The British test pilot John Farley, famous for his work on the Harrier jump-jet, passed away in June. The artist and aeronautical engineer Stephen Mosley shares a personal recollection of an immensely skilled and principled man.
I first met John when he gave a talk in Gosport to an air enthusiasts group, the second time when I invited him to give a talk to my local Rotary club. In each case the subject matter was the same – “How to Fly a Harrier” – but the content was totally different, with each tailored to the specific audience. This gives an insight into an aspect of John’s character that I think elevates him to a credible candidate for being the best test pilot that Britain has ever produced. The stereotypical image of the test pilot promulgated by Hollywood is that of the loner, the rebel who pushes the boundaries for the thrill of it. However what you actually need is someone who can fly reliably to set parameters, deal calmly with high pressure situations and who can impart information to others as the core of a team. John’s flying ability is something I only know of through reputation but the way he tailored his talk was, to me, indicative of the “emotional intelligence” that must have made him such a valuable part of all the projects he was involved in.
My next meeting with John was when he joined the Farnborough-Aircraft.com air taxi team as a consultant. There were about a dozen or so of us and as we were introduced each of us told him, to his slight embarrassment, when we had met him before. Invariably it had been at some talk or lecture and equally invariably it had left an impression on all of us. I always found John’s innate modesty to be a curious thing. His continual surprise that anyone should wish to spend time with him, or to call in and chat was undoubtedly genuine yet given his achievements who of us wouldn’t wish to sit and listen to him? Something I had the singular honour of doing whilst Wills and Kate were getting hitched. Our wives were both going to be watching the wedding so I popped over to John’s and we sat talking in his study for a couple of hours – or at least I prompted occasionally and just sat back.
His early flying career, the Paris Air Show Tu-144 crash, accidentally testing the strength of the Vulcan undercarriage, landing the Spitfire and his views on Chuck Yeager. All were gone into along with various other aspects of his career including, of course, the Harrier. That deep rooted ability to impart information in an interesting manner, relaying the incredible and the exceptional as if it were the everyday, once more shone through. Something that undoubtedly informed the way he influenced those he worked with. More than one colleague from the Farnborough-Aircraft days has remarked how he had a way of explaining something you’d missed as if it was based in some minor oversight on your part rather than his own keen and insightful engineering ability.
John’s flying exploits are a matter of public record with the key points of his life recorded in his excellent autobiography. As regards the man behind those all I can say is that he was a genuinely nice person who coupled an exceptional ability with modesty and a highly developed intellect with a sincere consideration for those around him. I truly believe that Britain has lost one of its finest test pilots with John’s passing, certainly one who was involved in some of the most exciting developments in British aviation since the war. Those of us who were lucky to know him have also lost a very dear friend.