Apprentices at 1952 SBAC Air Show

Britain, and the entire aviation world were shocked, when, during a fly-past by the de Havilland 110 fighter it broke up
over the spectators, showering them with debris, shortly after it had broken the sound barrier overhead Farnborough.

de Havilland DH 110
de Havilland DH 110

At least 27 people have been killed and 63 injured after the jet fighter disintegrated and fell into the crowd at the Farnborough Air Show in Hampshire on 6 September. Among the dead are the pilot, John Derry and the flight test observer Anthony Richards. Mr Derry was the first British pilot to exceed the speed of sound in this country four years ago today - on 6 September 1948 in a DH 108 research aircraft.

Behind these tragic headlines lies the story of many Halton Apprentices who were present on that fateful Saturday nearly 51 years ago; teenagers who suddenly found themselves closely involved with the immediate shock and then the aftermath of this tragedy.

Saturday September 6th was early in the 5th term for members of 68th entry, No 1 School of Technical Training, RAF Halton, to which I belonged. Members of all entries had shortly before returned from the summer break, and were preparing to face the prospect of a long time before the next long break away from the routine of training as an Aircraft Apprentice. Farnborough Air Show was eagerly looked forward to as the highlight of the summer for aviation people, and was an exciting prospect to view the latest British prototype aircraft that had taken to the skies since the previous year.

In those far off times only British manufactured aircraft were on display at the annual display mounted by The Society of British Aircraft Constructers at the world famous Farnborough Airfield, and what a feast of new types were scheduled for display in 1952. Star of the show was the prototype Vulcan. Amazingly it had only flown for the first time 3 days before the show. The Vulcan flew from Tuesday onwards in company with the Avro 707 research aircraft. Other debutants were the Javelin, Britannia, and the Princess flying boat. The Princess was to be another white elephant in the Brabazon mould, but that was to be discovered much later.

Very early on Saturday morning, after an even earlier special breakfast an excited group of some 40 or so Apprentices, all members of the Halton Society Branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society, marched off to the waiting coach wearing their best uniforms, after having passed the eagle eyed inspection of the Squadron Administration staff, and the NCO i/c transport. Quickly boarding the coach all was ready, and soon we were off on the journey from Halton in rural Buckinghamshire, around the western fringes of London through Slough and past Eton, where we all made ready to barrack any pupils of that famous school who were unlucky enough to be spotted walking in their, to our eyes, quaint uniforms, and who all wore an unfashionable length in hair style, prompting a loud cry "Get yer 'air cut, Tadpoles!" After Eton we made our way through Windsor and past the famous Royal Castle, thence through the Windsor Great Park, past Staines and finally along the A3 until arriving at Farnborough, some 50 or more miles from Halton.

Farnborough from the airOur coach joined the queues entering the airfield, and we finally parked amongst many other similar vehicles, so all had to remember the name, make, and type of coach, and from my recall ours was a Bedford Duple painted green with fairly elaborate sign-writing that indicated that it came from Aston Clinton, a village nearby between Halton and Aylesbury. Departure times were also to be sternly enforced, so woes betide anybody arriving late for departure. At last! The air show and all the attendant attractions were ours to sample, and where to start? Like most I was off to the parked aircraft display first, and there to join the queues waiting an opportunity to go inside and view the latest offerings of aircraft such as a de Havilland Comet, Blackburn Universal Freighter which developed into the Blackburn Beverley, or a Vickers Viscount, a Vickers Varsity, or even a Bristol Freighter (NZ 5906) of the RNZAF!

Time quickly passed, and so much to see, and very little time to savour it all, so that it was soon time to return to the coach for our packed lunches. It is so long ago that the details now escape me, but I seem to recall that the flying display started after lunch, and that the best place to see all the flying was close up at the flight line fence area, preferably right in front. In the time I am talking about Farnborough was vastly different from the current scene, with only a few tents/marquees dotted about for manufacturers to display their wares, and the President of SBAC had a very large marquee right at the edge of the flight line. Behind there and where the permanent pavilions now stand was then a gently sloping hillside which provided ample space for the estimated 130,000 spectators present that day.

de Havilland DH 110 prototypeOne of the highlight aircraft of the display programme was undoubtedly the de Havilland DH 110, and when an announcement was made via the Tannoy, that due to a technical problem John Derry was returning to Hatfield with the black # 2 prototype WG240, there was a general feeling of disappointment, as it was assumed that he would demonstrate a "sonic boom" at some stage in his display routine. Nonetheless there was an enthralling display of Britain's aeronautical genius, and Farnborough '52 witnessed the first display of delta winged aircraft, with no fewer than 3 such aircraft e.g. Avro 698, Avro 707 and Gloster Javelin prototype all demonstrating this new wing form.

DH 110 in flight over FarnboroughNumerous other examples of British aircraft kept the attention of the huge crowd until fairly late in the display schedule another announcement advised that John Derry and crew had departed Hatfield in the silver original prototype WG236, and was due overhead Farnborough shortly. Eager eyes scanned the skies for a first glimpse of the approaching aircraft, but overcast prevented this, and it was shortly afterwards announced that John Derry and his crewman, observer Tony Richards had positioned to lay a "sonic boom" on the Farnborough area, and had commenced his dive. Soon there was the then unfamiliar sound of a double thunder clap, and very shortly afterwards the DH 110 appeared over the airfield heading away from the crowd line in the general area of the famous "Black Shed" It then commenced a left turn to position back towards the crowd at a speed estimated at around 500 mph.

DH 110 breaking up
Immediately following this turn and when headed directly towards the huge crowd disaster struck. Initially the aircraft appeared to 'shimmy' then 2 large objects climbed above the fuselage and continued towards the crowds, who watched in stunned amazement as it became obvious that the aircraft was disintegrating, and the large objects were in fact the twin RR Avon turbo jets! In front of everybody the aircraft simply disintegrated and wreckage started falling in the general direction of flight.

CrashThe major fuselage section fell in close proximity to the President's Marquee with the crew being killed as were several spectators there, plus many wounded as well. Meanwhile the engines had continued their independent flight with one falling amongst the dense hill-side crowd where there were many more casualties and the other fortunately continued slightly further and cleared the crowds, and fell in the coach park area where there were far fewer people.

ChaosAfter the initial stunned shock the problem then arose of dealing with a catastrophe of major proportions, and to this end the Apprentices were summoned to a meeting point, and then delegated to form a cordon around the major casualty area. Within this area medical personnel rapidly appeared to provide assistance for the wounded that in total numbered more than 60, with a total of 29 fatalities. Our already full day was going to become even longer, as we were all told to expect several hours' duty on the cordon, and with it still summer time the darkness was still a long way off. Whilst this was happening to us, Neville Duke taxied out and displayed the Hunter prototype,both to distract the crowd from the terrible tragedy that had unfolded, and also as a tribute to his personal friend, John Derry. Having later been a participant in an air show with a fatal accident where a fellow pilot was killed in the display immediately preceding my own, at Wanaka, Easter '94 I now have some idea just how much was involved in Neville Duke's actions, and how difficult it must have been for him to concentrate on his display.

Wanaka, 1994

Meanwhile we stood and wondered at our own good fortune in having survived the tragedy around us, and wondered who and why: who did we know amongst the casualties, and why were we lucky enough to be spared? Our duty carried on for a very long time, and the work of dealing with the dead and injured continued far into darkness. Eventually we were released, and told to proceed back to the coach area, where there would be food and drink available.

A long further delay ensued, until approaching midnight, we finally departed homewards to Halton, and it was not until recently that I became aware that our coach driver to Farnborough was amongst the casualties, having lost his life, and some of the delay was because of awaiting a replacement driver. It was well after 1am that we finally reached Halton, and were able to try and get to bed, but not before being thoroughly 'grilled' by those who had not attended, and had been made well aware of the tragedy that had occurred, and which we had unfortunately been witness to.

WHH July 2003

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