Air Vice Marshal John Brownlow, pilot who led an oil airlift in Africa and completed the first jet crossing of the South Atlantic – obituary


Telegraph Obituaries

Sun, 16 October 2022 at 11:55 am

John Brownlow, right, prepares to fly a Lightning
John Brownlow, right, prepares to fly a Lightning

Air Vice Marshal John Brownlow, who has died aged 93, was devoted to aviation for more than 70 years. His experiences ranged from flying jet bombers to being one of the RAF’s leading test pilots, and from aerospace company executive to excelling at the controls of light aircraft and gliders.

During his time as OC Operations Wing at RAF Lyneham, the RAF’s strategic transport base, his Britannia squadrons flew oil from Nairobi into Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia) after UN sanctions closed the pipeline through Southern Rhodesia following its Unilateral Declaration of Independence on November 11 1965. Nearly a year later, by the end of this operation, 99 and 511 Squadrons had airlifted more than 3.5 million gallons of fuel for Zambia.

Brownlow was appointed to set up the initial deployment for the oil airlift and he flew a Britannia to RAF El Adem in Libya at the end of November to await instructions. A forward operating base was required, and the following day he flew on to Embakasi airfield at Nairobi to establish the necessary support and communications facilities.

Twelve Britannias had been positioned at RAF airfields in the Middle East to provide transport for other RAF units heading for Nairobi. On December 1, the first aircraft headed for Ndola and Lusaka with equipment and personnel for a detachment of Javelin fighters en route from Cyprus. Shortly after, the oil airlift began.

When the positioning phase of the operation was complete by mid-December, Brownlow returned to Lyneham. He was later appointed OBE.

Bertrand John Brownlow was born in Nazeing, Essex, on January 13 1929 and educated at Beaufort Lodge School. He was called up for National Service in the RAF in 1947. “For me, aviation became an inescapable bug that bit deep and never let go,” he wrote in an unpublished memoir.

He trained as a navigator, was commissioned and decided to remain in the RAF. He was posted to 12 Squadron based at Binbrook near Grimsby, and flew the Lincoln bomber, a development of the wartime Lancaster. In 1950 he was selected to be the lead navigator of 12 Lincolns heading the formation for the King’s Birthday fly-past over Buckingham Palace. His pilot was the famous wartime Pathfinder leader, Wing Commander “Hamish” Mahaddie.

In mid-1950, Mahaddie chose Brownlow as his navigator when they became the first squadron crew to convert to the new Canberra jet bomber.

Brownlow: 'For me, aviation became an inescapable bug that bit deep and never let go'
Brownlow: ‘For me, aviation became an inescapable bug that bit deep and never let go’

Early in 1952, Brownlow was appointed ADC to Air Vice Marshal Dermot Boyle (a future Chief of the Air Staff) who was the Air Officer Commanding No 1 (Bomber) Group. Boyle converted to the new Canberra, and with Brownlow as his navigator, established an unofficial record flight to Malta and back in 6hr 10min.

Later in the year, a goodwill trip to South America was planned. The tour covered 24,000 miles and was flown by four Canberras, led by Dermot Boyle. Brownlow was his navigator as well as his ADC.

The flight departed on October 20. Flying at 40,000 feet, at a time when jet streams were little understood, the crossing of the South Atlantic from Dakar in Senegal to Recife in Brazil, presented Brownlow with his most demanding test of navigation. Using sun sightings obtained with a sextant, the four aircraft arrived safely to complete the first jet crossing of the South Atlantic.

In March 1953, Brownlow commenced training as a pilot. He also joined the local RAF gliding club, and in later years recalled: “Little did I realise that gliding would become a lasting passion.”

After exchanging his navigator badge for pilot’s wings, he trained on the Canberra before joining 103 Squadron at Gütersloh in Germany. In March 1956 he transferred to 213 Squadron operating in the interdiction role (the act of stopping or delaying the enemy). In his spare time, he became chief flying instructor of the RAF Oldenburg Gliding Club.

After a period as a flight commander at the RAF Aircraft Apprentice School at Halton, Brownlow joined No 17 Course of the Empire Test Pilots’ School in January 1958.

Graduating a year later, he took command of a flight in the experimental flying department at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. He flew a wide variety of aircraft, ranging from the Valiant bomber to the Shackleton and from the Javelin to the Hunter fighter. In addition to test-flying aircraft to assess fatigue life, he carried out tests to identify more efficient systems for aircraft braking using parachutes. Other experiments involved testing various engines, including the Rolls Royce turbofan Conway used in some V-Bombers and the VC 10.

In January 1962, Brownlow left Farnborough, having been awarded the AFC for his test-flying duties.

After attending the RAF Staff College he served in the operational requirements directorate in the MoD at a time when budgetary constraints often dictated the cancellation of projects. He commented: “One of my colleagues and I claimed our most notable achievement was to be associated with more cancellations than any other OR staff officers.”

Welcoming 'Hamish' Mahaddie to the Empire Test Pilots' School: Brownlow had been Mahaddie's navigator in the lead plane during the King's birthday fly-past in 1950
Welcoming ‘Hamish’ Mahaddie to the Empire Test Pilots’ School: Brownlow had been Mahaddie’s navigator in the lead plane during the King’s birthday fly-past in 1950

In mid-1964, Brownlow was appointed the OC Operations Wing at RAF Lyneham, which housed two Britannia squadrons and a Comet squadron. His main responsibility was the planning and co-ordination of worldwide tasks. He flew as a Britannia captain on most of the routes used by the fleet.

In the period from 1964 to 1966 the UK had not yet begun the process of withdrawal from the Far East, and maintained a number of bases that have now passed into history. On one occasion, Brownlow flew the new British ambassador to take up his appointment in Moscow. The Soviets insisted that a Russian navigator and a wireless operator accompany the flight to give advice – however, neither spoke English.

After his time at Lyneham, Brownlow was an instructor at the RAF Staff College and in March 1969 took up the post of Air Attaché in Stockholm.

On his return in August 1971 he became Head of Experimental Flying at Farnborough. Some of the flying underway during his tenure included structural investigation of the Lightning fin; trials leading to the development and use of night vision goggles in a two-seat Hunter; and a great many radio and navigation equipment experimental programmes in a Comet 4.

In July 1973 he was appointed to the RAF College at Cranwell as Assistant Commandant before returning to the administration and control of test-flying when he was appointed Director of Flying (research and development).

Brownlow summarised what a frustrating time it was to be in his appointment: “The mid-1970s was a difficult period for the R&D world – round after round of defence cuts. The number of R&D airfields, too, was under fire and heavy pressure was generated to close some of them.”

After 18 months he returned to Boscombe Down as Commandant of the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment. A high priority was the issue of the certificate of airworthiness (CA) to extend the capability of the weapons delivery methods of the Harrier, Jaguar, Buccaneer, Sea King and Nimrod.

The establishment’s Britannia and Comet supported radio and navigation testing and evaluation. CA release of the Hawk was well under way, and early work on the Tornado was in progress. In all this work, Brownlow took every opportunity to fly.

In 1980 he returned to Cranwell as Commandant at a time when major changes in the training of future officers were being implemented. He was also responsible for the training given by the 16 University Air Squadrons, an aspect that gave him great satisfaction. In July 1984 he hosted the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh on the occasion of the Queen’s Review, a ceremonial parade arranged annually to coincide with a course graduation.

He was also able to continue his gliding, having taken over the chairmanship of the RAF Gliding and Soaring Association. The Brownlows were popular and respected at the College and in the local community. In 1982 he was appointed CB.

For his final appointment before retiring from the RAF in January 1984 he was appointed Director General of Training. He visited many training establishments, and this allowed him to remain in current flying practice.

Brownlow joined Marshall of Cambridge at Cambridge Airport at a time of considerable development. He was appointed airport director and director of flight test operations managing a team of four test pilots, the company executive jet and the Cambridge Aero Club, at which he was an enthusiastic flying instructor.

The company had been made the delegated engineering authority for the RAF Hercules fleet; during the Falklands War, a number were converted to air tankers. The success of the air-to-air refuelling modification led to a contract to modify six former British Airways Tri-Stars 500s, and three from Pan American, for RAF use in the tanker/passenger/freighter role.

The contract called for Marshall to design, manufacture and install the large internal fuel tanks, and to fit the flight refuelling equipment required for these major conversions.

He retired on his 65th birthday and embarked on numerous other aviation activities including positions with the Popular Flying Association and the British Gliding Association. He had a special interest in home-built and kit aircraft and he test-flew and certified 122 of them. He was also a non-executive member of the Board of the CAA and became chairman of the Light Aviation Group of the Royal Aeronautical Society. He maintained a close interest in the Air Training Corps and was chairman of the civilian committee of 104 (City of Cambridge) Squadron.

In 1983 he was awarded the Royal Aero Club’s Silver Medal for services to gliding and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. He was a Liveryman of the Guild of Air Pilots and Navigators and in 2000 was awarded the Guild’s Sword of Honour. His gliding achievements resulted in the international gold award with two diamonds.

Brownlow continued as a flying instructor until he was 86 and finally hung up his helmet a year later. His elder son was a Tornado pilot, while the younger flew Jaguars and the F-16 and is now a captain with Virgin Atlantic; his grandson is an Apache pilot with the Army Air Corps.

John Brownlow married Kathleen Shannon in 1958; she died in June 2018. His elder son predeceased him and he is survived by a son and daughter.

John Brownlow, born January 13 1929, died September 25 2022

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