A. W. “Bill” Bedford, one of England’s most celebrated test pilots, pioneered the development of vertical/short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) aircraft. A 20-year-old mechanical engineer in 1940, he volunteered for the RAF serving as a fighter pilot. He flew the famous Hawker Hurricane and the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt with 605 and 135 Squadrons. He was gravely injured and hospitalized for eight months when his squadron’s vehicle driver overturned their car enroute to a dawn mission. Bedford finished out WW II in 65 Squadron flying the P-51 Mustang. He flew long-range escort missions from Scotland for Mosquitoes and Beaufighters engaged in anti-shipping strikes off the coasts of Norway and Denmark. After the war he abandoned engineering and took a permanent commission with the RAF, specializing in “all weather” flying instruction.
In 1949, after graduating from the Empire Test Pilots’ School, he instructed there. He eventually became a research test pilot at the prestigious Aerodynamics Flight at the Royal Aircraft Establishment Farnbourough, participating in supersonic research, early development of powered flight controls, and intensive programs on spin and spin recovery characteristics of swept-wing aircraft. He served with the National Gas Turbine Establishment, flight testing the latest jet engines in the 1950s. In 1956, he took over as Hawker Aircraft’s Chief Test Pilot, a position he held until 1967. He was the first pilot to fly the Hawker P.1127, Kestrel, and Harrier.
On 8 February 1963, he achieved one of many “firsts:” the operation of a fixed-wing jet V/STOL aircraft from a ship: the Hawker P.1127 aboard the HMS Ark Royal. Bedford and his colleagues evolved flight test techniques for V/STOL aircraft, translating the jet reaction control “hieroglyphics” of “radians per second squared per inch of stick deflection” to more understandable layman’s vernacular. Bedford considers demonstration/test flying one of the most dangerous aspects of aviation. He has become a life-long crusader for test flight safety, a subject he speaks on frequently. He was once nearly killed during an intentional smoking spin test from 18,000 feet in a Hawker Hunter. By the time he successfully stopped the spin, the ground loomed toward him as the nose of his Hunter pointed straight in. He pulled out with a split second to spare, just clearing a thicket of trees. Bedford uses actual slide footage of this event to illustrate the fact that “even a monkey can fall from a tree.” He has amassed 6,800 hours in 150 different types of aircraft. His awards include the Britannia, Segrave and de Havilland trophies, in addition to the King’s Commendation, the Order of the British Empire and the Air Force Cross.