Early aircraft crashes highlight advances in safety

The wreckage of Edwin Sandss aeroplane after the crash in 1934, which he miraculously  escaped from with only a broken ankle, some burns and other minor injuries
The wreckage of Edwin Sandss aeroplane after the crash in 1934, which he miraculously escaped from with only a broken ankle, some burns and other minor injuries

For centuries man has attempted to emulate the bird population by attempting to fly, or at least lift off from the ground.

In 1992 a book was published titled Sussex Flights and Fliers 1783-1919, which gives some indication of man’s attempt to fly locally over the centuries.

Naval Seaplane No.115 after it crashed into the sea off West Worthing  on July 22, 1914

Naval Seaplane No.115 after it crashed into the sea off West Worthing on July 22, 1914

Endless experiments with all manner of strange devices in Victorian times and before took place but powered and controlled flight belonged to the first decade of the 20th century.

There were engineers and designers in many countries trying to make the breakthrough with not only fixed-wing aircraft but various forms of gas-filled balloon.

The history of aviation is a long one, and not for this feature, but although the Wright Brothers made their first recognised flight in 1903 it would be several years before any form of reliable air transportation would be produced on any scale.

In Sussex The Shoreham Aviation Ground, later Shoreham Airport, opened in 1910, one of the earliest airfields and the oldest licensed one in the United Kingdom. It was the first commercial airport with flights from 1911.

Robert Wrights Avro 500 biplane after it crashed into a garden at New Salts Farm

Robert Wrights Avro 500 biplane after it crashed into a garden at New Salts Farm

On June 13, 1936, Brighton, Hove and Worthing Municipal Airport was officially opened sporting the wonderful Art Deco building that survives to this day. The airport is now known as Brighton City Airport but to many it is still known as Shoreham Airport.

It should be mentioned that during the war years there were other temporary airfields in the area.

Over the decades there have, inevitably, been many local air crashes, mainly but not entirely involving light aircraft.

Air crashes during the world wars were relatively commonplace and many have been described in some detail in the Worthing Journal and The Sentinel before it.

Perhaps the most notable incidents are, of course, the 2015 Shoreham Airshow disaster when 11 people lost their lives and 16 were injured; the 1956 disaster when an RAF Valiant bomber landed on the railway line at Southwick, killing three air crew; and in 2007 when the pilot of a Hawker Hurricane crashed at the Shoreham Airshow, killing the pilot.

There have been numerous fatal light aircraft crashes over the years and some where the pilot and passengers had miraculous escapes.

In 2002 an aircraft lost power after taking off from Shoreham and it landed safely on Worthing beach, near Grand Avenue, without a loss of life.

There have been other light aircraft crashes, for example in March 2008, July 2016 and at Lancing in March 2017.

However in this article records and describes three crashes of yesteryear, with accompanying photographs.

One of the earliest crashes was at Shoreham Airport on the evening of Sunday, June 29, 1913.

Mr Robert Wright of West Norwood, aged 24, had been giving an exhibition in his Avro 500 biplane and after circling the airport at a height of about 100ft he was making for Bungalow Town when suddenly the machine crashed into a garden at New Salts Farm, just south of the railway line.

Immediately the biplane touched the ground the petrol tank exploded and the machine burst into flames.

Mr Wright appeared stunned by the force of the impact and was unable to extricate himself.

The occurrence was witnessed by a large crowd, hundreds of whom made for the place where the aeroplane had fallen. So fierce were the flames that would be rescuers were unable to remove the pilot from his seat until the petrol had burned itself out.

When Mr Wright was eventually removed from the plane it was found that all of his clothes had burned off him and that he had been terribly burned about his head and body.

First aid was rendered and he was removed by ambulance to the Sussex County Hospital at Brighton.

However on examination he was found to be so seriously hurt that “his life was despaired of and he died at a late hour the same night.”

On Wednesday, July 22, 1914, Naval Seaplane No.115 was flying towards Worthing when the pilot, Flight Commander Rathbone and his passenger, Leading Telegraphist Stirling, heard a cracking noise behind them and suddenly realised that the aircraft was losing altitude.

The pilot managed the aircraft down into the sea just beyond the sands at West Worthing and waited in the plane to be rescued. A distress call was made and unbelievably several naval vessels appeared off the town during the afternoon from their Portsmouth base, including (as reported at the time) a Destroyer, a Torpedo Boat and a Government Tug.

The warplane was too badly damaged to be towed back to base. Instead it was taken to pieces at low tide with the objective of sending the engine and other parts back to base by train.

This task was entrusted to Mr W Wade, in whose garage in Chapel Road the dismantled engine was seen by a representative of the Worthing Gazette prior to its despatch to Felixstowe.

The third crash to feature here occurred on the evening of Monday, May 21, 1934, when Mr Edwin Sands of London was flying to the territorial camp at Muntham Court, Findon.

He had flown down from London to visit a friend in the camp.

Engine trouble developed while he was searching for a suitable landing place – can you imagine nowadays a pilot simply looking for a likely field in which to land?

The plane came down in a nosedive but with impeccable timing the pilot jumped clear just before the machine hit the ground.

He sustained a broken ankle, some burns and other minor injuries, and was taken by police ambulance to Worthing Hospital where he was described as “progressing favourably.”

The aircraft was completely destroyed and the wreck attracted a large number of locals who are seen viewing the scene.

In conclusion it must be said that, nowadays, when one views all of the commercial aircraft passing over the Worthing area at high altitude, and the sometimes frequent flow of Shoreham Airport traffic at much lower altitudes, how safe air travel has become over the years.