CHRISTOPHER CLARKSON was a daring aerobatic stuntman and test pilot who later became the Civil Air Attache at the British Embassy in Washington and the chief representative in the United States of leading British aircraft interests.
Clarkson, the son of an artist, was educated at Lancing College, in Sussex. His long and colourful career in aviation began when he joined the RAF in 1925 and soon became an instructor at the Central Flying School, Little Rissington, in Gloucestershire, the oldest unit of the Royal Air Force. The Clarkson Trophy for Aerobatics, which he presented in 1931, is a coveted award made annually to the outstanding aerobatic pilot at the Central Flying School.
After a year at the CFS, Clarkson returned to civilian life and became a test and development pilot. He won many trophies for aerobatic flying and for successful stunts in selling aircraft abroad. De Havillands sent him to Lisbon to try to persuade the Portuguese Air Force to buy the Tiger Moth trainer, in the face of strong French and American competition. During the daily plane inspection the American demonstration pilot impressed the Portuguese with the strength of his machine by standing on its tail and jumping up and down. Clarkson countered by taking a CFS colleague up in the Tiger Moth and getting him to clamber out of the front seat and stand on the wing, while Clarkson flew the plane from the rear seat. This greatly impressed the large crowd watching below.
Later, at a football match between Portugal and Spain, they put on a demonstration of aerobatics, flying in and out of the stadium 'like wasps', as Clarkson wrote later. Finally they both flew upside down along the length of the main street of Lisbon, starting high in the hills and ending at the harbour.
They reckoned that if they inverted themselves at the top end the sinking rate of the aircraft was about the same as the drop in the height of the road. Portugal bought the Tiger Moth.
With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 Clarkson rejoined the RAF and was posted again to the Central Flying School. His job was to take delivery of new aircraft, put them through handling trials and write pilot's notes on how to fly them before they were assigned to the squadrons. Another task was to introduce new aircraft to the squadrons. One month he flew 11 different planes, ranging from a Spitfire fighter to a Blenheim bomber.
He also did some instructing on the side. One of his pupils was Douglas Bader, who was determined to resume flying although early in the war he had lost one leg, and half of the other, in a serious crash. At the end of November 1939 Clarkson took Bader up in an Avro Tutor and later in a Harvard and declared Bader was perfectly all right to continue flying.
In the summer of 1940 Clarkson was sent on what was supposed to be a three-week visit to the United States to prepare the handling notes on the Grumman Martlet and the Glen Martin Maryland which the British Air Commission had purchased, as well as others originally ordered by the French before they had to capitulate, and whose contracts the British Air Commission had taken over. This became a lengthy task. After March 1941 other American aircraft were acquired under Lend- Lease. Clarkson became chief of the Test Branch of the British Air Commission in 1943 and was awarded the Air Force Cross.
Clarkson's first marriage, to Leslie Manning, by whom he had three daughters, was dissolved after the end of the War, and in 1948 he married Marya Mannes, the American former features editor and professional model of Vogue magazine. She was also a sculptor, a poet, a sophisticated writer and a musician.
That same year Clarkson was appointed Civil Air Attache to the British Embassy in Washington. The Clarksons were a very shiny couple in the diplomatic set, Christopher the handsome dashing aviator, Marya the glamorous and witty hostess. Their parties were always outstanding, particularly when Marya's father David Mannes, a former conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra and the founder of the Mannes College of Music, brought his violin to entertain us.
At the Embassy, Clarkson looked after the dealings between the new post-war Ministry of Civil Aviation and the US authorities, particularly with regard to airline routes and landing rights. He frequently used his official aircraft, a single-engined British-built Proctor with four seats, to fly the Ambassador, Sir Oliver Franks, to speaking engagements in out-of- the-way places. The unusual design of the low-wing plane with its 210-horsepower engine and Union Flag painted on the rudder caused considerable interest.
After his term as Civil Air Attache ended in 1952, the Clarksons moved to Sagaponack on Long Island. Christopher became the US Representative of Vickers Armstrong Aircraft Ltd, and Marya returned to journalism, contributing television criticism and what she called 'Subverse' to the Reporter. Early each autumn they would come to England, he to visit the Farnborough Air Show and she to provide acerbic political comments on BBC television's Tonight.
Clarkson was highly respected professionally. In 1981 he was made President of the British Aircraft Corporation USA, now British Aerospace. He retired in 1965, and the following year married his third wife, Evelyn Clark Knox, and went to live in Old Lyme, Connecticut.
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