(10 August 1920 – 19 November 2001)
‘Wing Commander Roland ‘Bee’ BEAMONT’s dazzling wartime service as a fighter pilot and wing leader was followed by a long and sustained peacetime career as a test pilot.
Awarded a DSO and Bar and DFC and Bar, mentioned in dispatches and leading a fighter wing before he was 24, Beamont went on to lead the English Electric Canberra – the first RAF jet bomber – and English Electric Lightning flight test programmes.
Subsequently he was chief test pilot of the ill-fated British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) TSR2 supersonic bomber-reconnaissance programme until the aircraft’s abrupt and brutal cancellation by the government.
Later Beamont directed British Aerospace and Panavia international flight operations of the multi-role combat Tornado until its introduction to RAF and other NATO operational squadrons.
Yet he would have achieved none of these distinctions but for combat and experimental skills acquired amid the pressures of war. Beamont had not long qualified for his wings – though graded “exceptional” – when, in November 1939, he joined No 87, a Hawker Hurricane fighter squadron in France.
After opening his account with a Dornier 17 bomber in May 1940, as France fell, Beamont remained with 87 squadron and fought throughout the Battle of Britain. On August 15 he shot down two Me 110 fighters over Lyme Regis.
He recalled: “I was diving vertically while the Me 110 was climbing up at the same angle. At the crucial moment he stalled right across my bows and I squirted a good burst into his belly from such point blank range that the bullets could be seen striking and buckling the plating of its wings and fuselage.
“A flash of flame and a puff of smoke and I jammed the stick forward just in time to avoid colliding with him. I did not have to look for another target because straight ahead came another Me 110 firing as he came.
“He did not hit me but holding fire to the last minute as we flashed past each other less than 50 ft apart I caught a glimpse of a puff of white – and there was the 110 on its back with a parachute opened behind it.”
Roland Prosper Beamont – always known as “Bee” – was born at Enfield, north London, on August 10 1920, brought up at Chichester, Sussex, and educated at Eastbourne College.
From the moment as a child when the pilot of a silvery Hawker Fury waved to him, young Beamont was determined to join the RAF. A chance flip in a Fox Moth piloted by C W A Scott, the then solo-to-Australia record holder, clinched it.
In January 1939 he was granted a short service commission and as war came in September was completing his training. Somewhat unusually he accompanied his father, an Army lieutenant colonel, to the front.
Beamont’s spell in Hawkers had given him a taste for test flying, particularly the powerful and punchy Typhoon. He was therefore delighted to be posted, in June 1942, from Hawkers to No 56, the first operational squadron to be re-equipped with Typhoons and after a month to No 609, the West Riding Auxiliary Air Force squadron.
Arriving at 609 as a flight commander, Beamont began to lead the “Tiffies” on low-level day and night intruder and ground attack operations across the Channel. It was largely due to Beamont’s inventive employment of the Typhoon as a fighter-bomber that he gained steadily increasing respect for himself and a type of aircraft then still regarded as decidedly dodgy.
When in June 1943 a second “test” was decreed, Beamont rejoined Hawkers where he tested the Tempest, a yet more powerful and efficient machine which was waiting to enforce the forthcoming landings in Normandy.
In February 1944 Beamont returned to operational flying as leader of No 150, the first Tempest wing comprising Nos 3, 56 and 486 squadrons.
On June 8, two days after D-Day, he shot down an Me 109 near Rouen, the first enemy aircraft to fall to a Tempest. Almost immediately Beamont was faced with the new and desperate priority of countering V1 flying-bombs which had begun to terrorise Londoners.
After personally accounting for 31 V1 “doodlebugs” Beamont re-located his wing at Vokel in Holland and on October 2 shot down a FW 190 fighter. It was his last “kill” before his engine failed the wrong side of the lines and he became a prisoner-of-war.
Repatriated after VE Day, Beamont employed his flight test skills at the Central Fighter Establishment before refusing a permanent commission and joining Gloster Aircraft as an experimental test pilot.
Moving to de Havilland as a demonstration pilot, he joined English Electric as chief test pilot in 1947 to lead the B3/45 jet bomber programme from which the Canberra emerged.
From May 1949, Beamont managed all prototype tests and also established two Atlantic speed records in the aircraft, including, in 1952, the first two-way Atlantic crossing in one day – in fact in 10 hours and three minutes.
The journal Flight said that Beamont demonstrated the Canberra – which he was the first to fly – “like no aircraft has been demonstrated before or is ever likely to be demonstrated again”.
In December 1949, Beamont revealed the Canberra to the world with an astonishing performance at the Farnborough Air Show. Beamont’s mastery of the Canberra ensured sales of the plane to the American air force as well as 14 others. Beamont went on to head the Lightning supersonic fighter test programme during which he became the first pilot to fly a British aircraft at the speed of sound in level flight; and later twice the speed of sound, Mach 2.
There followed the saddest and most frustrating period of Beamont’s career. Involved with the concept, building and testing of the much advanced TSR2 supersonic bomber, he flew its maiden flight on September 29 1964.
When in April 1965, TSR2 – which in some respects was ahead of the later Tornados – was abandoned by Labour, the government rubbed salt in the wound by ordering the remaining planes to be broken up.
Beamont remained a director of the Warton division of BAC, later British Aerospace, until 1978. He was director of flight operations and a founder member of the team which set up, in country, the Saudi Arabian defence programme. From 1970 he was also responsible for international Tornado flight testing until he retired in 1979 and devoted himself to authorship and aviation journalism.
Beamont’s publications included Phoenix into Ashes; Testing Years; Typhoon and Tempest at War; English Electric Canberra; English Electric P1 Lightning; Fighter Test Pilot; My Part of the Sky; Testing the Early Jets; Tempests over Europe and Flying to the Limit.
Much honoured by the aviation community, Beamont was a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautic Society and Honorary Fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots (USA).
He was awarded the Britannia Trophy in 1953, Derry and Richards Medal in 1955, RP Alston Medal, 1960, Silver Medal for Aeronautics, 1965, and a Distinguished Achievement Award in 1992.
In addition to his wartime decorations, Beamont received the US DFC in 1946. He was appointed OBE in 1954 and CBE in 1965.
The Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators presented Beamont with its Award of Honour.
Beamont married, in 1942, Shirley Adams, a Waaf, who died in 1945 while he was a prisoner of war. He married again in 1947 to Patricia Whitehead (nee Raworth). He is survived by a daughter of his first marriage, two daughters by his second and a stepson.’ (Obituary courtesy of The Daily Telegraph)