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Posted: 12/23/2005 8:24:05 PM EDT
They just don't make 'em like this guy anymore...


Captain Vic Spencer
(Filed: 24/12/2005)
www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2005/12/24/db2401.xml&DCMP=EMC-new_24122005

Captain Vic Spencer, who has died aged 80, escaped beheading by drunken Japanese officers during the Second World War, and on Christmas Eve 1948 made a dramatic flight which vindicated the concept of an air ambulance service for the Falklands.

Until Spencer arrived on the islands in November 1948 the Falklanders, living in scattered and remote settlements, were vulnerable at times of serious illness or injury, since hospital could be reached only by a long and uncomfortable journey by land and sea.

He and an engineer landed with two crated Austers, ex-Army light aircraft, aboard the research ship John Biscoe, to establish the Falkland Islands Government Air Service.

After a rudimentary airstrip had been set up on the racecourse at Stanley, the first aircraft was reassembled in a weather-exposed hangar for its inaugural flight on December 19. The islanders, unused to aircraft, were sceptical about their usefulness. But on Christmas Eve Sandra Short, a little girl living at North Arm in southern East Falkland, contracted peritonitis, needing urgent hospital treatment.

Although test flying had been suspended for the holidays, Spencer agreed to go, after asking that a landing strip on rough grass be pegged out with sheepskins and that a fire be lit to indicate the wind direction. In appalling weather, he collected the girl, whose life was saved.

Over the next few years Spencer introduced a fledgling passenger-carrying service, initially using the two Austers but later introducing floatplanes. By the time he left the islands after six years he was a highly respected figure.

In 1952 his achievement was celebrated in a BBC radio play, The Good Tidings. A road in Stanley is now named Auster Way, and Spencer's contribution is remembered by a gold medal awarded by the Governor-General.

The son of a motor-racing engineer, Victor Henry Spencer was born in Liverpool on February 7 1925 and educated at Liverpool Collegiate. He volunteered for the Fleet Air Arm, joining No 49 Pilots' Course. After training at Aylmer, Ontario, he learned to fly torpedo bombers and made his first deck landing in a Barracuda on the escort carrier Rajah off Scotland in August 1944.

In March 1945 Spencer embarked with 828 Naval Air Squadron in the carrier Implacable. He took part in the attack on Truk and, when the Japanese failed to surrender immediately after the dropping of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, made an attack on the airbase at Koriyama. His aircraft was hit by flak and crashed on a terraced hillside.

Spencer and his crewman, Torpedo Air Gunner Jack Rogerson, escaped the wreckage before it blew up. As they made for the coast 40 miles away, he and Rogerson were hunted for two days until captured. They were then beaten and imprisoned at Omori, a camp for special prisoners which was not declared to the Red Cross.

As they joined fellow prisoners, an American aviator remarked: "Jeez, they're getting younger every day."

A British chief petty officer asked Spencer: "Would you like a cuppa tea, sir?" When, after the Armistice, drunken Japanese officers broke into the camp looking for prisoners to behead, Spencer's life was saved by the intervention of the Kempetei (secret police); he had resolved, if need be, to defend himself with a stolen bayonet, which he kept for the rest of his life.

Spencer's brief naval career ended in 1946 in the rank of sub-lieutenant RNVR (A), though he retained links with the Fleet Air Arm Officers' Association. After the war he built a Gypsy Moth for pleasure flights from Southport beach, an experience which equipped him for his years in the Falklands.

In 1952 he joined British European Airways, flying the DC-3 Dakota, but found being a co-pilot and flying in Europe dull.

So he seized the opportunity to join a subsidiary company, Aden Airways, where he was promised command. He briefly developed new routes for Arab Airways (Jerusalem) over the winter of 1953-54, but returned to Aden, where he flew contentedly for many years.

Landing grounds were wadi floors marked by stones; freight and passengers shared the cabin; and tribesmen were made to empty the breeches of their rifles before they boarded.

Arabs regularly took potshots at the aircraft, and one of Spencer's post-flight checks was to inspect the fuselage for bullet holes.

During the hajj the normal passenger load in the Dakota was doubled to 40. Another frequent cargo was the mildly narcotic leaf qat, which had to be picked in Eritrea while the morning dew was on it; trading started on the runway as soon as Spencer taxied to a halt.

In 1964, as nationalist agitation in the colony increased, Spencer became chief pilot and operations manager for Aden Airways. Eighteen months later, when an aircraft was blown up in the air and crashed in the desert, he searched for the wreckage and made a difficult landing alongside it.

Many of the bodies were strewn around, but the pilot, a friend of Spencer, was still trapped in the cockpit. Using an axe and a jemmy Spencer freed the body and carried it, with the other dead aircrew, back to Aden. Terrorism was suspected (though investigation showed that the bomb had been placed by a man who wanted to succeed his father as a local sheikh).

Spencer had to use his considerable powers of persuasion and leadership to cajole the other pilots into keeping the airline going.

In 1967 he was awarded the MBE for his services to aviation, and then became senior pilot for Britannia Airways, flying Boeing 737s from Luton until his formal retirement. Spencer also flew vintage aircraft at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford, until, due to a heart condition, he lost his licence for powered flight, and had to take up gliding.

However, when health standards were reviewed, he at once applied for his licence back and made his last flight as a pilot just after his 80th birthday, having accumulated 22,800 hours.

Vic Spencer, who died on October 20, married Mary Walker in 1954; she predeceased him in 1995.



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