Aviator notched up almost 1200 hours, 11 victories and military honours over France.

46 Clive Collett

Lady luck ran out for skilful pilot Clive Collett two days before Christmas in 1917.

Collett, one of New Zealand's most accomplished World War I aviators, had flown nearly 1200 hours in dozens of different aircraft when he took to the air in a captured German plane over the Firth of Forth.

The 31-year-old was comfortable with the single-seat Albatros DV, which had been forced down intact behind Allied lines in July 1917 and flown back to Britain for tests.

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A skilled Royal Flying Corps demonstration and experimental pilot, Collett had been flying the Albatros since October, taking the Mercedes-powered aircraft around Britain to show training and reserve squadrons.

On the day of his last flight the Tauranga-trained engineer took off west of Edinburgh and headed over the Forth estuary. On his final manoeuvre, a Court of Inquiry later found, Collett misjudged his height above the sea and crashed. He was buried on December 28 in the Scottish city.

Marlborough-born Collett spent two years in the Territorials in the Bay of Plenty and went to England soon after war broke out, arriving on December 23, 1914. By the end of January 1915 he had his Royal Aero Club Aviator's certificate from a north London flying school and six weeks later joined the Royal Flying Corps.

Posted to active duty in France in March 1916 with 18 Squadron, Collett wrote to his older brother Horace disappointed that his Vickers FB5 biplane was "too slow to catch the majority of the Hun machines". He would take his machine up to 10,000ft while an observer took photographs of enemy positions. Anti-aircraft shelling made for close shaves, he wrote: "We nearly always find some holes through the wings."

On April 18 Collett crashed a plane and was sent back across the channel for treatment. In June, Collett, now recovered, was transferred to the Experimental Armaments Squadron in Suffolk as a test pilot. On January 13, 1917, the flight commander created British military history with the first parachute jump from an RFC plane.

One account reported he dived head-first from the lower wing of a BE 2C aircraft from 600ft (180m).

By the middle of the year Collett was posted to 70 Squadron in northwestern France, arriving as the unit acquired new fighters -- Sopwith Camels.

Out of an evening practice flight near Ypres on July 27, Collett described how he was chased by five German aircraft. After clearing a jammed gun, Collett fired a burst into the fuselage of one fighter.

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"He hovered for a moment, fell over on one side and then dived over the vertical," the airman's combat report noted.

For his skill and bravery, Collett was awarded a Military Cross. The citation noted that he had attacked and destroyed enemy aircraft and driven others down out of control. A Bar awarded soon after said Collett had nailed three enemy planes in a single day, attacking from low altitudes "the greatest dash and determination".

British pilot and Victoria Cross winner James McCudden recalled that the eager Kiwi "used to come back shot to ribbons nearly every time he went out".

On his last mission in France, Collett came under fire from three German fighters and, in pain from a hand shattered by an enemy round, skipped home above the trenches at just 12m.

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