John Farley AFC OBE

Dunsfold Chief Test Pilot & Airfield Manager  John Farley AFC OBE

John has flown over 80 types, and has dedicated his life to research and test flying; he was the first Western pilot invited to fly the aerodynamically game-changing Mig-29.

His approach may be best summed up by a line from his book, ‘ A View From The Hover

Re his time at RAE Bedford John remarks

“ What a joy it was to be able to do research flying in the days when the aim was to acquire knowledge rather than to make money ”

He first flew the P1127 in the early 1960’s, and like fellow Test Pilots also flew the very different Short SC1 VTOL aircraft, which had four lift engines and one for forward propulsion; he described managing  all five engines as one transitioned between forward flight and the hover as being ‘ like a frantic organ player ‘.

John became Dunsfold’s Chief Test Pilot in 1978, demonstrating the then new Sea Harrier at that year’s SBAC Farnborough Show and going on to become world renowned for his display and test flying.

US documentary highlighting danger of testing the Harrier


His development flying in the early Harrier was crucial to its success; there is a potentially lethal regime in the hover known as ‘ Intake Momentum Drag Yaw ‘ where if the pilot is not very careful the mass of air into the intakes will take over in a crosswind, creating uncontrollable roll; this had already killed a few pilots, there is a Dunsfold Flight Test cine film of this happening to an unfortunate American pilot – sadly he ejected too late, into the ground; the whole situation is viciously dangerous.

John Farley deliberately flew right into the edge of this condition repeatedly, so that a system to counter it may be developed; since then, at the onset of this occurring the correct rudder pedal for the pilot to apply shakes as a big hint…

John also developed his own unique take off for displays, which became known as ‘ The Farley Takeoff

He would hover the aircraft at around 100′, then using the Reaction Controls, raise the nose to around 60 degrees, adjusting the main engine nozzles to suit, so the aircraft was still hovering, but with a high nose up attitude; he would then apply maximum power and ‘ rocket climb ‘ away.  There are no gauges or instruments to aid this, it was all by ‘ seat of the pants ‘ judgement.   Service pilots were forbidden from even thinking about trying it !

John Farley, with John Fozard – the Chief Designer of the Harrier – at Farnborough 1978 when the Sea Harrier FRS1 fighter variant for the RN was brand new

John had to retire from BAe Test Flying in 1983 when he reached 50, a company rule; he then became Dunsfold Airfield Manager, and astonishingly was equally as good at that as he’d been at flying; his motto is ‘ UK Ltd ‘ and he would help out any smaller British Aviation outfit if at all possible.

When Deputy Chief Test Pilot Taylor Scott was killed by a combination of failings of an ejection seat system in an early Harrier GR5 flying from Dunsfold, John stood up to the CEO and said the company should pay the insurance to Taylor’s widow Maggie.   Having principles cost John his job – as he knew it might, but he is not the sort of person to let such things go unsaid.

Many people at Dunsfold concluded ‘ if any aviation company thinks they can do without a talent like John Farley, the lunatics really have taken over the asylum ! ‘  Eventually John was proved right, Taylor’s widow beat the BAe lawyers and used the money to put their children through school.

John returned to Test Flying on a freelance basis, flying among other things the very advanced Israeli Lavi fighter project demonstrator, and has advised on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

His book ‘ A View From The Hover ‘ is regarded a classic, for reference as much as entertainment,  among serious pilots.

John’s lecture on the history of the Harrier is well worth a read.

Text by Andy Lawson

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