View Full Version : 100 Years ago today.


XA290
27th May 2013, 11:53
On this day 100 years ago British military aviation experienced its first fatality.

Lt Desmond Arthur of the newly formed Royal Flying Corps fell to his death near LunanBay when the BE.2 aircraft he was flying broke up in flight. He had just taken off from the airfield at Upper Dysart southwest of Montrose town. Lt Arthur achieved notoriety as the ghost of Montrose.

It occurred at approximately 0800 hrs on 27th May, 1913

The following is an article written by Sir Peter Masefield that appeared in Flight International in December 1972



By Sir Peter Masefield

ALTHOHGH THEY OCCURRED almost 20 years ago and some of them 50 years before that, the events which I now relate are as clear to me as if they had happened yesterday.

One of the significant dates—Monday, May 27, 1963—is written down in my flying log book. The strangest entry
I have ever made, or hope to make. It was as chill and murky a summer's evening as even the Scottish Highlands can provide. We sat around a blazing fire in that most comfortable, but prosaic, of places, the Station Hotel in Inverness. I had flown up to Dalcross two days before in my Chipmunk, Tango Mike. After lunch at Farnborough and a refueling stop at Rearsby I had flown straight up to Inverness in glorious weather and a following wind. Now, on the Sunday evening, after a talk on early aviation to a band of local air enthusiasts—some of them from the Kinloss and Lossiemouth Air Stations nearby—and after an excellent dinner, those who had not gone home were gathered round the fireside.

Memories came up. "I remember the old Montrose Aerodrome well," said one lean and grizzled veteran with an RFC tie. He sucked at his pipe. "Early in 1913, No 2 Squadron—the senior squadron in the Military Wing— flew up to Montrose from Farnborough. A pretty hairy operation it was for those days in bad winter weather. It took about two weeks in all to get the three Maurice Parmans, Longhorns they were, and the two BE.2s all the way to Montrose.

"No 2 was commanded by that wonderful chap Col Charles Burke, then a Major. He was a sad loss to the Service when he was killed on the first day of the Battle of Arras in April 1917. But Charlie had been lucky not to have been killed four years before."

Apparently a new BE.2 which he flew up to Montrose from Farnborough in May of 1913 had something radically wrong. It broke up in the air over Montrose a short time afterwards, and killed a young officer who was flying it.

"I heard that story, and a lot more besides," said another veteran, settling himself deeper in his chair with a reminiscent look. "It went all round the RFC in 1917—even to France."

It was a terrible shock, because BE.2s were supposed to be the strongest and safest machines going. Yes, it was being flown by a young officer. Lt Desmond Arthur was his name. His seat-belt broke and he fell out before the aircraft hit the ground. But it wasn't just as simple as that.

When the Royal Aero Club's Accident Investigation Committee got on the job (it reported on all accidents then) it found something most disturbing. It reported in June 1913 that young Desmond Arthur (who had been trained at Brooklands at the BristolSchool in 1912, and was a first-rate pilot) had been killed as a result of a criminally negligent repair made to one of the mainplane spars. It had been broken, patched up and then re-covered so that no one could see. The repair failed when Arthur was doing some steep turns, descending through about 2,500ft over the aerodrome.

At least it wasn't pilot error. And the Royal Aero Club's report showed that poor old Desmond Arthur's flying was exonerated. But that wasn't the end of the story—not by any means. The war came, and with it a spate of accidents in the RFC and to aircraft built at the Royal Aircraft Factory. So much so, that an official Committee of Inquiry was set up, in May 1916. It was chaired by a learned judge.

In August 1916 (note that date) this committee issued an interim report. And however good it was it contained one grievous error. Harking back over the years, it even came to Desmond Arthur's accident in May 1913. And, without looking at the Royal Aero Club's report, it said that there was no evidence of previous damage to the BE.2 and that Desmond Arthur fell out through his own foolishness. And then it started to happen.

By 1916, Montrose Aerodrome had become the base of No 18 (Reserve) Squadron RFC, a training squadron. Late one August evening, just after the publication of that interim report, Major Cyril Foggin was walking up the path to the Old Mess, which had originally been taken over for No 2 Squadron in 1912. He was brooding over the problems of a flying instructor in the middle of a great war. As he walked, deep in thought, he became conscious in the half dark of a Scottish summer's night of a figure walking up the path ahead of him. He could just see that the figure was wearing flying kit, with a sort of knitted helmet on his head.

They had almost reached the door of the old mansion which was the Mess, when Foggin paused for a moment to glance up at a tree where an owl hooted. When he turned his head back the door was still shut. But the figure had vanished. He thought nothing of it at the time. Clearly the man ahead of him had gone round the house to another door.

Two nights later, when Foggin came out of a hangar just after midnight, he saw the same figure, still in flying kit but this time swinging his helmet, striding up towards the Old Mess. Foggin hurried after him. The figure turned a bend in the path, and was gone. Cyril Foggin saw this strange figure five or six times during the next couple of weeks, always at night and once in the dim light of the hall of the Mess. He put it down to hallucinations and worried because he felt that his nerve must be going as a result of over-work. He told nobody.

At a mess night some time around the middle of September the whole story came out. It seemed that not only Major Foggin but the CO and half a dozen or more of the other instructors who lived in the same mess had seen the same figure. Nobody had spoken to him or he to them. The visitations had culminated in two officers walking on the previous night to see a man in flying kit sitting in a chair before the dying bedroom fire reading some papers. When one called out the figure disappeared—just faded away

The haunting continued throughout the autumn of 1916. Then, one night in November a visiting officer inspecting the Station—an officer who had been at Farnborough before war—saw the figure too, and especially clearly.
He thought that he recognized him as Desmond Arthur. Everyone remembered the injustice of that interim report.

Just before Christmas of 1916, the official Committee of Inquiry brought out its final report. It was a long document.
But attached to it was an addendum signed by Sir Charles Bright, an eminent engineer and Arthur Butcher, two of the original members of the committee.

It said that the interim report of August had been quite wrong. A reference back to the findings of the Royal Aero
Club's inquiry in 1913 had made clear that Desmond Arthur's BE.2 had been accidentally damaged previously and that an unauthorized, unrecorded and inefficient repair had been made to the broken spar. It had then been covered up. The accident was as a direct result of this faulty repair "And the Committee," said the addendum, "takes this opportunity to amend the error in its interim report"— or words to that effect.

That was the amende honorable. And so it seems to have been taken by the poor ghost of Montrose. He paid
One last visit to Cyril Foggin said presumably to "sign off" now that his honor had been vindicated.

It came on Christmas Eve of 1916. There was a party in the Old Mess as Foggin and two other instructors crossed the hall, they saw the familiar figure with his back to them in front of the blazing fire—a grey helmet on his head, a flying coat loose around his shoulders. As they stopped, a chill pricked up their necks; it threw some papers on the fire and then was there no more.

Desmond Arthur was a singularly attractive character – a dark-haired, grey-eyed little Celt from CountyLimerick; kind and thoughtful but what would now be known as a manic depressive. He was given to extremes of elation and depression but he was a fine pilot

* * * * *

The fire flickered. A wave of sympathy for the reasonable and rational Ghost of Montrose seemed to go round the group. We felt that we understood his keen sense of personal honour and his concerns about the aspersions cast by non-flyers on his fling competence.

“You didn’t get it quite right” said a quiet voice from way back in the dim light beyond the fireglow. “I used to be in the RFC and I was at Montrose around those times. That aeroplane wasn’t a new BE.2, I know. It was in fact quite an old one. It had been built up in 1912 from a Howard Wright biplane, because the Royal Aircraft factory had money available for repairs but none for new aircraft”.

“That particular aeroplane – its number was 205 wasn’t very pleasant to fly. It was very nose heavy because the original 60 hp. ENV had been replaced by the 70 hp. Renault.” He spoke with authority and a Southern Irish Lilt. The conversation drifted off to other things and a little later, the party broke up and I drove back to Nairn for the night.

The next morning, at a reasonable hour, I retraced the eight miles from Nairn to Dalcross to fly back south.

There was no one about at the aerodrome on that bright fresh May morning. The cold front of the night before had gone through and there was little wind.

My Chipmunk, Tango Mike, stood out on the apron. I removed and stowed the covers, thinking of the evening before. It seemed now a dreamlike interlude, around a fireside of an earlier era, unrelated to the bustle of normal life to which Tango Mike stood ready to bear me back.

I checked with the tower, flight-planned from Dalcross to Turnhouse to refuel there and thence, winds permitting, aim to fly the 330NM back to Shoreham non-stop. A quick check showed that I could expect to make it in just about three hours

I was so pre-occupied with working out my sums upon the wing I did not notice the silent approach of a short, slight figure, almost buried in an old leather flying jacket.

"May I beg a ride?" he asked. I recognized the Irish lilt of the night before. "You're going south I think? If you could drop me at Farnborough or at Brooklands I'd be eternally grateful."

"Certainly," I said, glad of company. I rolled back the canopy and fished out my spare headset from the rear locker. "Hop in," I said. "I'm going to refuel at Turnhouse and we can decide there where to call in next.

We taxied out and I took off and climbing away, turning on to a heading of 180° for Turnhouse. Tango Mike bounded upwards, never running better. It was a glorious day and, despite full fuel and two up with baggage in the wings, we were soon at 5,000ft to clear the Cairngorms.

Just past loch Moy, grey-blue below heavy cloud began to bank up ahead, above and around the Monadhliath mountains. With a brief explanation over the intercom to my silent passenger behind, I changed course to the east to strike the coast near Aberdeen and then to follow it down to Dundee and the Firth of Forth.

My passenger made no remark. Perhaps he had not found his intercom switch. I could see him in my rear-view mirror, sitting there low down in the seat, peering intently over the starboard side.

In 40 minutes we were over Dyce Aerodrome and I set course down the coast, down to 2,500ft to keep below broken cloud over Aberdeen and on past Stonehaven. I looked at my map. Ahead lay Montrose, the scene of our talk of the night before. I turned in my seat and called back over my shoulder into the boom microphone. "There's
Montrose which we were speaking of last evening. We'll take a look at the old aerodrome, there by the seashore."

We flew down along the sweep of the golden sands which stretch there for some six miles from St Cyrus right to the harbour of Montrose. A long, dark cloud hung just inland over Craigo and Brechin. I flew along its side.

As we crossed over the little estuary of the North Esk, out from this cloud and just ahead of us there suddenly emerged the drab form of an angular biplane with a wide gap between its wings and two skids, like hockey sticks, prominent in front of its wheels

Well behind the wings in an open cockpit in the shallow fuselage I could see the hunched, helmeted, begoggled figure of the pilot.

I can still remember it vividly today. It was a BE.2, its fuselage ending in a seeming inadequate lozenge of a rudder, the “hip-bath” of a rear cockpit and its crouching occupant

We were flying faster than the BE. As we drew level – perhaps 200ft from its port wing-tips – it turned a little towards us and the nose went down into a steepish turn. And then, with a horrifying suddenness, like a slow motion silent film, the outer 12in or so of the top starboard wing, which was inclined towards us in the bank, folded upwards with a sickening abruptness. I watched with dismay as the whole of the rest of the top wing collapsed.

I could see the yellow interplane struts whirling like matchsticks in the wind. The nose reared up then dropped with a jerk. It all happened so deliberately and inexorably.

With a cold shudder rising up my back I saw the figure of the pilot fall with flailing arms from the open rear seat behind the wing. He and the twirling pieces of wreckage disappeared beneath the Chipmunk’s nose.

At the same instant in my headset there came the long shrill, despairing wail such I hope never to hear again.

I turned, horror-stricken, to my companion behind. No one was there.

I made a shaky landing on the old Montrose aerodrome alongside the golf links. I taxied, shivering cold, to the line of old hangars against the road. I peered, incredulous, into the back seat. It was completely empty. The harness was still secured. The headset lay neatly upon the seat cushion, plugged in, its switches off.

Nobody on the ground had seen anything untoward. Certainly no one had fallen from any aeroplane, mine or any other. They had watched Tango Mike since it had crossed above the Esk to the north. They had neither seen nor heard of any other aircraft that day.

I bought six gallons of fuel to fill the tanks. I said nothing. The day was warm. I felt cold and ill. I made it, non-stop, from Montrose to Brooklands, to touch down on the old aerodrome. I taxied up to the site of the old Flying School Buildings. He would have expected that.

Later that evening at Shoreham I stood in the warm, evening sunshine and wondered whether I had imagined it all.

I pulled out my log-book and began to fill it in. To enter, or not to enter, a passenger at take-off who had never landed. The date I inscribed was May 27, 1963. I later confirmed it as exactly 50 years to the day from that May 27, 1913, at Montrose whose events were recorded in detail among the papers of the Accidents Committee of the Royal Aero Club.

FLIGHT International, 21 December 1972



November4
27th May 2013, 18:06
Sorry but the deaths of Captain Eustace Loraine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eustace_Loraine) and Staff Sergeant Richard Wilson occurred on 5th July 1912 over Salisbury Plain. They were the first deaths of the newly formed RFC.

Their crash site was marked by a memorial at Airmen's Corner near to Stonehenge until the memorial was moved to make way for the Stonehenge visitors centre and re-routed road.

Fareastdriver
27th May 2013, 18:16
I think Sir Peter may have had his tongue in his cheek when he wrote that.

full fuel and two up with baggage in the wings,

Not in the Chipmunks I have ever flown. Maybe that was the clue.

strake
27th May 2013, 20:18
I think the phrase "..and after an excellent dinner.." possibly contributes to the telling of the tale.