Death of a Giant: 60 years since Britannia air crash

November 03 2017

DISASTER struck at Downend shortly before noon on November 6 1957 when a Bristol Britannia aircraft crashed into a wooded area off Overndale Road, killing all 15 people on board.

Author and historian Maurice Fells looks back at the tragedy that struck Downend 60 years ago
this month

 

DISASTER struck at Downend shortly before noon on November 6 1957 when a Bristol Britannia aircraft crashed into a wooded area off Overndale Road,  killing all 15 people on board. 

    A row of houses was damaged but fortunately no one on the ground was killed. Two women though were taken to hospital for treatment, one of them being hurt by the impact of the blast when what seemed to be a battered engine bay landed next to her home. It happened while she was hanging washing on her line. This piece of wreckage landed on the spot where normally a baby would be asleep in a pram outside the house. Luckily that day the child was not there.  

   The Britannia blew up immediately it struck the ground, hurling debris for up to a quarter of mile away tearing large holes in the roofs of houses and shattering walls and windows. The plane fell almost into the gardens of a row of newly-built houses on Overndale Road. A farmhouse and stables at nearby Lincombe Farm were also damaged.   

    It was a scene of indescribable confusion at the rear of the damaged houses. One of the largest pieces of wreckage was the engine bay which lay between numbers 45-47 Overndale Road.  

    Scores of people in various parts of Bristol had earlier seen the plane in distress. There were reports that it was “wobbling” and “banking steeply”.  The proto-type Britannia crashed on its landing approach to Filton Airport after an apparently normal test flight lasting 1 hour 40 minutes. It hit the ground just four miles from the Filton runway.  

    The aircraft was piloted by Hugh Statham, aged 47, Assistant Chief Test Pilot with the Bristol Aircraft Company (BAC). This was a man who had logged up more than 5,000 flying hours, mostly with the Bristol Britannia.  

    The radio operator was William James Todd, from Ashton. Other BAC employees on board included Nigel Thorne, 27, a photographer from Mangotsfield, Philip Hewitt, also 27, from Bishopston, a senior technical engineer, Donald Cameron, 26, from Brentry, a flight engineer, John Parry-Jones, 40, from  Clifton, a systems engineer, and Frederick Mycroft,  24, also  from Clifton, a junior technical engineer.

    Also among the victims were staff from the De Havilland aircraft firm, who were doing work connected with Britannia’s propellers, and officials from the Air Ministry.  

    Two weeks after the crash about 400 people attended a memorial service at Bristol Cathedral for the victims.  At an inquest the coroner heard that all 15 men on board died instantly when the plane hit the ground. He recorded that they died from multiple injuries. 

     A plaque commemorating the dead was unveiled in what is now known as Britannia Woods by Beryl Statham, the widow of the pilot,  in 2007 on the 50th anniversary of the crash.  

      An investigation into the accident was quickly started by The Air Ministry. Within 24-hours an unusual appeal was made by the government inspector leading the inquiry. He wanted ‘souvenir hunters’ who had visited the crash site to return any pieces of aircraft they may have taken. In a press statement he said that “certain fragments which might be of vital importance were being sought”

   In a statement BAC said: “From many eye-witness accounts it seems that the aircraft, after making a turn to port in a position to the south-east of the airfield at about 1,500 feet, swung away to starboard , went into a deep turn, lost height and struck the ground. So far as anything may be stated with certainty at this stage, the aircraft was not on fire in the air.”

    Despite a lengthy investigation the cause of the crash was never found. A government report concluded that "The accident was the result of the aircraft developing a very steep descending turn to the right which the pilot was unable to control. The reason for this could not be determined, but the possibility that it occurred as the result of malfunctioning of the autopilot cannot be dismissed."

    The makers of the autopilot system were quick to respond  claiming that the crash was not due to their  autopilot system. 

 

Crash on the mudflats

 

THE Downend crash happened three years after another proto-type Britannia was crash landed on the Littleton-on-Severn mudflats of the Severn Estuary. 

The plane was on a routine flight in February 1954 heading for Herefordshire  with BAC’s Chief Test Pilot, Mr A.J. “Bill” Pegg”, at the controls.  At 10,000 feet an engine suddenly exploded.  Shrapnel missed the fuselage but pierced the engine oil tank, which burst into flames. Two other engines shut down. However, speedy work of two engineers on board got them working again. 

With flames engulfing the starboard wing, Bill Pegg decided to crash-land on the mudflats, not being able to find a strip of land elsewhere to land.  With the flaps and wheels up, and only the two port engines running, the Bill Pegg expertly belly-landed on the mud flats not far from Aust. The Britannia slid for 400 yards, sending plumes of mud in the air before coming to rest facing out from the shore, with one engine ripped from the nacelle. Mr Pegg and nine others on board, including technicians and observers from BAC clambered out unhurt. BAC engineers managed to salvage vital instruments from the cockpit the next day but the plane was declared a write-off being “economically beyond repair”.