Eyewitness to the high-speed horror show: Aviation fan who went to the Farnborough Air Show as a teenage boy to see Britain’s favourite pilot in action 70 years ago recalls in gripping detail the tragedy that cost 31 lives
The sun glistened off the fighter’s fuselage as World War II flying ace John Derry reached the peak of his climb, some 40,000 feet above the rolling Hampshire countryside.
Now for the dive. He thrust the joystick forward and pushed the jet’s nose down into a steep descent through the scattered clouds.
Below him, a crowd of 130,000 people attending the Farnborough Air Show looked up, shielding their eyes, eagerly awaiting the reappearance of the legendary pilot, who was the first Briton to break the sound barrier.
It was a feat he was intending to repeat that day: Saturday, September 6, 1952, 70 years ago this month. At ground level, the public address system crackled into life, and the announcer informed the spectators that Derry’s plane, a prototype of the twin-engined De Havilland 110, was approaching.
A triple sonic boom resounded across the airfield and then the aircraft swooped out of its dive and streaked towards them, flashing along the runway at some 700mph at a height of no more than 50 feet above the tarmac.
John Derry thrust the joystick forward and pushed the jet’s nose down into a steep descent through the scattered clouds.
Among the excited spectators was Mail reader Maurice Boyle, then an 18-year-old national serviceman, who was there with his pals from their nearby army barracks. ‘There was this sleek silver shape speeding almost silently towards us,’ says Maurice. ‘I couldn’t believe how fast it was.
‘It was past in just a few seconds and then we heard the deafening roar of the engines as the sound caught up with the plane’s motion.’
At the end of the runway, Derry threw the plane sharply left and then into a 270-degree turn to bring it across the runway and over the heads of the crowd.
About a mile away, and travelling at some 500mph, Derry planned to pull into an upward roll. But unbeknownst to him there was a fatal flaw in the design of his aircraft’s wings which would turn what should have been a thrilling display into a scene of unimaginable carnage.
The outer parts of the wings ripped off under the stress of straightening up from the turn. The resulting shift in its centre of gravity saw the plane rear up with such force that the cockpit tore away, with Derry and his flight observer Tony Richards still inside.
As they smashed into the ground close to the runway, they were thrown out of the wreckage and against the metal crowd barriers.
John Derry (dead 9/1952) and Anthony Richards (dead 9/1952) both killed in the D.H.110 jet disaster, which broke up in mid-air at the Farnborough Air Display
‘Some spectators vaulted over to try to give aid to them,’ wrote Derry’s biographer Brian Rivas. ‘But there was nothing to be done: it was over for John and Tony.’
More deaths quickly followed. Although the main airframe fell to the ground on the opposite side of the airfield, the two engines had sheared away from it and hurtled towards the onlookers. As the audience watched in shocked silence, the announcer shouted ‘Look out!’
‘They were two hot and heavy chunks of metal and one of them started arcing downwards,’ remembers Maurice Boyle, now a retired journalist living in Sunderland.
‘I was motionless in the packed crowd and for a few seconds I was terrified, but it flew over our heads and I knew it had missed me.’
Others were less fortunate. While one engine landed harmlessly on a patch of scrubland near the aerodrome, the one which had screeched above Maurice and other petrified onlookers continued on its grim trajectory.
Weighing more than a ton, and leaving a thin trail of smoke in its wake, it finally crashed into a hill where many picnicking families had gathered to get a better view of the display. ‘As death rushed at them, the crowd tried to run,’ reported one newspaper. ‘Five died as they were hit and many others fell screaming, burned and mutilated.’
One eyewitness described the scene as ‘like a battlefield’. ‘Those who were hit had no chance of escape,’ he said.
With a heavy cloud of dust still hanging over the hill, the onlookers stared at the circle of injured and shattered bodies all around the smouldering crater left by the engine. One was that of a young army corporal who had died on the spot. A young woman had flung her arms around him and they lay dead together. Other corpses were so badly mangled that identification was impossible.
A dramatic picture on the dead where people were helping the wounded and seeing the dead. One eyewitness described the scene as ‘like a battlefield’. ‘Those who were hit had no chance of escape,’ he said
‘The task facing the rescuers was dreadful,’ wrote Brian Rivas. ‘Twenty-nine were dead or dying, some of them children at their first air show.’
Another 63 people were injured, including one blood-spattered little girl who was heard screaming ‘I don’t like it Mummy’ as she stumbled away. According to one ambulance man, an area three-quarters the size of a football field was strewn with casualties and a Red Cross first-aider said that she had never seen so many people with such horrible injuries, even during the war: ‘Some were absolutely beyond human aid.’
Incredibly, it was decided that the display should continue after only a short break and the crowd was so tightly packed that Maurice, standing less than 100 yards from where the engine landed, was among the many completely unaware of the devastation which lay behind them.
Once the debris had been cleared from the runway, and the bodies of Derry and Richards had been taken away, pilot Neville Duke was among those who took to the skies in his Hawker Hunter, sweeping through the sound barrier in what was described as a ‘faultless display of flying’.
‘It was a brave performance and perhaps a fitting tribute to his fellow aeronauts who had died earlier that afternoon,’ says Maurice.
Even as Duke was dipping his wings in a tribute to his dead colleagues, ambulances were still clanging their way to the hillside where the grass was strewn with blood, pieces of wreckage and bodies with newspapers placed over them as makeshift shrouds.
They were taken to a disused shelter near the aerodrome for the bodies to be identified.
The youngest was 13-year-old Brian Emmett from South London, and one family suffered several losses, with 16-year-old Dennis Staples from Coventry killed alongside his older brother Peter, 24. Also dead was Peter’s bride of only three months, 21-year-old Ceidwin.
Queen Elizabeth II had succeeded to the throne just six months before and one of her earliest duties as monarch was to send a telegram to the victims’ relatives.
John Derry (pictured) was born in Cairo, Egypt, and attended Dragon School in Oxford. Shortly after the outbreak of World War II he left school to enlist as a wireless operator and air gunner in the Royal Air Force
The tragedy had additional resonance for the Queen for a reason few were aware of at the time: Prince Philip had attended the air show only four days before. ‘I and my husband are shocked to hear of the accident at Farnborough,’ she wrote in her telegram, summing up the reaction of a nation.
Another woman who sent her condolences shortly after the accident was pilot John Derry’s wife Eve, who had watched her husband die in front of her.
She sent a letter to de Havilland, asking that her deep sympathy be extended to all the people killed in the accident. Not that there was any suggestion that Derry himself was in any way responsible.
Indeed, an inquest subsequently absolved him of all blame for the crash, which might easily have claimed many more victims.
‘Had we been a few yards further back, some of us would have been among the dead and injured,’ reflects Maurice Boyle.
The final death toll of 31 was a stark reminder of the dangers of the daring new age of aviation which had seen jet engines developed during the war replacing propellers.
John Derry was undoubtedly one of the heroes of that exciting era. He was the son of Professor Douglas Derry, the first anatomist to examine Tutankhamun’s mummy after his tomb was discovered in 1925, but he had made his own very distinctive claims to fame.
Determined to join the RAF as soon as war broke out in 1939, Derry was only 17 when he left Charterhouse public school to sign up, beginning the illustrious career which in 1945 saw him awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the sorties he flew as both gunner and pilot.
According to the citation published in the London Gazette, he had ‘displayed great determination and skill and his courage has been of the highest order’. All were qualities needed when the war ended and he was employed as a test pilot by legendary aviation pioneer Geoffrey de Havilland.
In September 1948 he was asked to fly a bat-shaped De Havilland 108, the aircraft in which his boss’s son, also named Geoffrey, had been killed two years previously.
It was in that plane he managed to exceed the speed of sound. This varies according to weather conditions and altitude but on that flight from Farnborough to Windsor he is thought to have reached a searing 675mph.
Although American test pilot Chuck Yeager had already passed Mach 1 in 1947, Derry’s achievement was rightly celebrated, not least in the film The Sound Barrier, directed by David Lean, best known for Brief Encounter and Bridge Over The River Kwai.
The movie was first shown in August 1952, shortly before the tragic air show, but Derry, a tall, quiet man with two daughters, was typically self-effacing about the attention it brought him.
‘It’s really just a job to me,’ he would say and while his wife Eve admitted that his dangerous work made her ‘afraid some of the time’, she insisted that she would never ask him to give it up.
‘It is his whole life and must be mine too,’ she explained and, true to her word, she was there to support him in the pilots’ tent at Farnborough on the day of the crash. Eerily, it happened four years to the day after Derry had first reached Mach 1.
The final death toll of 31 was a stark reminder of the dangers of the daring new age of aviation which had seen jet engines developed during the war replacing propellers
‘Britain and the USA were leading the field at the time and the newest Hawker and de Havilland jets were going to be displayed,’ Maurice Boyle remembers. ‘Here was a chance to see for real the very latest and best in aviation.’
Lined up alongside the runway, Maurice and his friends watched many different aircraft fly past.
‘It was all very good but we were waiting for the fast jets flown by John Derry and Neville Duke, another well-known pilot. They were like pop stars.’
During the first five days of the show, Derry flew in a prototype of the De Havilland 110 — a new all-weather jet. By the Saturday, one of its twin engines had started overheating and so Derry and 24-year-old aerodynamics expert Tony Richards had switched to an earlier DH110 prototype.
A subsequent investigation concluded that the cause of the crash was a design fault in the outer part of the wings which caused the leading edge to buckle under the high twisting forces of Derry’s final manoeuvre. Tests showed they had only 64 per cent of their intended strength.
This had proved no problem with the model Derry had flown earlier in the week, but this older version had been subjected to more test flights, and thus greater wear and tear, with the consequences that were later there for all to see.
‘It was a very subdued barrack room that heard “Lights Out” that night,’ recalls Maurice Boyle, ‘but human endeavour often comes at a severe cost and the Farnborough Airshow of 1952 goes down in history as a place and time when supreme sacrifice was the price of progress in aviation.’
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