Air Vice Marshal John Howe, distinguished pilot who commanded RAF’s first Lightning squadron at RAF Coltishall, dies

Air Vice Marshal John Howe. Picture: SUBMITTED

Air Vice Marshal John Howe. Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

Air Vice Marshal John Howe, who has died aged 85, followed a distinguished flying career with a new life on terra firma as a Norfolk sheep farmer - and loved both.

Air Vice Marshal John Howe. Picture: SUBMITTED

Air Vice Marshal John Howe. Picture: SUBMITTED - Credit: Archant

Ironically, the officer who came to RAF Coltishall to command the first squadron of the supersonic English Electric Lightning was afraid of heights.

But while he hated climbing ladders, Air Marshal Howe had loved flying since he was a boy.

Born in South Africa of British parents, his career spanned both the bi-plane era and the jet age.

He began with the South African Air Force in Tiger Moths, progressing to Harvards and Spitfire IXs.


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Aged 21, a little over a year after his graduation, he was flying Mustang fighter-bombers on low-level missions during the Korean War, as part of a combined United Nations force.

He lost many friends during the conflict and, after the war, decided to seek a new career in the RAF.

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In 1954 he moved to Britain and while attending the Central Fighter Establishment at West Raynham, met his future wife, Annabelle Gowing, the daughter of Norfolk farmer and aviator Cecil Gowing.

Soon after their marriage, John Howe was given command of the Tiger 74 squadron at RAF Coltishall, the air force's first Lightning squadron, which he later described as the greatest flying thrill of his life.

During his near-two years on the base he also led the Tigers' RAF aerobatic team with displays at events including the Farnborough and Paris air shows.

A succession of postings at home and abroad followed, including command of the first Phantom OCU (operation conversion unit) at Coningsby, Lincolnshire.

His final role was as commandant general of the RAF Regiment and RAF Provost Marshal and director general security. He also served as the 16th commandant of the Royal Observer Corps.

Air Marshal Howe left the RAF after 35 years, and many honours. During his years of service he had bailed out three times.

He began a new life, helping his wife run her late father's farm at Rackheath.

They converted it from arable to sheep and farmed together for nearly 20 years before retiring and handing over to their three daughters 12 years ago.

A biography, Upward and Onward: The Life of Air Vice Marshal John Howe CB, CBE, AFC, by Bob Cossey, was published in 2009.

Besides his work, John Howe was also passionate about rugby and skiing.

He was a vice president of North Walsham Rugby Club and set up the International Combined Services Ski Association which saw the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force competing all over the world.

He is survived by his wife and daughters. A service for family at St Faith's Crematorium, Norwich, on February 19, will be followed at 11am by a service of thanksgiving, to which all are invited, in St Mary and St Margaret Church, Sprowston.

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