Bill Bedford: Obituary

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The Independent Online
Bill Bedford was a pioneer test pilot in the field of vertical/short take-off and landing (V/STOL) aircraft, working at Hawkers and British Aerospace throughout the development that led to the Harrier.

Born at Loughborough in 1920 and educated at Loughborough College School, A.W. "Bill" Bedford was serving an electrical and mechanical engineering apprenticeship and training to be a steeplejack when the Second World War broke out.

He joined the RAF, and after flying training served in Fighter Command, initially as a sergeant pilot with 605 (County of Warwick) Squad-ron on the home front in 1941, flying Hurricanes; then with 135 Squadron from 1941 to 1944 on the home front and in Burma, India and Ceylon, flying Hawker Hurricanes and Republic Thunderbolts; and lastly with 65 Squadron in 1945 on the home front, on North American Mustangs. That year he joined Training Command as a Qualified Flying Instructor at Upavon, and then as an Instructor, Instrument Rating Examiner until 1949.

After graduating from the Empire Flying School all-weather course, Bedford became a graduate and then a tutor at the Empire Test Pilots School. From 1950 to 1951 he served as a Ministry of Supply test pilot with Aero Flight at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough.

In 1951 he retired from the RAF as a flight lieutenant and joined Hawker Aircraft Ltd as an experimental test pilot. From 1956 until 1963 he was the company's chief test pilot, and then chief test pilot for Hawker Siddeley Aviation at Dunsfold from 1963 to 1967. He worked on the development of the Sea Hawk, the Hunter and the P1127, Kestrel and Harrier V/STOL aircraft, making the first flights of all of the last three aircraft.

The 36th anniversary of the first tethered hover of the P1127, the prototype of the world's first fully successful experimental V/STOL fighter, which he made with his leg in plaster as the result of a motoring accident, fell on 21 October.

Among many notable flights during this period were a London to Rome and return point-to-point world speed record, set in a Hunter T7 in 1956, and the first landing of a jet V/STOL aircraft on a ship, when he landed the P1127 on HMS Ark Royal on 8 February 1963.

A renowned international demonstration pilot and a lifetime crusader for enhanced safety in demonstration flying, Bedford evolved spin and recovery techniques for swept-wing aircraft. These were graphically demonstrated in public at the 1959 and 1960 Farnborough Air Displays, when he performed inverted spins of 12 or 13 turns in a Hunter two-seater, using coloured smoke to trace the pattern of his recovery in the sky.

He claimed that, despite many crashes in aircraft, he had been injured only when travelling as a passenger in other people's cars. On 14 December 1961 he ejected successfully from a P1127 at about 200ft when it went out of control during an approach for a cautionary landing at Yeovilton. The aircraft demolished an old black barn which the Royal Navy had been trying to have torn down for many years.

From 1968 to 1978 Bedford was the Sales Manager of Hawker Siddeley Aviation, and he then became Divisional Marketing Manager for British Aerospace until 1983. Finally he was the company's Regional Executive for South East Asia.

When he retired in 1986 he took up aerospace consultancy, lecturing and after-dinner speaking. He was a passionate believer in and promoter of the Harrier and the supersonic STOVL strike fighter for the year 2000 plus.

Bedford was also an accomplished sailplane pilot, being the first UK holder of the International Gold "C" with two diamonds. He held the British and UK national gliding records for distance and goal flights of 257 miles, and an altitude record of 21,340ft (19,120ft gain of height).

An approved Air Registration Board glider test pilot, he was awarded the British Gliding Association's de Havilland Trophy (twice), Manio Trophy and Wakefield Trophy (1950-51).

Outside the cockpit, Bill Bedford was Chairman and Founder Member of the Royal Aeronautical Society's Test Pilots' Group (1964-66); a Member of the SBAC Test Pilots' Society (1956-67); and a Fellow of the US Society of Experimental Test Pilots. He was also deeply involved in local life in his home town of Esher, Surrey, and had been elected Esher Citizen of the Year for 1995- 96.

Alfred William Bedford, pilot: born 18 November 1920; AFC 1945; OBE 1961; married 1941 Mary Averill (one son and one daughter deceased); died 20 October 1996.