Frederick Duke was
born in Tonbridge, Kent, on 11 January 1922. He was educated at Judd
School and being so close to the airfields of Kenley and Biggin Hill he
very early developed a keen interest in flying.
When after leaving
school he became old enough, in June 1940 he joined the Royal Air
Force. After completing his flying training at Ternhill he got his
'wings' and commission in February 1941, went on to an Operational
Conversion Unit and was posted to No. 92 Squadron at Biggin Hill.
Wing Commander Flying was 'Sailor' Malan, the Squadron Commander Jamie
Rankin. Other Fighter Command top scoring pilots on the squadron
included Brian Kingcome, Tony Bartley, and 'Wimpy' Wade with whom he
was to have a closer association later.
During that spring and summer
he learned a lot from them, survived the air battles over Northern
France and gained invaluable experience, damaging three enemy aircraft
and, on 25 June, claiming his first of two kills, all Messerschmitt Bf
- An Appreciation By David Lockspeiser
In November Neville was posted to a very different theatre of
operations; the Western Desert. He lived under canvas, with sand in
everything, suffering flies, and poor sanitation and food, flying a
very different aircraft, the Curtiss Tomahawk. This, he soon
discovered, was inferior to the Bf 109 when fourteen of his squadron
were lost and he was shot down twice. His score, however,
rise when he shot down four and damaged others.
The squadron then
re-equipped with Kittyhawks. Neville, having established himself
amongst the most successful pilots in the theatre with eight confirmed
victories, was awarded his first DFC.
was then 'rested' for nine
months as a fighter instructor in the Canal Zone before rejoining as a
Flight Commander his old squadron, No.92, which had by then come out to
the desert. At the end of his second tour he had shot down a total of
nineteen enemy aircraft and was, in February 1943, awarded a bar to his
DFC and an immediate DSO in March. After this intense period of
fighting he was promoted to Squadron Leader and posted back to the
Fighter School as the chief instructor.
February 1944 he was posted to command No.145 Squadron in Italy, flying
Spitfire MkVIIIs, where he destroyed six more enemy fighters and was
awarded a second bar to his DFC. On June 7, while on a
his aircraft was hit by ricochet or flak forcing him to return but an
engine fire became too intense so he baled out, by chance over Lake
Bracciano. His parachute jammed in the hood which he managed to get
clear but, when in the water, one leg strap failed to release and he
was nearly drowned when he was dragged along by his parachute.
Eventually, having freed himself, he swam around for twenty minutes
until two Italian boys paddled out and rescued him. Warmly welcomed by
the peasant villagers he was found the following day by the advancing
Americans and returned to his squadron where, on September 3, he shot
down two Bf.109s, his final success. Neville was the highest scoring
fighter pilot in the Mediterranean theatre where he shot down 26
aircraft plus three shared, three probables and six damaged, having
flown 712 hours on 486 operational sorties.
October 1944 Neville returned to England for the first time in three
years; he was still only twenty-two years old. He held a permanent
commission in the RAF but was at a bit of a loss as to what to do. He
wanted a flying job and in January 1945 was seconded to Hawker Aircraft
Ltd at Langley to help out as a production test pilot flying Tempests.
Also seconded there was Frank Murphy who later joined Hawkers and
became Chief Production Test Pilot. Whilst at Langley he met Gwen and
they were later married near Windsor in March 1947.
In January 1946 he
attended No.4 Course at the Empire Test Pilots' School, then at
Cranfield, which was interrupted by postings to the Meteor High Speed
Flight at Tangmere, and to Farnborough, before completing the Course in
March 1947. Neville then went to the A&AEE at Boscombe Down
he was involved in high speed and high Mach number research. Following
an air display he gave in a Meteor at Prague he was awarded the Czech
War Cross for his wartime service. In June 1948 he received the Air
Force Cross for his work at Boscombe before leaving the RAF to continue
test flying with Bill Humble's team at Hawkers. He did, however,
maintain his link with the RAF by joining the Royal Auxiliary Air
Force, flying at week-ends as CO of 615 Squadron at Biggin Hill whose
Honorary Air Commodore was Winston Churchill.
Delivering Hawker Furies to Pakistan Neville established
from London to Rome, Cairo and Karachi. At Hawkers he was involved in
the development of a series of jet fighters: the P.1040 (which became
the N7/46 Sea Hawk), its swept wing derivative the P.1052, the
all-swept P.1081 and the P.1067. Neville became Chief Test Pilot in
April 1951, sadly following the death of 'Wimpy" Wade in the P.1081.
The P.1067 was named Hunter and became synonymous with the name of
Neville Duke. Well known to the many air forces that operated them, the
Hunter was once colourfully described by an airshow commentator as "the
most elegant gentleman's aerial gun carriage." Neville was complimented
by Winston Churchill for continuing with his Hunter display following
the tragic accident of the de Havilland 110 at the 1952 SBAC flying
The next year, flying
Hunter Mk.3 WB188,
he regained for Britain the world speed record at 727 mph. This gave a
great boost to national prestige but more significant from a fighter
aircraft point of view was his breaking shortly afterwards of the 100
km closed circuit record at 709 mph which demonstrated agility as well
as speed. Even more than a squadron commander in the air force a Chief
Test Pilot, to have the respect of his pilots, has to be able to fly as
well as, and preferably better than, any of them; that was
unquestionably the case with Neville. He created a very happy team; the
pilots all had the deepest respect for him and appreciated his dry
sense of humour. There came a time when the Ministry was getting
concerned about the number of greenhouse repair claims from people
dotted along the south coast allegedly caused by sonic bangs so details
of the date, time and place of all supersonic flights were requested.
Neville had a book prepared and sent a note to all pilots asking them
to enter their bangs (supersonic) in the 'bang book'.
Occasionally he would blur the line between the
and 'production' pilots, getting everyone's opinion on a particular
development. An example of this was the introduction of the extended
wing leading edge intended to alleviate pitch-up when applying 'g' at
altitude, creating for all a greater feeling of involvement. This was
carried over to the social side of life with cricket matches and
parties at 'Primeads', Nevill and Gwen's 16th century cottage on
Dunsfold aerodrome, which Gwen had characteristically made really
charming and where Jake, their amiable Alsation ambled around. An ex
Boscombe Down test pilot, who retired as a very senior RAF officer,
recently commenting on that period, said that the Hawker test pilot
team was the "happiest and best to deal with"; an independent tribute
to Neville's leadership.
Sailing was a hobby of
Neville's and he dislocated a disc when lifting a battery out of his
boat, his back suffering further when he made a forced landing in a
Hunter at the unfortunately, but appropriately, named Thorny Island.
For this he received a Queen's Commendation for valuable services in
the air. Due to these back injuries he resigned from Hawkers in October
1956, and for his great contribution in pushing the boundaries of high
speed flight he received the OBE.
continued freelance flying. He formed Duke Aviation and became the
personal pilot to Sir George Dowty, carried out flight testing, took
jockeys to race meetings, performed consultancy work, wrote test
reports for aeronautical journals, and more. In later years he owned
several light aircraft in which he and Gwen were frequent visitors to
airshows, rallies and aviation gatherings.
young RAF officer Neville was very sociable though always very modest
but with failing hearing as he got older he became very shy and that is
probably why he disliked cocktail party-type gatherings. He was,
however, always ready to talk about aviation, particularly to the young
whom he always encouraged. He gave great support to the Tangmere
Military Aviation Museum of which he was Honorary President and where
his record breaking Hunter is on display.
received many national and international honours in addition to those
for gallantry, being awarded the Royal Aero Club gold Medal, elected a
Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, made an Honorary Fellow of
the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, and receiving the Air League
Jeffery Quill Medal and the Award of Honour from the Guild of Air
Pilots and Air Navigators for "his unique and incomparable record." His
contribution to the nation in both war and peace made him a national
hero to young and old; he was highly respected, unassuming and lived
with unflagging enthusiasm for flying and aviation. His books included
'Sound Barrier', 'Test Pilot', 'The Crowded Sky' and 'The War Diaries
of Neville Duke'. He flew throughout his life with over 12,000 hours in
more than 250 aircraft types.
His flying was both
highly skilful and determined and never were these qualities tested
more than they were on his last flight on April 7, 2007, when he
realised he was very ill indeed, thinking it to be a heart attack, but
which was in fact a ruptured aortic aneurysm. He knew he had to, and
did, get his wife safely back onto the ground, landing at Popham
airfield. After landing he collapsed and was immediately taken to
hospital but died several hours later. He was 85.