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Alex Walker

Photo reconnaissance pilot and local government officer.

Born: December 22, 1920; Died: January 5, 2014.

ALEX Walker, who has died aged 93, was a young farm hand from Islay who joined the RAF and became one of the most skilled flying instructors and photographic reconnaissance pilots of the Second World War.

Mr Walker flew an unarmed Spitfire equipped with a high-resolution camera at extreme altitudes to locate and pinpoint targets and capture images of enemy positions.

He survived a remarkable 53 sorties gathering vital intelligence for the Allies as they pushed Axis forces north through Italy from 1944-45.

The role relied on high speed and high altitude to avoid detection and pilots were expected to maintain radio silence in a cramped cockpit on missions lasting up to seven hours.

On one flight, Mr Walker passed out from oxygen starvation but recovered in time to save his life. Another sortie saw his plane so mangled by giant hailstones that it was scrapped after he landed.

He was the son of a painter and decorator who was born on Islay into a family of poachers and lifeboatmen - both occupations that were well respected among the islanders. His family then moved to the mainland to escape the Depression, settling first in Govan, Glasgow, then Waterside in Ayrshire.

He left school at 14 and worked in a creamery before joining the RAF, on the basis that the queue for the Royal Navy, his first choice, was far too long.

Despite having no more than a farm boy's education, he scored excellent marks in his aptitude tests and was selected for pilot training. His natural airmanship skills were quickly noted there and he was made a flying instructor directly after completing his own training at Scone in Perthshire.

He was teaching a trainee the "falling leaf" manoeuvre in a Tiger Moth biplane when the aircraft stalled and dived. It ended upside down, stripped of its wings with the petrified trainee hanging from his straps. "We'll concoct a story," Mr Walker reassured him as he cut him free.

Flying alone as a Spitfire pilot in the photographic reconnaissance role, Mr Walker had to become an excellent navigator and usually relied on dead reckoning to maintain a precise course and altitude.

He served in North Africa and took part in missions over Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Crete, Athens and the Aegean islands. On one night sortie, he was the only one of more than 12 pilots to return.

Following a mission with No 683 Squadron in Italy in January 1945, he recorded in his log book: "Climbed through cloud from 4,000ft to 23,000ft. After breaking cloud, passed out and woke up at about 5,000ft.

"Returning later, found aircraft wings corrugated, fuselage twisted and drop tanks blown to bits. Spent four days in hospital."

In August 1945, he wrote: "Ran into large cumulus cloud near Ancona. Never had such a scare before. Canopy was smashed in by large hailstones and all five rads flattened.

"Spinner, wings and tail looked as though they had been done over with a 14lb hammer. Aircraft dismantled by 110 Maintenance Unit."

He also flew with No 237 (Rhodesian) Squadron and taught the country's future leader, Ian Smith, how to fly. Years later, he reflected: "He didn't seem the man he turned out to be."

In the country's capital, Salisbury - now Harare - he saw two white police officers beating an African man. Incensed at the injustice, he went to the victim's aid and received several injuries for his trouble.

A larger than life character, he had a narrow escape in Cairo in an incident involving a borrowed officer's uniform (Walker was a warrant officer), a nightclub hostess, a raid by military police and the theft of a British Army jeep.

Aged 50 and still known as The Wire for his toughness, he was charged with assault following an incident involving three ex-colleagues who were remanded in Barlinnie. After hearing the facts, the stipendiary magistrate admonished Mr Walker.

After the war, he lived life to the full on his back pay then took a job at an engineering works in Glasgow before moving to Wallace and Co lace finishers in Newton Mearns, living in a post-war prefab house nearby.

He later worked for Dalmarnock Timber and Plywood in Glasgow and became a roads department manager for Strathclyde Regional Council before retiring aged 65. He then began a lengthy relationship with Sudoku.

On his 80th birthday, his family booked Mr Walker a flight in a familiar aircraft - a vintage Tiger Moth. Once airborne, he took over the controls from the instructor and carried out a "touch and go" manoeuvre before landing the plane himself.

Mr Walker, who was predeceased by his wife Mary, is survived by their son Robert and grandson Paul.

Jack Burgess, of the Scottish Saltire Aircrew Association, said: "Alex was a very popular member of our Glasgow Flight and we all miss his company very much."

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