Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Ronald 'Ron' E. Clear 1917-2004

IN A 40-YEAR career as a test pilot, which began before the Second World War and lasted to the late 1970s, Ron Clear conducted test and development flying on a vast number of aircraft ranging in sophistication from the Horsa glider, which played such an important role in the D-Day landings, to the twin-jet Sea Vixen naval all-weather fighter of the 1950s and 1960s.

He had started his life with Airspeed, and he tested numerous examples of that maid-of-all-work, the Oxford, of which more than 8,000 were produced during the war. In the postwar jet age, after Airspeed had been taken over by de Havilland, he test flew later marks of the Comet, and delivered a number of three-jet Trident regional airliners to China, where he trained their crews for the national airline.

Ron Clear was born in Purbrook, Hampshire, in 1917, and educated at Oliver’s School, Portsmouth. He left at 16 and obtained an apprenticeship with the Wiltshire School of Flying at High Post, north of Salisbury. Gaining his pilot’s licence in 1934, when just turned 17, he moved first to Supermarine, and then to Airspeed, as an engine installation fitter on the prototype Oxford trainer.

In spite of his youth his abilities were noticed by Airspeed’s general manager, Alfred Townsley. In January 1938 he was appointed the company’s liaison engineer with the RAF which, with war approaching, was about to become a huge customer for the “Ox-box”, as this unassuming but incredibly versatile trainer became known in the service.

Clear accompanied the first production Oxford to the Central Flying School, and was soon widely known throughout the RAF — from young pilots to senior officers — for his flying ability and technical knowledge. With a big aircrew training programme being initiated in Canada, in mid-1939 Townsley shipped Clear there with a batch of crated Oxfords to make sure it got off to the right start.

When war came in September that year Clear wanted to join the RAF. Townsley needed his services, however, and offered him the job of production chief test pilot on Oxfords. Just 400 Oxfords had been delivered to the RAF by the outbreak of war. Now there was to be a colossal surge in demand for this aircraft, which was produced as a pilot trainer; gunnery and bombing trainer; and radio operator and navigation trainer; as well as serving as a communications aircraft and air ambulance.

As a result Clear stayed at Airspeed for the rest of the war, testing 1,400 of the 4,400 Oxfords which were built at Portsmouth. This was out of a total of 8,751, half of which had to be built under subcontract by de Havilland, Percival and even Standard Motors, so relentless was the demand.

In 1942 Clear began test flying the massive Horsa troop carrying glider, which first saw service during the invasion of Sicily the following year, and performed valiantly on D-Day, when, among its other feats, it famously delivered the men of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Regiment who captured the Pegasus and Orne River bridges before the main landings. Besides flying all the Airspeed types, Clear also tested Supermarine Seafires and de Havilland Mosquitoes during the war.

With civil aviation reasserting its priorities after the war, Clear flight-tested the Airspeed Consul, a civilian modification of the Oxford. But his favourite was the Ambassador, a 47-seat twin-engined airliner which eventually entered service with British European Airways as the Elizabethan in 1952. With its distinctive triple tail fins and sleek lines, it was an elegant aircraft, but the days of piston-engined airliners were numbered, and though BEA operated it until 1957, the Elizabethan was always in competition with the far superior turboprop Vickers Viscount.

In the meantime, in 1951 de Havilland had taken over Airspeed, and Clear found himself testing a new generation of that company’s characteristic twin-boom jet fighters: Vampires, Venoms and the swept-wing Sea Vixen which entered service with the Royal Navy in the mid-1950s.

Clear was subsequently involved in test flying and crew training on later versions of the Comet 4. In 1961 he took a Comet 2 to Edwards Air Force Base, California, where it was used in various guided weapons related trials. Piloting the Comet, Clear was required to fly straight and level at 35,000 ft and 500mph, while a Convair Hustler bomber homed in from astern and went hurtling past at Mach 2.1, while sensors on the Comet took heat readings from its engines.

Finally, in the early 1970s, when the Chinese national airline CAAC bought more than 30 Hawker Siddeley Trident airliners (which had started life as a de Havilland design), Clear became a key figure in the training of their crews. He also delivered a number of the aircraft to their destinations. He got on well with Chinese pilots, whom he greatly admired for their expertise, and he always reckoned this as one of the most enjoyable periods of his career. He made his last Trident flight in October 1978, exploring buffet boundaries.

In retirement he continued to fly. In September 1980 he gave his last Mosquito display at Duxford, and in June 1982 he piloted for the last time his cherished Comper Swift, a pre-Second World War vintage light sports aircraft, an example of which he had acquired and raced in the 1940s and 1950s.