Bill Bedford was Hawker Chief Test Pilot from 1956 to 1967, having previously been an RAF fighter pilot who had flown Hurricanes – amongst other aircraft – during World War Two. Together with his colleague Hugh Merewether, he pioneered the development of V/STOL aircraft and was the pilot of the first ‘tethered hover’ of the P.1127 – the prototype which was later developed into the Harrier – in 1960.
This event held at Dunsfold, is here referred to by John as the ‘flying bedstead’. From 1968 Bill Bedford followed the traditional path of retired Hawker test pilots into the Sales and Marketing Departments. He died in 1996.
Yes, so Bill Bedford, for what we understand, is being one of the test pilots
He was the Test Pilot of the Harrier
Well, did you know him as a …
Oh yes, I knew him very well.
Well, please talk us through. How did you meet him first of all?
He – right – when, if they went abroad, they wanted to take stuff with them. Like that tankard – they had tankards and things like these, giveaways, and they’d want boxes to put them in. And it was so complicated to get anything done. He would come down and see us, tell us what – and we’d make him the boxes, there you are, put the stuff in.
But he wasn’t a drinker and if he’d been out to a dinner, you know, with the other people, you know, upstairs, the directors. If he’d had a couple of glasses of wine, he’d come down to our department and we’d make him a cup of coffee. He’d sit there drinking coffee until his head was sort of clear again.
A real gentleman, a real gentleman. If he wanted something, he’d call us up to his office. Soon as you got there, would you like a coffee and he would make it. He wouldn’t get his secretary to do it, he’d do it.
I’ll tell you something funny about him.
They were doing the Paris Air Show. You know, it’s one year here and one year there. And he had hurt his ankle and he was not supposed to fly. So what they did, they got a chap dressed up, would walk into the building where the Harrier was. Bill Bedford’s in there and they’d actually lift him into the aircraft. He would then drive it out, do the display, land, take it back into the hanger. They’d lift him out and the other one would then put his crash hat on and walk out the building as though it was perfectly alright. So that the French authorities didn’t know he had a bad ankle.
He had a big role within the company given that he was the test pilot.
Well, he did what they called the ‘Flying Bedstead’ – I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that.
Right you’ll have to explain.
It’s literally a machine, it’s the engine in a machine, in a frame. And what they did, they tethered it and he would get in it and lift it off the ground, you know, and then bring it back down again. It was to see if it worked. They had to tether ‘cause it if they didn’t it would have been gone with him in it.
Almost – he was obviously testing.
Oh, he tested it from the start right the way through. Eventually somebody, he was getting older and somebody, another test pilot took over.
I mean given that this was all new stuff, was he ever nervous about the risk? Of possibly taking off.
I don’t think so. I don’t know he never said anything about it. But of course all the test flying was done at Dunsfold.
He was going to Indonesia for a couple of years and he had a lot of trophies. He had a, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one, the bells, the Swiss cows wear round their neck, he had one of them and it was solid silver. It was presented to him by the Swiss Government. He had all sorts of trophies. And what he wanted, he wanted us to box them up and we had a special store room which only Jack and I had the key to. We could hide them in there, no one would touch them.
And when he was going he said, ‘Is there anything you would like?’ And Jack said ‘Oh, a photograph of the thing’. ‘Oh, it’s no’ [problem], and anyway a couple of days later he came round and gave us those. Give us one each.
And for the recording it says, ‘Best wishes John and thanks for all your support’. And was this support just being there as a friend or anything specifically?
No, it was because – if he was going anywhere and his team, the sales team – if they were going anywhere, as I say, they would have things like that, tankards and things like that and they wanted boxes to put them in. And it’s called [Tria-wool?] – it’s like corrugated cardboard but it’s about five eights of an inch thick and it’s very strong. You make – put a plywood end, nail it up, roll it up and put rope handles on it.