Ray Lygo was a naval airman who transferred to surface ships, becoming a full admiral, Vice Chief of the Naval Staff, and briefly First Sea Lord, before moving on to be a captain of industry. The latter role saw him caught up in the Westland affair during the 1980s.
Without school qualifications he needed determination to get taken on in his dream job, with the Fleet Air Arm, at 18. On his way upwards, as he recounts in his memoir, he engaged with a rich cast of the good and the bad, from the captain on the rusty frigate who punished an erring stoker unduly, to the bully who wanted whiplash sex. Some he did not meet, such as the Japanese kamikaze pilot who crashed his Zero fighter into the carrier Indefatigable in the Pacific in 1945, seconds after Lygo had taken off, leaving a stench of steam, blood and oil on the burned ship that Lygo, who returned from patrol two hours later, never forgot.
He never met, either, the Soviet captain who drove a Kotlin class destroyer into his grandest command, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, during Nato exercises in the Mediterranean in 1970. This man was later described by his own country's naval attaché as a fool who had been sent to Siberia, Lygo having been exonerated by a Naval Board of Inquiry and praised for his seamanship – and for rescuing 13 Russian sailors tipped overboard, two of whom died.
Yet the man who prided himself on acquiring perspicacity about human nature admitted astonishment at the behaviour of Margaret Thatcher's "big beasts", Leon Brittan and Michael Heseltine, during the Westland affair in 1986, when he was chief executive of British Aerospace. A meeting sprung on him by Brittan, then Trade and Industry Secretary – at the end of which Brittan wagged his finger, saying: "You should withdraw" – attracted controversy, and led to the resignations of both politicians, with the fall of the government only just avoided.
"I was shocked beyond belief," Lygo recorded in his memoir Collision Course (2002). He had agreed to Defence Secretary Heseltine's request that British Aerospace join a European consortium bidding for Westland, a struggling manufacturer remarkable only because it was Britain's last maker of helicopters. He had felt that it was only decency to support one's Defence Secretary, since Heseltine was supporting British Aerospace on other joint European projects.
Westland's importance as an employer in Yeovil had allowed it to be excluded from the nationalisation of most of Britain's defence industry under Labour. Sentiment was that it could not be allowed to collapse, but Brittan favoured an agreement with the American firm Sikorsky. Heseltine got wind of the 8 January 1986 meeting with Lygo, announced that he had heard that Brittan had said that British Aerospace was acting against the national interest and should withdraw from the consortium, and flamboyantly resigned, walking out of a Cabinet meeting before TV cameras in Downing Street. Brittan denied having said any such thing, but soon afterwards resigned, having had to apologise for misleading the House of Commons on another matter.
Lygo had made his own note of what had been said, and when this became known he felt that the inference was that he had deliberately blown the whistle on Brittan. He ascertained that word of the meeting had in fact passed to Heseltine via a civil servant, and agreed a compromise using the ambiguity of the term "you" – to suggest this meant Lygo personally, not British Aerospace – but was left with "an unpleasant taste" and felt that relations with his board had been damaged.
He found, he says in his memoir, that in business, unlike in the armed services, "loyalty is rarely given without reward and seldom sustained in times of crisis". Of his compromise, he wrote: "for what I believe was an act that was designed to help save the Government, I had paid a fairly high price."
Raymond Derek Lygo, son of a compositor at The Times, attended Ilford County High School and Clarke's College, Bromley, but having left school at 14, credited the proficiency test he passed at Air Training Corps 173 Orpington Squadron for giving him his chance. A consultant at the Royal Westminster Ophthalmic Hospital freed him from wearing glasses by resolving a problem with focus so he could pass the naval pilots' sight test.
He trained at the Naval Air Fighter School, at Yeovilton, Somerset, as a Seafire (naval Spitfire) pilot in 1944 before going to the Pacific under Admiral Philip Vian, then qualified as an A1 instructor, and flew Banshees on exchange with the United States Navy. In the US he met Pepper van Osten, whom he married. He was a Lieutenant in the frigate HMS Veryan Bay in the West Indies, then commanded the Type 12 frigate HMS Lowestoft, the Leander Class frigate HMS Juno, and Ark Royal.
Other jobs were at the Ministry of Defence, including Deputy Director of Naval Air Warfare; during the Cod War against Iceland from 1972-76 he ordered projections to be fitted to two diesel frigates to prevent harassment collisions. As Vice Chief of the Naval Staff he noted "the [nuclear] deterrent occupied a great deal of my time as we had got ourselves into such a mess."
Sir Raymond Derek Lygo, sailor and industrialist: born Ilford, Essex 15 March 1924; , Vice Chief of Naval Staff 1975-78, Chief of Naval Staff 1978; Chief Executive, British Aerospace 1986-89; KCB 1977; married 1950 Pepper van Osten (died 2004; two sons, one daughter), 2009 Janette Brown; died Portugal 7 March 2012.