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James Johnston

Pilot and surveyor

Pilot and surveyor

Born: August 15, 1922; Died: May 11, 2014

James Aden Johnston, who has died aged 91, was a pilot during the Second World War. Among other planes, he flew Spitfire LA198 which now hangs on permanent display in Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum. He also had his moments with Spitfires and twice walked away unhurt after crashing them.

His first escape was when engine failure forced him to land Spitfire LA222 in a field near Glenboig, Lanarkshire. The rough terrain tore off the undercarriage, but when the burning aircraft came to rest he jumped from the cockpit unscathed and put out the flames with a fire extinguisher.

A fire engine happened to see his plight, crashed through a five-barred gate, sank in the mud and got stuck. The farmer, less than pleased, asked who would pay for the damage. "Nae me", said Mr Johnston, without missing a beat. Meanwhile, his mayday rescue call announcing an unscheduled landing "near Coatbridge" had been misheard and rescue teams were scanning the Forth bridge area for him.

Another close shave saw him save Spitfire LA198 at Horsham St Faith, Norfolk. He began his take-off run when the engine failed and the aircraft went into a ground loop; it was saved by Mr Johnston's quick reactions and skill. Flown by 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron between 1947 and 1949, it was probably the last Spitfire to fly. As well as hanging in Kelvingrove, it featured in the 1967 film The Battle of Britain.

Born in Aberdeen in 1922, Mr Johnston grew up in a granite house on Jute Street. An asthmatic boy, he said the struggle to breathe terrified him more than anything else he experienced, including war in the air. Yet he was cured when his father insisted on taking him for walks until his breathing eased.

He attended Causewayend and Sunnybank schools, leaving at 14 to work in woollen manufacture at Berryden Mills. He joined the Air Defence Cadet Corps; his commanding officer wrote of character and ability of the highest order. In 1940 he volunteered for the RAF, trained in Tiger Moths with mostly civilian instructors, and flew solo after nine and a half hours. When he was 19, he was a leading aircraftsman, was awarded his wings and mustered as sergeant pilot.

Having exceptional night vision, he was selected as a night fighter pilot, joined the newly-formed 157 Squadron, and served in this capacity for a year. There he flew the Mosquito, the fastest fighter at the time, protecting bomber streams in crowded night skies over enemy territory, intercepting Luftwaffe aircraft, and harassing the enemy by attacking ground targets including fighters.

From 1943 to 1944 he served with Squadrons 543, 681 and 684, becoming Flight Lieutenant in 1949. In 1943 he was posted to India as part of a Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, the main source of intelligence on Japanese troop and supply columns in Burma and Thailand. The Mosquito was stripped of armaments to increase its speed and range, and avoided combat. He completed round trips of up to 2000 miles in six or seven hours, without automatic pilot, under ack-ack fire, and in intense heat.

Once, a break in the cloud revealed a Japanese warship with an escort of destroyers. He returned to base and alone volunteered to go straight back all the way to photograph it, for the Royal Navy's information. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1944 for his many good deeds, and the Air Efficiency Medal in recognition of his flying skills. He received a personal letter of congratulation from George VI.

Over Mount Everest his Mosquito coughed but recovered. He was the first to fly non-stop from the UK to India. Flying solo, the wonder of the earth beneath was an argument for God's existence. He abhorred the waste of war but loved flying, not least among men whose lives depended on each other.

In 1944 he was posted home after 84 operational trips; in contrast a bomber pilot normally had 30 trips before being rested. He aborted only once, when his observer suffered food poisoning. A warrant officer pilot in the Far East, and commissioned as a flying officer, he became a flying instructor on Airspeed Oxford aircraft.

Released from the RAF in 1946, he was sent to Glasgow by Ordnance Survey. Here he met his future wife, Margaret Robertson. They were not yet married when a reporter broke into her house, stole a photograph of him and published it the next day; Mr Johnston was enraged.

As chief surveyor for the West of Scotland he mapped not only towns but also vast private estates. One hobby was to build home extensions for neighbours; for many years he enjoyed holidays by Loch Fyne. On retiring in 1986 he was awarded the Imperial Service Medal by the Queen.

In 1948 he joined 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron, the first to enter the Auxiliary Air Force (in 1925, joining the Royal Auxiliary Air Force in 1947) and the first Auxiliary squadron to fly Spitfires. In October 1939, 602 took part in the first action of the Second World War, helping to shoot down four enemy aircraft. In the Battle of Britain it destroyed ten enemy aircraft without loss; by May 1945 it had claimed 150 enemy planes. Mr Johnston was one of the last 602 Flight Commanders, flying Spitfires, Harvard trainers and Vampire and Meteor jets for ten years.

In 1951 he trained full-time with 602 for three months at RAF Leuchars in case of need in Korea, forming a Scottish Wing under the command of Group-Captain WG Duncan Smith (father of politician Ian Duncan Smith). In 2013 he was awarded the coveted first ticket for RAF Leuchars Airshow.

He was presented to the Queen and Prince Philip in 1957 when the RAuxAF was disbanded, and in 2006 when LA198 went on display in Kelvingrove Museum.

His last years were spent in care owing to short-term memory loss, though his recall of earlier years, including his flying, remained instant. A highly capable man with an exceptionally pleasant manner, a ready wit, and an obliging disposition, he was a loving husband and father and, to his RAF and RAuxAF. colleagues, the epitome of an officer and gentleman.

Margaret died in 2007. They are survived by four children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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