Pilot, 86, reunites with award-winning Harrier plane after decades

Tom Lecky-Thompson, 86, has reunited with his iconic Harrier plane – a plane that saw him crowned winner in a race against 396 others from London to New York

Tom said he described it as “the most exciting plane I have ever flown”

When Tom Lecky-Thompson slid into the seat of the Navy’s first-ever Harrier jump jet, he transported it instantly to May 6, 1969.

It was then that the pioneering test pilot crossed the Atlantic to show off the aircraft’s capabilities – and beat 396 others in a race from London to New York.

Climbing back into the cockpit, Tom, now 86, said: “I don’t think I’ll ever forget it – I wish I could start all over again. It really is the most exciting plane I have ever flown.

From taking off in a cloud of coal dust from London’s St Pancras station to landing 3,470 miles away on a pier on the Hudson River in New York, Tom took just five hours and 57 minutes.

The iconic race had started atop the capital’s Post Tower, with the RAF ace flying by helicopter to his waiting Harrier.

After landing in New York, he was taken on the back of a police motorcycle to the Empire State Building’s finish post.

The Harrier back in London after the race

Tom recalls: “The driver was an off-duty police officer, member of the NYPD Flying Club.

“That was without a doubt the hardest part of the whole trip, getting into the back of a machine as it galloped over the rubble, almost knocking me over.

“We charged up to the Empire State Building, being held up by every traffic light imaginable.

“I finally hit the card with a total time of six hours, 11 minutes and 57.15 seconds. I will never, ever forget that moment.”

His Harrier, the first to enter service with the RAF, was part of a new generation of “jump jets”, which take off and land vertically.

It was entered into the race because the government wanted to show it to the US Marine Corps, who wanted to buy it.

The incredible sight of the plane taking off from central London has grabbed headlines around the world and came two months after Concorde first flew.

Among those who ran against Tom for the £60,000 prize were Billy Butlin, Stirling Moss and Prince Michael of Kent.

Open to all for a £10 entry fee, the event was set to commemorate John Alcock and Arthur Brown’s historic non-stop flight across the Atlantic 50 years earlier, in 1919.

It had taken the duo 16 hours and 28 minutes – almost three times longer than Tom – to cover the shorter 1,880 miles between Newfoundland and Galway in Ireland.

A Hawker Siddleley Harrier GR 1 before the start of the Transatlantic Air Race in 1969



And as they set off heavily laden with 865 gallons of fuel, Tom – flying just below the speed of sound at 683 miles per hour – had to refuel 10 times in the air.

Tom had been appointed as project pilot for the Harrier jet three years earlier while serving at the MoD’s Empire Test Pilots’ School, now based in Wiltshire.

It was a huge feat for someone who, at the age of 16, won an Air Training Corps scholarship to Abingdon to learn to fly at Oxford Air Training School. He obtained his private pilot’s license at age 17, after only seven hours of training.

He joined the RAF shortly thereafter, in January 1953, and was sent for training in Canada before being posted to 249 Squadron.

He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant after being deployed to Jordan during the Suez Crisis in 1956.

Tom left the RAF in 1975 to take up a role with the Royal Saudi Air Force in Riyadh.

Tom’s granddaughter Charlotte Wearden, 31, now hopes to be a pilot herself after growing up listening to his flying stories

After that he worked in Cairo with Rolls-Royce – but returned to the RAF in 1981 as an instructor, based at RAF Chivenor in Devon.

He then trained commercial pilots before retiring.

Tom’s granddaughter, Charlotte Wearden, 31, now hopes to be a pilot herself after growing up listening to his flying stories.

She joined Tom on his journey to find his beloved Harrier at the Brooklands Museum in Weybridge, Surrey – filmed for an upcoming episode of UKTV’s Secrets of the Transport Museum, narrated by Sanjeev Bhaskar.

Charlotte, Marketing Manager, said: “To see his face light up when he was in the cockpit was just amazing – he has a very strong connection to this aircraft.

“And having done all the exciting, crazy things he did back then… it seems to help him bring back all those memories and see the plane again. It’s pretty special to be involved.

After winning the race, Tom and now Air Vice Marshal Graham Williams, who flew the jet back to London, received the Air Force Cross, the highest peacetime military award for flying.

He was presented to her by the late Queen Mother. Tom said: “It was amazing to meet her, she was such a warm and kind person.”

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During the show, Tom meets Chris Wilson, a professional restoration specialist at Brooklands, who overhauled the jet for current owner Paul Griffiths.

Tom said: “As soon as I saw the Harrier I wanted to go back into the cockpit. I really couldn’t believe it, I was absolutely amazed.

“On the way up I joked and said, ‘I better make sure I didn’t press the wrong button.’ Chris laughed and said, ‘Don’t worry, the ejection seat is inert. , so everything is safe.

“I asked him if he had a lot of work to do. Chris explained that he had to clean it regularly and wanted to make sure it looked absolutely spotless for my visit.

“He had pumped up the tires and cleaned and polished it. They had a few minor hiccups to fix and had to find new tires as they were starting to perish.

“But just looking at the Harrier I once flew across the Atlantic with brought back a lot of great memories.

“To this day I am incredibly proud and hope this helps put the Harrier on the map.”

Secrets of the Transport Museum, Tuesdays, 8 p.m., on the Hier channel

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