Whitney Straight

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For the aircraft, see Miles Whitney Straight. For the publisher, see Michael Whitney Straight.
Whitney Willard Straight
Born 6 November 1912 (1912-11-06)
New York, United States
Died 5 April 1979 (1979-04-06) (aged 66)
Fulham, London, England
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  Royal Air Force
Years of service 1939–1945
Rank Air Commodore
Unit No. 601 Squadron RAF

World War II

Awards Commander of the Order of the British Empire
Military Cross
Distinguished Flying Cross
Relations Lady Daphne Margarita Finch-Hatton
Willard Dickerman Straight
Dorothy Payne Whitney
Other work Chairman Royal Aero Club, Managing Director and CEO British Overseas Airways Corporation, Deputy Chairman Rolls-Royce

Air Commodore Whitney Willard Straight CBE, MC, DFC (6 November 1912 – 5 April 1979) was a Grand Prix motor racing driver, aviator, businessman, and a member of the prominent Whitney family of the United States.

Early life[edit]

Born in New York City, Whitney Straight was the son of Major Willard Dickerman Straight (1880–1918) and heiress Dorothy Payne Whitney (1887–1968). He was almost six years old when his father died in France of influenza during the great epidemic while serving with the United States Army during World War I. Following his mother's remarriage to British agronomist Leonard K. Elmhirst (1893–1974) in 1925, the family moved to England. They lived at Dartington Hall where he attended the progressive school founded by his parents. His education was completed at Trinity College, Cambridge.


Motor racing[edit]

While still an undergraduate at Cambridge, he became a well known Grand Prix motor racing driver and competed at events in the UK and Europe. He competed in more Grands Prix than any American until after World War II. Straight started competing in 1931 with a Brooklands Riley competing at Shelsley Walsh, Southport and Brooklands circuit.[1]

In 1933, driving a black and silver Maserati, he won the Mountain Championship at Brooklands,[2] the Mont Ventoux Hill Climb (3 September) [3] and the Brighton Speed Trials (16 September).[4] He also won the 1100 c.c. class in the Coppa Acerbo, held at Pescara, Italy, driving an M.G. Magnette.[5] In 1934 he formed his own motor racing team, personally driving to victory in the South African Grand Prix, held on the 16-mile Buffalo circuit in East London.[6] He also gave public demonstrations at Brooklands Racing Circuit achieving a speed of 138.7 mph, a record for 5 litre class cars.


Flying was also a passion, and while 16 years old (still too young for a pilot's licence) he had already accumulated over 60 hours solo flight. In his early 20s, as head of the Straight Corporation Limited, he operated airfields throughout Britain and ran flying clubs. In 1936 he helped develop the Miles Whitney Straight aircraft, the same year he became a naturalised British citizen. On 18 October 1938, the Straight Corporation purchased control of Norman Edgar (Western Airways), Ltd. and renamed it Western Airways Ltd. His commercial airline business in the later 1930s was reputed to be carrying more passengers than Imperial Airways, on short routes within the UK, flying DH Dragon Rapides.

World War II[edit]

During World War II, Whitney Straight served as a Royal Air Force pilot. He was sent to Norway in April 1940 to find frozen lakes suitable for use as airfields. Lake Lesjaskog was utilised by 263 Squadron during the Norwegian Campaign as a result. Straight was seriously wounded during a German bombing raid in Norway.[7]

For his service in Norway he was awarded the Norwegian War Cross with sword in 1942.[8]

After convalescing he next served with No. 601 Squadron RAF in the Battle of Britain. From September 1940 until April 1941 he was credited with two aircraft destroyed. He then became CO of 242 Squadron, bringing his total to 3 and 1 shared ( with 2 'probables') by late July 1941.[9] Early in 1941 he was awarded a Military Cross for his work in Norway.

He was shot down by flak over France on 31 July 1941 and initially evaded capture. Through the French Underground, he made his way to unoccupied Vichy France where he was captured and put in a POW camp. However he escaped on 22 June 1942 and with the aid of the French Resistance reached safety in Gibraltar.

Air Commodore Straight, AOC RAF Transport Command, Middle East, with Sheikh Khalifa, cousin of the ruler of Bahrain, and his two sons, pictured in front of an RAF Dakota, 18 January 1945

In September 1942, now as an Air Commodore, he was sent to the Middle East joining HQ, No. 216 Group, as AOC.

After the War[edit]

At war's end, he returned to the UK becoming AOC, 46 Group in June 1945. He was released from the RAF in late 1945, and he became chairman of the Royal Aero Club. With the establishment of the British European Airways corporation in 1946, Straight was its deputy chairman. In July 1947, he became managing director and Chief Executive Officer of British Overseas Airways Corporation. In 1949, was appointed deputy Chairman of the board. In the United States his cousin, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney (1899–1992), was the President of Aviation Corporation of America which became Pan American Airways.

Around this time he was also on the board of Rolls-Royce and he discovered that the Russians had been given 40 Rolls-Royce jet engines by the post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee. The Russians had copied the technology to produce their own version jet engine and were powering the MIG fighters using Rolls-Royce technology. He decided to sue the Russian government for copyright infringement. The figure claimed was £200 million which he never received.

In 1967, he donated the Whitney Straight Award to the Royal Aeronautical Society to recognise the achievement and status of women in aviation.[10]

Personal life[edit]

On July 17, 1935 he married Lady Daphne Margarita Finch-Hatton (1913–2003),[11] the daughter of Guy Finch-Hatton, the 14th Earl of Winchilsea (1885–1939)[12] and Margaretta Armstrong Drexel, the Countess Winchilsea (1885–1952). Lady Daphne's paternal uncle was Denys Finch Hatton (1887–1931), a famous pilot who was involved with Beryl Markham (1902–1986), another British pilot. Lady Daphne was half-American as her mother, Margaretta, was the daughter of Anthony Joseph Drexel, Jr. (1864–1934) and the granddaughter of Anthony Joseph Drexel (1826–1893), all from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Lady Daphne's maternal uncles included, Anthony J. Drexel II, who married Marjorie Gould, daughter of George Jay Gould, and John Armstrong Drexel (1891-1958), who was also an aviation pioneer.[12] Together, Whitney and Lady Daphne had two daughters:[13]

  • Camilla Caroline Straight, who on 22 June 1960, married Michael Ian Vansittart Bowater (b. 1934) (the son of Lt. Col. Sir Ian Bowater (1904-1982) and The Hon. Ursula Margaret Dawson (1907–1999))[14]
    • Arabella Charlotte Bowater (1961–2005),[14]
    • Katherine Elizabeth Bowater (b. 1963),[14]
    • Caroline Mary Bowater (b. 1965)[14]
    • Sophia Melissa Bowater (b. 1970)[14]
  • Amanda Straight

Affair with Diana Barnato Walker[edit]

While Straight was married to Lady Daphne, he had an affair with noted aviator Diana Barnato Walker, MBE (1918–2008), the first British woman to break the sound barrier[15] Diana was the daughter of Woolf Barnato (1895-1948), another famous racing driver, and the widow of Wing Commander Derek Ronald Walker, RAF, who was killed on 14 November 1945 in bad weather while flying.[16] Together, Whitney and Diana had a son:

  • Barney Barnato Walker (born 1947)


Straight died in Fulham in 1979 at the age of sixty-six. Lady Daphne died at her home in London on June 3, 2003,[13] and Walker died on April 28, 2008, aged 90[17]

Honours and awards[edit]


  1. ^ Motor Sport, December 1933, Pages 90, 92.
  2. ^ Motor Sport, December 1933, Page 85.
  3. ^ Motor Sport, October 1933, Page 572.
  4. ^ Motor Sport, October 1933, Pages 540, 542.
  5. ^ Motor Sport, December 1933, Page 84.
  6. ^ The Manchester Guardian, 28 December 1934, Page 4.
  7. ^ Those Other Eagles; Shores, 2004 biog on page 577
  8. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 35827. p. 5506. 15 December 1942. Retrieved 25 November 2008.
  9. ^ Those Other Eagles; Shores, 2004 biog on page 577
  10. ^ [Flight International, 22 February 1968]
  11. ^ "Deaths STRAIGHT, LADY DAPHNE MARGARITA". The New York Times. June 5, 2003. Retrieved 3 February 2016. 
  12. ^ a b "Whitney Straight to Wed in England". The New York Times. April 11, 1935. Retrieved 3 February 2016. 
  13. ^ a b "Deaths STRAIGHT, LADY DAPHNE MARGARITA". The New York Times. June 5, 2003. Retrieved 3 February 2016. 
  14. ^ a b c d e Lundy, Darryl. "Camilla Caroline Straight". thepeerage.com. The Peerage. Retrieved 28 March 2016. 
  15. ^ Spreading My Wings by Diana Barnato-Walker.
  16. ^ Rennell, Tony (6 May 2008). "She flew Spitfires and was the first woman to break the sound barrier - the very racy life of the original fast lady". Daily Mail. London. Retrieved 6 May 2008. 
  17. ^ Burns, John F. (May 12, 2008). "Diana Barnato Walker, Acclaimed Pilot, Dies at 90". The New York Times. Retrieved 29 March 2016. 

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