Wednesday, May 31, 2006

S/Ldr Neville Duke DSO OBE DFC** AFC 1921-2007

Squadron Leader Neville Frederick Duke DSO, OBE, DFC & Two Bars, AFC, FRAeS (11 January 1922 – 7 April 2007) was a British Second World War fighter pilot. He was the top Allied flying ace in the Mediterranean Theatre, having shot down at least 27 enemy aircraft, and was acknowledged as one of the world's foremost test pilots after the war. In 1953, he became holder of the world air speed record when he flew a Hawker Hunter F Mk3 at 727.63 mph over Littlehampton in the UK.
Duke was born in Tonbridge, Kent, and educated at the Convent of St Mary and The Judd School in Tonbridge. One of the four houses at Judd is now named after him, following the reinstation of a house system to the school in 2008. He started working as an auctioneer and estate agent before attempting to join the Fleet Air Arm on his 18th birthday. He was rejected and joined the RAF instead as a cadet in June 1940.
Duke underwent pilot training and was commissioned at 58 OTU, Grangemouth in February 1941, before being posted to 92 Squadron at Biggin Hill in April, flying Supermarine Spitfire Mk Vs. Operating over occupied Europe, Duke's obvious talents as a fighter pilot meant he often flew as wingman to Biggin Hill's Wing Leader, Wing Commander Adolph "Sailor" Malan. By August 1941, Duke had claimed two Messerschmitt Bf 109s shot down. When the unit was withdrawn for a rest in October 1941, Duke was posted to North Africa to fly with 112 Squadron on the Curtiss Tomahawk.
Duke found flying the P-40 less agreeable than the Spitfire, and on a familiarisation flight crashed AM390.Duke was shot down on 30 November 1941, by the high scoring German ace Oberstabsfeldwebel Otto Schulz of Jagdgeschwader 27.On 5 December, he was again shot down by a pilot from JG 27. However, his own tally of victories continued to mount and, after the squadron was re-equipped with the more capable Kittyhawk, by February 1942 Duke had at least eight victories, resulting in the award of the DFC in March. These included a CR.42 and a Bf 109 on the 20 and 21 December.He completed his first tour of operations the next month and then spent six months instructing at the fighter school in the Canal Zone.

In November 1942, he rejoined 92 Squadron, which has been transferred to North Africa flying the tropicalised Spitfire Mark V.He became a flight commander in February 1943 and received a DSO in March. By the end of his second tour in June, Duke had amassed a further 14 victories to his total and was awarded a Bar to his DFC.

Promoted to Squadron Leader, he was posted to No. 73 Operational Training Unit at Abu Sueir as chief flying instructor before returning to operations in March 1944 for his third tour, as CO of 145 Squadron in Italy, flying Spitfire Mk VIIIs. He claimed five more aircraft shot down in May, gaining a second Bar to his DFC. On 7 June, Duke was shot down by flak and bailed out into Lake Bracciano, almost drowning when unable to release his parachute harness. He sheltered with Italian partisans until U.S. troops arrived.
Downing two Fw 190s of Schlachtgeschwader 4 in May, he scored his final kills on 7 September 1944, becoming the Mediterranean Theatre's top Allied fighter ace at the age of 22. In 486 sorties and some 712 operational hours, he claimed 27 outright victories and two shared, one probable, six damaged and two shared destroyed on the ground.
Duke returned to the UK and took up a position as test pilot for Hawker in January 1945. He attended No 4 Course at the Empire Test Pilots' School at Cranfield in 1946 and then joined the RAF's High speed flight, commanded by Teddy Donaldson. It was Donaldson who set a new official World Air Speed record on 7 September 1946, later being the first official man to break the 1,000 km/h barrier. After demonstrating a Gloster Meteor at an air display in Prague, he was presented with the Czech Military Cross for his wartime service.

Neville Duke married Gwendoline Fellows in 1947. He was awarded the Air Force Cross recognising his test flying from 1947-1948 at the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down, where he flew research flights to explore aircraft performance at high Mach numbers and high altitudes. Duke resigned from the RAF in August 1948, joining the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, flying Spitfires and Meteors from Biggin Hill. He was CO of 615 Squadron in 1950 and 1951, whose honorary Air Commodore was Winston Churchill.

Duke joined Hawker as an assistant chief test pilot in 1948, and became Hawker's Chief Test Pilot in 1951, following the death of "Wimpy" Wade, his predecessor. He was particularly involved in the development of the highly successful Hawker Hunter, flying the Hawker P1067 in its trials in July 1951. He gave a display in the new fighter at the Farnborough Airshow on 6 September 1952, immediately after the runway had been cleared of debris following a tragic accident. A de Havilland DH 110, piloted by his friend John Derry, had broken up in flight, killing Derry and his observer Tony Richards, along with 28 spectators. "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."

Duke was awarded an OBE in January 1953 for his contribution to supersonic flight and groundbreaking achievements at Hawker. On 7 September 1953, Duke set a new world air speed record of 727.63 mph (1,171.01 km/h), flying Hunter WB188. (With this world record Neville Duke exceed the unofficial world record set by Heini Dittmar with the Me 163 BV18).He was awarded the Queen's Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air for saving his aircraft after an engine failure in August 1955. Two days later, he fractured his spine following a forced landing in a Hunter at Thorney Island. Another heavy landing in May 1956 caused further spinal injuries; he was forced to resign in October 1956 after being immobilised for several months.

Duke took up freelance aviation consultancy work until 1960, when he formed Duke Aviation Limited. He was Sir George Dowty's personal pilot for most of the 1960s and 1970s. He sold the company in 1982. He Also became a test pilot for Edgley Aircraft and later Brooklands Aircraft on the Edgley Optica.

Duke wrote several books based on his experiences. His autobiography, Test Pilot, was published in 1953 and reprinted in 1992. His other books include The Sound Barrier (1953), The Crowded Sky (1959) and The War Diaries of Neville Duke (1995). He was awarded the Royal Aero Club's Gold Medal, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1993. In 2002, he received the Air League's Jeffrey Quill Medal and the Award of Honour from the Guild of Air Pilots and Navigators for "his unique and incomparable record".