Lionel Peter twiss – faster than sound

This week’s blog 12 months ago had a piece about Fairey Aviation and their aircraft including a single-seat Transonic and Supersonic Research Aircraft – the Fairey FD2 that ‘may attain level speeds as high as Mach 1.5 (990 mph at 36,000 feet).
Its maiden flight, with ex Royal Navy Lieutenant-Commander Peter Twiss in the cockpit, came on October 6 1954 and over the next two years he made more than 110 flights, with 50 faster than the speed of sound (which is about 761mph at sea level). Fairey was certain that the aircraft could reach a four-figure speed, however, and the idea of making an official attempt on the world speed record crystallised in November 1955 when cockpit instruments suggested the FD 2 had reached Mach 1.56 (almost 1,200mph).
In February 1956 a new air speed record of 822mph had been set by a US Air Force pilot in a F-100 SuperSabre. Certain that the FD 2 could demolish this, Twiss and Fairey decided to make their official British attempt and on 10th March 1956, Peter Twiss in the Fairey Delta 2 took off and did not just creep past the post – he smashed the previous world air speed record, setting a new world airspeed record of 1,822 k.p.h. – 1,132ˑ14 miles per hour. Not everyone rejoiced at this British triumph, however. Greenhouse owners across the south were agitated as the sonic boom broke glass windows and one market gardener even threatened to sue Twiss for £16,000.

So who was this Peter Twiss?

Lionel Peter Twiss was born on 23rd July 1921 at Lindfield Sussex and was educated at Sherborne School. After a brief period as a tea taster with Brooke Bond, he turned his hand to farming before joining the Fleet Air Arm in 1939. After a few months learning seamanship as a naval airman, second class, he trained as a pilot.
By its nature the role of a test pilot is hazardous work. During the FD 2’s fourteenth flight the aircraft suffered an engine failure due to fuel starvation at 30,000ft. Twiss could have ejected to safety but decided to glide back to Boscombe Down. He broke cloud at 2,500ft but had insufficient hydraulic pressure to lower the undercarriage fully. Still with the option to eject, he continued and made a successful forced landing on the nose-wheel at 170mph. He was awarded a Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air. Harrison Ford’s forced landing this week past is not too different.
In 1959 Fairey Aviation was sold to Westland Aircraft, the helicopter manufacturer, and Twiss decided to retire from test flying. He had flown over 4,500 hours in 148 different types of aircraft. In retirement he spent many hours at a more leisurely speed with the Lasham Gliding Club.
A year after leaving Fairey Aviation he joined Fairey Marine and was responsible for development and sales of the company’s day-cruisers. He was a director from 1968 to 1978, then director and general manager of Hamble Point Marine until 1988.
He appeared in the 1960 film Sink the Bismark (1960), when he flew a Fairey Swordfish torpedo aircraft and in the 1963 Bond film From Russia with Love at the helm of a Fairey Marine Speedboat He also wrote his autobiography, Faster than the Sun. This was published in 1963.  Lionel Peter Twiss, OBE DSC died 31st August 2011.

A lot more could be written here about his life, but his autobiography is on Amazon and eBay so you can have his story to yourself if you wish. What follows here are just some of the comments – both about Peter Twiss and about Britain 2011 – that were published in the Telegraph (UK) newspaper immediately after his death.

Every schoolboy’s hero – one of the Fleet Air Arm’s finest! The passing of a Great Briton.

I can’t help thinking that his determination to stay put and land the FD 2 on its 14th flight was the greater achievement. What a man

Breaking through cloud at 2500ft for a dead-stick landing sorts out the gifted from the merely conscientious, but most of all I envy him his rugged good looks and courage.

Great Britain was once a land fit for heroes and a land of heroes, Peter Twiss not the least of them.

He was a hero and is much respected, but NOT the first man to fly faster than 1,000 mph! Scott Crossfield flew the Douglas Skyrocket at 1,291 mph on Nov 30th 1953. Chuck Yeager flew the Bell X1-A at 1,620 mph on Dec 12th 1953, both 2 years before Twiss’s record. Both American aircraft were rocket powered and not capable of flight long enough to establish an official World Speed Record. British journals continue to perpetuate the myth that Twiss/FD-2 was the first to exceed 1,000 mph.

This was the Britain I was born into, where British heroes and British engineering were the wonder of the world and we had pride in our country. Where has that Britain of yesteryear gone to? Rest in peace and fly high with the angels Peter. Thank you

I was born in 1953, I was a baby surrounded by giants. Metaphorically and literally!
Who could guess what was going to happen in such a short period of time to our country? The fall was so swift. RIP Peter.
Me too. 1953 was a vintage year. You are so right. We had such amazing role models to inspire us. It was a wonderful time to be a child in Britain. Look at what passes for role models for today’s children. No wonder we’re in such a sad state.

A real hero. Where is the modern day equivalent in Britain?

In the RED ARROWS… Typhoon test pilots.. Keeping all the steam locos running on heritage railways… The guys rebuilding the Colossus computer with no drawings, Fred Dibnah types there are thousands of them..

What would the Health and Safety Executive do to this man?

My thoughts exactly: “Ooh no Commander Twiss, you are not allowed to land that aircraft with the wheels up, it is totally against the rules”. The constraints under which we live would have crushed him and who know how he would have turned out.

He was a bit of a law-unto-himself in his youth, but he managed to achieve great things in later years. I wonder what would have become of him had he grown up in this time. Where would he have channelled all that energy and to what end?

His skills were probably helped by having arms of steel . . have a look at his wrist . . whatever we can see of it . . And to have lived ’til 91! . . Well done! Mr. Twiss, well done!

Peter gave the oration at the funeral of that other great test pilot Neville Duke, during which he referred to Neville’s breaking of the world speed record in a Hawker Hunter. That was a wonderful tribute from one who had achieved so much himself.

Peter had a dry sense of humour and was, like many great men, often self-deprecating. RIP Peter, one of the last greats of British aviation.

Being an “aircraft nut” growing up, Peter Twiss was one of my heroes along with the other test pilots of the day. Certainly try super imposing a line drawing of a Mirage over an FD2 and other than the intakes they are identical! Britain is great for inventing things but not much good at selling…look at the Rotodyne, Harrier, TSR2, VC10 etc.

As a baby boomer growing up near Portsmouth in the 1950s I remember being excited by the sound of Peter Twiss’ runs. We were lucky, houses across the road had windows broken but ours were ok. Yet another pilot who served on Argus and Furious at a time when my engineer Dad was in them.

It is a popular theory that the wing form of the FD2 was taken up by the French Avions Dassault to produce the hugely successful Mirage series of jet fighters. It is still in service today as the Mirage 2000. It is sad that Fairey didn’t recognize it’s potential as a front line fighter and to the credit of the French that they did since it has had a production run of close to fifty years.

Fairey recognised the potential of the delta wing for fighters. But the MOD did not; for which Dassault have been eternally thankful. RIP Peter Twiss.

I have vague recollections of the newsreel footage of Twiss in the futuristic FD2 on the record breaking flight. It struck me as an almost surreal moment; it could have come straight from the pages of the Eagle’s Dan Dare. I never forgot his name and I’m not surprised by any of his many other accomplishments. I think they broke the mould after his generation. These people were real role models for the younger generation, something denied to today’s youngsters. R.I.P. Peter Twiss.

I have an old Lyons tea card “Wings of Speed” that features the FD2 and Peter Twiss and the speed record- I suppose it’s from 1961 and was chewed by our puppy- so it is a little perforated! I saw the FD2 at Farnborough and then a little later in 1964 when it was rebuilt to carry a new wing configuration as part of the Concorde programme and became known as the BAC 221.

Fairey is best remembered for the famous Swordfish or “Stringbag ” torpedo bomber- but when I was a kid there was a wealth of new and exciting ground-breaking fast aircraft like the FD2, the Bristol 188 and the Lightning that made us kids very proud- and we would go to Farnborough to see them in action piloted by these brave men. Fairey produced a very interesting plane/helicopter hybrid known as a gyroplane called the Rotodyne that flew over our house one day making quite a racket. They also made what many believe to have been the world’s ugliest plane- the Gannet- and the absence of these early warning aircraft operated by fleet carriers led to many unnecessary deaths in the Falklands War.

Growing up in the 50’s, Peter Twiss was a hero to me too. As an interesting aside, the British government of the day would have nothing to do with the speed record attempt, so Fairey paid for it themselves (including leasing the aeroplane back from the MoD!). Shortly after the event the government banned all low level supersonic flight testing over the UK. As a result, the FD2 flight test programme was moved to France, at the invitation of the French government. All testing thereafter was conducted in the presence of a team of Dassault Engineers. Dassault went on to design the Mirage fighter, an almost carbon copy of the FD2 design and the most commercially successful series of fighter planes in modern history. The head of Dassault (Marcel Dassault) remarked “If it were not for the clumsy way in which you tackle things in Britain, you could have made the Mirage yourselves.”

Two years ago I was privileged to interview and photograph Peter for my book on WWII pilots.[] He still had a mischievous grin and a twinkle in his eye and I liked him very much.


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