Category Archives: Accidents

15 February 1918 – His pet monkey was not injured

Jeffrey and Vernon

Captain Vernon William Blythe Castle, a well-known ballroom dancer has been killed in an aeroplane crash at Camp Taliaferro in Texas.

Vernon Castle, along with his wife Irene were a well known dance couple who danced professionally and acted in various films in the United States from 1910 until 1915. Irene was also noted as a fashion icon at the time. In 1915, Vernon originally from Norwich in England decided to join the war effort and trained as a pilot, qualifying in January 1916. He then gave a farewell performance and sailed for England to join the RFC.

In June 1916, he was posted to 1 Squadron RFC flying Nieuport fighters. He flew over 300 combat missions, claiming two victories, before being posted to Canada in April 1917 to train new pilots. His entire unit then moved to Texas for winter training.

Today, Vernon took emergency action shortly after takeoff to avoid a collision with another aircraft. His plane stalled, and he was unable to recover control before the plane hit the ground. He was killed in the crash. According to the memorial at the crash site:

“Neither the other pilot, his student cadet, nor Vernon’s pet monkey, Jeffrey, were seriously injured.”


Weather on the Western Front was once again poor.

Back in England, 66 Training Squadron based at Yatesbury were practicing formation flying in their RE8s.

2nd Lieutenant John Thomas Gibson and Lieutenant Frederick Cumber Baxter in A3742 attempted a left turn, but the pilot made an error and the aircaft went into a spin. It was too near to the ground for the pilot to recover and they crashed.

Both were badly injured and Gibson died of his wounds later the same day. Baxter hung on but eventually sucumbed on 20 February.

7 February 1918 – Accidents will happen

William Reginald Sanborn

Out on the Western Front the weather was poor, with mist, rain and strong winds hampering most operations. Nevertheless the RFC suffered casualties.

2nd Lieutenant William Reginald Sanborn was killed at the Central Flying School at Upavaon when the engine of his Avro 504a (A1986) exploded in mid air. The aircraft was destroyed and Sanborn was killed. Sanborn was a Canadian who had been a Private with the Canadian Army Medical Corps and transferred to the RFC. He had been appointed as a flying officer on 23 January 1918. Typical of the time, news of his appointment did not appear in the London Gazette until 25 February 1918. For more information on Sanborn see here.


Jack Pitt

The same day, 2nd Lieutenant Jack Pitt with 46 Training Squadron RFC was killed when his DH4 (A7748) stalled shortly after take off at Catterick. The aircraft nosedived sharply and crashed. Pitt was killed instantly.

5 January 1918 – Zeppelin Disaster

German Zeppelins have not visited Britain since October 1917, when heavy losses put a hold on the programme. Today, atny attempts to resume the bombing suffered a serious setback when 5 Zeppelins were destroyed.

This afternoon 5 airships were in the sheds at Ahlhorn – Zeppelins L46, L47, L51, and L58, and the Schütte-Lanz SL20. Two cleaners were at work in the after car in the L51 and six civilian employees were making repairs to the Schütte -Lanz, Other than this, the sheds were empty. Most of the 1000 airship and ground personnel were in the adjacent barracks.

Suddenly a series of explosions were heard and the sheds burst into flames, The flames spread rapidly, and within a minute the five airships and three of the four sheds which contained them had been destroyed. Fifteen men were killed, thirty seriously injured, and 104 slightly injured.

The initial reaction was that the disaster had been caused by a British air attack. Once that was ruled out, rumours of sabotage and traitors spread. An official investigation found that the fire had started in the double shed housing the L47 and L51. The two cleaners in the latter ship, who escaped with burns, testified that a fire followed a dull report in front of the car in which they were working.

The official report was that the disaster had been due to an accident, and the suggestion was put forward that a piece of roofing, made loose by the winter storms, had fallen and damaged a fuel tank, and that the fire was possibly started by sparks thrown off from bracing wires as they were struck by the falling piece of roof.

The exact cause of the explosion remains a mystery. At the time many never accepted the official explanation and believed that the destruction resulted from an act of sabotage.

1 January 1918 – A New Year Tragedy

The year was only a few hours old when the first fatalities occurred in the air. Out in Egypt, Lieutenants Arthur Colwell Upham and Wesley Neal Spragg were killed when their Maurice Farman MF11 Shorthorn crashed after after their wing gave way.

Both men were instructors at the RFC training school in Heliopolis, Egypt. The previous day, they had attended a New Year’s Eve concert at the Aotea Convalescent Home and left early, according to a letter from the matron, Mary Early, to Spragg’s mother Annie.

“They always said they must have their ‘Beauty sleep’,” said Early, “so they left saying they would drop their New Year greeting as they were flying past the Home.”

The next morning they returned. Mary Early continues:

“Well, they came! While we were watching the two happy boys fly past, ‘something’ went wrong with the wing of the machine. It crumpled up and down came the aeroplane!”

“We had just waved to the two boys. Your son had waved back …”

Spragg jumped or was thrown out of the plane And died within minutes, having suffered a head injury. Upham was pinned under the plane, until it was lifted by 12 men, and he survived with concussion and a broken shoulder and nose.

The crashed aircraft in front on the convalescent home

Spragg had survived two earlier crashes since becoming a pilot in May 1916.

Photos and more detail from the New Zealand Herald.

21 December 1917 – SSP4 Lost

After the loss of the Airship SSP2 on 26 November 1917, the Airship station at Caldale on the Orkney’s suffered another disaster today as the SSP4 failed to return from an anti-submarine patrol and was assumed lost.

The SSP4 left the base at 1700 for the night patrol with a crew of tree Flight Commander William Frith Horner, Engineer Ernest Frank Anthony and Wireless Operator Rowland Charles Behn.

At around 1750 the SSP4 sent a message that they would be returning to base due to heavy snow. The base lights were put on facilitate the return of the ship. At 1810 another message was received from SSP4 requesting information on wind strength and direction. 10 minutes later another message from SSP 4 arrived asking for a destroyer to be sent to 72K and use searchlight.

At 18.50 Caldale received another request from SSP4 for weather conditions at the base. SSP 4 was told that a destroyer had been sent to the position 72K grid square on chart and was asked if they were having difficulties. SSP4 then started having communication problems as it could not receive messages from Caldale although Caldale could hear SSP4. SSP 4 started communicating through Peterhead.

At 1925 a new message arrived:

”Making no headway, ask Destroyers to search east of Orkney”

SSP 4 was lost and needing to get a position fix. To assist both Copinsay and Auskerry lighthouses on islands to the east of the main island were lit and destroyers and patrol boats sent out.

The lights and flares at Caldale were then put out as it was thought the airship would not arrive back for some hours.

At 2110 a message was intercepted from SSP4 to HMS the Campania:

”Despatch destroyer at full speed with searchlight to bearing 355 from Peterhead”

At 2200 the Admiral Commanding Orkney and Shetland (ACOS) sent the following message,

“Can you see any searchlights or shorelights”

By this time Caldale had restored communications with SSP4. The wireless operator estimated that the airship could be no more than 20 miles away from the base. 10 minutes later SSP sent the following:

“Send destroyer to Sanday, may not be able to get back”

At 2233, a message was received at Caldale from ACOS to be passed to SSP 4.

”Priority, you passed over Mull Head Papa Westray at 22.00. The lights at Caldale were lit again.

At 2315 a similar message was sent to SSP4

”Priority, you were over Skea Skerries at 22.45, ships in [Scapa] Flow are burning searchlights”

HNothing more was heard from the airship and at 0100 the lights at Caldale were turned off as the airship was known only to have enough fuel to last until midnight.

The next morning the wreck of SSP 4 was found at Tafts on the south shore of Westray but there was no sign of the crew. Various items including papers, charts, a boot, leather jacket and a glove were found still on board. The airship was salvaged and returned to Caldale. A subsequent court of enquiry determined that the SSP4 hit the water while the engine was still running. The crew likely abandoned the ship thinking it would sink. None of the crew were ever found.

This second accident led to the RNAS abandoning the base at Caldale as too dangerous and the remaining airships were moved to

Further detail of this accident and the base at Caldale, including photographs available at

3 December 1917 – 22 Squadron Disaster

Today on the Western Front, 9 Wing assisted 2 Brigade by bombing Honnecourt (27 Squadron RFC), Menin Station (25 Squadron RFC) and Crevecoeur (25 and 27 Squadron).

Providing fighter cover was 22 Squadron RFC in their Bristol F2bs. Lieutenant Sydney Arthur Oades and 2nd Class Air Mechanic John Harvey Jones had a smidgin of good news when they claimed to have shot down an enemy two-seater in flames north of Roulers.

After that it all went downhill. First, Lieutenant L R Titchener and Second Lieutenant Herbert Kenneth Johnstone were killed when their Bristol F.2b (A7230). collided in mid air with another F2b (A7268) with 2nd-Lieutenant Frank Amsden Biner and 1st Class Air Mechanic David Ward Clement on board. All four crew were killed.

2nd Lieutenant F Goodchap and 2nd Lieutenant Alfred Henry Middleton were slightly luckier as they were taken prisoner when their F2b suffered engine trouble and they were forced to land behind enemy lines.