He was born in Leeds in 1915, and after an apprenticeship as a mechanical engineer there, joined the Bristol Aircraft Company. In 1937 he joined the Reserve of Air Force Officers and served as a pilot in a bomber squadron. Soon after hostilities broke, he was selected for training as a flying instructor, following which he was sent to a flying school in Rhodesia for two years. Reverting then to operational flying in Wellington bombers in the Middle East, he took part in many operations before his aircraft was severely damaged and he ordered his crew to bail out. He stayed with the aircraft and survived the crash landing, then embarked upon a long period of evading the enemy with very little food and even less to drink.
One way and another he survived for two and a half weeks before finally being captured by the Germans only one mile from the British lines. He was taken eventually to the infamous Stalag Luft III in Silesia whereupon he became deeply involved in the "Great Escape" plan. When it came to the escape itself, Nelson was positioned halfway along the tunnel where he supervised the escapees' change-over from one trolley to another, and finally following along himself. Although the majority of the 70-odd escapees were subsequently murdered on Hitler's orders, Nelson was sent back to prison camp for the remainder of the European war, possibly because of the implications of his name and that of his companion Dick Churchill.
With the return of peace Squadron Leader Nelson, as he had then become, was demobilised and he then flew for a short time for a Swiss charter company before moving on to KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. He joined the 150- odd British, Canadian, American, Swedish and other foreign pilots (foreign to the Dutch that is) who were helping the Netherlanders to rebuild their post-war national airline. His experience and skill in the air was soon recognised and he found himself instructing again, this time airline pilots, as well as flying on the line.
Some three or four years later he left KLM and joined the Accident Investigation Branch of the UK Ministry of Civil Aviation. He was very soon intimately concerned with the Comet 1 accidents, taking charge of the field investigations in Rome, India and Pakistan. When the second BOAC Comet disintegrated after take-off from Rome, Nelson was instrumental in co-ordinating the salvage of the aircraft by members of the Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet under Lord Louis Mountbatten, its Commander-in-Chief. There followed a public inquiry, but Nelson's outstanding contribution was never recognised, whilst others higher up who were not capable of doing the job half so well themselves received the credit.
As time went on, it became apparent to him that promotion on a basis of ability was still unlikely in the Civil Service, and when the opportunity arose to join the Accidents Prevention and Investigation Section of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO, now an Agency of the United Nations) in Montreal, he did not hesitate. His first task was to rewrite the ICAO manual of aircraft accident investigation, which was soon followed by his taking a leading part in the investigation of the accident in which the UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold was killed in 1961.
In his later years Nelson changed to the Technical Assistance Section of ICAO and spent much time in the developing countries, setting up civil aviation administration authorities. This involved dealing with people like Idi Amin and spending some years in Afghanistan, where he advised the government on the organisation of its national airline and civil aviation organisation.
Thomas Robert Nelson, aeronautical engineer, pilot and air accident investigator: born Leeds 10 March 1915; married 1947 Anne Thurston (one son, two daughters); died Weymouth, Dorset 25 August 1999.Reuse content