Obituary : Sqn Ldr Hoof Proudfoot

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The Independent Online
Squadron Leader "Hoof" Proudfoot AFC RAF (Rtd), who was killed piloting a Lockheed P38 Lightning at an air show at Duxford on Sunday, was unknown as Michael except to his mother. He was an extraordinary man.

Raconteur par excellence, capable of holding a group doubled in mirth for the entire weekend, Proudfoot could easily have earned his living as a stand-up comic of the old music hall. Instead, he enlisted in 1958 as a "Halton Brat" RAF boy apprentice technician. After completing his three-year electronics course, by force of character, he somehow made the extremely rare conversion from fitter to fighter pilot.

Having gained his wings with great distinction, he flew Hunters with 20 Squadron in the Far East and in 1970 was accepted for the introductory courses of the then revolutionary vertical take-off Harrier. This incredible aircraft became his speciality. Proudfoot was awarded the coveted Air Force Cross, for exceptional airmanship in recovering a Harrier at night with a major electrical failure. Due to his expertise he was chosen for an exchange tour with the US Marine Corps , who had just purchased the British jump-jet. His three years at Cherry Point, North Carolina, gave him a great rapport with American flyers and an inexhaustible fund of rib-cracking stories.

By his early thirties, Hoof Proudfoot was already a Squadron Leader, with command of a tactical weapons unit before being promoted to a staff job at RAF Strike Command. Flying a desk, even for a short period, was "prison" for him and he resigned his commission in 1979, to make a career as an airline pilot with Britannia. He rapidly became a dedicated and careful captain of Boeing 737 and 767.

An irrepressible fighter pilot, he found his way into volunteer leisure flying of historic aircraft with the Fighter Collection at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. Yet again, by force of talent, application, natural leadership and personality, he rose to Chief Pilot. Whether flying his 60hp Cub, or 3,000hp high performance Second World War fighters and bombers, he displayed the same respect for the machinery and the maintenance and restoration engineers involved; always the same cautious, systematic and reverent approach to flying and displaying these exotic aircraft.

His humility did nothing to mask his genius or method in flight. He was a model, generous to a fault with his experience and time, prepared to teach or advise, yet prepared to enquire or to learn.

He married at a very young age. His wife Sue watched him infuse and finally share his enthusiasm for aviation and zest for life with their two sons, Lee and Ian - both now professional pilots.

Hoof Proudfoot was an impish but naturally courteous man who leaves bright memories - always winning the raw egg eating contests; grinning from ear to ear whilst bombing from a Second World War Mustang fighter in Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun; buying flowers for his 89-year-old mother. He was an outstanding fighter pilot and friend, full of fun and fair play, who died with his passion undimmed.

Michael Bryan Proudfoot, pilot: born Norwich 22 September 1941; AFC 1974; married 1963 Susan Lavender (two sons); died Duxford, Cambridgeshire 14 July 1996.

This photograph, left, was shot on a sumptuous June afternoon in 1988, writes Herbie Knott. LWT's camera crew and I made our way to a headland overlooking Cuckmere Haven, and sat in the long grass, under blue skies.

Hoof Proudfoot, flying a Mk 1 Spitfire, and Nick Grace, chasing him in a Messerschmitt 109, rounded South Hill on the far side of the bay. Gradually, the stillness of our cliff-top position was invaded by the beat of the aircraft engines. The noise grew louder, then vanished, as the aircraft disappeared beneath the high cliffs.

For a couple of seconds you could hear the sea, the breeze, the birds, then . . . GRRRBROOOOOMMM! Hoof flashed almost vertically upwards, yards from the cliff-edge, spiralling into a perfect victory roll, his Merlin engine snarling and grinding with the strain of being pushed near the limit. A little cough in the beat (Merlins were never good upside-down) and he was gone. Nick followed, then silence. Just the distant sound of the sea, and the breeze.

We repeated the exercise two or three times. The Spitfire's visual explosion from invisibility to victory roll was so sudden that none of us knew that we had really captured the moment until we saw the evidence on film, and on transparency. Between times, we sat, waited, and enjoyed the delight of working on a perfect day, sitting in the long, brown grass of summer, enjoying one of the world's most blissful shooting locations.

Both Nick and Hoof are now dead. Nick in a car crash, Hoof in his P38 Lightning, at Duxford. They, both, were quiet, witty, unassuming people. They were never household names. But well over 250,000 people a year turned out to watch them fly, and around 10 million television viewers sat in their armchairs viewing Piece of Cake, the LWT drama series, thrilling to their flying, without ever knowing their names.

Hoof's day job was mundane. On our second or third meeting, he described it as "flying farting tourists to Geneva and back". He was a senior captain with Britannia Airways.

At some point in his life, with a riotous bunch of drunken skiers in the cabin, he must have fantasised about the joy of flipping his 737 into a victory roll, just to shut them up, and take the pressure off his cabin crew.

Fortunately for them, he didn't. Fortunately for the four or five of us who were there to witness it, he saved his best flying for that blissful day at Friston, East Sussex. Seen, remembered, never to be forgotten.

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