Air Vice-Marshal Nigel Blair-Oliphant, who has died aged 93, served in the RAF for 32 years, specialising in armament engineering before becoming President of the Ordnance Board.
Blair-Oliphant served in senior appointments in London and Washington at a time of great change in the roles and weapons capabilities of Britain's armed forces. In May 1958 he became the Director of Weapons Engineering at the Ministry of Aviation. The RAF was reeling from the savage defence cuts stemming from the Sandys White Paper of April 1957, which had proposed the demise of the manned fighter in favour of a missile defence system. Blair-Oliphant found himself at the centre of great activity to accelerate the development of various missile defence systems.
He was also heavily involved in the Blue Streak ballistic missile development programme. It had become clear by the mid-1950s that, if Britain wished to maintain an independent nuclear deterrent, she would need to invest in a national ballistic missile programme. This had resulted in the Blue Streak project, and Blair-Oliphant arrived in London at a time when doubts about its future were being cast, due to its slow development and excessive cost.
Eventually, in April 1960, the programme was cancelled on the grounds of cost and vulnerability, and the government transferred its hopes to the Anglo-American Skybolt, an air-launched missile to be carried by the RAF's V-bombers. Ideally qualified to negotiate the project, Blair-Oliphant joined the British Defence Staff in Washington as Director of Aircraft in October 1960 - just in time to learn that the Americans had cancelled Skybolt. Within months of his arrival, the Cuban missile crisis erupted, and his expert knowledge of armaments was of great value to the British ambassador during bi-lateral discussions with the American government.
The third son of Lieutenant Colonel Philip Blair-Oliphant, DSO, who had died of wounds in 1918 while serving with the Royal Irish Rifles, David Nigel Kington Blair-Oliphant was born on December 22 1911 at Blairgowrie, Perthshire. A scion of the Perthshire family of Blair Oliphant and a descendant of the Lords Oliphant, a title created in 1463 but extinct since 1748, Nigel was educated at Harrow and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he excelled as an oarsman; he also learned to fly as a member of the Cambridge University Air Squadron.
Initially commissioned in the Territorial battalion of the Hertfordshire Regiment, Blair-Oliphant joined the RAF in March 1934 and trained as a pilot before joining No 142 Squadron, flying Hart light bombers from Netheravon. He became the adjutant and moved with the squadron to Egypt in October 1935. Three years later he returned to England and became a specialist armaments officer, before joining the aircraft carrier Glorious in January 1938. The carrier sailed for the Mediterranean, and Blair-Oliphant managed to embark with his Morris motor car. During the cruise he persuaded the ship's carpenter to make him a wooden box for his collection of 78 rpm classical records, and it remained in use until his death.
Blair-Oliphant was an outstanding rifle shot, and represented the RAF at Bisley. En route to Egypt, Glorious called at Toulon, where he challenged a French naval team to a rifle match. His team gave the Frenchmen "a sound beating". On arrival in Egypt, he used his car to explore the desert. After 18 months with the Fleet Air Arm, he transferred to a staff appointment at Headquarters Middle East and shortly afterwards met his future wife, Helen Donald, who was secretary to the Head of Station of the British Secret Service in Cairo.
In December 1941 he became the senior armament officer at the headquarters of the Rhodesia Air Training Group. Determined to join him, his fiancée managed to obtain a passage on an evacuees' ship leaving Egypt for England, and she persuaded the captain to put her ashore by small boat as the ship steamed past Durban. She then made her way overland to Salisbury, where she married Blair-Oliphant in 1942.
He returned to England the next year to be the senior armament officer at Army Co-operation Command, and was involved in procuring, storing and maintaining weapons during the preparations and lead-up to D-Day. In June 1944 he transferred to the headquarters of the Second Tactical Air Force and remained with the Command as it moved through Belgium and Holland to Germany. The rocket-firing Typhoon squadrons of 2 TAF used an enormous number of rockets as they attacked transport and ground targets, and Blair-Oliphant and his staff had to ensure a plentiful supply to the many temporary airstrips used by the squadrons as they advanced rapidly to Germany. In January 1945 he was appointed OBE and a year later he was mentioned in dispatches.
After an appointment as the chief armaments officer at Bomber Command, he assumed a similar appointment at the headquarters of the Far East Air Force in Singapore. This was at a time during the Malaya emergency when many squadrons were involved in bombing and rocket operations against the Communist guerrillas. On one occasion, accompanied by his 10-year-old son, he drove his Triumph Mayflower unescorted through bandit country in Malaya to visit an old Army friend with no more than his service revolver in the glove compartment.
He returned to England in December 1955 to command No 1 Radio School at RAF Locking, in Somerset.
After his busy tour in Washington, Blair-Oliphant was appointed vice-president of the Ordnance Board in February 1963 in the rank of air vice-marshal, before assuming the presidency for his final year. This was at the height of the Cold War, when Britain's strategic nuclear capability - including the country's independent nuclear deterrent, now vested in the submarine-launched Polaris missile system - was at constant readiness. The RAF also maintained a 15-minute quick reaction alert posture with its tactical aircraft based in Germany. Blair-Oliphant finally retired in April 1966, having been appointed CB in the previous January.
In retirement Blair-Oliphant was involved with charity work, particularly for Life for the World, which helps young drug addicts; he also worked on behalf of the poor in Bangladesh. He was a staunch Christian.
In addition to his outstanding success with the RAF rifle team, he was also a fine fencer in the epée and sabre, winning many service awards. He was also a keen and proficient yachtsman.
Nigel Blair-Oliphant died on June 5. His wife predeceased him, and he is survived by a son.
Text © 2005 D.C.Adams Rev190409