Saturday February 17th 1912 was a beautiful day. After the recent spell of cold, damp weather people shopping in St Margarets were pleased to be out enjoying the bright sunshine, a clear blue sky and the gentlest of breezes…
It was approaching midday when they heard the sound of an aeroplane approaching from the south. Aircraft were rare enough in those days for them to stop and point and wonder at the marvel that was passing overhead.
Instead of the expected two-winged biplane appearing over the rooftops, this plane was a monoplane, a Martin Handasyde, with a single wing supported by bracing wires. The machine was low enough for those on the ground to see the pilot sitting behind the controls. Douglas Graham Gilmour had taken off at 11.00am that morning from the airfield at Brooklands on a short testing flight. He told his mechanics that he would return within an hour. This was not to be.
As the plane crossed the Thames one witness reported that… “it appeared to dive slightly from about 300 feet as if about to land. A moment afterwards the right wing was seen to give in the middle. The machine swung round, seemed to recover itself for a faction of a second, and then the other wing went, the two wings folding back and upward. At once the machine dropped straight on its nose…”
The Martin Handasyde crashed in the Old Deer Park killing Graham Gilmour instantaneously.
At the enquiry into the crash held in Richmond the following Tuesday, the jury could find no evidence of mechanical failure or pilot error. Their judgement was summed up by Charles G. Grey, the editor of “The Aeroplane”…
“What was the cause of the crash will of course never be known and one can only surmise that there must have been some undiscoverable flaw in the wood of the wing…the whole thing is an inexplicable mystery, and must simply be put down as one of those accidents which must happen once in a while despite all that human foresight can do to prevent them.”
The well known aviation pioneer, Thomas Sopwith, who had not witnessed the crash, told the enquiry that he supposed that Graham Gilmour had the misfortune to drop into a ‘pocket’. For earthbound residents the local paper “The Richmond Herald” offered this simple explanation…
“Air pockets are portions of the atmosphere where there is a vacuum or where the air is extremely rarefied, and it is against these dangerous ‘pockets’ that flying men have to be on their guard.”
Aeroplane crashes were common enough in those early days of aviation – but in 1912 monoplanes seemed to be having a particularly bad run of luck. In May 1912 a Flanders F3 monoplane crashed at Brooklands killing the pilot E.V.B Fisher and his passenger. On 5th July Captain E.B. Lorraine and Staff Sergeant R.H.V Wilson of the Royal Flying Corps were both killed when their Nieuport Monoplane crashed near Boscombe Down. In August an Australian pilot, Lindsay Campbell, was killed when his Bristol monoplane crashed at Brooklands. On September 6th Capt. Patrick Hamilton and Lt. Wyness-Stuart of the Royal Flying Corps were both killed when their Deperdussin-Gnome Monoplane broke up in the air during the Larkhill Military Trials and on the 10th September Lts. E. Hotchkiss and C.A Bettington were also killed when their Bristol Coanda monoplane crashed at Hitchen. With so many RFC officers dying in monoplane crashes on September 14th Colonel Seely, the Under Secretary of State for War, issued an order prohibiting all Royal Flying Corps pilots from flying these particular aircraft. Although this order was reversed 5 months later when designers and constructors were able to prove that their monoplanes were just as sturdy and airworthy as biplanes the prejudice against monoplanes continued into the Second World War when the RAF were still using Swordfish and Gloster Gladiator biplanes to fight an enemy equipped with 300mph+ ME 109 monoplane fighters.
Douglas Graham Gilmore left a sealed letter dated May 1911 to be opened after his death. In it he requested that there should be no mourning and no tolling of bells. Any flowers were to be brightly coloured and his body was to be transported on a four-wheel farmer’s cart or a motor lorry. The letter concluded, ‘I want everyone to be merry and bright, for I don’t believe in moaning’.
Clearly the “Richmond and Twickenham Times” couldn’t have seen the reference to “merry and bright” because in tribute to the young airman they wheeled out Maud M Gittens…
Blue is the sky,
The birds fly high.
Birds lend me your lore!
With you I mount
And no flight shall count
That man ever made before.
How the earth looks green
Where there’s nought between.
Is the sky o’ercast?
Did a cloud flit past?
Must I descend again?
Still the glimpse of heaven,
For a moment given
Is more than worth the pain.
How the earth looks red
Where the man lies dead.
“The Airman” by MAUD M GITTENS
The “Richmond Herald’s” final words on the tragic accident that took place at the Old Deer Park on 17th February 1921 were more prosaic but also more to the point.
“The fact remains that flying is as yet an exceedingly dangerous pastime and that those who engage in it may be literally said to take their lives in their hands every time that they take to that unstable element, the air.”
— from Martyn Day