Readers of the Winter issue of the Ffestiniog Railway Society journal may have seen discussion of a plane crash out on the sands of Traeth Mawr, near Boston Lodge, in April 1937. It involved an RAF training aircraft on Instrument Flying Duty and killed one man, injuring another. A plaque commemorating the incident was erected by R.M. Williams, who shortly after wrote an article about the crash for the Summer 2001 Heritage Group Journal.
The plaque was at the Boston Lodge end of the Cob, on the seaward side, but has since been removed. Where it is now is unclear, although the Society has appealed for those with information to get in touch, so hopefully this will be cleared up in a future issue.
In the meantime, we thought people may be interested to read the full article about the crash, as originally published.
A Real “Welsh Incident” by R. M. Williams
At the turn of the century, Robert Graves wrote a poem called “Welsh Incident”, where he talks about things that came out of the caves near Criccieth. He described them as:
Things never seen or heard or written about,
Very strange, un-Welsh, utterly peculiar
Things. Oh solid enough they seemed to touch,
Had anyone dared it.
This imaginary incident happened near Easter, and all the residents of the local towns and villages were said to have come to witness it. Little could the poet have realised that about thirty years later, what he described effectively happened about four miles away.
As an aircraft enthusiast I had long been aware that an aircraft accident had happened at Traeth Mawr, off Portmeirion on April 23rd 1937. However, it was early in 1966 when my wife and I were looking through some old papers that belonged to my late father-in-law that my interest in this particular incident was aroused. Enclosed was a piece of silver-coloured fabric that family tradition maintained was something to do with flying. Immediately my thoughts went to the crash on Traeth Mawr. This eventually proved to be a false lead, but the spark of enquiry had been lit and could not be easily extinguished.
As one who had been trained in accident investigation at the workplace, I had been taught to ask five questions: Who and Where?, When and How?, and Why? Over the next few pages I hope that I will be able to provide satisfactory answers to these.
The aircraft involved in the accident was Avro Tutor K3425, which had been accepted by the RAF on October 6th 1934 and allocated to the No. 6 Flying Training School (FTS) on April 2nd 1935. At the time of the accident it had accumulated 209.30 flying hours.
The pilot was Corporal Walter Kirby Jackson, who was 22 years old and came from Yorkshire. He was the only son of a widowed mother and had achieved his wings on January 9th 1937. At the time of the accident he had accumulated 63 hours dual flying and 96 hours solo, of which only three were on Avro Tutors.
An Avro Tutor similar to the one involved in the crash. Credit: Alan Wilson, via Wikimedia Commons
The co-pilot was Leading Aircraftman Leonard Hopkirk, who came from Thursby near Carlisle. Lennie, as he was known to his friends, had left school in 1933 having excelled in mathematics and with an ambition to be a pilot.
No. 6 FTS had originally been established in May 1920 at Spitalgate near Lincoln, and was used to provide refresher training for experienced pilots using former WWI front-line aircraft. The unit moved to Manston in Kent for a short while in September 1921 before being disbanded in April 1922.
As part of the expansion plans of the mid-1930s, No. 6 FTS was re-formed at Netheravon, Wiltshire on April 1st 1935. The first course, with its 38 acting pilot officers, began on May 7th and was joined by the second course in the middle of October. The aircraft used included Audax, Hart and Anson. Out of interest, the name of the Commanding Officer was Group Captain A. ap Ellis; with such a name it is more than likely that he had a strong Welsh connection
2. Where and When
The precise location of the accident was Traeth Mawr, which lies between Porthmadog and the Portmeirion Peninsula in Gwynedd. At this time No. 6 FTS were at No. 5 Armament Training Camp based at RAF Penrhos, near Pwllheli. This base had only opened on March 20th 1937 and the accident to Corporal Jackson and LAC Hopkirk was the first to an aircraft based there. The first course began on April 3rd, each course lasting just three weeks. Jackson and Hopkirk arrived for the second course on Monday April 19th and Jackson flew every day after then. The main purpose of the camp was to use the bombing range at Porth Neigwl (or Hell’s Mouth in English), and the resident aircraft were usually used for these missions. As Traeth Mawr is east of Penrhos and Porth Neigwl is due west and the aircraft involved was one of No. 6 FTS’s own, it is more than likely that this fateful mission did not involve the use of the bombing range.
LAC Hopkirk’s training was quite advanced by the time he reached Penrhos and no doubt he looked forward to practising skills he had learned over Salisbury Plain over the quite different terrain of Gwynedd. The usual route taken was following the coast eastwards, from Penrhos, over Pwllheli, Criccieth, Porthmadog and the villages in between, until Traeth Mawr was reached, when the pilot would turn through about 300 degrees and head back home straight over the sea.
3. How and Why
In his report, P.C. Rowley of the Merionethshire Constabulary, who attended the incident, stated that Corporal Jackson had attempted a practice “forced landing”. In his autobiography Pilot’s Summer F. D. Tredrey, who flew with No. 6 FTS as an instructor during the late 1930s, described a practiced forced landing as follows:
“Cross-country flights are executed normally at about 2,000 feet, so that should the engine fail you will have plenty of time to effect a safe landing. Should the engine fail (and here the pilot throttles back and rams down the nose) ease the control column well forward and assume your best angle. Then select a suitable field in which to land and glide to the leeward side of it.”
It is at this point that a discrepancy arises in the accounts of the incident. The report of the accident in the Welsh language newspaper Yr Herald Cymraeg a’r Genedl (The Welsh Herald and Nation) states that both occupants of the aircraft had been wearing blindfolds, while the Fatal Flying Accident card completed as a result of the Board of Enquiry gave the Nature of the Accident as “Looking to the right and not noticing how near the ground was – Unnecessary low flying”.
If both occupants had been wearing blindfolds, the Board of Enquiry’s findings might seem harsh on Corporal Jackson, the one who could not defend himself. However, fittings for blindfolds were only attached to the rear cockpit of Avro Tutors, which leads us to the conclusion that the Herald correspondent had been misled. It is more likely that LAC Hopkirk alone had been flying blind in order to broaden his experience in Instrument Flying. Tredrey described this as: “The most gruelling of my flying life. Bumping, misty weather, not that the mist worries the pupil (i.e. the one in the rear cockpit) much. He pulls forward and clamps over his hear the blind, while the instructor / safety pilot in front teaches and keeps a good look-out, ready to take over if the need should arise.”
The report on the accident in the North Wales Chronicle (April 30th 1937) states that it was the body of Corporal Jackson in the front cockpit, thereby confirming that it must have been LAC Hopkirk who had been flying the aircraft on instruments after leaving Penrhos. The standard practice was for the ‘pupil’ pilot to fly the approach to the forced landing with the hood still over his head, relying on his instruments, and handing over to the front pilot at the last moment to land. Tredrey called it: “a queer business at the back, when you see the altimeter at nought and watch the airspeed needle falling and falling and the stick gradually moving as the front pilot feels the ailerons and brings it further and further back. And then suddenly brrump and we sit down on the ground and run to rest”.
A witness remembers that even though the weather was fine, there was a reflection of the sun on the surface of the sand. It might be reasonable to assume that this caused Corporal Jackson seriously to misjudge the height of his aircraft as the Fatal Flying Accident Card also states: “Hit ground in steep diving turn”, and the aircraft was not known to have had any mechanical or instrumentation defects on the day it crashed.
The afternoon of April 23rd had been a very quiet one at the Boston Lodge Works. Most of the fitters had gone to sort out a derailment 10 miles up the line, leaving only the foreman and the apprentice at the Works. Even though the airfield at Penrhos had only opened a few weeks previously, the sight of aircraft in the vicinity had already become a common occurrence, but at about 4.15pm black smoke was seen rising from the direction of Trwyn Penrhyn. The foreman, Mr Morris Jones, instructed the apprentice to run over and see if any help was required. On his way he met Lennie Hopkirk who had been thrown clear of the aircraft on impact and had suffered burns to his hands and face during a futile attempt to rescue his colleague.
Hopkirk asked him the location of the nearest telephone. While he made his way towards Boston Lodge, the apprentice continued on his way towards the scene of the crash. He noticed two other would-be rescuers making their way from the villages of Borth y Gest and Ynys Talsarnau, but he arrived first.
About the same time, a schoolboy called Emlyn Davies from Porthmadog was making his way home when he saw smoke rising from the direction of Traeth Mawr. He supplemented his weekly pocket money by working as assistant to Mr Herbert Thomas, the local reporter for the Liverpool Daily Post and the Cambrian News newspapers. Having a nose for a story he ran the mile and a half to the scene of the accident. By the time he arrived the flames had subsided and LAC Hopkirk, who had returned to the scene, was in a delirious state. Mr Thomas arrived to help Emlyn Davies with the report, which was sent to the newspapers that evening via the ‘Express Telegraph’.
Lennie Hopkirk’s wounds were treated by Dr Arwyn Roberts of Porthmadog before he was transferred to the sick bay at Penrhos. It was said that, by then, over one hundred people had come to see the accident. This was not the first fatal aircraft accident in Gwynedd but it was the first involving an RAF aircraft. An aircraft from the airfield had tried to land at the scene but had to return to base, as the sand was too soft. Corporal Jackson’s body was recovered and taken to the mortuary at the local cottage hospital. Several policemen tried to recover the wreckage of the Tutor from the sand, but they had to abandon their efforts due to the incoming tide. By 5pm the whole area was covered by water and all traces of the catastrophe, which had occurred only an hour earlier, were erased.
So why was Avro Tutor K3425 destroyed that afternoon, claiming the life of one young airman and injuring another? There is no record of any defect in the aircraft before this last flight. I believe that there could be four root causes:
- Despite having obtained his wings, Corporal Jackson was not very experienced on Tutors, having only flown solo on them for three hours. One can question the wisdom in asking him to accompany a student pilot, in view of the fact that instructors were usually pilots with many hours of front-line squadron experience, and who had then been taught the skill of passing on their knowledge.
- The statement “low flying unnecessary” on the accident report suggests that the practiced forced landing was not scheduled for that journey.
- The transfer of control of the aircraft, as described by Tredrey, between pupil and pilot at the culmination of the blind practiced forced landing, was too late, or fatally delayed.
- The ‘sheen’ on the surface of the sand misled Corporal Jackson as to his actual height, or again, his inexperience of an aircraft that was more powerful than he was used to, gave him the impression that he had more time to recover his height than he actually had.
Over 60 years later it would be unfair and unwise for us to speculate which of the above actually caused the accident, but we may believe that if any one of the four possible causes had not occurred then a life would not have been unnecessarily lost.
At half-past midnight the following morning, the apprentice was awoken by the local police for a statement of his account of the events. He was also invited by the RAF to attend the official inquiry, held at Penrhos on Monday April 26th 1937.
The night after the accident a ground crew from Penrhos camped on the beach by the scene, waiting for low tide the following morning so that an attempt could be made to salvage the Lynx engine from the Tutor. However, when low tide came there was no sign of any part of the aircraft.
The inquest into the death of Walter Kirby Jackson was opened on Saturday April 24th at the local mortuary and, after evidence of identification had been given, was adjourned until May 4th.The official enquiry, which was chaired by Flight Lieutenant Charles R. Lousada and attended by LAC Hopkirk, concentrated its deliberations on what had happened during the flight and gave the cause of the accident as “Low Flying Contra Aoc”. However, as I have argued above, this might be taken as too simplistic a cause.
Avro Tutor K3425 was the 23rd RAF aircraft to be lost and Corporal Jackson the 35th airman to be killed during the first four months of 1937, figures that today we would find far from acceptable. Lennie Hopkirk achieved his ambition of becoming a pilot for the RAF, but sadly our story does not have a happy ending. A few months later he contracted tuberculosis and was retired on health grounds. He died at Welton Hospital, near Carlisle, on August 21st 1939, aged 25 years.
Published sources: Doylerush E, The Legend of Llandwrog; Herald Cymraeg a’r Genedl; North Wales Chronicle, April 30th 1937; Rhedegydd (local Welsh language newspaper), April 29th 1937; Sloan R., Aviation in North Wales; Tredrey R. F., Pilot’s Summer.
Acknowledgements: Cumberland News; Mr Emlyn Davies, Porthmadog; Mr Hugh Davies, Minffordd; Merionethshire Constabulary, Police occurrence book; MoD Air Historical Branch; Mr George Park, Carlisle; RAF Museum; Staff of Gwynedd Archives at Caernarfon and Dolgellau, Mrs Pauline Stubbings, Hemel Hempstead, and last but not least, the apprentice who lived in the same village as myself until his untimely death and who insisted on remaining anonymous.
Image: The photo shows the sole surviving Avro Tutor, which originally carried the serial number K3215. The plane is now part of the Shuttleworth Collection in Bedfordshire, home to a huge collection of vintage and heritage aircraft. Attribution: Alan Wilson from Stilton, Peterborough, Cambs, UK, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.