Wing-Commander Robert Gibbes

Second World War pilot

Born: 6 May, 1916, in Young, New South Wales.

Died: 11 April, 2007, in Sydney, aged 90.

WING-COMMANDER Bobby Gibbes was one of Australia's most decorated Second World War fighter pilots, seeing action in north Africa, in the defence of Australia against Japanese air raids and in the aerial battles over Japanese-occupied Pacific islands. His P40 Kittyhawk fighter was decorated with a painted kangaroo kicking the backside of a German dachshund.

Gibbes, who died after a stroke, was shot down once and crashed once. He was credited with downing at least ten enemy aircraft and was once recommended, unsuccessfully, for the Victoria Cross. For his wartime action with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), he was awarded Britain's Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC, with bar). In 2004, he was given his own nation's Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for "services to aviation and tourism", particularly in Papua New Guinea, then under Australian control, where he moved as a business pioneer after the war.

One of Gibbes's most-renowned exploits, recounted in detail in his 1994 autobiography, You Live But Once, took place on 21 December, 1942, south of the Libyan city of Sirte. He and five other Kittyhawks from the RAAF were on a reconnaissance mission over an Italian airfield when they came under heavy ground fire. One of his colleagues plunged rapidly to inevitable death. Another, Rex Bailey, crash-landed.

Although his own plane had been damaged by shrapnel after he flew over the airfield "at nought feet" and blew up an Italian Savoia aircraft, Gibbes managed to land some distance from Bailey's downed plane. Evading Italian troops, Bailey ran to reach his comrade, who dumped his own parachute to fit him into the cockpit and "used him as my seat" to take off and fly back to base. Having lost a wheel against a ridge in the 300ft take-off, Gibbes had to pull off a dangerous one-wheel landing at base. The rescue, and the Kittyhawks' destruction of a dozen Italian planes at the airfield, were cited in his DSO award.

Just over three weeks later, with his aircraft patched up, Gibbes was shot down 120 miles behind German lines, but he evaded search parties sent out by Rommel's Afrika Korps, fooling them by walking west - away from his RAAF base. After 72 thirsty hours, his plan paid off as he ran into a British unit, greeting them with the inevitable: "G'day, mate. Got any water?"

Towards the end of the war, in the Pacific, "Gibbsy" was one of eight senior Australian fliers involved in the so-called Morotai mutiny, named after the Indonesian island where they and their Spitfire squadrons were based. In April 1945, the eight complained they were being relegated to "pointless" ground attack missions against demoralised Japanese forces on non-strategic islands, and taking too many losses from anti-aircraft fire because of their low altitude, while their Spitfires should have been used in vital air-to-air combat.

The officers were persuaded to withdraw their resignations. But, amid split loyalties at the top of the RAAF hierarchy, Gibbes and two others, including Australia's "top gun", Clive "Killer" Caldwell, were hit with what was widely seen as a retaliatory, trumped-up charge of smuggling alcohol. All three war heroes were court-martialled - in Gibbes's case because of a bottle of gin, one of wine and two of Scotch found in his quarters.

Needless to say, by attempting to ensure their supply of booze, the three retained the sympathy and support of virtually everyone back home, where they were by then household names.

Robert Henry Maxwell Gibbes was born in the town of Young, New South Wales, in May 1916. When the Second World War started, he enlisted as an air cadet and was flying with the RAAF by June 1940 after lying about his height, short of the stipulated minimum.

From 1941-43, most of his combat action was in north Africa. In the latter year, he was recalled to Darwin after continuous Japanese air raids on the city. Crashing during a training flight the same year, he suffered serious injuries and burns and found himself being treated by a Red Cross volunteer called Jeannine Ince. They married in December 1944.

After the war, realising the need for air links across the highlands of Papua New Guinea, then an Australian "external territory", he moved to PNG and launched Gibbes Pepik Airways, using Junkers JU52 aircraft he bought in Scandinavia. He sold the business in 1958, developed a coffee plantation on PNG, and started a hotel, the Bird of Paradise, in the city of Goroka, eventually turning it into a chain.

By the time he returned to Australia in 1975, Gibbes was seen as an important pioneer of Papua New Guinea's development. Never one to take it easy, and already in his sixties, he sailed his 40ft catamaran, Billabong, solo from Southampton to Sydney.

Still flying as an octogenarian, he built his own miniature, two-engined aircraft in the lounge of his home on Collaroy Beach, Sydney. After miscalculating its wing-span, he had to knock down a wall to get it out and in the air, but it worked.

He flew the contraption, described by friends as looking "like a lawnmower" until he was 85, when Australian civil aviation authorities decided he was too old to retain his licence. He was not amused and, as always, said so in no uncertain language.

During Gibbes's funeral in a Sydney Anglican church, a single Spitfire Mk-VIII, its nose painted with a "shark's jaws" logo and the personalised signature his own Spitfire used to carry - Grey Nurse - overflew the church with an escort of four modern F-18 Hornet fighters.

He is survived by his wife of 62 years, Jeannine, daughters Robyn and Julie, and five grandchildren.