The Bridge Interviews
Some months ago we interviewed a man who had built an aeroplane in his back garden. This month we have met a man who tested new aeroplanes for a living and lives at the other end of our patch in Taynton. (In between we have covered Fulbrook, Asthall Leigh, Fordwells and Burford as well).
This area has strong associations with the RAF because of Brize Norton and the many former airfields around here. David Eagles, however, did his flying in the navy. He does have connections in this area as his grandfather worked at Batsford in the estate office of the second Lord Redesdale, father of the Mitford sisters. David’s father moved to Yorkshire where David was born in 1935.
David joined the navy at the age of 17 with the aim of becoming a pilot, initially for two years’ National Service which was extended to four years when the navy decided that was what it took to train pilots properly. After flying training in America and learning to fly jets, he and two other young pilots accepted an offer to spend two years with the Royal Australian Navy. On arrival they were disappointed to find they were to fly the Fairey Firefly, a Second World War era aircraft with a piston engine. They dubbed themselves the “Piston Reversion Course”. David enjoyed working with the robust Australians. They referred to the three Brits as “kippers”. Eventually David asked what this meant and was told it was because they were “two-faced gutless yellow bastards”.
He had one memorable experience when his aircraft was in a mid-air collision over the sea in which it lost seven feet of one wing. After fighting to control the plane he decided that he would have to ditch it in the sea. He and his trainee navigator climbed out and inflated their one-man dinghies. Fortunately David had been able to broadcast a mayday and they were not far from land, so they were soon rescued, wet and bedraggled, by a helicopter. Having landed in the sea entitled him to membership of the Goldfish Club, a worldwide association for those who have survived such incidents.
59 years later he was contacted by an Australian diver who had inspected and photographed the wrecked aircraft and managed to track him down. They later met in Sydney where David and his wife Ann were joining a cruise.
Back in the UK, David trained as a night fighter pilot and flew De Havilland Sea Venoms and Sea Vixens. He then joined the elite Empire Test Pilots School at Farnborough where 20 pilots from many countries did a one year course. This involved flying 12 different aircraft types and learning about the engineering aspects of design – a sort of PhD in flying. After this he worked as a test pilot for three years at Boscombe Down. At that time, he explains, if the Ministry of Defence wanted a new aircraft, they would order two or three types. The test pilot’s job was to try out the prototypes, see whether they were safe, met their specification and were fit for purpose and, if they were not, to come up with proposals for modifications. He also learned about the politics of aircraft development. (“Nobody likes test pilots because they tell you what you are doing wrong”.)
One aeroplane he worked on was the Blackburn Buccaneer Mark II. This was designed to be launched by a catapult from the deck of an aircraft carrier using a hands off launch – in other words the pilot did not need to touch the joystick for the first few seconds of flight. After it was put into service there was a problem with the system and several aircraft were lost. David went to join HMS Victorious off Hong Kong to investigate. He did a test flight and experienced the problem the hard way as he was in the sea 15 seconds from launch. This qualified him for the Goldfish Club a second time, which is a record. (The cause was identified as a faulty angle-of-attack indicator on the production aircraft). David says he didn’t think, he was about to die in the case of either crash - he was too busy doing his job to stop and think about that.
Around this time Duncan Sandys (also known as “Sunken Glands”), who was successively Minister of Defence and Minister of Aviation (and Winston Churchill’s son-in-law), announced that missiles were the weapons of the future and there would be no more aircraft carriers. (He might be surprised to learn that we are still building them today). Seeing no future in the navy, David applied to leave but this was initially refused as a number of other pilots had left and he could not be spared. He spent two years as senior pilot of Buccaneer squadron, during which time he led the navy’s aerobatics team and then left in 1968. He joined English Electric which was later merged into British Aircraft Corporation (now BAE Systems). He flight-tested Lightning, Canberra and Jaguar but his main job was to work on the development of the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft, a joint project between Britain, Germany and Italy. It was later called the Tornado, and versions of it are still in service today. He was the second person to fly it. It flew at Mach 2 (around 800 mph), the fastest he had flown to date. The Tornado was designed to do contour flying, travelling automatically at 200 feet to get under enemy radar. However, when it was used in the first Gulf War to attack airfields, it was found to be vulnerable to small arms fire and was instead changed to carry out high-level laser-guided bombing. When When BAC was formed in 1977 he became Chief Test Pilot and was appointed Director of Flight Operations in 1983. He piloted the first flight of the EAP (forerunner of theTyphoon) in 1986, so had a big role in developing both the RAF’s main strike aircraft.
David was only permitted to continue working as a test pilot until the age of 50, although he managed to stretch this to 51. By this time he had flown 62 or 63 types of aircraft, a figure unlikely to be equalled today because of the smaller number of types of aeroplane in service. He joined Panavia, the tri-national company making the Tornado, as deputy managing director based in Munich. In a good example of European cooperation, the wings were made in Italy, the centre section in Germany and the nose (including the cockpit) and the tail in the UK. David’s job was to make sure they all fitted neatly together. He enjoyed the social side of the international business but found the work side a little dull without any flying.
He left after five years and he and his then wife, a New Zealander, moved down under to an idyllic farmhouse overlooking the Bay of Plenty from where he ran an aviation business. However they were divorced in 2001 and he decided to return to the UK to be near his children. At first he lived in Hampshire where he met Ann, who renovated old buildings and was helping his daughter with her home. Ann was already living in Taynton and, after they married in 2008, they extended her cottage; the elegant, large kitchen where we sat and talked was previously a pigsty. They have two children each and 16 grandchildren between them. David’s son works for BAE Systems at Warton in Lancashire and his daughter is a long haul pilot with British Airways, so the aviation theme is continuing in the family.
David became treasurer of the Taynton parish meeting (equivalent of parish council). He is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and became treasurer of the Oxford branch (he previously founded a branch in Munich and was divisional president in New Zealand). In between he looked after the Taynton church clock and wrote his memoir Testing Tornado (available from the Madhatter Bookshop), which was published last year. His next project might be to resume his earlier hobby of bee-keeping so he may soon be creating a buzz around Taynton.