Biggin Hill: A tragic history . . .

PUBLISHED: 16:04 02 April 2008 | UPDATED: 11:37 12 August 2010

Tragedy is part of history and it is certainly part of Biggin Hill s history. Since the airfield was first opened in 1917 scores of pilots have died in accidents, as opposed to war time exploits, each one adding to the conc

A special report by Bob Ogley...

Tragedy is part of history and it is certainly part of Biggin Hill's history. Since the airfield was first opened in 1917 scores of pilots have died in accidents, as opposed to war time exploits, each one adding to the concerns of those who argue that the flight path today should not go over a hospital, school and hundreds of homes.

Here are a few of the tragic dates:

June 1918: Lieutenant Pownall of 141 Squadron takes off on a routine searchlight exercise on a clear warm night. Minutes later his colleagues hear a loud explosion from the valley. Pownall is dead among the mangled remains of his BE2 and so is a pigeon which caused the tragedy. He is the first pilot to die in an accident at Biggin Hill.

January 1924: A Vickers Vimy, disguised as an enemy bomber, takes off in a re-enactment of a 1914-18 war dog fight for a film company. The Vimy crash lands in a wood near Cudham, the pilot having misjudged the height. Three men die. The cameraman, in a following aircraft, continues to film what he believes to be "an astonishing piece of realism".

August 1939: Flying Officer Olding volunteers for black-out patrol on a night of poor visibility. The Merlin engine of his Hurricane cuts out and he crashes into the hill at Tatsfield. Minutes later Flying Officer Robin Buchanan-Woolaston is ordered to drop a flare by Olding's crash site. He too flies into the side of the hill less than 100 yards from the previous wreck. Both men are killed

July 1942: Group Captain Philip Barwell, station commander, takes off from Biggin Hill in thick haze. Minutes later he is shot down by two Spitfires from the Tangmere sector, one of whom is on his first operational sortie. It is an early tragic example of friendly fire.

Jan 1943: Two NCO pilots, both Australian, are killed in a collision above Biggin Hill. Two months later a Typhoon, piloted by George Whitmore with Frazer Harris as navigator, crash in Kent. They both die.

April 1945: Group Captain Gordon Raphael, commanding officer at Biggin Hill, collides with a Dakota and comes down in the village of Appledore - the second CO to lose his life in a flying accident.

June 1951: In a dramatic and horrifying chain of events, three Meteors crash within an area of 100 yards during a visit to Biggin Hill by Queen Elizabeth. The first aircraft skims the roof and crashes into a bungalow on the Bromley Road. Two other Meteors circling above the crash collide. One comes down in Victoria Gardens. It is a tragedy which surpasses anything which has gone on before.

May 1977: A Ferranti helicopter taking passengers on a 10-minute joy ride collides with a Tiger Moth during the Biggin Hill Air Fair. All five people in the Tiger Moth are killed.

September 1980: A second world war Douglas Invader bomber crashes into the hillside beyond the airfield, the pilot, Captain Don Bullock, having failed to pull out of a barrell roll. Four British passengers, two American servicemen and the pilot are killed.

June 2-3 2001: Three aviators die in two crashes during the annual Air Fair. On the Saturday evening a Vampire, piloted by Sir Kenneth Hayr with Jonathan Kerr as co-pilot, inexplicably loses control and crashes in open ground at Keston. The following day a King Cobra, piloted by Guy Bancroft-Wilson, comes down just south of the Control Tower in a tragedy witnessed by thousands of spectators.

January 2003: Two people are killed when a private helicopter crashes shortly after take-off down in open land near the village of Cudham The Bell 206 Jet Ranger had taken off from Biggin Hill airfield and was heading for Southend in Essex. The helicopter pilot is hailed a hero after swerving his stricken craft away from houses before it plunges to the ground, killing him and his passenger, his son.

October 2005: A light aircraft, a Piper Cherokee, crashes into Victoria Gardens, less than half a mile from the airport, narrowly missing several houses. Two people die in the crash - the pilot and a pupil. An investigation finds that the engine had failed because water had leaked into a fuel tank.

March 2008: Five people are killed when a private Cessna 501 jet crashes into a residential estate at Farnborough, bursting into flames and destroying the home of a couple who were hours from returning from holiday. The pilot, Mike Roberts, 63, averted further tragedy by fighting to fly the Cessna clear of a cul-de-sac. The tragedy comes just days before the 90th anniversary of the RAF.

The tragedies documented here relate to just a few of the incidents in Biggin Hill's dramatic history. Tragedies and the subsequent funerals have been a way of life for the people of Biggin Hill ever since it was first earmarked as an airfield 90 years ago. Practically every airfield in the country, big and small, has experienced its share of fatal accidents and everywhere there are pressure groups and campaigners calling for a halt to the suffering.

* Bob Ogley is the author of Biggin on The Bump and the Ghosts of Biggin Hill.

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