'My lifelong love affair with aeroplanes' how a former fighter pilot has only just hung up his goggles aged 90

'My lifelong love affair with aeroplanes' how a former fighter pilot has only just hung up his goggles aged 90

Doug Gregory

Doug Gregory's book

First published in News
Last updated
Daily Echo: Photograph of the Author by , Senior Features Writer

HE can’t resist.

It takes less than 30 seconds before Doug Gregory talks about his love affair – with aeroplanes.

He’s excitedly pointing to parts of planes and revealing how they came to take pride of place among far more ordinary items in his Blackfield home.

Fittingly his other love, wife Liz interrupts the story about the hairy moment his giant wooden propeller, now hanging in the dining room, was broken.

“I’ve just put off a gentleman from Ovington who asked if you were still flying and wanted you to do another display for them,” she says.

Most may wonder why a 91-year-old is hugely disappointed about not being allowed to perform aerobatic stunts, but then Doug isn’t the average pensioner.

The self confessed aeroaddict only hung up his flying goggles last year.

It’s an obsession that begun nearly a century ago but Doug recalls like it’s yesterday when aged just three he sat on his mother’s knee in the front cockpit of a light aircraft.

Years later he recalls pedalling furiously to Woolston on his bike to catch a glimpse of one of the first Spitfires.

“I thought at that time ‘how wonderful to fly something like that’. Of course, I never thought I would fly anything because I was just one of the idiots so they used to tell me at school.”

How wrong they were.

He became a Second World War fighter pilot and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for surviving 70 harrowing operations over Nazi-occupied Europe – that’s double the amount required for aircrew at the time.

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Later, though pilots before him were killed, Doug risked his life again as a test pilot to find out why the wood of the Mosquitos aircraft disintegrated and fell apart in the heat of the Indian sun.

And aged 65, after a career as an art teacher at Hardley and Noadswood School, rather than winding down for retirement, Doug decided to fulfil a lifelong dream of building a replica First World War plane from scratch in his back garden.

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Liz, says: “He ran the engine up in the back garden. We did warn the neighbours, but it blew all the heads of my flowers in the border and the neighbour’s cat wasn’t seen for about three days!”

Doug would hear that same roar of the engine for the next 25 years as he flew his pride and joy SE5a in the Great War Display Team thrilling crowds with his daredevil aerobatic stunts right up until his 90th birthday.

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“Oh, I suppose not bad for the idiot of the family,” he says modestly.

It’s no surprise Doug, who was awarded an Old and Bold award, is so determined to live life to its full.

Back in 1943, any of the flying hours in his logbook could well have been his last, especially over Nazi-occupied territory in his Beaufighter aircraft he affectionately called The Bastard that was armed with four cannons and six machine guns.

“You had to empty your pockets before you went into the aeroplane because if you landed over there, they’d know all about you.

“You had an escape kit. Really, it was to keep you alive for a while. There were things like a few pills to keep you awake and a few to stop you feeling hungry, a bandage, ampules to inject yourself and a compass hidden in a toffee. Luckily I never needed them.

“We’d take off from East Anglia and off you’d go into the black of the night, climbing slowly until we got over to Germany or France, Holland, Belgium – wherever our bombers were going to drop their bombs, we’d skate around looking for the fighters who were chasing our bombers.

“It was all in the dark, very hostile.

“It could become frightening when people shot at you. And search lights, you’d get trapped in the search lights.

"Well, I was scared anyhow. Your brain is working the whole time. Of course you fear death. You get back and find that one or two of your mates didn’t make it so you know death could happen to you, you just have to hope that it didn’t. I think most people feared it, if they didn’t they were daft.

“It’s a job to put it into words really.

"When someone is firing at you, you know this could be the end but you have to do something about it. You can’t let it happen to you just like that.”

One such time was when Doug and his navigator Steve were being chased by a German fighter plane over the coast of Holland.

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“The big fright was when somebody crept up behind us and opened fire.

Steve looked up and saw this great thing firing at us. He just said ‘Christ.’ “When someone says that, it means you have to do something in one hell of a hurry, so I did. I got out the way quick.

“I could see the tracer bullets winking at me. He must have had a jolly awful shot though because he missed. It boils down to a bit of luck, a bit of God and a bit of yourself.

“The blokes I shot down weren’t quick enough.

“I believe we all knew what we were fighting for, and what would happen if the Nazis took over.”

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Doug pictured on his 90th birthday

When I ask if Doug was a good pilot, there isn’t a second’s hesitation.

“Very,” he says.

“I just absolutely loved flying so I was already one up on most of the blokes who liked the idea of it but disliked the reality but that love has never left me.

“Back then as a fighter pilot, I wasn’t sure I’d still be flying the next week, let alone still be flying at 90.

“But that’s where I ought to be, in an aircraft.

“Like a sailor likes the sea, I like the air. I feel happy when I’m up there amongst the clouds. I feel free, turning and twisting upside down.

“It annoys me to think here I am and I can’t do it anymore.”

Doug will sign his book Aeroaddict- The Story of One Man’s Lifelong Love Affair with Aeroplanes at its launch in Waterstones, WestQuay, Southampton on Thursday from 5pm until 7.30pm.

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