Test pilot who wasn’t stopped by a broken neck

Duncan Simpson, centre, with the first four RAF pilots he trained to fly the Harrier in 1969
Duncan Simpson, centre, with the first four RAF pilots he trained to fly the Harrier in 1969

Duncan Menzies Souter Simpson was born on December 23 1927 in Edinburgh and was educated at Merchiston Castle School.

His early enthusiasm for flying was encouraged by his uncle who was a test pilot for Fairey Aviation.

Duncan Simpson, Chief Test Pilot of Hawker Siddeley, standing in front of a Hawk trainer in 1974

Duncan Simpson, Chief Test Pilot of Hawker Siddeley, standing in front of a Hawk trainer in 1974

After leaving school in 1945 he began engineering studies at the de Havilland Technical School at Hatfield, Hertfordshire, working on the development of early jet fighters and the prototype Comet jet airliner.

In 1949 he joined the RAF and, after his training as a pilot, he flew Gloster Meteors with No 222 Squadron.

In 1953, he joined the RAF’s Day Fighter Development Unit conducting trials on the latest fighters entering service with the RAF, including the Hawker Hunter and Supermarine Swift.

In 1954 Hawker’s Chief Test Pilot, Neville Duke, invited him to join the company as a production test pilot.

Duncan Simpson during his RAF service, standing in front of his No 222 Squadron Gloster Meteor, 1952

Duncan Simpson during his RAF service, standing in front of his No 222 Squadron Gloster Meteor, 1952

He soon became involved in the development work on the Hunter and then became part of the team in the Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing (V/STOL) programme.

In August 1962 he made his first flight in a Hawker P1127 prototype, the forerunner of the Harrier. Later he was chosen to train ten RAF pilots whose task was to perfect the tactics and capabilities of the aircraft, now known as the Kestrel.

Simpson flew the first production Harrier GR1 on 27 December 1967 and in January 1969 he trained the first four RAF pilots to fly the Harrier.

After their course, they left for RAF Wittering to convert the remaining pilots of No 1 Squadron, the first RAF squadron to fly the Harrier.

Simpson made the first flight of the prototype two-seat Harrier trainer in April 1969 but six weeks later the Pegasus engine of this aircraft failed and he was forced to eject at low level.

Ejecting from the aircraft he broke his neck but remarkably was able to recover well enough to return to flying nine months later. For his attempts to save the prototype he was awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air.

On his return to Hawker Siddeley, Simpson was appointed Chief Test Pilot and his attention now turned to the development of the Hawker Siddeley Hawk jet training aircraft from the drawing board to its first flight which he flew in August 1974.

In 1978 Simpson retired from test flying but remained with Hawker Siddeley in charge of service liaison until the late 1980s. For many of his later years with the company he flew and displayed some of Hawker’s most famous fighters including the Hart bi-plane, Hurricane and Sea Fury. He was appointed OBE in 1973 and received many honours for his work as a test pilot. In 2003 he was appointed Master of the Guild of Air Pilots and Navigators in recognition of his outstanding contribution to aviation. He was also made a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and a Fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.

In 2007, following the death of the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum’s first Honorary President, Squadron Leader Neville Duke, Duncan Simpson accepted the Museum’s invitation to become its second Honorary President, a role he undertook for six years until he had to step down due to ill health. During that time he attended many of the Museum’s functions and events and often gave talks on his test pilot experiences including flying the Westland Lysander, an aircraft important in RAF Tangmere’s history as it was used for SOE covert pick-up operations from the airfield in 1943 and 1944.

Duncan Simpson OBE CEng FRAeS FIMechE died, aged 89, on 7 December 2017.

This article was written by David Coxon, of Tangmere Military Aviation Museum. It is the 58th in a series of monthly articles on the people of RAF Tangmere. More information about the museum can be found at www.tangmere-museum.org.uk