HE WAS the famous test pilot who took to the skies just hours after a friend died in a flying accident that killed 31 people.

Now a letter in which Winston Churchill praised the fortitude of Squadron Leader Neville Duke has sold at Sotheby's for thousands of pounds.

Sqdn Ldr Duke, from Lymington, was the most successful Allied fighter ace in the Mediterranean area during the Second World War, destroying 27 enemy aircraft.

Bournemouth Echo:

After the war he became a celebrated test pilot and was heavily involved in the development of the Hawker Hunter.

He flew the new fighter at the 1952 Farnborough Airshow just hours after a prototype de Havilland DH 110, piloted by his friend John Derry, had broken up in mid-air, killing Derry and his observer, Tony Richards. A total of 29 people on the ground were killed and 60 injured.

But the show was allowed to continue once debris from the catastrophic accident had been cleared.

Sqdn Ldr Duke later received a handwritten letter from Churchill which was written on Downing Street notepaper and began "My dear Duke".

The famous statesman added: "It was characteristic of you to go up yesterday after the shocking accident. Accept my salute. Yours, in grief, Winston Churchill."

Bournemouth Echo:

Now the letter has been bought by an unidentified bidder for £8,125, exceeding its pre-auction estimate of £6,000-£8,000.

Having led Britain to victory in the war Churchill lost the 1945 General Election and spent six years as Leader of the Opposition before returning to Downing Street in 1951. He was still Prime Minister when he wrote to Duke on September 7 1952.

The following year Sqdn Ldr Duke set a new world air speed record, flying a Hawker Hunter at 727mph over Littlehampton.

In April 2007 he and his 86-year-old wife Gwen were flying their private plane when he was taken ill.

He landed safely at Popham airfield, near Winchester, but collapsed as he left the plane and was taken by ambulance to hospital in Basingstoke, where doctors discovered he had suffered an aneurysm.

He was transferred to St Peter's Hospital in Chertsey, Surrey but died later that evening aged 85.