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Air Commodore Peter Thorne OBE. AFC.

Born at Eastbourne June 3rd 1923. Died: April 5th 2014. Age 90.

Air Commodore Peter Thorne, was one of the RAF’s foremost post-war fighter pilots and test pilots; he was awarded three AFCs, and spent his final years in the Service in two sensitive diplomatic posts, Tehran and then Moscow.

Thorne had served on Typhoon and Mustang fighters during the Second World War, and in September 1945 was sent to the Central Gunnery School (CGS) to train as a pilot attack instructor. 

After completing the course he remained on the staff of the unit, flying the latest marks of Spitfire, later commanding the Fighter Combat Flight. 

Before leaving CGS he was awarded the first of his three AFCs.

In August 1948 he was sent to Nicosia, where the RAF had established a permanent armament practice camp. 

Each of the numerous fighter squadrons based in the Middle East attended the camp annually for a month-long intensive period of air-to-air and air-to-ground gunnery training, and Thorne was the chief instructor. 

This tour was particularly enjoyable because it allowed him to fly many types of fighter and stay up to date with all the latest tactics; the comradeship of the fighter pilots that passed through the unit during his two-and-half years was an added bonus. 

Having been awarded a second AFC, he successfully applied to become a test pilot.

Peter Donald Thorne was born at Eastbourne on June 3 1923 and educated at Culford School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. 

He was only 17 years old when he joined the RAF to train as a pilot, and he was then posted to No 193 Squadron, flying the powerful and robust Typhoon on intruder and escort sorties over northern France. 

In September 1943 he was sent on fighter reconnaissance sorties in the American-built Mustang. 

The next year he trained as a flying instructor and was soon appointed to a training unit flying Hurricanes.

After his time in Cyprus, Thorne completed the Empire Test Pilots’ course at Farnborough in 1951 before joining the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A and AEE) at Boscombe Down, where he tested the RAF’s latest jet fighters. 

In 1954 he was appointed the senior service test pilot for the new swept-wing Swift.

The Swift had a troublesome engine and some unusual handling qualities – and many, including Thorne, did not think it suitable. 

This led to some friction with the manufacturers and with the RAF fighter development squadron, which, with the Korean War in progress, was anxious for the aircraft to enter service. 

Although Thorne pressed for more time to complete the test programme, the aircraft was rushed into RAF service. 

Thorne, in his typically robust, informed and eloquent manner, was not afraid to state the A and AEE’s and test pilot’s views but he was not convinced that they always reached the right ears. 

In the event, the Swift was rejected as a fighter. However, further work and testing by Thorne and his colleagues allowed the aircraft to give excellent service as a low-level fighter reconnaissance aircraft.

Towards the end of his time at Boscombe Down, Thorne tested the Lightning fighter and was able to fly the USAF’s latest supersonic fighters. 

After four years as a test pilot he was awarded the third of his AFCs.

Following two years in the Air Ministry, Thorne returned to the front line as commander of the flying wing at the RAF’s base on the island of Sylt in northern Germany, the most active station in the RAF with Nato fighter squadrons visiting for concentrated periods of air weapons training. 

In 1960 he was appointed OBE.

After spells at the RAF College of Air Warfare and in the MoD’s technical intelligence department, Thorne returned to test flying as the commanding officer at RAF Farnborough. 

He carried out research into blind landings, head-up display and fly-by-wire systems. 

He also commanded the Royal Aircraft Establishment’s experimental flying division, with responsibility for all flying operations at its five airfields.


Air Commodore Peter Thorne, on extreme left, with his counter parts in Red Square, Moscow

In June 1970 Thorne began a three-year appointment as Air Attaché in Tehran. RAF squadrons of Vulcans, Nimrods and Canberra aircraft based in Cyprus and Malta were regular visitors to Iranian airfields, to participate in exercises as part of Britain’s commitment to the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO), the mutual defence and economic cooperation pact involving Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Britain and the United States.

His next important role was as Defence and Air Attaché in Moscow. 

In the mid-Seventies, President Leonid Brezhnev held the reins of Soviet power, and the future leader Boris Yeltsin was about to become First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. 

Thorne had to cope with the inevitable frustrations and bureaucratic barriers erected by the KGB to deny all but peripheral contact with the Soviet military structures and policies, and his easy sense of humour was sometimes stretched to breaking point. However, he remained in the post for 39 months (an unusually long spell) and found the work “absorbing”.

Thorne retired from the RAF in June 1978 to become an air defence systems consultant with Hunting Engineering. 

By 1980 he was also advising the American company Martin Marietta on how to develop links with the UK’s MoD requirements and procurement community, a role in which his many contacts proved invaluable. 

He finally retired in 1998, but maintained his aviation links through the Duxford Association, of which he was an enthusiastic chairman.

Thorne was a superb conversationalist, and was in his element over a good dinner at the RAF Club or at Wheeler’s restaurant in Piccadilly. 

For relaxation he turned to the solace of a good thriller, a decent whisky and gardening.

Peter Thorne married first, in 1942, Sheilagh Fox. The marriage was dissolved, and his second wife, Mary Tarrant, a WAAF radar operator whom he married in 1951, died in 2013. 

He is survived by a daughter of his first marriage and by two sons and a daughter of his second.

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.

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 • Last Modified: 31 July 2014, 16:28