Pilot who worked on the development of aircraft for the RAF

Born: December 23, 1927;

Died: December 5, 2017

THE distinguished test pilot Duncan Simpson, who has died aged 89, played a pioneering role in the development of some of Britain’s most advanced aircrafts, especially the Hunter fighter, the Harrier vertical take-off and landing ground-attack aircraft and the Hawk advanced trainer – flown by the RAF’s Red Arrows. Mr Simpson’s contribution to the technical development of the RAF and its support services proved crucial in the post-war years.

In fact, Mr Simpson made his first flight in a Harrier in 1962 and played a key role in ensuring the Harrier was tested in collaboration with the UK, USA and Germany at RAF West Raynham in Norfolk. He conducted extensive experimental flying on the Kestrel to develop it into the Harrier.

Mr Simpson first flew the Kestrel in 1967. In 1969 he had been promoted to Hawker Siddeley’s deputy chief test pilot and was based at the company’s Dunsfold airfield. He was involved with the intense training in vertical take-off and landing aircraft which, by virtue of its advanced technology, had to be conducted without the use of a dual control version. The pilots, for example, practised hovering in a helicopter before making their first flight in a Harrier.

A two-seat trainer version was prepared of the Harrier and Mr Simpson was in charge of extensive technical early flights. Six weeks into the test flight programmer his engine failed at 3,000?ft. and, despite frantic attempts to correct the aircraft, Mr Simpson had to eject over Larkhill military range. He was severely injured and rushed to hospital with a broken neck. After serious surgery he returned to test flying nine months later and for his attempts to save the prototype he was awarded a Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air.

In 2011, the Guild of Air Pilots awarded him the Guild Award of Honour in recognition of his outstanding lifetime contribution to aviation. The citation read, “For his long record as a particularly accomplished pilot, his outstanding contribution to experimental test flying, his intimate involvement in bringing three iconic British Fighters – the Hunter, Harrier and Hawk – into service and his exemplary commitment to British aviation generally.”

Duncan Menzies Souter Simpson was born in Edinburgh and attended Merchiston Castle School (1942-45) where he was in the cricket X1 for two seasons. Flying was in the family and Mr Simpson became an enthusiastic supporter of Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus which he often attended with an uncle who was a test pilot. The Circus toured Scotland throughout the early Thirties and their air displays were a popular entertainment.

He started work with the de Havilland Technical School at Hatfield where his keenness was soon recognised and he joined an experimental department working on the development of the early jet fighters and the prototype Comet airliner. He graduated in 1949 when he joined the RAF and trained as a pilot. In 1953 he joined the Day Fighter Development Unit at the RAF’s Central Fighter Establishment which concentrated on the development of fighter tactics in combat while also testing new fighter aircraft and equipment. In 1954 left the RAF.

Mr Simpson had been prominently involved flying the Hunter and led a team of technicians who greatly improved the aircrafts manoeuvrability. He then carried out exhaustive trials on the Harrier vertical and take-off and landing aircraft whose advanced technology allowed the jets to be operated from clear areas on land and from carriers at sea. They were to prove of significant importance in the Falklands conflict.

When he returned to flying after his accident, he became the company’s chief test pilot concentrating much of his expertise on the development of the Hawk training aircraft from the drawing board to its first flight in 1974. He delivered the first Hawk to the RAF in 1976 and it has served as an advanced trainer with the Red Arrows for over 40 years.

The success of the Hawk was a happy conclusion to his most distinguished career. He retired in 1978 from test flying but remained in close touch with the aviation industry becoming a popular speaker and was connected with Hawker Siddeley’s service liaison department. For 15 years he was the deputy director of the Society of British Aerospace Companies with responsibility for the exhibitions at the Farnborough Air Show. He was a Fellow of the Red Arrows and in 1973 Mr Simpson was made an OBE and received the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air.

Mr Simpson married Pat Jones in June 1958. They spent their married life near Guildford; she and their two sons survive him. Their daughter predeceased him.