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Derek Piggott MBE


Derek Piggott was born on December 27th 1922 in Chadwell Heath Essex; he was the youngest of five children. When their mother died, they moved to Sutton, Surrey where Derek attended Sutton County School, a boys' grammar school. 


When he left school he became a trainee scientific instrument maker, making clinometers and other instruments to calibrate gun laying equipment, while waiting hopefully to be called up into the RAF for flying duties. During his teenage years and throughout the war, he had been a very active aero modeller and helped to form the Sutton Model Aircraft Club. After the war he was selected to be a member of the British Wakefield Cup team, a prestigious aero modelling competition held that year in Akron Ohio.


In 1942, he was released from his reserved occupation and was able to join the RAF for pilot training. He was sent to Canada to learn to fly and after his basic flying training and qualifying for his RAF wings, he was commissioned as a Pilot Officer. He then trained as a flying instructor and returned to England. At this time, there were very few postings for instructors or for operational training and after months of waiting on a Lancaster Bomber station at Witchford, he volunteered for glider operations which promised immediate operations. 


He did his conversion training on to troop carrying gliders before being posted to India to No.668 glider squadron where he was detached to No.267 squadron for 4 weeks as second pilot on Dakotas flying supply operations over the front lines in Burma. Later, with the shortage of suitable tow planes, all the glider squadrons in India were disbanded. Derek stayed in India to train the young student pilots of the Indian air force at Jodpur. When the partition of India became imminent he returned to England and was posted on to the staff of the Central Flying School, training flying instructors from all over the world. He became an A1 CFS instructor, the highest RAF qualification for a flying instructor. This involved flying and teaching on many types of aircraft including multi-engined aircraft and early Meteor jets. 


He was selected to go to the Empire Test Flying School and was hoping to move onto Test flying and stay in the RAF, but he failed a medical examination for a permanent commission due to high tone deafness and this posting was cancelled (high tone deafness is now attributed to flying in very light, canvas helmets in very noisy aircraft). This was a major blow for him and stopped him flying Service powered aircraft. Fortunately, Derek had done a week of glider flying on attachment to the Home Command Gliding Instructors school at Detling in Kent and had enjoyed it so he applied to move to Detling and did the rest of his RAF service there as their Chief instructor developing the instruction for ATC/CCF gliding schools. During this time, he flew in the National gliding competitions and set a new two seater gain of height record with an ATC cadet, climbing to over 17,000 feet in cloud.  


In 1953 he was noticed and head-hunted out of the RAF to become the Chief Instructor for the Lasham Gliding Society, developing Lasham from its inception until today. It is now one of the largest gliding centres in the world with over 200 gliders based and operating there.  


He is world renowned as one of the leading gliding instructors and has been invited to lecture at conventions and advise on gliding operations all over the world. He wrote eight books on gliding and gliding instruction. The first book, Gliding, a handbook on soaring flight, was published in 1958 and is now in the 8th edition.  Some of his books have been translated into German and Japanese. His autobiography “Delta Papa a life of flying” depicts many of his film flying experiences.


On one occasion, the designer Miles flew the Boxkite with a 65 h.p.engine and was noted to say you need a glider pilot to fly this. This marked the beginning of Derek's film flying career when he flew the Boxkite and all the other planes in the film Those Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines. He enjoyed the challenges of film flying and his interest in test flying enabled him to explore the planes to their design limits. Where necessary he would arrange for modifications to improve their handling and always took a pride in flying with skill and precision. He became well known for flying through the narrow bridge in the Blue Max 17 times and a precise and deliberate crash in a Tiger Moth for the film Villa Rides. His other films include: Darling Lilli; Chitty, Chitty Bang, Bang (he developed and flew the airship); The Red Baron; You can't win them all; and Slipstream.


During his flying career, his advice was constantly sought on improving the handling of the planes and gliders. He tested most of the gliders entering the UK ensuring that they met British and OSTIV requirements and were safe to fly.


In November 1961 at Lasham, he made the first British unaided take off and human powered flight in the Southampton University Man Powered Aircraft. (SUMPA). This had been designed and built by three post graduate students as a contender for the Kremer prize, and Derek was chosen to fly the machine. It performed very well but could not make the necessary figure of eight turns to complete the course to win the prize. The Kremer Prize was finally won in 1977 by the Gossamer Condor, designed by Paul MacCready.


He has received several awards and accolades; The Queens Silver Jubilee medal; in 2007 the MBE for services to Gliding; the Royal Aero Club Gold medal; and was made an Honorary Companion to the Royal Aeronautical Society in 2007, and awarded the prestigious International FAI Lillienthal award in 2008. In his long flying career Derek flew over 130 different types of powered aircraft and 170 types of sailplanes and gliders. At almost 92, he is still flying.

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