Category Archives: Accidents

31 May 1917 – 55 Mishaps

Following the wind down of the British offensive at Arras, preparations are ramping up for a new offensive to the North in the Messines area.

The DH4s of 55 Squadron RFC have been tasked with the jobs of long range strategic reconnaissance of railway communications around Bruges, Ghent, Grammont, and Ath, and of day bombing to divert enemy air activity from the impending battle front.

To facilitate this, 55 Squadron started to move aerodromes further north today.
This was not without mishaps unfortunately as two aircraft were lost in crashes.

First 2nd Lieutenant William Fraser Sleeman and Lieutenant Gerald Inchbold stalled their DH4 (A2172) which then went into a spin and crashed. The aircraft was completely wrecked and both crew were killed.

Lieutenant Arthur Lindley and Lieutenant Charles Frederick Richards Goodyear were a bit more fortunate. They flew their DH4 (A7428) into a barbed wire fence not long after take off from Fienvillers. They survived and the aircraft was able to be rebuilt.

27 May 1917 – Marian Disaster

‘F’ Squadron RNAS has spent the last four weeks carrying out bombing missions on stations and supply dumps across the Macedonian front. However today disaster struck.

Five Sopwith Strutters had been wheeled out on the aerodrome at Marian and loaded with bombs for a raid. The weather proved unfavourable and the aeroplanes were put back in the hangar, where they were left in readiness to set off immediately the weather conditions improved.

Also in the hangar were three single-seater fighters, with four men at work on them. Suddenly there was an explosion and the hangar burst into flames. Other explosions followed as the bombs were detonated, and the flames spread to a small nearby hangar in which two aeroplanes were housed. Both hangars and the aircraft were destroyed within three minutes.

The four men killed in the hangar were Chief Petty Officer William Hugh Woodhead, 1st Class Air Mechanics Frederick C Mitford and Leslie Oldman and 2nd Class Air Mechanic Harry Norman John Gibson

Four other mechanics and one soldier who were on the aerodrome at the time were wounded.

It remains unknown how the accident huappened. The armourer in the main hangar, CPO Woodhead was a man of experience and proved caution, and the fan safety devices were supposed to render harmless any bomb dropped from a height less than 200 feet, so that even if a bomb accidentally fell off its rack inside the hangar, it should not have exploded.

Local commanders attempted to keep news of the disaster from reaching the enemy. Signs of the fire were removed and talk of the accident was forbidden. Nevertheless rumours began to spread within a few weeks.

26 May 1917 – A shock for Mr Alexander


John Douglas Price Scholfield

At about 2000 today,  shoppers in Hungerford, Berkshire became aware of an aircraft approaching the town from the west. This was not particularly unusual as there were RFC training stations nearby.

However, as the aircraft got nearer it was clear that the engine was running poorly and it was flying very slowly. Suddenly it climbed and then stood on its tail before turning over. The High Street was crowded with onlookers and most thought the pilot was giving an aerobatic display and showed their appreciation by clapping.

However, the aircraft quickly fell out of control and nose-dived into the garden of Mr Thomas Alexander’s house and grocery store at 26 High Street,

onlookers rushed to the wrecked aircraft to help the pilot. He was pulled free but was already dead from the impact.

The pilot was later identified as 2nd Lieutenant John Douglas Price Scholfield, a 23 year-old Canadian from the Central Flying School, Upavon.

The plane was placed under guard and the next day an enquiry was held by officers from Upavon. Lieutenant Scholfield was a learne pilot and had left Upavon at about 1930 in an Avro 504A (4061). An officer from Upavon examined the wreckage and declared that, in his opinion, the controls and wires appeared to be in perfect working order and the plane had crashed as the result of a stall.


The wrecked Avro

22 May 1917 – Accidents will happen

As has been the case throughout the war so far, accidents continue to claim plenty of victims.

Yesterday Captain John Wilson Tailford MC was serving as an instructor with 13 Reserve Squadron at Dover. He was instructing Lieutenant Eric Hughes in a BE2c (1320) when the aircraft turned at 350ft and then suddenly nosedived into the ground.

There was some disagreement between witnesses as to exactly what happened. Captain Eric Buxton stated:

“After a steeply banked left turn, I saw the machine commence another left-hand turn at a height of 350 ft. The turn developed into a nose-dive, and the machine spinning, with the engine full on, hit the ground…The first turn was very steep, almost ninety degrees. He then got back to the level position and commenced to climb slightly. He then commenced the second turn towards the left, and banked at almost as steep an angle as the first one. I can not imagine that the deceased would have done a “stunt” turn like this to instruct a pupil.”

Second Lieutenant Reginald Stanley Twigg stated:

“I watched the machine descending from 800 ft., with the engine throttled down, in a left-hand spiral, in quite a safe attitude. On coming out of the first left-hand spiral the machine at once commenced to turn to the right without sufficient bank, and too flat an angle, which caused the machine to fall to earth in a spinning nose-dive.“

Buxton noted that when a machine was doing evolutions, even flying officers gave different accounts of what occurred. A steep right-hand turn looked like a left-hand loop. No doubt both officers were stating accurately what they thought they saw, but one of them was wrong. The engine was of a type that when running at half-power would sound to one not acquainted as if running at full speed. But that had no effect on the accident. His own view was that the accident was due to the machine losing the necessary amount of forward speed, together with an insufficient amount of bank.

Buxton further stated:

“I immediately ran towards the spot, 600 yards from where I had been standing, and was the second to arrive on the scene of the accident. I at once saw that the pilot was killed, and attempted to release the pupil. After seven or eight minutes, we succeeded in getting the pupil out. An ambulance then arrived, and the deceased and the wounded man were removed. “

Another similar occurred today at the same aerodrome when 1st Class Air Mechanic Percy Henry O’Lieff was test flying a Avro 504 (A491) when a badly running engine caused him to lose flying speed. He landed heavily and the aircraft caught fire. O’Lieff was lucky to escape with minor injuries.

008F9C43-084F-4108-9C91-95CD9AB53A6F-12169-000008D6B58D8CBBAlso today, 2nd Lieutenants Cyril Frederick Crapp and William John Douglas Vince from 78 Squadron were both killed when Vince’s BE12a (A602) collided with Crapp’s BE12 (6581) during formation flying practice over Hove.

The leader of the squadron of four said they were flying in diamond formation at a height of 4500 feet when he gave the order for the formation to break up. During this manoeuvre, Crapp crashed into Vince. It appears they were both blinded by the sun. One of the machines appeared to buckle up immediately and fell to the ground at Marine Park, Aldrington and the other plane continued its flight for a few seconds and then exploded – the machine then nose-dived towards the beach at Hove.

19 May 1917 – New DH5 crashes

In an effort to find a replacement for the aging DH2, Airco designer Geoffrey de Havilland has devised the DH5. The design was an attempt to combine the forward view of a pusher aircraft with the performance of a tractor aircraft. The result was an aircraft with a pronounced backward stagger – 27 inches in all.


William Teasdale Hall

The aircraft was delivered to 24 Squadron at the beginning of May and they have been practicing with it since then.

Today, Captain William Teasdale Hall was killed testing the aircraft (in this case A9364). His wings were seen to fall off as he tried to pull up from a steep dive during a test flight.

This and other mishaps led to a widespread and unfounded belief that its unorthodox layout imparted a high stalling speed and made recovery from a spin difficult. In fact the DH5 was strong, fully aerobatic, and a pleasant aeroplane to fly.

The view now is that the DH5 was massively unpopular amongst pilots. However reports in Flight Magazine at the time suggest that this was not the case at least initially.


One of 24 Squadron’s DH5s

However, as time went on it became clear that the DH5 was not suited to aerial combat. There were two main reasons for this. First, the unusual layout left a significant blind spot behind the pilot – the location from where most attacks came from. Secondly, the performance of the aircraft tailed off rapidly at altitude and it and tendency to lose height rapidly in combat. Thirdly its single Vickers gun left it rather undergunned for the time when most enemy fighters had two guns, Ultimately it just wasn’t anywhere near as good as its contemporaries the SE5 or the Sopwith Camel and in fact the existing Sopwith Pup was probably a better aircraft.

17 April 1917 – Accidents still happen

Windy weather on the Western Front severely curtailed flying today and few enemy aircraft were up.


Hugh Pater

Back in England, 2nd Lieutenant Hugh Pater from 37 Reserve Squadron was killed when the RE8 (A4571) in which he was the passenger crashed into an Armstrong-Whitworth whilst trying to take off from Scampton Camp near Lincoln. The plane immediately nose dived into the ground. The pilot 2nd Lieutenant John Manley was also injured. The subsequent enquiry did not attach any blame to either pilot.

Hugh Pater had joined the RFC in August 1916, having previously served with the
He had just received his flying certificate on 14 April 1917 and was due to travel to France once he had completed the requisite number of flying hours. He had been involved in a crash the day before as pilot and had written o his mother that morning about it:

“My dear Mother, I had my first “crash” on Monday in an RE8 smashing the propeller and taking a wheel off the undercarriage, so I shall not go to France till Friday at any rate. If I can finish my time today or tomorrow I might get some leave. The weather here is appallingly windy and it is impossible to fly at present. Ives was sent to Fr4ance a week or two ago I do not expect to see him out there as I shall be flying a different type of machine. I knew Kirkup very well as he got his “wings” here and then went to South Carlton. He was a splendid fellow. Love to all, you loving son, Hugh. “

His colleague Captain Philip Austin Kirkup had been killed on 11 April 1917 when his FE8 (A4909) went into a spinning nosedive during combat practice from 1000 feet and crashed. Both men were buried in adjacent graves at Sunderland Ryhope Road Cemetery.

22 March 1917 – Major Montague Elphinstone

elphinstone-m1Today on the Western Front, the pace of air activity slowed with poor weather. There were a few aircraft shot up but no serious injuries.

One RFC death, however, was recorded, that of Major Montague Elphinstone from 3 Squadron RFC. Montague was 37 at the time, quite old for a new RFC officer. Then again he had volunteered to serve during the Boer War in 1902. After that he had become an actor until the outbreak of war. He immediately volunteered for the Army, and served as a private and Corporal. He attempted to join the cavalry, but eventually gazetted Second Lieutenant on 21st December 1914 into the Army Service Corps. In early 1916 he passed his pilot’s licence and transferred to the RFC.

There is some mystery as to how he was killed. His Casualty Card gives very little detail other than to state that he was flying a Morane Parasol. There is no further detail on whether this was a single or two seater, though most Parasols would have had two seats. Nor is their details of another crew member so this may be unknown or he was flying alone. It would not be unusual for two seater pilots to fly alone to save weight, though this was normally for bombing missions. At this time 3 Squadron was primarily a reconnaissance squadron.

Given the lack of detail it seems likely that this was a flying accident. His obituary on the Bancroftian website seems to confirm this noting he was “killed in a flying accident having sustained multiple fractures”. The provenance of this is unknown.

Another useful source of evidence is Flight Magazine. It contains contemporary death reports.  However, this also gives us few clues, simply stating:

IMG_0893The lack of detail is perhaps unsurprising, particularly if it was an accident. Whilst accidents in the UK would merit a coroner’s report (many of which were then reported in Flight), those which occurred at the front were not investigated so thoroughly, if at all.

Whether the “killed in action” description is down to a lack of detail by the recorders or a deliberate attempt to finesse the report is unknown. Families would likely take some comfort from killed in action rather than accident. The RFC was also under presssure to reduce accidents.