Michael Beetham

17th May 1923 – 24th October 2015

In a career that took Michael from flying bombing raids to Berlin during the Second World War to overseeing the RAF’s successful role in the Falklands War he was, with the exception of the RAF’s founder, MRAF the Lord Trenchard, the longest serving Chief of the Air Staff.

Michael was an enthusiastic member of The Air Squadron, becoming a member in 1991. He notably co-led the trip to Russia, together with Caryll Waterpark, in 1992, commanding huge respect with the senior Russian military staff.

He volunteered for the RAF in 1941 and trained as a pilot in the USA. On his return to England, Michael trained on Lancasters, an aircraft he would describe later in his life as the one for which he had the greatest affection. He joined Bomber Command’s No 50 Squadron in November 1943 just as the Battle of Berlin had got under way and flew his Lancaster to the city no fewer than ten times. He also flew on the disastrous raid to Nuremberg on the night of March 30/31 1944 when 96 of the bomber force failed to return.

Although his bomber was damaged by anti-aircraft fire on a number of occasions, he faced his greatest danger on a training flight when he and his crew were forced to bale out of their burning Lancaster. He went on to survive 30 operations over Germany when the losses were at their highest. Assessed as an outstanding pilot, he was awarded the DFC for his gallantry and leadership.

Michael was almost totally a Bomber Command man, and he worked for some of the Command’s most dedicated and forthright commanders during challenging times including the Cuban missile crisis and the shooting down of Gary Powers over the Soviet Union, an incident which exposed the vulnerability of the Valiants and other V-force aircraft to a new generation of Soviet Missiles. The cancellation of Skybolt and the acquisition of Polaris, which led to the transfer of the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent capability to the Royal Navy, had major implications for Bomber Command and he was deeply involved in the staff work.

Identified as heading for the top of the RAF in 1964 he was sent to Aden to command Khormaksar, then the RAF’s largest operational base, operating a wide variety of tactical and transport aircraft, but no bombers. His arrival coincided with the start of a major terrorist campaign against British forces and his squadrons were in action over Radfan.

Michael became CAS in August 1977 where he was well-equipped to fight the RAF’s corner, which he did with considerable skill, tenacity and resolve, during the “Nott Review”.

While major issues such as the purchase of Trident and the deployment of cruise missiles were being debated at Chiefs of Staff level, there were many RAF matters also engaging his attention. The Tornado had just entered service and he had to defend it against much unjustified criticism in the early days and the purchase of helicopters and development of the transport force were other important issues. He was also determined to build up the RAF Regiment and the revived Royal Auxiliary Air Force.

Michael was nearing retirement when the Argentine forces invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982. He set about energetically drawing up plans on how the RAF could be involved most effectively. With his knowledge of strategic bombing and his expertise on air-to-air refuelling, he instructed his staffs to assess if a bombing attack against Port Stanley Airfield was feasible. He appreciated that there was little prospect of inflicting lasting, or major, damage but he believed such an attack, mounted at extreme range – the longest bombing operation from base to target at the time – would send a clear message to the Argentines that air power based on Ascension Island could pose a major threat to mainland Argentina, in addition to boosting the morale of the islanders. He realised that such an attack was an especially demanding undertaking for his Vulcan bomber and Victor tanker crews but he pushed for it in the face of some scepticism in Whitehall.

A few months after the end of the Falklands conflict, he retired from the RAF.

After retiring from the RAF, Michael’s services and experience were much in demand. For four years he was chairman of GEC Avionics (1982) and joined the Board of the RAF Museum at Hendon (1984) at a time when the survival of the museum in question, where his consistent support of the organisational changes introduced by a new director secured its future. He retired in 2000 after 15 years as chairman. In recognition of his significant service the Trustees named their new conservation centre at RAF Cosford after him in 2002.

For many years he was president of the Bomber Command Association and instrumental in the erection of a statue to wartime chief, Sir Arthur Harris, at the RAF Church of St Clement Danes. He also poured his energy into the creation of a major memorial to all the lost aircrew of the Command. Despite failing health, he was determined to see the culmination of his efforts and attended the dedication of the memorial by the Queen in Green Park in July 2012.

Outside of aviation related matters Michael was a keen golfer and tennis player and in retirement a captain of the Royal Norfolk Golf Club. He was a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, and was an Hon Liveryman of GAPAN.

Michael is survived by his wife, Patty, and their son and daughter.