Former Royal Air Force (RAF) Squadron Leader and Mission Aviation Fellowship co-founder Jack Hemmings AFC is celebrating his 102nd birthday this month, marking a life of extraordinary service and demonstrating that age has not slowed him down.
Jack’s passion for flying and aviation began in August 1940, when the then 19-year-old volunteered as an aircrew member. First taking to the air in a Tiger Moth, Jack then progressed to multi-engine aircraft, flying onboard Airspeed Oxfords, Lockheed Hudson, and Dakota aircraft during World War II.
Stationed in Calcutta with 353 Squadron, which was formed out of 62 Squadron RAF and 103 (Coast Defence) Flight, Indian Air Force, Jack helped protect the Bay of Bengal and the coast of Burma until demobilisation in 1946.
“I had the distinction of being the only one to be seriously hit by enemy fire. I flew in to have a look at the port of Taungup to be met by a shower of upward flying incendiaries,” Jack recollected as he documented his wartime experiences. “There was a loud bang behind my head, and something exploded just as the rear gunner called up to say, rather dryly, ‘lot of holes in the wing, Jack’.”
Jack’s distinguished wartime service saw him awarded the Air Force Cross for exemplary gallantry while flying, as well as the RAF’s Master Air Pilot award in 2017. However, his dedication to military service did not end there, and he continued to inspire a new generation by volunteering as a Flying Officer with the Air Cadets at RAF Harwell between 1970-1975.
Jack continued to pursue his passion for aviation and love of adventure after his time in the Air Force, winning the Dungeness to Le Touquet air race in 1985, still holding the record for that distance. In 1992, at the age of 70, he began training in aerobatics and at the age of 80 he learned to ski. He remains an active flyer, celebrating his 100th birthday in August 2021 and, remarkably, performing aerial aerobatics in a Slingsby. After the flight, a surprise gift organised by his wife Kate, he remarked, “Aerobatics are such a treat, it’s a wonderful feeling which I thoroughly enjoy.”
But, perhaps his most remarkable feats have come at the intersection of his passion for flying and his faith, through the ministry of the Mission Aviation Fellowship [MAF], one of the world’s largest humanitarian air services. MAF began in 1948 when Jack and fellow RAF veteran Stuart King took a 1947 Miles Gemini on a six-month aerial survey to assess the humanitarian needs of isolated communities dotted across Central Africa, the first British mission of its kind. From this modest beginning, MAF now flies to more destinations than any other airline, delivering aid, medical help, and emergency evacuations in more than 25 low-income countries.
“During our survey in 1948, perhaps we could have imagined half a dozen aircraft in Africa. Today, MAF has 120 around the world. Every flight does some good – I think MAF is like the international Good Samaritan of the air,” Jack said.
“One cannot count the number of people whose lives have been enriched by its services. If he were alive today, I would simply say to him, Stuart – you did good.”
Speaking on his 102nd birthday, he said, “When I first joined the RAF in 1940, I thought, ‘If I am going to fight in a war, I may as well do it sitting down!’ Getting into an airplane gives a sense of pleasant expectation – I’ve never got into one and regretted it. I love flying because it gives a feeling of detachment from all the problems in the world – and there are a lot of problems.
“During wartime, aircraft were used for destruction; but it has always been my desire that they be used for good. That is what MAF does today, it is more than a bright idea that stayed in someone’s head, it has grown exponentially to become the Good Samaritan of the air. Turning 102 doesn’t quite have the allure of 100, but it’s nice to have it behind me.”
Jack still flies regularly with his son-in-law, a recently retired British Airways captain, who remarked, “I’ve been astounded by Jack. When he gets in an airplane, he is in his home environment – he is so confident and aware.”
Air Vice Marshal Giles Legood, Chief Chaplain of the Raf, paid a visit to Jack in celebration of his 102nd birthday on 10 August.
He lauded this amazing life of service: “What a life of devotion and service to others Jack has given. As wartime RAF pilot and peacetime supporter of MAF, he has helped establish peace and improve the lives of many. My grateful prayer and thanks are offered for his remarkable life.”