Celebrating the life and legacy of Michelle Jurd

PUBLISHED: 00:00 29 April 2019

Michelle  in front of one of her squadron's helicopter in Iraq

Michelle in front of one of her squadron's helicopter in Iraq

not Archant

It’s is almost ten years since Lancashire’s RAF trail-blazer Michelle Jurd died in a car crash but her memory remains undiminished.

Neil  with daughters Matilda, 14,  and Elsa, 11Neil with daughters Matilda, 14, and Elsa, 11

Michelle would be p***ed off that she was dead, she shouldn't be dead she should be watching her girls grow up. But she would be so proud of them and what has been done in her name.'

The words are from Neil Jurd whose remarkable wife, a trail-blazing RAF veteran, was tragically killed almost ten years ago. The terrible irony was that during her service career she survived a host of dangerous missions only to die, aged 41, after her car struck the side of an articulated lorry carrying fairground equipment, which had straddled the A590 at Gilpin Bridge in the South Lakes.

On service, she helped rescue stranded soldiers in a sandstorm in Iraq, flew vanguard helicopters to secure bridge-heads during the UK's intervention in Kosova and served in Northern Ireland during the troubles.

She helped pluck people from tree-tops when floods struck Mozambique during a dare-devil career which took her round the world.

Neil and Michelle on their wedding dayNeil and Michelle on their wedding day

But Michelle, who gave up her front-line career to look after the girls, died on a dark evening in November 2009 while taking them home to Grange-over-Sands from swimming lessons at Kendal Leisure Centre.

Matilda, then aged four, and two-year-old Elsa, survived after being cut from the wreckage and the lorry driver was given a suspended jail sentence and ordered to do 200 hours of community service after he admitted causing death by dangerous driving.

The tragic irony of her death was not lost on Neil. 'There were times when she was serving in Iraq when I was really concerned when there was news of British helicopters being shot down. But I never occurred to me for a moment that she would die doing what parents do.'

While Michelle's life came to a horribly sudden end her name lives on thanks to Neil and their daughters, who set up a charity in her name helping to make dreams come true for thousands of children.

Neil  with daughters Matilda  and Elsa in the garden at their home in KendalNeil with daughters Matilda and Elsa in the garden at their home in Kendal

This month tickets go on sale for the 10th annual Ball to celebrate the life and legacy of the brave and adventurous woman, who was born and grew up in Poulton-le-Fylde, attending Hodgson High as Michelle Wilkinson.

She went on to Nottingham University to study biology and then the RAF College Cranwell where she became the first female officer to qualify as a navigator on Puma aircraft. She reached the rank of squadron leader.

Neil served in the army from 1992 to 2009, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. The couple met while on active service in Belize. 'I was immediately aware of this attractive and interesting woman who flew helicopters,' he says.

As he got to know Michelle, he discovered she also had an amazing appetite for adventure away from her military exploits as well as on them. 'She loved the Lake District which is why we ended up living here. We went scuba diving, she sailed, she loved walking and climbing, all the outdoor stuff,' says Neil.

They married in 1996, and continued to serve, sometimes in different theatres of war, even after they had their first child, Matilda, in March 2005.

Michelle left the RAF in 2007 and a year later Neil left the army rather than go to Afghanistan and spend any more time away from his family. He became operations manager for British Sugar.

'A couple of months later, Michelle died. I was away working in Peterborough,' recalls Neil, who now lives in Kendal. He quit his new job and struggled with Michelle's funeral – which included an RAF fly-past – despite the efforts of family, friends and former colleagues.

'Having lost the woman I loved, my priorities changed in an instant. I devoted my time to looking after the girls. Elsa was still in nappies, they weren't at an age when they could cope without at least one parent,' he says.

He needed a job which fitted in with being a one-parent family and started his own consultancy coaching leadership skills, a business he still runs, working particularly in the education sector. He conducts leadership training, which he first studied at Sandhurst, for Lancaster University and its Outreach team. He also directs courses for the Leadership Trust.

The year after Michelle's death he decided to organise a Ball at Netherwood Hotel in Grange as a memorial to her life and love of adventure.

It was such a success, raising £20,000, that the proceeds kick-started the Michelle Jurd Memorial Trust and the tenth annual black-tie winter Ball is being organised for November 23 this year.

More than £200,000 has been raised so far, helped by other one-off fund-raising events. 'Every penny goes to causes which promote adventure activities in schools or services charities,' says Neil. More than 20,000 schoolchildren across the North West have benefitted from the charity's activities.

Each year the income is divided among schools and youth groups to allow young people to take part in challenging developmental activities, including kayaking, climbing, orienteering and theatre workshops. Significant grants are also made to service charities, primarily the RAF Benevolent Fund and Gurkha Welfare Trust.

Neil says: 'Providing adventures for children transforms lives. We promote team work and leadership skills which gives children confidence to meet challenges.

'We encourage them to try new things and break out of patterns of behaviour and promote positive self-belief.'

He describes Matilda, now 14, and Elsa, now 12, as mini-versions of their parents and having inherited their love of adventure.

'They are both good climbers, very good sailors and ridiculously good skiers. They are both doing really well at Windermere School, are happy and have great friends,' he says with obvious pride.

To find out more see www.michellejurdtrust.org

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