ON THIS DAY    Witness      Graphics version >>   BBC News >>
Search ON THIS DAY by date   

Front Page |  Years |  Themes |  Witness
1952: 'The crowd parted like the Red Sea'

Thousands of spectators watched as a De Havilland 110 aircraft broke the sound barrier and then disintegrated in the sky above them and fell to earth.

Thirty-one people, including pilot John Derry, were killed. Dozens more were wounded at the Farnborough Air Show in Hampshire on 6 September 1952.

John Derry became the first British pilot to break the sound barrier, during a record attempt exactly four years before.

These are your memories of that tragic day:

I was in my final year in the Army, and two of us travelled up from Longmoor to watch the Air Show.

Derry completed his supersonic dive and was doing a high-speed circuit of the air field. He straightened up and the nose came up.

I thought that the plane had released something like balloons, but what we were looking at was the tailplane breaking up.

The two engines "flew" out of the fuselage, one went over the hill and crached in a car park. The other lost power and flew into the hill which was packed with spectators. That hill is now covered with hospitality suites.

I can remember the impact throwing bodies into the air.

There was a short break in the display, then Neville Duke did a supersonic dive in a prototype Hawker Hunter. There was a deadly silence from the crowd, who were very nervous about this being repeated.

The fuselage hit the tarmac just short of the crowd and disintegrated.

When we left the area, newspapers placards were saying "Two Killed".

The following day, the casualty list had risen to 25.

Four months later I left the Army and joined the Design Office at Gloster Aircraft.
John Gardiner, England

I was a 14-year-old boy in the crowd that watched the DH110 break up.

I was some 50 yards from the perimeter fence by the runway and below the hill where the engine came down.

I am certain that that day will remain in my memory until I die - the contrast of the excitement of seeing this futuristic aircraft streak overhead and then to watch it coming towards us and to see bits start to fly off and know that something was wrong.

Then the engines came out and one whistled over our heads while the cockpit crashed just short of the fence in front of us.

I wonder now if it was that British stoicsm which had been heightened during the war that allowed the show to continue about an hour later despite the carnage on the ground.

My mother was almost hysterical on the drive home - the only time I saw her composure breakdown.
Graham Scott, USA

In Sept 1952 I attended Farnborough Air show with my father. As a keen aviation photographer with a 100mm lens I always took a position at the fence line and therefore had to get there early.

My father noted the hill behind us and suggested we move, saying "from that hill we would be able to see right down the runway."

I explaned that it was too far from the runway for my photography. So we stayed put. Later, a group of lads arrived from Swindon and once again suggested they move to the hill.

Again, one chap had brought his camera which had only 50mm lens. So they stayed also. When the DH110 broke up and crashed, the one engine landed in the crowd on the hill. The Swindon lads said to the camera owner, "Just as well you brought your camera or we would have been on that hill."
Richard Hitchins, Australia

I still have vivid memories of being in the crowd on one of the twin hills.

We could see the engines coming towards us and we were looking down the fuselage.

At the last minute one lifted over our heads and the other crashed into the crowds on our right.

Those killed did not stand a chance as there was nowhere to run.

The coach returning to Coventry with the Armstrong Siddeley apprentices had nine empty seats and the sister of a close friend was among those killed.

I have never flown since nor attended any air show.
Sheila Williams, UK

I was at this event with my parents but looking at the date I could only have been five years old.

However, I do remember the air crash, or perhaps I have heard my parents relating the story so many time since.


" I remember my parents throwing themselves to the ground shielding me between them. "

Dawne Turner, UK

We were watching John Derry's plane go past us when it just broke up and wreckage landed in the crowd on a hill behind us.

I remember my parents throwing themselves to the ground shielding me between them.

Shortly afterwards there was just a mass of items and belongings of the spectators who had been standing on this hill.

I was actually surprised to read in your account that the air show continued because I think it upset us so much that we left and made our way home to Somerset.

We haven't talked about it in our family for a long time now and I have just accidentally found your news item on the internet which brought back the memory.
Dawne Turner, UK

I was 13 at the time and went with my friend and my eight-year-old brother. Peter, my friend, suggested we climbed the hill so Graham, my brother would get a good view.

I suggested we stand by the runway where aircraft landed, this we did.

Derry had to go back to Hatfield because the second prototype which was to be displayed had an electrical fault.

He announced his return with the prototype DH110 with a triple sonic boom.

He circled over Aldershot and came back over the black sheds, flying towards the crowd, quite low. Halfway across the airfield the aircraft broke up.

A man nearby said: "What's happened?"

The man next to him replied: "He's broken up."

I vividly remember the two engines flying on with a whistling sound.

Immediately afterwards there was a steady shower of snowflake-like flakes of paint.

There was no panic and as the rescue vehicles rushed to the hill the vast crowd parted like the Red Sea.

After a delay Neville Duke (another pilot) took off in the Hawker Hunter and diving from 40,000 feet over Salisbury Plane arrived with a very large double sonic bang.

A very subdued trio of young boys returned home to be greeted by rather agitated parents.
Brian O'Neill, England

My father and uncle would always go the airshows and stand on the hill where the majority of the casualties were.

Uncle worked for the MoD as a driving instructor with the army and always worked Saturday mornings.

He arranged to meet father but was delayed by a puncture to the three ton truck he had been using that morning.

As a result they were still making their way to the hill when the crash happened. A punctured army truck probably saved both their lives!
Jim Croton, England

I was a young lad - an aircraft enthusiast - and watched the break-up of the DH110 and the terrible havoc the engine and debris of the plane made on the packed crowd.

Bodies were covered with newspaper and my father knelt down and prayed and wept at the sight.

At the coach to leave for home, men were literally shaking and white with shock.

One man's lower trousers were shredded where people in front had stepped backwards in panic as the debris was hurtling towards them on the tightly packed hill.

Each person had a terrible tale to tell of what they had witnessed.
Tony Green, UK

I was there. It was the first airshow that my father had taken us to.

I was doing some research on the net and saw this page so thought I'd share a poem I wrote some years ago about that day.

The Day John Derry Died

It was a day of indian summer.

Blue skies and indolence.

Huge crowds wending 'tween pennant strewn marquees.

And me, standing, longing to reach that beckoning hillock, a vantage point supreme.

All the while, siblings sucked on straws with agonising slowness.

And so I danced tip-toe, dust clouds kicked with every balancing shuffle.

Neck craning, peering eagerly, seeking the next exhilarating move, the high speed pass of shimmering wings.

In disbelief I stared as one shape became many.

Black ash, downward drifting.

Blindly bursting out from disintegration, Avons (engines) tore towards me, silently screaming over stilled crowds.

Sinister black shapes passed o'head, diverging in their death flight, plunging beyond into muted masses on the hillock.

Stunned silence.

Now, strident sirens streaming from all directions.

A crescendoing roar launched Duke skywards, Red Hunter ripping, urgently straining for height.

Around us, order from chaos.

Police directing.

Ambulances moving, saving.

Above, sonic booms rolled in the heavens.

Duke diving, straightening, swooping past in victory-roll salute to fallen friend.
Glen Gowan, Australia

I can remember at seven-years-old being at the airshow with my father when the DH 110 broke up.

I remember the aircraft passing in front of us, climbing and then two puffs of smoke.

I remember my father dragging me to my right as I watched what was one of the engines hurtling towards us, whistling and then I remember a dull thud to our left and then total silence.

I also remember my father, in an effort to distract me from what must have been horror and carnage a mere few hundred feet to our left, pointing out the black Hawker Hunter of Neville Duke taking off and commencing its display.

Years later I can still see those two puffs of smoke and that engine spinning towards the bank where we were stood, I can still hear the 'CRUMP' sound as it struck and the total silence that ensued.
Roger Thackray, UK

My father (an aircraft fitter during the war) was on the hill but walked on down just as the plane broke up.

I recall my mother wondering if he was going to come home that day.

My father had an interest in John Derry as he had a special small framed painting given to him of Derry breaking the sound barrier in 1948.

And De-Havilland's was in Witney of course for a while.
P Dawson, Witney

I was there with a group of airmen from RAF Watton who took a hired coach to this airshow.

We were on high ground watching and looked out for the DH 110 coming directly overhead.

Then we saw a small speck approaching and very rapidly getting bigger. Then the plane started to break up and then we saw a hugh part coming in our direction.

The crowd scattered in all directions, the engine hissed overhead and crashed into the crown behind us.

One piece of wreckage fell a few yards from me making a hole in the ground. Emergency teams started to come in.

The show was over for us and we returned back to RAF Watton.
John Francis, France

I was on the hillside into which an engine from John's DH110 buried itself.

I can still recall the guy behind me pushing me to the ground and the engine going over our heads just a few feet up.

My father decided to leave not long afterwards, though I do remember Neville Duke taking the Hunter up to demonstrate the sonic boom.

On the train home it dawned on me just how covered I was in the blood of those who died or were injured.

That's it, really, except that, over a pint in my local many years later, I suddenly realised that this experience, for a then seven-year-old, may have been the reason why I am absolutely petrified of flying!Richard Baguley, England

I was there that day with a group from Boulton-Paul aircraft.

My husband and I were on the hill, the plane made a very low sweep over our heads and I saw the fuselage and wings vibrating rapidly.

I had the urge to move, a decision that saved our lives as the engine landed where we were standing previously. Dreadful memory.
Marie Darroch

I was a RAF Corporal and leaving our son with his grandmother we went off to Farnborough for the day. We were regulars.

John Derry was renowned for 'splitting the hill' flying on his wing tips in the Vampires and Venoms.

We were on the hill and I remember seeing him coming toward us after going through the barrier. It seemed that just over the black sheds his wings started to separate and the two booms broke apart from the tailplane.

Then there was this fiery ball coming straight at us. I knew that it was an engine. I threw my wife down and got down with her. The engine landed a few yards behind us.

We got up and heard a young ATC lad in uniform say with a smile on his face "That was the most exciting thing I have ever seen." We had to leave.

As we walked to the railway station the first aircraft to fly over was not Neville Duke in the Hunter, it was a Brittania. It sounded so smoothe I remember saying to my wife "Why can't all aircraft be like that?"

I attended many B of B displays after that, on duty, but never again went to Farnborough. Our son was close to becoming an orphan that day. I had bloodstains on the back of my greatcoat.
Alf Comons, Australia

In Sept 1952 I attended Farnborough Air show with my father. As a keen aviation photographer with a 100mm lens, I always took a position at the fence line and therefore had to get there early.

My father noted the hill behind us and suggested we move, saying "from that hill we would be able to see right down the runway" I explained that it was too far from the runway for my photography. So we stayed put.

Later, a group of lads arrived from Swindon and once again suggested they move to the hill. Again, one chap had brought his camera which had only 50mm lens. So they stayed also.

When the DH110 broke up and crashed, the one engine landed in the crowd on the hill. The Swindon lads said to the camera owner, "Just as well you brought your camera or we would have been on that hill".

I took a number of black and white shots, including one of the Avon motor in mid-air. They were sent to the Air Ministry for investigation purposes.
Richard Hitchins, Australia

I was a child of 4 and a bit and, with my brothers, had been taken to the airshow by my Dad.

While other recollections of the day are few, I can still see one of the engines from John Derry's aircraft careering towards and over the top of us (it came down in the crowd on the embankment some way behind).

The other memory is reaching home to be met by a 'concerned' mother who had heard the news but whom we could not contact.
Nigel Sacree, UK

Expert Witness
As co-author of 'John Derry, The Story of Britain's First Supersonic Pilot' (William Kimber 1982), I have been interested to read the witness acounts of his crash at the Farnborough Air Display on Saturday 6 September 1952.

Some of those witnesses may be interested to know exactly how he crashed and why.

Up until the point the aircraft disintegrated, Derry had been flying exactly the same display pattern as he had on the previous five days of the show in the black second prototype of the de Havilland DH 110 (WG 240). This aircraft had a history of overheating problems on one of its two Avon engines, and on the Saturday of the show it was unserviceable.

Derry, aged 31, and his flight observer Anthony Richards, aged 24, drove to de Havilland's base at Hatfield and took off in the first silver-coloured prototype WG236. This aircraft had flown supersonic many times.

After climbing to 40,000ft, Derry dived towards Farnborough and the crowd heard a very impressive triple bang, followed almost immediately by the arrival of the 110 doing a 700+mph flypast.

As on previous days, Derry then banked to the left and flew in a circle so that he was then heading towards the spectators. He was about a mile away from the crowd doing about 450 knots, and his plan was to pull into an upward roll.

As he straightened up the aircraft disintegrated, and the sequence was this: under the stress of straightening up from the turn and pulling into a climb, the outer part of the starboard wing failed and broke off. The same section of the other wing was lost immediately afterwards.

This caused a sudden change in the centre of gravity, causing the plane to rear up with such force that the cockpit section, with John and Tony still inside, broke off at 12g while the two engines tore loose from the airframe and the tailplane ripped off. One engine ploughed into spectators on the so-called Observation Hill and the other crashed harmlessly, while the cockpit fell right in front of spectators nearest the runway, injuring several people. The main airframe fluttered down and landed on the other side of the airfield.

Many witnesses believe to this day that it was the loss of the tailplane that caused the disaster, but a cine film taken by a spectator shows very clearly what happened - in fact a sequence of stills from this film was used in the book. But the break-up, which was witnessed by John's wife Eve, happened in less than a second - too fast for the mind to recall with any accuracy.

Subsequent investigations showed that the wing failed because it had only 64 per cent of its intended strength - a fact that was not realised at the time with the limited technology and knowledge available.

Two things were certain: the crash had nothing to do with supersonic flight but related entirely to that one manoeuvre, and the disaster was in no way John Derry's fault. He was known as one of the finest and safest of display pilots, and it was a terrible irony that he and so many others died in such a way.

One other small point is that Neville Duke's display after the crash was in the Hawker P1067, prototype of the Hunter, and it was finished in duck egg green - not the black or red colour that some witnesses have mentioned.
Brian Rivas, UK


Search ON THIS DAY by date   

Front Page |  Years |  Themes |  Witness
^^ Back to top |