obituaries : Sqn Ldr Robin McNair

Click to follow
A pre-Second World War weekend airman, Robin McNair prepared himself for the coming war by learning to fly. He was in action by 1940 and took part in the tail-end of the Battle of Britain; some 280-odd sorties later he was one of the few pilots from that time still flying operationally after the invasion of Europe in late 1944.

McNair was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1918 and educated in England, at Douai School. He joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in early 1939, and when called for war service completed his training and was posted to No 3 Squadron at Wick in Scotland, which was equipped with Hurricanes. By 1940 he was a fighter pilot.

Towards the end of September, with the Battle of Britain raging in the south, McNair was posted to No 249 Squadron on the North Weald, Kent. With the coming of German night offences and Britain ill-equipped to deal with night bombers, he was sent to the newly formed No 96 Squadron to fly first Hurricanes at night and then Defiant two-seater nightfighters. Over Liverpool on 12 March 1941 he shot down a Heinkel 111 raider. On completing his tour of duty he became an instructor at a nightfigher Operational Training Unit.

Early in 1942, by now commissioned, McNair was assigned to No 87 Squadron at Charmy Down, Devon, where he flew Hurricanes on nightfighter and night- intruder sorties to Cherbourg and along the French coast. He also flew with the squadron during the famous Dieppe raid on 19 August, and the following month received the DFC. In October he joined 245 Squadron (also at Charmy Down) and was promoted to flight commander in early 1943.

At the beginning of 1944 McNair was given command of 247 Squadron, flying bomb-carrying Hawker Typhoons and preparing for D-Day. He led the unit not only on that famous day, 20 June, but also against numerous ground targets, especially the German V-1 rocket sites along the northern French coast. He saw action at Calais and was acting wing leader on No 124 wing in Normandy.

In July 1944 his engine was knocked out by ground fire, but he succeeded in driving his seven-ton fighter bomber across the front lines to crash-land successfully in a field. He later became chief instructor at No 55 OTU and received a bar to his DFC in September having completed 280 war sorties.

Amongst his various adventures, McNair once had to bale out from his damaged fighter only to find his parachute did not deploy properly, but by wrestling with the lines he managed to get it open just before hitting the ground. He was also one of the first pilots to land on Jersey after the liberation of the Channel Islands in May 1945. The same year he flew Britain's first jet fighter, the Gloucester Meteor, with No 74 Squadron. He was released from the RAF in January 1946.

He was married in 1940 to Estelle Townsend, who came from an Irish military family which boasted several Lord-Lieutenants of Ireland.

After the war McNair went into civil aviation with British European Airways (which later merged with the British Overseas Airways Corporation, BOAC) and was stationed as superintendent at Frankfurt and Geneva. In 1951 he was appointed deputy to Lord Amherst, the director of associate companies at BEA headquarters in London, and in 1957 he was made senior commercial negotiator at the Department of External Affairs, working with Olympic Airways and Aristotle Onassis during negotiations over European and Mediterranean routes.

Over the next few years he held a number of senior postions with BEA, including airline adviser to (now Dame) Alison Munro, then Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Aviation and the UK negotiator in Beirut in 1960. He retired in 1979 as General Manager, Western Europe.

A keen sportsman in his youth, McNair played rugby for Sussex in 1938 and cricket for Hove, with whom he had the highest batting average for 1939. A devout Catholic, he founded a number of charities and caring bodies in his later years including the Society of St Vincent de Paul; he also became secretary of St Benedict's School in Ealing, chairman at St Augustine's Priory and the most senior president of Douai School.

Robin John McNair, pilot and businessman: born Rio de Janeiro 21 May 1918; DFC 1942, and bar 1944; married 1940 Estelle Townsend (three sons, four daughters); died Chichester 18 May 1996.