Sqn Ldr Neville Duke was a courageous and lovely man
One of the most decorated British fighter pilots of the Second World War and a legendary test pilot died over Easter after being taken ill in the air while flying with his wife Gwen.
Sqn Ldr Neville Duke managed to land Gwen and his plane safely at Popham, but collapsed as he got out of the aircraft.
He flew more than 485 sorties in the war, was the Royal Air Force's top-scoring ace in the Mediterranean theatre, and set a world air speed record of 728 mph in 1953 over Tangmere, Kent.
In 2005, Duke sold his medals, diaries and other memorabilia to pay for a hip replacement operation for Gwen who had been in pain for eight months and faced another six-month wait for an operation from the National Health Service.
The Telegraph quotes from some of his war diaries –
First entry: "Got in a burst from the stern quarter and its hood and pieces of fuselage disintegrated. Machine went into vertical dive and pilot baled out. Flew round and round the pilot until he landed, then went down to look at him. I waved to him and he waved back.
"Poor devil thought I was going to strafe him as he initially dived behind a bush."
Second entry: "Saw the ground rushing up and then kicked the rudder and pushed the stick forward and prayed. Got control just in time and the machine hit the ground on its belly.
"Hopped out jolly quick and then darted behind some scrub and lay on my belly.
"The Hun came down and shot-up my machine. Horrible crack and whistle of bullets near me and I thought I was going to be strafed but the Hun cleared off."
On September 6, 1952, I was taken to the Farnborough Air Show by the pilot who lived next door to us. There was a dramatic crash of a deHavilland DH 110 with twenty-eight spectators killed as a result. I clearly remember what seemed to be the engine of the plane crashing into a grassy bank where we had picknicked half an hour previously. What I did not know until I read the obituary today was that Neville Duke was scheduled to take off immediately after the deHavilland in his Hawker. He did so without hesitation as soon as the runway was cleared.
Ave atque Vale.