Lieutenant-Commander Peter Twiss, who died on August 31 aged 90, was one of Britain’s foremost postwar test pilots and the first man to fly faster than 1,000mph.
At the controls of the Fairey Delta 2 (FD 2), a supersonic research aircraft, Twiss did not just creep past the post – he smashed the previous world air speed record, setting a new benchmark of 1,132mph.
The FD 2 had been produced in response to a call from the Ministry of Supply for investigation into flight behaviour and control at transonic and supersonic speeds. The elegant craft, a modified version of which would later help in research for the Concorde project, featured a long “droop snoot” nose and razor-thin delta wings, and seemed to mark a moment of unrivalled British aeronautic superiority.
Its maiden flight, with Twiss in the cockpit, came on October 6 1954. During the next two years he made more than 110 flights, with 50 faster than the speed of sound (which is about 761mph at sea level). Fairey was certain that the aircraft could reach a four-figure speed, however, and the idea of making an official attempt on the world speed record crystallised in November 1955 when cockpit instruments suggested the FD 2 had reached Mach 1.56 (almost 1200mph).
A month previously a new air speed record of 822mph had been set by a US Air Force pilot in a F-100 Supersabre. Certain that the FD 2 could demolish this, Twiss and Fairey decided to make their official British attempt in March 1956.
The course was laid out along the coast south of Chichester, close to the aircraft’s base at Boscombe Down, near Salisbury. The height for the runs was fixed at 38,000ft, not only because this was the optimum level for performance, but also because it was likely to ensure a good condensation trail – essential for ground tracking by telescopic cameras.
All was ready by March 8, and Twiss flew eight runs over the next few days. On the final sortie, on March 10, he achieved speeds of 1,117mph and 1,147mph on the two required runs, giving a mean of 1,132mph. The USAF record had been beaten by over 300mph, and Twiss had become the first pilot to exceed 1,000mph in level flight.
Not everyone rejoiced at this British triumph, however. Greenhouse owners across the south were agitated as the sonic boom broke glass windows. One market gardener even threatened to sue Twiss for £16,000.
Lionel Peter Twiss was born on July 23 1921 at Lindfield Sussex and educated at Sherborne School. After a brief period as a tea taster with Brooke Bond, he turned his hand to farming before joining the Fleet Air Arm in 1939.
After a few months learning seamanship as a naval airman, second class, he trained as a pilot. Initially he flew Hurricanes with the Merchant Ship Fighter Unit, an early attempt to provide convoy support. Catapulted from a merchant ship, the pilot either bailed out or ditched alongside a ship at the end of his mission.
By early 1942 he was flying Fairey Fulmar fighters with 807 Squadron from the aircraft carrier Argus. In June he flew patrols in support of the Malta convoys during Operation Harpoon and escorted RAF fighters which were launched from the carrier to fly to Malta to reinforce the depleted air defences of the beleaguered island. During this period he shot down an Italian fighter and damaged an enemy bomber and was awarded the DSC.
Later in the year, after his squadron had converted to the Seafire (the naval derivative of the Spitfire), he was in action in support of the Operation Torch landings in Morocco and Algeria, flying from the carrier Furious. These operations brought the award of a Bar to his DSC. In March 1943 he returned to Britain and transferred to night fighters before joining the RAF’s Fighter Interception Unit at Ford on the south coast. From here he flew Mosquitoes on intruder sorties over France and in the period after D-Day shot down two Junker 88 bombers.
Late in 1944 he left for the United States to join the British Air Commission, where he had the opportunity to test naval fighters. He returned in 1945 to join No 3 Course at the Empire Test Pilots’ School before a loan period with Fairey Aviation as a test pilot.
Leaving the Royal Navy as a lieutenant-commander, he remained with Fairey and advanced with the company to become, in 1954, chief test pilot. There he tested all the company’s aircraft, which included the Firefly, Gannet and the Rotodyne compound-helicopter.
By its nature this was hazardous work. During the FD 2’s fourteenth flight the aircraft suffered an engine failure due to fuel starvation at 30,000ft. Twiss could have ejected to safety but decided to glide back to Boscombe Down. He broke cloud at 2,500ft but had insufficient hydraulic pressure to lower the undercarriage fully. Still with the option to eject, he continued and made a successful forced landing on the nose-wheel at 170mph. He was awarded a Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air.
After the successful record flight, Twiss continued to fly the FD 2 exploring high supersonic speeds and in 1956, for his services to test flying and for breaking the world speed record, he was appointed OBE. The aircraft is now on display at the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton.
In 1959 Fairey Aviation was sold to Westland Aircraft, the helicopter manufacturer, and Twiss decided to retire from test flying. He had flown over 4,500 hours in 148 different types of aircraft. In retirement he spent many hours at a more leisurely speed with the Lasham Gliding Club.
A year after leaving Fairey Aviation he joined Fairey Marine and was responsible for development and sales of the company’s day-cruisers. He was a director from 1968 to 1978, then director and general manager of Hamble Point Marine until 1988.
Twiss appeared in the Bond film From Russia with Love (1963)at the helm of a Fairey Marine Speedboat and also in the film Sink the Bismark (1960),when he flew a Fairey Swordfish torpedo aircraft. His autobiography, Faster than the Sun, was published in 1963.
Peter Twiss was married five times. He is survived by two daughters and a number of step children. A daughter predeceased him.
© Telegraph 2.9.2011