Mike Oliver was born in Farnborough on 13th February 1921.
Mike was passionate about aeroplanes as a boy and his flying career started in 1940 when he joined the R.A.F. as a volunteer reserve and started his flying training in October of that year. His first active posting was to Malta flying Hurricanes; he took off from H.M.S. Ark Royal for Malta on 30th June 1941 to join 185 Squadron.
On 8th August 1941 Mike was forced to bale out of his stricken Hurricane 55 miles out to sea, qualifying him membership of the Caterpillar Club; he was very fortunate to be picked up by a Swordfish in appalling sea conditions. On 21st February 1942, whilst attacking a ME109, he was jumped by 2 other ME109s and his aircraft was hit by 4 explosive canon shells; much to the surprise of the ground crew, he managed to bring the badly damaged aircraft home but, according to the unofficial squadron diary, he was more concerned that his only decent pair of trousers were ruined by glycol than the fact that he was nearly killed!
In May 1942 he was posted back to Britain and converted to Spitfires joining 1490 Flight as a fighter gunnery instructor. In June 1944 he was posted to 32 M.U. Test Flight St. Athan as a test pilot flying rebuilt damaged aircraft before being handed back into service. On 18th July 1944, he was test flying a Hurricane when the engine packed up; rather than bale out, he tried to bring the aircraft back and glided until he found a suitable field to put the plane down but sadly just fell short and suffered an horrific crash. He was admitted to R.A.F. Hospital Halton where he underwent extensive plastic surgery to rebuild what was left of his face. He was discharged on 29th December; unbelievably, he was back flying again the very next day. During his time with 32 M.U. he flew a multitude of aircraft types from Spitfires to Lancasters.
In 1949 he joined 600 Squadron R.Aux.A.F., based at Biggin Hill, flying Spitfires and then Meteors and was in the Squadron aerobatic time (Meteors).
In 1957 Mike was approached to deliver some Percival Provosts to Khartoum for the Sudanese Air Force (the trip involved 11 refuelling stops); he flew a demonstration flight for the Prime Minister and spent a week or so training the novice Sudanese Air Force pilots how to fly. When he returned from Sudan, there was a message for him to call Sqn. Ldr. Ted Tennant at Folland Aircraft who were looking for another test pilot for the Gnat F1, he jumped at the opportunity.
In July 1958, Mike demonstrated the Gnat F1 to the Yugoslav Air Force in Batajnica which included bombing and rocket firing demonstrations. During his first demonstration flight, he had what is possibly a unique experience – he heard his own sonic boom. The Yugoslav officials were on the radio from the control tower requesting him to “make big bang”; the radio message exactly coincided with the Gnat passing Mach 1 so Mike heard the boom over the radio. He spent six weeks training the Yugoslav Air Force pilots. Mike also demonstrated the Gnat F1 to the Indian Air Force in Bangalore.
On 31st August 1959, Mike flew chase in a Gnat fighter for the maiden test flight of the Gnat T1 prototype (XM691) which was flown by Sqn. Ldr. Ted Tenant. Mike’s first flight in XM691 was on 2nd September; the Gnat T1 prototype made its first public appearance at the S.B.A.C. show at Farnborough on 7th September flown by Ted Tennant whilst Mike flew a Gnat F1.
When Ted Tennant retired, Mike was promoted to chief test pilot and did the majority of the early development and production flight testing of the Gnat T1. Mike also flew many production test flights in Hunters. At that time, Hawker Siddeley´s policy was for test pilots to retire at the age of 45 so, in September 1966, he flew his last test flight.
After retiring as a test pilot, he remained at Dunsfold, with what had now become British Aerospace, in charge of product support. He continued flying the comms aircraft, ferrying pilots and directors, firstly in their Dove and, later, in a Piper Seminole until he retired.
In 1989, his great friend, John Farley, former Harrier chief test pilot, invited Mike to join him in PT Flight, a display team flying historic American primary trainers at air shows all over the country – Mike flew a Ryan PT22 for 3 years before retiring from display flying at the age of 71. He continued flying for pleasure, hiring Cessna 150s, in which he taught his sons, John and Tim, to do loops and rolls; he finally retired from flying in 1999.
Over his career, he has flown 82 aircraft types but the Gnat fighter was, hands down, his favourite aeroplane, he never stopped talking about how much fun it was to fly. He was awarded 2 Queen’s Commendations for Valuable Service in the Air – the second, in 1965, was for his skill and courage whilst conducting protracted spinning trials on the Gnat T1.
Mike’s other great passion aside from flying was motor cars. He competed successfully in early post-war hillclimbs, sprints and some circuit races in a variety of sports cars including T35B & T59 Bugattis and an Alfa Romeo 1750 Zagato. The Bugattis had been purchased from Continental Cars, a business owned by Rodney Clarke, which specialised in the sale and race preparation of Bugattis.
In 1946 he joined Clarke as service manager. Kenneth McAlpine, son of the construction magnate, was also a very keen motor sport competitor and, as a customer of Continental Cars, he approached Rodney Clarke to build a racing car for him. With the financial backing of McAlpine, Connaught Engineering was formed, the three partners being Clarke, McAlpine and Oliver – the purpose of the company was the design, manufacture and sale of racing cars to privateers. Clarke designed the chassis and Mike developed the engines. Initially building 2-seater sports cars, in 1950 Connaught took the big step to build their first single seater, the A-Type, to run in the 2 litre Formula 2 class. The A-type achieved a second place behind Stirling Moss on its first outing with Kenneth McAlpine at the wheel. Mike still found time to race; driving an A-Type at Charterhall, he overtook Stirling Moss on the final lap to give Connaught the first three places.
In 1954, the 2.5 litre Formula 1 class was introduced for which Connaught developed the B-Type which first raced in 1955. In October of that year, they were tempted by the offer of very generous starting money to enter the Gran Premio di Siracusa (Syracuse Grand Prix); 2 cars were entered, one of which was to be driven by Tony Brooks, a dental student and promising young driver but with no Formula 1 experience – he’d actually never sat in a Formula 1 car until he arrived in Syracuse. Brooks managed to qualify the car on the front row alongside the works Maseratis. After working his way to the front of the field, Brooks won the Grand Prix with a healthy margin – the first Grand Prix win for Britain since 1924. The B-Type also achieved a podium finish in the Italian Grand prix in 1956 driven by Ron Flockhart. Mike’s last race was in a Formula 1 B-Type at the 1956 Silverstone International Trophy, it ended in a monumental crash at Woodcote after the front brakes failed causing the car to roll and then somersault several times before coming to a halt a couple of metres from the crowd. In 1957, due to lack of funds and the cancellation of many of the European races, Connaught took the decision to withdraw from racing.
Mike Oliver died on 15th July 2020 aged 99.
I flew with Mike quite a lot as a photographer at Dunsfold, taking air – to – air and air-to-ground shots from the Dove and Seminole – Mike was a true gentleman as well as professional, he always made time to chat about aeroplanes and photography with a young snapper, flying with him was always fun – and I always knew I was in the safest pair of hands anywhere – I admired and liked him hugely.