Obituary: Peter Edward Bairsto, Chief of Staff at RAF Strike Command, air marshal and fighter pilot
The Kingdom of Fife was twice the backdrop for the most death- and distance-defying decisions that RAF fighter pilot Peter Bairsto would ever make.
The first, when he was a Flight Lieutenant with No 43 Squadron at Leuchars, in 1956, won him the Air Force Cross. The second, when he was an Air Marshal and Chief of Staff at RAF Strike Command, blazed victory in 1982 with RAF ground-attack Harriers in the Falklands War against Argentina.
In 1956 the 29-year-old pilot’s determination to save his Hawker Hunter jet when its single engine failed at 42,000 feet in thick cloud over the North Sea, and his astonishing feat in succeeding, was a flash of light in a dark year for Britain, humiliated at Suez and reeling from many mishaps, some of them fatal, with the new jets, which had entered service two years before.
Flt Lt Bairsto, who commanded the squadron’s admired “Fighting Cocks” aerobatic team, would have been justified in baling out: he had six-and-a half tons of aircraft to coax back to earth, without power. The murk off Scotland’s east coast blotted out all sight down to 600ft.
Instead, with great coolness, he chose a circling approach, and pulled off the challenge, bringing the Hunter safely in to land at Leuchars. By that remarkable achievement, he had saved not only himself, but a piece of RAF kit worth about two and a half million pounds in today’s money; in 1956, about £108,000. That was, in the cash-strapped, worried Britain of 1956, a huge sum: the many RAF losses that year had even prompted questions in the House of Commons.
Bairsto’s combination of thrift and bravery that day set his life’s course towards being, in spirit if not by birth, a true Scot. He would later for 30 years make his home at St Andrews. Among his many commitments to Scotland he would serve on the Scottish Sports Council, be Vice-Chairman (Air) of Highland TAVRA, the Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve Association; be on the Board of HM Commissioners of Queen Victoria School, Dunblane; and chairman of the St Andrews Links Trust, as well as a member of the Royal and Ancient, and Deputy Lieutenant of Fife.
The Liverpool-born airman with Yorkshire forebears who trained in Canada had already served in Aden and Palestine, and would go on to be Wing Commander, Flying, in Nicosia, Cyprus, rising to be, back in Britain, Director Operational Requirements at the Ministry of Defence. After that, as AOC, Training Units, Support Command, from 1977-79, based at RAF Brampton, Cambridgeshire, he was the man who kept the RAF on its mettle and ready for anything. He was twice awarded, in 1955 and 1960, the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air.
When eventually he returned to his beloved Scotland in 1979 in the rank of Air Vice Marshal as Commander, Northern Maritime Air Region, at Pitreavie Castle in Fife, he thought this would be his final posting, and bought a house at Logie, near Cupar in Fife.
It was not to be: there followed, in the next three years, the zenith of his career, after Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Williamson, his former boss at Brampton, sought him out specially to be his deputy and Chief of Staff when Williamson became in 1981 at HQ at High Wycombe, a few miles north of London, Commander-in-Chief, RAF Strike Command.
For Bairsto it meant abandoning the delights of his adopted country: a home of his own, golf links, pheasant shoots, and his greatest pleasure, blissful days passed fishing in the River Spey, to spend three years back in cramped military quarters down south, mitigated only by the award of a knighthood and promotion to Air Marshal.
But when Britain went to war in 1982 to win back the Falkland Islands from invasion by Argentina, Bairsto’s vigour proved an inspired choice. “We can do it!” he exclaimed, when others quailed at the distance between home RAF airfields and the South Atlantic. Even as the Task Force ploughed south, he was arranging for RAF GR1 and GR3 Harrier jump-jets to bring their different capabilities to join Royal Navy Sea Harriers in the fray.
His wisdom was prescient: after the loss by enemy action of the container ship Atlantic Conveyor, and her precious cargo including troop-ferrying Chinook helicopters, the extra firepower offered by the 10 RAF Harriers flown via Ascension Island to make sorties from the Task Force carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible, proved decisive. Their ground-attacks against Argentine positions and artillery, as British forces yomped across the barren terrain, helped speed the advance to Port Stanley and victory. Bairsto retired in 1984.
Peter Edward Bairsto was the son of Arthur Bairsto, whose family dairy supplied milk to passenger liners sailing from the port of Liverpool. He had a sister, Diana. The family moved to Rhyl, north Wales, and Peter attended Rhyl Grammar School. From boyhood he dreamed of flying, and in 1944 volunteered to train as a pilot with the Fleet Air Arm as soon as he reached 18.
The Second World War ended before he could win his wings. Demobbed in 1946, he transferred to the RAF, and was trained as a gunner, appointed to an emergency commission in the RAF Regiment, and sent to troubled British Mandate Palestine. There he was wounded. Shrapnel from the injury, sustained in an attack on the armoured car in which he was riding, remained in his leg all his life.
By 1949 he had a permanent commission as Flying Officer and trained as a pilot and instructor. After service with 43 Sqn, he commanded 66Sqn.
He married, in 1947, Kathleen Clarbour, known as Kathie, a WAAF met in Palestine. Their sons, Nigel and Clive, would both become RAF Air Vice-Marshals, and their daughter, Helen, an investment banker with a pilot’s licence. Kathleen died in 2008. Bairsto married, in 2010, Pamela Braid. She, with his children, survives him. His sister predeceased him.
Capable of, as an RAF underling once put it, of “breathing fire from his nostrils” over mistakes, Bairsto was nevertheless ever loyal to a good man. In 1989, when the board of Highland TAVRA were considering applicants for the post of assistant secretary, Bairsto instantly vouched for one of them: “If you want an absolutely superb administrator…go for Weatherhead.
That job-seeker, Squadron Leader Phil Weatherhead (Scotsman obituaries, 13 April 2009), had been Bairsto’s personal assistant when Bairsto was Group Captain in command of RAF Honington in Suffolk – and regarded with trepidation by all ranks under his nickname of “the Bear” – almost two decades before.