Obituary: Fred White MBE, businessman and airman

Award-winning Aberdeen toy shop owner, accomplished RAF veteran and gliding instructor. Picture: Contributed
Award-winning Aberdeen toy shop owner, accomplished RAF veteran and gliding instructor. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 21 May, 1910, in Aberdeen. Died: 9 April, 2015, in Aberdeen, aged 104.

Generations of children in the North-east fondly remember the excitement of a visit to Fred White’s toy shop – a magical cornucopia of goodies packed from floor to ceiling.

A popular and well-loved Aberdeen institution, his Toy Bazaar was an old-fashioned, award-winning shop and an Aladdin’s Cave to youngsters.

But few would have been aware that the man behind the counter was also an accomplished airman, an RAF veteran of the Second World War who had taken his first solo flight in a Gypsy Moth biplane and devoted decades of his life to training youngsters to take to the skies.

He had commanded a volunteer gliding school, was instrumental in raising the standards of instructors across the Air Cadets and remained so devoted to the cause of flying training that he was still carrying out official duties as he approached the age of 104.

The son of a trawler skipper, he was born four years before the start of the Great War and was educated at Aberdeen’s Mile End Primary and Rosemount Junior Secondary schools. As a youth he too went to sea, as a deckhand on a trawler, but after marrying in 1935 he and his wife Chryse ran a ship’s chandlers business at Aberdeen Harbour.

A bout of diphtheria in childhood had resulted in his left arm being shorter than his right but it did not prevent him taking up flying and as a young man he took lessons at Dyce Airport, going solo in 1938 and gaining his pilot’s licence as part of the Civil Air Guard. When Britain declared war on Germany in 1939 he applied to join the RAF as a pilot but was rejected due to his arm impairment.

He was later given the opportunity to become an instructor training pilots on the rudiments of instrument flying in a simulated cockpit. After being called up in 1942 he was stationed initially in Dum Dum, India before being transferred to Ceylon, as a Link Trainer instructor.

He finished the war as a sergeant and returned to Aberdeen and his business, diversifying in 1950 to open a shop in the city’s Netherkirkgate selling pets and toys and carrying out cigarette lighter and toy repairs.

The following year he became involved in the Air Training Corps as a gliding instructor when recruits included a future air vice-marshal and one particular cadet, Sandy Reid, who would become a squadron leader and who later returned to join Fred White as a glider instructor at Dyce.

In 1962 they both attended an advanced RAF course where they flew on long distance cross-country flights, landing in fields where the aircraft were dismantled and taken back to base in trailers.

On their return to Aberdeen Fred White decided he could use the experience to train instructors to undertake similar extended cross-country flights. There was a minor problem though – no suitable trailer. Undaunted, he decided to seek funding to build one. He applied to the MacRobert Trust, a charity borne out of the loss of Lady Rachel MacRobert’s three sons in flying tragedies.

All were in their 20s – the eldest, Alasdair, died in a civil air accident, his two younger brothers, Roderic and Iain, both Second World War RAF pilots, died three years later within six weeks of each other. But rather than offer a grant the trust decided to donate a high performance glider and trailer to 662 Volunteer Gliding School – motto Sapientus Icaro, Smarter than Icarus – which White commanded.

He took delivery of it in 1963 and the venture was such a success that the trust later donated two more gliders and trailers, with the three aircraft bearing the names of Lady MacRobert and sons Roderic and Iain. The Ministry of Defence chipped in with a further two gliders and as a result of the North-east initiative the standard of flying instructors was raised throughout the Air Cadet movement.

Mr White, who was CO of the gliding school when it was based at Edzell and at its subsequent base at Condor, was awarded the MBE for services to the Air Training Corps in 1970.

Meanwhile, he continued to run his business, moving the shop to larger premises in Aberdeen’s Correction Wynd where he focused on toy sales and, in 1988, the Toy Bazaar was named Scottish Toy Shop of the Year by the National Association of Toy Retailers.

He finally retired in 1990 and the following year the entire Air Cadet fleet was retired, disposed of and replaced by modern aircraft.

However, the MacRobert legacy lived on with Sandy Reid, then a squadron leader and CO of 663 Motor Glider School at RAF Kinloss, having the names of Lady MacRobert and her younger sons embossed on the wheel spats of the unit’s three Vigilant motor gliders.

Later, in a continuing acknowledgement of the debt owed to the trust, the names were transferred to three dedicated gliders based at the RAF’s Central Gliding School.

Then last spring, just before his 104th birthday, Fred White continued the proud connection with the MacRobert family by presenting trust administrator, Air Commodore Robert Joseph, RAF Rtd, with the MacRobert Legacy, a plaque in recognition of its long-term support of the Air Training Corps. The ceremony, at the care home in Aberdeen’s Torry where he lived latterly, was also attended by Squadron Leader Sandy Reid, RAFVR Rtd.

Predeceased by his wife of 65 years, Fred White is survived by his son Eric, three grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.