Wednesday, April 23, 2008

G/Cpt J.F.X 'Sam' McKenna AFC 1907-1945

G/Capt J.F.X 'Sam' McKenna AFC

Group Captain John Francis Xavier McKenna, A.F.C., F.R.Ae.S., or " Sam " as he was known to his friends, was Commandant of the Empire Test Pilots School, Boscombe Down, Wiltshire.

He was born at Putney on December 20, 1906, and educated at Berkhampstead School. Subsequent engineering at the City and Guilds enabled him to obtain the B.Sc. degree. In July, 1926, he was commissioned in the Royal Air Force Reserve, later obtaining a permanent commission. He quickly showed his skill as a pilot and was chosen, while serving with No. 23 Squadron, to give an aerobatics display at Hendon in 1930. Between 1932 and 1934 he was a pilot in the Aerodynamic Test Flight of the Royal Aircraft Establishment. He demonstrated during this period that he was a test pilot of considerable skill and promise. This, together with his fundamental knowledge of aerodynamics and thermodynamics, cemented his future as a specialist in test work. After a tour of duty in Aden from 1934 to 1936 he returned early in 1937 to join the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment, Martlesham Heath.
He was soon appointed flight commander and later became the chief test pilot of the establishment., During this period he assumed a pre-eminent position in the flight, testing of new types of civil and service aircraft, and he made many friends throughout the aircraft industry. He did much of the official flight testing of the prototype Spitfire and he was the first pilot forced to make a landing on a modern high speed aircraft with the undercarriage retracted. This landing was the forerunner of the " belly " landing now used on modern aircraft in cases of emergency. He was awarded the A.F.C. in 1939. In May, 1941, he joined the Flight Test Branch of the British Air Commission in Washington, later becoming chief of the branch. He held this position until early in 1944, and during this period he tested, with United States pilots, American prototype aircraft, and made many American friends both in the industry and the flying service. In 1944 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. In March of that year he was appointed commandant of the Empire Test Pilots School of the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment. He was killed on 19th January 1945 during a familiarisation flight on a a Mustang Mk IV which crashed when the ammunition box cover detached at high speed and the aircraft shed a wing crashing on the perimeter of Old Sarum airfield.