DOWN MEMORY LANE: Duke returns for the record

Neville Duke wearing his trademark white helmet
Neville Duke wearing his trademark white helmet

In the early summer of 1953, the Hawker Aircraft Company believed its new Hunter jet fighter aircraft could attain the world air speed record for Britain and decided to modify its prototype aircraft WB188 for the attempt.

Neville Duke, by then Hawker’s chief test pilot, would be the pilot.

Neville Duke in his record-breaking hunter

Neville Duke in his record-breaking hunter

WB188 was fitted with a streamlined ‘needle’ nose and a rounded front windscreen to the cockpit and was painted red to assist the photographic time-keepers.

As it was Coronation year it was felt that, in spite of the climatic disadvantages, the record attempt should be made in Britain.

The choice was the established course used for the 1946 High Speed Flight attempt.

The base chosen was again RAF Tangmere with support aircraft again being provided by Tangmere’s No 29 Squadron.

In 1946 it had been Mosquitoes; in 1953 it was to be Meteor night fighters.

Unlike the full RAF support in 1946, the 1953 attempt only had marker buoys to indicate the beginning and end of the 3 km measured course. Assistance for the pilot was not a problem; Neville Duke had, as he said afterwards, ‘... flown the course a couple of hundred times already!’

All was ready by August 30, 1953 when Neville Duke took off from Tangmere for the first record attempt.

Unfortunately, on the last of four practice runs, the aircraft’s Avon engine began to run intermittently and the attempt was abandoned.


The problem was solved and for the next attempt on September 1, it was decided to take off at dawn when calmer weather conditions were likely to be present.

Neville Duke later described the flight as follows: “I took off from Tangmere on to course, dropping the nose to build up speed rapidly.

“Coming down first from 1,000 feet I lined up on the marker flares seven miles away. I caught a glimpse of Bognor pier and my indicated airspeed was registering 550 knots.

“I switched in reheat. There was a surge of acceleration, followed by a loud bang.

“The Hunter flipped over in a vicious roll to starboard, and a force of six and a half ‘g’ crushed down on my ribs and nearly blacked me out.

“Beach and sea had swum into the place of the sky and were coming closer every second. I cut off the reheat, thrust over the stick, and came out of the roll, right way up, at about 200 feet.

“I looked out at the wing and saw part of the undercarriage leg sticking through a jagged hole in the wing surface.

“The aerodynamic stresses and strains of the high speed had sucked out the undercarriage leg and smashed it through the wing like a cannon shell.

“I flew back to Dunsfold (Hawker’s airfield) and circled around burning up fuel so that the landing on one leg would be as light as possible.

“Below on the aerodrome I could see the red fire engines at readiness.

“At last with the tanks reading ‘zero’, I put the Hunter on final approach, keeping up the wing by the aileron, holding off as long as possible, and gently brushing the one wheel on to the runway.

“As the speed fell, the wing dropped and the Hunter swung round in a circle on the port wingtip and the starboard wheel. All things considered, I had survived the disaster very well. If the undercarriage leg had come out seconds later we should both, the Hunter and me, have flipped straight into the sea.

“We managed to land, too, with the minimum of damage that could be expected in the circumstances. A lot of hard work followed and I marvelled at the way the ground crew had the repairs done within a week.”


After the attempt of September 1, the actual record breaking run was somewhat an anticlimax.

On September 7, Neville Duke was back at Tangmere after 15 minutes, having achieved a mean average over the four runs of 727.63 mph.

He was proclaimed in the next day’s papers as ‘The Fastest Man on Earth!’

Since 1992, Neville Duke’s record-breaking Hawker Hunter has been displayed at the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum courtesy of the Board of Trustees of the RAF Museum.

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