Home
Newsletter 18
Autumn 2007
Updated on 5Nov2007
Contents
Editorial
Association Ties
Book Reviews
Burmese Sea Fury Incidents
Committee News
Daydreams
EDO To Project Office Part 2
F-35 Lightning II News
Flight Testing Early Jets
Harrier News
Hawk News
Joint Force Harrier Operations
Members
Neville Duke Appreciation
RAF Harrier Story
RAF Museum Visit

Published by the Hawker Association
for the Members.
Copyright 2007. All rights reserved Hawker Association
 
    Neville 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.
    The 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 109s.
Neville Duke - An Appreciation By David Lockspeiser

toptop toptop toptop top top top top
    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, started to 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.
    He 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.
    In 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 strafing sortie, 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.
    In 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 where 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 records 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 display.
    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 'experimental' 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.
    Neville 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.
    As a 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.
    He 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.