Wednesday, January 30, 2008

John Blair 1916-2003

After a wartime career in RAF Coastal Command, after which he took part in a number of air relief operations, John Blair joined Scottish Airlines and, later, Scottish Aviation, where he spent more than 20 years as the company’s chief test pilot. In that time he was involved in the development flying of the company’s best-known aircraft, before Scottish Aviation was absorbed into British Aerospace in 1978. Among these were the company’s Pioneer and Twin Pioneer, and the Jetstream and the Bulldog, originally designed by Handley Page and Beagle respectively, but taken over and developed extensively by Scottish Aviation.

John Blair was born in 1916 at Cottingham on the outskirts of Hull. He was educated at Riley High School and Kingston upon Hull Technical College, from where, in 1933 he joined the Blackburn Aeroplane and Motor Company at Brough, Yorkshire.

There he worked until the outbreak of war, when he joined the RAF and trained as a pilot. Posted to Coastal Command he eventually became the captain of a B24 Liberator, flying on long-range anti-submarine patrols. He also qualified as a flying instructor and had a tour of duty training pilots in Canada.

Demobilised in 1946, Blair left Blackburn Aircraft — as the company had become — and entered the London School of Air Navigation, where he took his navigator’s civil licence. In 1947 he joined Scottish Airlines, based at Prestwick under the aegis of Scottish Aviation. For the next eight years he was involved in a wide variety of commercial contract flying, in Douglas DC3s, converted Liberators and Avro Yorks. Among his assignments were relief flights to India and Pakistan during partition in 1947. He was also involved in flying into Berlin as part of the airlift that supplied the city during the Soviet land blockade for 11 months from June 1948.

In 1955 he joined Scottish Aviation and was soon involved in the test flying of its own aircraft, as well as those it manufactured under licence or was in the process of overhauling. In the first category was Scottish Aviation’s first home-grown project, the single-engined Pioneer, which was bought by the RAF as a communications and casualty evacuation aircraft. From 1956 he was involved in the development flying of the company’s second design, the Twin Pioneer. A rugged twin-engined short takeoff and landing general purpose aircraft, the “Twin Pin” again found its best customer in the RAF as a troop and paratroop carrier, though Blair also tested it in air ambulance, freight transport, photographic survey and supply-dropping versions, in which it served a number of other operators in 20 countries.

In 1970 the production rights of the Bulldog, a single-seater light aircraft design from Beagle Aircraft, were acquired by Scottish Aviation after Beagle went into receivership. An intensive marketing campaign, launched with the RAF and other customers in mind, involved a great deal of development and demonstration flying, and Blair flew the Bulldog for several successive summers at the Paris and Farnborough airshows.

A second major project taken over by Scottish Aviation was the Jetstream twin-engined short-haul airliner, whose production was taken over by Scottish Aviation in 1973 after its design company, Handley Page, had gone into receivership. But before this could happen, Scottish Aviation needed to lay its hands on a Jetstream for evaluation purposes.

As it happened the only available model was in the United States and Blair went out to bring it home. Since the Jetstream did not have the range to fly the Atlantic, this involved stages via Narssarssuaq, in southern Greenland, and Reykjavik, Iceland. Only Blair’s navigating instincts brought the Jetstream safely into Narssarssuaq, after it was discovered that the aircraft had been flying on the wrong course for three hours since the compass had failed. A hasty crew consultation over maps was ended by his banking decisively to starboard and setting a course which brought the Jetstream right up the fiord approach to this remotest of airfields.

Blair retired as chief test pilot in 1979, by which time Scottish Aviation had become a division of British Aerospace, and the Bulldog and the Jetstream designated BAe aircraft. He continued to work for the company’s marketing division and also to fly, often taking to the air in a Bulldog.

He was awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air in 1974, and in 1979 received the R. P. Alston Medal of the Royal Aeronautical Society for his contribution to the development of the Bulldog.

His funeral in Ayr on November 6 was graced by an aerial tribute paid by two Bulldogs, one of which, G-AXIG, he had himself flown. This aircraft, piloted by Jim McTaggart, swooped over the cortege and performed a wingtip salute followed by a roll at low level. Fittingly, G-AXIG is owned by the Duke of Hamilton, who had been one of Blair’s test pilots at Scottish Aviation in the 1970s.