John Farley 1933-2018

MAIN PICTURE: A classic ‘Farley climb’ being demonstrated by John Farley in Indian Navy Sea Harrier FRS51 serial IN601 at the 1982 Farnborough show. USAF
BAe VIA CHRIS FARARA

Arguably the last of the ‘household-name’ British post-war test pilots passed away on 13 June when John Farley, best known for his involvement with Hawker Siddeley and later British Aerospace on the Harrier programme, died aged 85. Brought up in Hastings on the south coast, Farley’s interest in aviation was kindled as a seven-year-old eyewitness to the Battle of Britain. At 16, he recalled to the author in 2009, “I went along to a recruiting caravan that they had on Hastings pier to get the paperwork to see how to become a pilot, and there was a Roneo sheet there that discussed the medical requirements… One of these was ‘no deformity to the hands or feet’, and the bottom dropped out of my little world because by then I had eight toes and nine-and-a-half fingers, so I thought, ‘I can’t be a pilot’”. Later, though, “I had this silly idea that, if I could become an aircraft designer, the RAF wouldn’t mind about my fingers and toes.”

”Farley recalled, ‘There weren’t too many people on the shortlist who had flown that type of aeroplane, so I got the job”

In September 1950 John started an apprenticeship with the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, from which came a desire to enter the test-flying world. After the five-year course he duly joined the RAF, training on the Provost and Vampire before being posted to No IV(AC) Squadron at Jever, West Germany, on the Hunter F6 from 1958-60. He then spent half a tour instructing on Jet Provosts at the RAF College Cranwell. However, he remembered, “Whenever I had to fill in the 3069, which was the officers’ confidential report form with three slots for your preferences for your next posting, I just put ‘ETPS, ETPS, ETPS’.”

At that stage, in 1963, the Empire Test Pilots’ School was still at Farnborough. Back in that environment, Farley excelled. “I knew Farnborough very well, I was in my element, and I didn’t find it difficult to perform well on the course”. Upon graduation during 1964 he was posted to Aero Flight — formally the Flight Division of the Aerodynamics Department — at RAE Bedford. There he flew a huge variety of research types, but most significantly he had his first association with vertical/short take-off and landing (V/STOL) jets.

“My big good fortune was that they already had a Short SC1, and during my first year there, 1964, I was asked to go to Dunsfold, collect the P1127 prototype XP831 and bring it back to Bedford because the boffins wanted to compare the Hawker vectored thrust notion with the Rolls-Royce multiple lift engine. I was just in the right place at the right time, and got in on the ‘ground floor’, as it were, of jump-jet testing. In 1966, when Bill Bedford was just about to retire as chief test pilot at Dunsfold and they wanted to put a junior pilot in at the bottom of the team to replace him — Hugh Merewether was going to go up to chief test pilot — there weren’t too many people on the shortlist who had flown that sort of aeroplane, so I got the job.”

Following his appointment to Hawker Siddeley in 1967, the combination of Farley and the Harrier soon became legendary. His demonstrations, whether to the public or potential customers, were spellbinding. “One did things at airshows that were to try and please the crowd”, he said, “but also to put across to the service operators, ‘Don’t fret, it’s a good aeroplane’.” The trademark ‘Farley climb’, rotating around the thrust-vectoring nozzles to produce a remarkably steep climb-out, was the most famous example. He was (as described on pages 38-42) a key figure in achieving the Harrier’s sale to the US Marine Corps, and later — as chief test pilot at what was now BAe Dunsfold from 1977 — instrumental in development of the Sea Harrier. Quite rightly, his contribution to the aircraft’s success remains revered.

On turning 50 in 1983, John had to retire from the Dunsfold job, though he carried on working for BAe in other roles until 1990. That year, by now a freelance test pilot, he became the first Westerner to fly the MiG-29, doing so at Farnborough with Mikoyan chief test pilot Valeriy Menitsky.

He retired from test-flying in 1999, but continued to take a very close interest in the subject, not least as a lecturer and consultant. John’s influence continues to be felt, for he advised on the flight control laws for the STOVL (short take-off and vertical landing) variant of the Lockheed Martin F-35, now entering service with the RAF and Royal Navy.

He also maintained much enthusiasm for historic aviation. In the late 1980s and early 1990s he displayed a Ryan PT-22 for Bob Mitchell’s PT Flight, and spent a season with the Old Flying Machine Company, gaining his first Spitfire experience in the legendary MkIX MH434. More recently his involvement with the Historic Aircraft Association as a vicepresident was hugely appreciated.

Tales of John’s generosity and kindness in giving the benefit of his immense expertise are legion. A modest and delightful gentleman, this truly great British aviator will be hugely missed, but leaves a rich legacy. Our condolences to his family and friends. Ben Dunnell