Erik Blyth Nelson, 89, aviator and aircraft designer

March 25, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Erik Blyth Nelson, an aviator who designed airplanes and helped develop trans-Pacific air routes, died of heart failure Thursday at the William Hill Center in Easton. The longtime Oxford resident was 89.

Mr. Nelson's varied career began in the 1920s, when he was a professional motorcycle racer in his native England and ended when he retired as president of Lockheed of Canada in 1970.

He was one of the last of the pre-World War II engineers who designed the aircraft they flew and blazed international air routes in Europe and Asia.

"He was one of the last surviving aviation pioneers in the world," said David R. Owen of Riderwood, a retired Baltimore attorney and former Navy officer, who met Mr. Nelson in the early 1940s in Baltimore.

"He was a wonderful English character who was perhaps the most personable, easy-to-know person that I've ever met. It was no wonder that he quickly got to know everyone in Baltimore," Mr. Owen said.

"He had the soul of an artist and the mind of an engineer," said a son, Christopher Nelson of Annandale, Va.

In 1942, Erik Nelson, a Royal Air Force pilot and expert pilot of Sunderland flying boats, was taken off active duty with a bomber command and sent to Baltimore to establish a VIP seaplane service for British Overseas Airways Corp. at the old Municipal Airport, where Dundalk Marine Terminal now stands.

He often flew British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and other members of Churchill's Cabinet across the Atlantic to wartime meetings in Washington with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In 1943, he returned to duty as a group captain in the RAF, securing captured airfields in Europe.

After the war, he served as BOAC's operations director until 1950, when he emigrated to the United States. He joined Lockheed Aircraft Corp. as director of East Coast, Canadian, Latin and South American and Caribbean sales operations and later became president of Lockheed of Canada. After he retired, he moved to Oxford.

He was closely involved in the design of the L-1011 airplane, and after the 1979 crash of a jumbo jet in Chicago, he served on a congressional committee that investigated airline safety.

Mr. Nelson was born in Warwick, England, and entered Oxford University to study music. But "he had the wanderlust," said his son. "He was the third son of minor English landed gentry and had to go out and make a living."

For seven years, Mr. Nelson raced motorcycles throughout England until he discovered airplanes. He later studied at Coventry Tech and earned a degree as a licensed practical engineer.

In 1930, he joined the Royal Air Force Reserve, where he became friendly with T. E. Lawrence, the enigmatic "Lawrence of Arabia." They shared an interest in motorcycles and often rode together.

"Lawrence changed his name to Airman Shaw, and one day my father referred to him as Lawrence. He glared and got up from the table. No one was to ever call him that and the two never spoke again," Christopher Nelson said.

In the mid-1930s, Erik Nelson made two significant contacts in the British Secret Intelligence Services. The first was Sir William Stephenson, a Canadian with the code name of "Intrepid," who was director of the spy organization, and the other was Sir Noel Coward, the English actor and playwright with whom he collaborated on several songs.

At the behest of Mr. Stephenson, "during the 1930s, he would fly over Germany and would request permission to land at German air bases in order to use the bathroom," said his son with a laugh. "And then he would do his best bumbling Englishman interpretation, all the while counting and observing the aircraft rTC on the ground."

In 1934, he was sent by the Colonial Office to Hong Kong as an aviation adviser to help design Kai Tak International Airport. While there, he helped Pan American World Airways develop its trans-Pacific routes.

For 24 years until last year, Mr. Nelson wrote a column "On This and That" for the Star Democrat in Easton.

In 1943 in England, he married Jane Dudley Wilson, whom he met in Baltimore. She survives him as does another son, Blyth Nelson of Mill Valley, Calif.; two grandchildren; three step-grandchildren; and two step-great-grandchildren.

Services were held Saturday.

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Pub Date: 3/25/97

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