Friday, September 07, 2007

Hugh C.H Merewether 1924-2006

L-R,David Lockspeiser,Hugh Merewether,Bill Bedford and Frank Bullen
Hugh Merewether (Left) with Duncan Simpson

Hugh Merewether was born in South Africa on May 20 1924. He was educated at the Diocesan College (Bishops) and read Engineering at the University of Cape Town. During the war he joined the South African Navy and, after secondment to the Royal Navy, trained as a pilot in the United States.From 1948 to 1953 he worked under Dr Barnes Wallis as a junior technician in the research and development department at Vickers-Armstrong, while completing an external degree with the University of London, obtaining first-class honours in 1952. He left Vickers in 1953 and spent a year as a freelance pilot ferrying aircraft to India and the Middle East.

Throughout this time Merewether flew with the RAF Volunteer Reserve, and in 1951 joined No 615 (County of Surrey) Squadron flying Meteor fighters from Biggin Hill. He was a member of the squadron's formation aerobatic team until he left the squadron in 1955. A year earlier he had gone as a test pilot to Hawker, where his former squadron commander, Neville Duke, was the chief test pilot.Merewether was appointed deputy chief test pilot in 1956, and his aeronautical engineering interests led to a deep involvement in the development flying of the Hunter fighter.

Hugh Merewether was one of the British test pilots who pioneered the vertical and short take-off and landing (VSTOL) techniques that led to the production of one of the RAF's most successful and enduring combat aircraft, the Harrier. During 1957 the Bristol Aero Engine Company was developing a vectored thrust engine, later known as the Pegasus, which appeared to meet the emerging military need for a simple VSTOL tactical fighter capable of operating from unprepared areas. The Hawker Aircraft Company designed an aircraft, the experimental P.1127 powered by the Bristol engine, to test the new concept.

Merewether was the deputy chief test pilot at Hawker's airfield at Dunsfold when he joined the chief test pilot, Bill Bedford, in developing the techniques of vertical take off in the P.1127. Bedford made the first hovering flight in the prototype P.1127 on October 21 1960, and three days later Merewether completed the second flight. Over the next two years the two pilots shared the experimental test-flying task. The P.1127 had its share of accidents. On October 30 1962 Merewether was flying at 3,000 ft when the engine suffered a catastrophic failure and caught fire. Rather than eject, he managed to crash-land at RAF Tangmere, thus allowing the engineers to investigate the failure fully. He was awarded a Queen's Commendation for Valuable Services in the Air; the Guild of Air Pilots and Navigators awarded him the Derry and Richards Memorial Medal (1963).

Over the next two years Merewether explored the characteristics and techniques of transition from vertical to conventional flight as well as short take-offs from various airfields and platforms. He also displayed the aircraft at the Farnborough and Paris Air Shows. On March 19 1965 Merewether was diving through 28,000 ft at very high speed when the aircraft's engine failed. He headed for the nearest airfield, at Thorney Island, but a layer of cloud obscured it. At 4,000 ft a momentary gap in the cloud revealed the airfield, and he was able to continue the glide and make an emergency landing alongside the main runway. Shortly afterwards he was appointed OBE for "his great achievement in getting the aircraft back on the ground for examination, enabling the fault to be found and the elaborate trials to continue".

In 1967 Merewether was appointed Hawker's chief test pilot at Dunsfold. In addition to test flying, he helped convert military pilots to the P.1127's successor, the Kestrel, which was later developed as the highly successful Harrier.