Terence Willans

'Father of British sport parachuting'

Terence Willans, one of the most experienced parachutists in Europe, was often described as "the father of British sport parachuting". He had been interested in engineering from a young age - his grandfather was Peter William Willans, inventor of the ground-breaking Willans steam-engine - and he devoted his life to devising safety devices to be used in the air, on land and at sea.

Terence William Willans, test parachutist and designer and manufacturer of safety equipment: born York 29 January 1918; married 1943 Joan Pearce (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1951 Angela Best (two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1974 Alma Collis (one son); died Truro, Cornwall 10 September 2004.

Terence Willans, one of the most experienced parachutists in Europe, was often described as "the father of British sport parachuting". He had been interested in engineering from a young age - his grandfather was Peter William Willans, inventor of the ground-breaking Willans steam-engine - and he devoted his life to devising safety devices to be used in the air, on land and at sea.

Orphaned in 1931 at the age of 13, Willans emigrated in 1934 to Australia, where he worked as a farm labourer and a drover, and for a time joined a travelling rodeo show. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, however, he returned to England with the intention of joining the RAF. Failing a test for colour-blindness, he joined the cavalry instead, undertaking basic training at the Army Equitation School at Weedon and at Sandhurst.

Willans began training as a paratrooper during the war, and got his lifelong nickname, "Dumbo", when the instructor overseeing his first parachute jump yelled to him: "Uncurl your ears, Dumbo, and fly!"

As a member of the 21st Independent Parachute Company Pathfinder Platoon, he was dropped in enemy-occupied territory in Italy, the South of France and Greece, to locate and mark landing and drop zones for the parachute infantry, gliders and equipment that followed. When the war ended, his platoon spearheaded the Second Parachute Brigade's drive to clear Athens of civil unrest.

Landing by night, they fought their way through the Communist Elas forces to hold the centre of the city, trying to stop rebels butchering what was left of the Athens middle class. Dumbo recalled talking to a group of Greek militiamen, only to find their attention wandering. Following their gaze, he saw that a large, glass-sided hearse was passing, packed to the roof with the naked bodies of massacred men, women and children.

His experiences in Greece left him with a profound distaste for violence of any sort. In fact he was an old-fashioned gentleman, with a wicked sense of humour, embarrassed at being singled out for any kind of praise, and always captivated by machinery and gadgets of any kind.

After the war, he was posted to the Army Airborne Transport Development Centre, and thence to the Airborne Section of the Army Operational Research Group, where he researched and live-tested new parachute equipment. He left the AORG in 1948 with the rank of major, to become a freelance parachutist.

In 1949, Willans performed the first live test, from 15,000 feet, of the Irving Barometric Parachute Device for the automatic release of a parachute at high altitudes - a brilliant device for injured or unconscious pilots who ejected but were unable to pull the ripcord. Having spotted the device, untested, on a workbench, he had volunteered to develop it at his own expense. His initial jump was successful, and he continued to work with Irving Parachutes in connection with high altitude bale-out, later conducting a second test of the same device from 25,000ft - then the longest parachute jump ever undertaken.

Three years later, Willans undertook live tests in the North African desert for Irving's research into the prevention of spinning during descent - often a cause of parachuting accidents. So dangerous were these tests that no insurance company would underwrite them, and Willans had to waive all claims for compensation in the event of his death or injury. Luckily for him, however, his jumps were all successful, and the project was only halted when a dummy used in one test drop landed minus its head. In 1956, he undertook the first live tests of the Saab ejection seat for the Folland Gnat high-speed aircraft.

Willans was a successful competitive parachutist and international judge, winning a silver medal for Great Britain at the first World Parachuting Championship in Yugoslavia in 1951. He was elected President of the Parachuting Commission of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale in 1953. In 1959, he was elected chairman of the newly formed Parachuting Committee of the Royal Aero Club, and became a member of the RAC's Aviation Committee. In 1960, he was awarded the Royal Aero Club's Silver Medal for services to sport parachuting.

To earn a living while testing and developing - not a lucrative career - Willans, something of a showman, took part in air displays with the record-breaking test pilot Neville Duke. He wing-walked without a parachute and performed other death- defying acts. He also worked as a film stunt man, and appeared as a pirate in the 1951 film Captain Hornblower. Later he presented the BBC television programme Summer Magazine.

His book Parachuting and Skydiving (1964) became the standard work on the subject. An autobiography, Panic Takes Time, was published in 1956, and his adventure story for children, The Hangfield Mystery, in 1958.

In 1953, Willans became a consultant with GQ Parachutes, at that time the only British company researching safer parachuting, and it was here that he became involved in the design and manufacture of seat belts, applying the safety principles learned in parachuting to Formula 1 race cars. When GQ stopped car harness production in 1968, he took over the projects, working closely with the World Champion Jackie Stewart to improve safety for drivers.

Willans harnesses rapidly became standard equipment for the majority of racing-car stables, including Lotus, Ferrari, Matra, Tyrell and McLaren. He was also associated with the design of brake parachutes for planes and boats, including Donald Campbell's Bluebird.

In the late Seventies, Dumbo Willans turned his Cornish barn into a workshop, and turned his attention to the design and manufacture of safety harnesses used by tree surgeons and oilrig workers. Generous to a fault, he was always ready and eager to design and make support or lifting harnesses for disabled people - always free of charge. When his eyesight failed in old age, he gave up the car, but continued riding a mountain bike round the narrow Cornish lanes where he lived, intrepid to the last, even though he could barely see.

He continued to work full-time for Willans Harness Manufacturing until the onset of the short illness leading to his death, and the family business will be continued by his widow, Alma, and son, Peter.

Virginia Ironside

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