Sunday, 31 July 2011

Obituary: Geoff Rodliffe 1914-2011

Geoff Rodliffe was born in 1914, at Penvose Farm near Newquay, Cornwall, and grew up on the farm. He died in his sleep around 4 o'clock in the morning of Sunday 5th June, 2011, at the age of 96.

The span of Geoff’s life meant that he saw, and was involved with some, of the major events in aviation.  At the same time, he was keen to retain knowledge of the past, becoming a fervent supporter of Richard Pearse as a pioneer New Zealand aviator.

Geoff joined the RAF in 1933, as an aircraft fitter, working on aircraft such as Hawker Hart biplanes and eventually became a sergeant armourer.   He was in France with a Fairey Battle squadron (AASF - Advanced Air Striking Force) from September ‘39 - March ‘40, in the early days of the war before Dunkirk.
In 1943 he was posted to Lagos, in Nigeria, from which he returned with some ebony carvings and an inlaid ivory coffee table (this was in the days before plastic when souvenirs were locally made from real wood). The posting he liked best, though (judging from his reminiscences of it) was St Eval, a Coastal Command airfield near his home in Cornwall. It was probably here that he worked on Beauforts and Hudsons. Later in the war, he was posted to RAF Benson, near Oxford, where he worked on de Havilland Mosquitoes.  

At the end of the war, he took up employment with Miles Aircraft at Woodley, as a draughtsman. It was here that he met Betty Milton-Jones, who had worked for some time as a secretary in the company; they married in 1946. In 1947, Chris arrived, and Barrie in 1950. Miles Aircraft produced some very advanced designs, and was attempting to diversify into general manufacturing, but the time was not good for small aircraft manufacturers. 

In 1951, after a short stay in Hastings (of 1066 fame), Geoff and the family sailed out to Perth, Western Australia, on the passenger/cargo ship Esperance Bay, via the Mediterranean and Suez Canal. Geoff worked for MacRobertson Miller Airlines, who were flying DC3's, as a aircraft mechanic. However, the climate of Perth (in those pre-air conditioning days) was just too hot, and they missed the amenities of England, so in 1953 the family sailed back to England, in the sister ship Moreton Bay. 

Geoff found employment with de Havilland at Hurn airfield (now Bournemouth Airport), near Christchurch in Hampshire, again as a draughtsman. Among other things he was working on the De Havilland 110 Sea Vixen, an exciting swept-wing twin-engined heavy fighter. At the opposite extreme, Chris still remembers his first flight, organised by Geoff, in a dH Dragon Rapide biplane, which many of you will be familiar with. 

However, after a couple of years, de Havilland moved its operations back to their main base at Hatfield, the family preferred to stay on the coast, so Geoff diversified into electronics, servicing refrigerators (Chris remembers helping drag one leaky one out of a customers' house while trying not to breathe the ammonia fumes) and the then-new television sets. He bought an old Hillman Minx car which successfully carried the family to Cornwall and Hastings for holidays. 

In 1962, for reasons unknown, the family decided to move to New Zealand, in the hope that it would be less hot than Australia.  They sailed on the Australia Star, a 10,000-ton cargo-passenger ship, which (due to a change in regulations) carried 12 passengers in cabins originally designed for 44.   Heaps of room and everyone got to sit at the captain's table. 

The general plan was to settle in Palmerston North, but as often happens, the family got as far as Auckland and stuck there.   Geoff found employment servicing television sets (which in those pre-digital days still had hundreds of components, each individually replaceable). 

Meanwhile, his interest in aviation remained. He heard vague rumours of a Kiwi named Pearse, who had allegedly flown an aircraft very early in the piece.   (The fact that Pearse was also of Cornish extraction, and from St Columb a few miles from Geoff's home, probably piqued his interest). So he set out to find out more.   In those days, virtually the only person who had done any serious digging was George Bolt, so there was a lot left to find. Richard Pearse himself had died in Christchurch in 1953, leaving very little documentation.

Chris recalls driving with his father out to Shelly Beach, out beyond Helensville and a real backwater, to interview George Bolt. This must have been very shortly after the family's arrival, since George Bolt died in 1963. Geoff made a number of subsequent trips to Waitohi, near Timaru, the site of Pearse's farm. He interviewed as many witnesses to Pearse's 'flight' as he could track down. He also established that the weird Pearse aircraft displayed in the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) was a much later and entirely different aircraft from the one that Pearse used in his early attempts. 

Geoff subsequently wrote a number of books on the subject, summarising his findings. When he started his investigations, many people doubted whether Pearse had ever flown. Now, it seems most people accept that Pearse did fly, though some may dispute the date. Geoff's books undoubtedly played a part in making the story of Richard Pearse more generally known. 

In 1976 Geoff became an Associate Member of the Royal Aeronautical Society, of which he was always very proud. 

Along with the books, Geoff concluded that the best way to demonstrate that Pearse could have flown was to build a replica. Over time, and with the generous assistance of many who were enthused by the Pearse story, Geoff has built several replicas (though they are inevitably 'best-guess' reproductions since Pearse did not leave detailed drawings). He made a number of trips with his replicas, to displays in New Zealand and even the United Kingdom. In recent years, as he became less able to move around, the construction of his most recent replica was been taken up by good friends who have took him out to Mercer to view progress on the project. The photo below shows Geoff giving the replica a run for its money. 

Geoff had his own room in Hillsborough Hospital, but was frustrated at being physically unable to do much without help. What made it tolerable for him was the steady stream of visits from old friends who came to see him. 

Geoff remained an aviation enthusiast until the end. He was also a gentleman; always kind and courteous. 

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