Douglas Bader – Legless Pilot, Inspirational Leader and Aviation Hero

In 1931, Douglas Bader, a brilliant 21 year old pilot officer in the RAF, was chosen as one of the elite pilots to perform at the famous Hendon air display. Though often in breach of regulations for flying too close to the ground, he was an exceptional aerobatic pilot, but on 14 December that year his luck ran out.

While visiting Woodley Aerodrome, near Reading, he was invited by fellow pilots to give a repeat performance of his Hendon aerobatics, and the temptation was too great to resist. At just a few feet above the grass airfield Douglas Bader attempted to slow roll his Bulldog biplane; his left wingtip brushed the ground and at 125mph he crashed into the ground losing both legs in the accident.

After months in hospital he was fitted with two tin legs and discharged from the service with 100{5ee11404e957289b2d225099b4f7d52b5549ec41b8e6ad1d623dc3506be9751a} disability, his career apparently in ruins.

A lesser mortal would have hung up his flying helmet there and then, but not Douglas Bader. As soon as war broke out with Germany he badgered his way back into the RAF, convinced the Air Ministry doctors, bureaucrats, and flying instructors he could fly as well as anyone with two good legs, regained his wings, and at the beginning of 1940 was posted to 19 Squadron at RAF Duxford, equipped with Mark I Spitfires. In June of that year he was given command of 242 Squadron which, flying Hurricanes, he led with great distinction throughout the Battle of Britain.

In March 1941 Douglas Bader was given the new post of Wing Commander Flying at Tangmere on the south coast. Equipped with Spitfires, Bader led the wing when, for the first time since the outbreak of war, the RAF were able to take the fight across the Channel to the enemy. Having been flying operationally without rest for 18 months – he had rejected the offer of a break – on 9 August 1941 Bader’s luck again ran out.

In a large dog-fight over Bethune in northern France he became detached from the squadron, engaged by Messerschmitt fighters of Adolf Galland’s JG-26 wing, and in the ensuing battle collided with one of them, losing the entire tail section of his Spitfire. He had no option but to bale out and was taken prisoner.
A constant thorn in the side of his captors, Douglas Bader was eventually incarcerated inside the infamous Colditz prison camp where he remained till the end of the war.

Returning to the UK after his release, Bader joined the Shell Company in 1946 as a special envoy, continuing to fly himself and senior company personnel all over the globe in the company aircraft. Upon his retirement in 1964 Shell presented him with the aircraft “so as to preserve his customary mobility”.

Throughout all his peacetime years Douglas Bader never ceased to be an inspiration to others who had lost limbs or were disabled in some way. He seized every opportunity to encourage others to approach disability with the same determination that made him one of the great fighter leaders of WWII, and his infectious exuberance, energy and indomitable spirit changed forever the many people whose lives he touched.

Douglas Bader was Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1976 for his commitment and inspirational work for the disabled.

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