggin Hill in April 1941 to join No 92 Squadron, flying Spitfires on sweeps over northern France. He scored his first victory over Dunkirk in June when he shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109, followed by his second a few weeks later. With No 92 moving north and away from the action, in November Duke was posted to the Middle East, joining No 112 Squadron, equipped with the Tomahawk.
He soon discovered that the Tomahawk was far inferior to the Spitfire: in four sorties 14 of them were lost against the superior German fighters. In the space of six days, Duke was shot down twice and forced to crash land in the desert before being rescued. His score started to mount, however, and by the end of the year he had destroyed at least four aircraft and damaged others. The squadron re-equipped with the superior Kittyhawk and with eight confirmed victories Duke was awarded a DFC.
After nine months as an instructor at a fighter school in Egypt, Duke returned to operations as a flight commander of his old squadron No 92, which had arrived in the desert. After attacking a large force of fighters over Beurat, Tunisia, he shot down two of the enemy before his ammunition was expended; and a few days later he shot down a Stuka dive-bomber. He was awarded a Bar to his DFC.
In the space of three months fighting over Tunisia Duke destroyed 12 enemy fighters and two bombers, and in March he was awarded an immediate DSO.
At the end of this hectic period he was promoted to squadron leader and returned to the fighter school as the chief instructor.
Although Duke found his job of passing on his experience to young pilots satisfying, he was impatient to return to operations, which in February 1944 he did: he was posted to command No 145 Squadron based in Italy and flying the powerful Spitfire VIII.
Over the next few weeks Duke claimed five further victories and was awarded a second Bar to his DFC for "displaying the highest standard of skill, gallantry and determination".
On June 7, during a low-level strafing operation, the engine of his Spitfire was hit by anti-aircraft fire. He attempted to bale out but his harness became snagged on the open cockpit. He kicked violently to free his parachute before pulling the ripcord, and he landed in the middle of a lake seconds later where he again nearly lost his life as his parachute dragged him through the water. Italian partisans rescued him and gave him shelter until the arrival of US troops.
He returned to his squadron and achieved his final success on September 7 when he shot down two Messerschmitt Bf 109s near Rimini. The AOC instructed that Duke was to finish his third tour after completing 486 operational sorties. He had destroyed 27 enemy aircraft, and probably three more, making him the RAF's outstanding and highest-scoring fighter pilot in the Mediterranean theatre. He was 22 years old and at the end of October he returned to England after an absence of three years.
In January 1945 Duke became a production test pilot at Hawkers and a year later was selected to attend the fourth course at the Empire Test Pilots' School where he flew a jet fighter for the first time. In June 1946 he was one of three pilots assigned to the RAF High Speed Flight. On one occasion he was flying his Meteor at its maximum speed at 120 ft when one of its two engines failed. He managed to retain control and make a safe landing. A few months later he displayed a Meteor at an air display at Prague when he was presented with the Czech Military Cross for his wartime service.
Duke was posted to the Fighter Test Squadron at Boscombe Down and began research at high Mach numbers and high altitude up to 50,000 ft in Meteors. He explored the extreme edges of the high-speed performance of the aircraft and the effect of compressibility at speeds approaching the speed of sound. For his pioneering work he was awarded an AFC.
Keen to continue test flying, Duke accepted an offer to join the Hawker Aircraft Corporation as a test pilot. He left the RAF in August 1948, but, anxious not to lose the camaraderie, joined the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, flying Spitfires and Meteors from Biggin Hill at weekends. He became CO of No 615 Squadron, whose honorary air commodore was Winston Churchill.
Duke with Churchill.
When Duke delivered a batch of Hawker Furies to the new Royal Pakistan Air Force he established records from London to Rome, to Cairo and to Karachi. By the end of 1949 Hawkers had developed a series of experimental jet fighters that led to the Seahawk naval fighter and another, the P 1067, which became the elegant and world-beating Hunter fighter, an aircraft with which the name Duke became synonymous. A year after his display at the 1952 Farnborough Air Show, on September 7 1953 he established a world airspeed record at sea level of 727.63 mph flying an all-red Hunter (WB 188).
In August 1955 he was carrying out firing trials when the engine of his single-engine Hunter failed. By a brilliant piece of flying he managed to land the aircraft, a feat that earned him a Queen's Commendation for Valuable Services in the Air. Two days later, after an engine change, he collected the aircraft but shortly after take off experienced a serious loss of thrust and was forced to crash land at 200mph on the grass at RAF Thorney Island. He suffered serious back injuries, from which he never fully recovered, and in October 1956 he resigned from Hawkers.
For his great contribution to the exploration of supersonic flight and his achievements at Hawkers, Duke was appointed OBE.
He took up freelance flying and consultancy work, then in 1960 formed Duke Aviation and also became personal pilot to Sir George Dowty. After selling his company in 1982, Duke concentrated on test flying lighter aircraft and on consultancy, forming a fruitful and enduring relationship with Brooklands Aerospace Group. These activities he combined with his other great passion, sailing.
Duke received many national and international honours in addition to his gallantry awards. He was awarded the Royal Aero Club's Gold Medal, and in 1993 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. In 2002 he was the recipient of the Air League's Jeffrey Quill Medal. In the same year, Duke received the rarely awarded and internationally prestigious Award of Honour from the Guild of Air Pilots and Navigator for "his unique incomparable record".
Duke's books included Sound Barrier, Test Pilot, The Crowded Sky and The War Diaries of Neville Duke.
In 2006 Duke attracted much attention in the national press when he sold his medals. He played down the popular notion that it was in order to pay for a hip operation for his devoted wife, much as she needed one. His main reasons for selling were the prohibitive costs of insuring them after being burgled three times, and his desire to keep the collection together.
Duke and his wife owned numerous light aircraft over the years and they regularly flew to airshows, air rallies and reunions where their infectious enthusiasm for flying was clear to all.
Neville Duke was a quiet, modest man, reluctant to talk about his achievements but always available to discuss other people's interests and aviation projects. He gave great support to the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum where he was honorary president and where his record-breaking Hunter is on permanent display.
On April 7 Duke and his wife Gwen, whom he had married in 1947, were flying their aircraft when he suddenly felt unwell. He managed to land safely at Popham Airfield, but then collapsed as he left the aircraft and died later that evening.