If merely judged on the 154 types of powered aircraft and 170 types of glider that he had flown, Derek Piggott can be rated as a remarkable pilot. If it had wings, he flew it: from the Bristol Boxkite to four-engine bombers and jets. However Derek Piggott is best known throughout the world as a glider pilot and instructor. While working as a stunt pilot for films, he probably exceeded the nine lives traditionally attributed to cats, surviving through his flying skills and an ability to think quickly under pressure.

In 1955 he set a British gliding altituderecord in a violently turbulent thunderstorm in a Skylark 2.As it climbed, the glider became heavily coated with ice, which periodically jammed the controls. There was also a risk that lightning would fuse every control rod and cable. After experiencing severe electric shocks he decided to descend, but this proved impossible even with full airbrakes. Maintaining control with only turn and slip and air-speed indicators, he reached over 25,000 feet. With no oxygen, he was barely conscious when he found descending air.

In 1959 the Daily Mail sponsored a race from London to Paris on the anniversary of Bleriot’s flight across the Channel. Derek crossed the channel twice in gliders, once in an Olympia 419 that he soared from Deal to the outskirts of Paris, andonce while being towed in a primary glider. Because the primary was easily de-rigged, it was the only aircraft to do the whole distance from Marble Arch to the Arc de Triomphe.

During an aerobatic flight in a Bocian with a pupil, the rear canopy blew off, hitting the tail-plane and disabling the glider. The pupil jettisoned the front canopy, which hit Derek in the rear seat and embedded itself in the wing. They lost height rapidly.  Derek was puzzled by the pupil’s delay in exiting, but the pupil finally bailed out. Derek, after battling with ‘g’-forces, managed to escape after the glider inverted. His parachute opened at 500 feet. He later learned that the pupil had removed his expensive sunglasses and placed them in his pocket before jumping. After a cup of tea and calls to the Air Accident Investigation Branch and the police, Derek climbed into another glider and continued instructing.

Derek was occasionally employed for feature films as a stunt pilot and technical advisor.  He had a great ‘camera sense’, knowing which maneuvers would look impressive and accurately positioning the aircraft to appear in each shot.  He was able to say whether a shot would work after the rehearsals and suggest an alternative if it did not. For dog-fight sequences he advised fellow pilots to move in behind the other aircraft until they were scared, and then close in a little more.

ForDarling Lilliin 1968, he was responsible for the majority of the designs of six replica SE5A aircraft and for supervising their construction in a period of nine weeks and so worked 17-hour days for this period. They were completed just days before simulated dog-flights. He also advised on the construction of several of the early aircraft re-created for use in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machinesin 1964For some types he had to re-discover how to fly them safely. Some of these replicas were barely flyable until Derek trimmed them so as to make them controllable and tolerably stable.

For Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in 1967, he was required to fly in a copy of a 1910 Lebaudy airship. It was reported to be almost uncontrollable. He hastened to the library of the Royal Aeronautical Society and read all he could. Malcolm Brighton and Derek managed to get the airship airborne briefly, before hitting the ground and breaking the propeller. They then bounced up into 132,000 volt cables. They were reluctant to jettison all the expensive helium, and so when they landed again, a light breeze was sufficient to send them through another set of power wires, before they eventually dumped the gas. The airship was written off in a storm shortly after.

Using his experience of a crash in an Indian paddy field after engine failure, he deliberately crashed an aircraft for Villa Rideson a river bank while flying towards a cliff. He stopped it from 55mph in 10 yards by making the undercarriage collapse. His major concern had been the cliff, which made the stunt more dangerous and yet it was never seen in the finished film. In The Blue Maxhe was the only stunt pilot to agree to fly for a scene in which the two rivals challenged each other to fly beneath the spans of a bridge. The two replica Fokker Dr.I tri-planes had four feet of clearance on each side when passing through the narrower span. They had limited maneuverability and insufficient power to pull up over the bridge if the flight-path began to go adrift. Derek took the role of both pilots. He placed two poles beyond the bridge and by aligning them on the approach, he could fly down the centre-line of the span. Because of the need for multiple takes of both aircraft from various angles, he flew the wider span of the bridge fifteen times and eighteen times through the narrower span.

In November 1961, flying Southampton University’s Man-Powered Aircraft (SUMPAC), Derek Piggott flew 64 metres, becoming the first person to make an officially authenticated take-off and flight in a man-powered aircraft.For television programs in 1973 and again in 1985, he flew a replica of the first heavier-than-air aircraft, at the site that Sir George Cayley had used in 1853, in Brompton Dale, Yorkshire.Cayley had named the oar-like main control as the ‘influencer’, which Derek said was a serious exaggeration.

Alan Derek Piggott was born 27 December 1922 in Chadwell Heath, Essex, the son of Rev William Piggott and Alice Harvey. His father was a conscientious objector in the First World War, led the rent strike against London County Council after the war and was a frequent speaker at Hyde Park. When his mother died, the family moved to Sutton, Surrey where Derek attended Sutton County School. When he left school he became a trainee scientific instrument maker. He had been a very active aero-modeller and helped to form the Sutton Model Aircraft Club. After the war he was selected to be a member of the British Wakefield Cup team, a prestigious aero modelling competition held that year in Akron, Ohio.

From the age of four after a flight in an Avro 504, flying was Derek’s life. He volunteered for the RAF as aircrew in 1942, trained in Canada and was commissioned in 1943. After months of waiting on a Lancaster Bomber station at Witchford, he volunteered for glider operations, which promised immediate action.  He did his conversion training on to troop-carrying gliders before being posted to India for four weeks as second pilot on Dakotas flying supply operations over the front lines in Burma.

After a spell instructing Indian pilots at Jodpur, he flew patrols in Austers, during the unrest caused by Partition in 1947, often taking off from narrow roads. He returned to England in 1947 and was posted to the Central Flying School as an instructor of instructors. He became an A1 CFS instructor, the highest RAF qualification for a flying instructor. This involved flying and teaching on many types of aircraft including multi-engined aircraft and early Meteor jets.

He was selected for the Empire Test Flying School, but high tone deafness caused by long hours in noisy aircraft debarred him. This was a common condition among experienced pilots. The rules were later relaxed, but too late for Derek. Instead he went to the RAF Gliding School in Detling as chief instructor. Although an unspectacular achievement, his systematic sequence of exercises in dual-controlled gliders greatly improved the safety of gliding. In 1953 Derek Piggott received the Queen’s Commendation for work on developing and introducing new instructional techniques for gliding in the Air Training Corps. He was particularly proud of his monograph Subgravity sensations and gliding accidents which identified why some pilots panicked and flew vertically into the ground.

He left the RAF in 1953 and became the Chief Flying Instructor at Lasham Airfield where he remained until 1989. Gliding, and teaching gliding, was his primary passion and the activity for which he will probably be best remembered. He wrote eight books on gliding, including his autobiography, Delta Papa, and was the guest speaker at many events throughout the world. His first book, Gliding, is now in the 8th edition, and he wrote several more, including Beginning Gliding, Understanding Gliding,and Gliding Safety. Despite the adventurous aspects of Derek’s life, perhaps his greatest achievement was to make gliding safer: His structured progress cards, instructor courses and defined weather limits for inexperienced pilots undoubtedly saved many lives.

While at Lasham, he pioneered motorglider training using primarily the Scheibe Falke, one of his favourite training planes. In 1980 he also participated in an American FAA / SSA / Industry experimental program that led to the standard certification of motorgliders and their usage as trainers in the United States. He consulted for the US Air Force Academy, which also led to their adoption of motorgliders shortly afterward. Derek was a frequent speaker at SSA conventions, the ChicagoLand Glider Council and other prestigious venues in the US during the 1980’s.

He married Myfanwy Joy Rowlands in 1949, but they separated. Myfanwy died in July 2014. They had a daughter, Julia, the founder and artistic director of Pyramid of Arts, who also died in 2014, and a son, Robert, currently a schoolmaster. His partner for many years, Maria Boyd, a teacher of dyslexic children, also survives him.

Derek was regarded as a warm person, keenly interested in anyone who wanted to fly.  He took immense pains with his pupils and had huge patience in diagnosing faults and explaining techniques. In 1987 he was awarded the MBE (Member of the British Empire) for services to gliding. In 2007 the Royal Aero Club awarded him their Gold Medal – the highest award for aviation in the UK. Also in 2007 the Royal Aeronautical Society appointed Derek an Honorary Companion of the Society. In 2008 he was awarded the Lilienthal Gliding Medal by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale for outstanding service over many years to the sport of gliding. He continued flying up to his 90th birthday, and regularly thereafter but no longer as pilot in command. He was fiercely independent, still drove and visited (and flew) often at Lasham.

Derek Piggott enjoyed a full and happy life for 96 years and passed away on January 6, 2019 with Maria Boyd at his side. He had suffered a severe stroke on December 15, 2018.

John McCullagh, Lasham Gliding Society

Derek Piggott, in later years, with one of his favourite lecture props. (Photo Credit: Ray Konrath)

As well as a portrait I would suggest this photo, but I do not know the copyright owners. It was published in the Irish Independent recently, but no indication of the owner of the rights.

Derek Piggott flying a Fokker Dr.I triplane through the narrower span of the bridge at Carrigabrick in Co Cork for the Blue Max in 1965.

Derek (nearest) with Roy Cross. With combined ages of 171, the oldest pair to enter a British gliding competition