On this day in history : 5th October 1930 – A British airship crashes on a hillside near Beauvais, Northern France, killing 46 of the 54 people onboard immediately – a further 2 die in hospital later….
The R101 had departed Cardington in Bedfordshire on the evening of October the 4th, bound for Karachi…. The planned route was to take it over London, Paris and Toulouse, before crossing the coast near to Narbonne, in Southern France…. Among the passengers onboard were several dignitaries including:- Lord Thomson, Secretary of State for Air – Sir Sefton Brancker, Director of Civil Aviation – and Squadron Leader William Palstra, RAAF Air Liaison Officer to the British Air Ministry….
The R101 was an experimental government funded project, controlled by the Air Ministry – an attempt to compete with the German Graf Zeppelin…. Despite being in design and development stage political powers insisted it should serve as a commercial vessel from the onset; teething and design problems were never fixed – too much valuable test-flight time was sacrificed to give VIPs pleasure trips instead…. The flight to India was insufficiently prepared for; the fabric covering of the airship was deteriorating and needed replacing…. Too much fuel was onboard (despite a planned re-fuelling stop on the way) and there was too much cargo…. Lord Thomson himself was taking several crates of silverware, china and Champagne – and even a carpet….
On the day of departure the weather forecast had been generally favourable, predicting winds of up to 30mph over Northern France but improving further south…. Early into the journey the duty engineer reported an oil pressure problem – after a discussion with the chief engineer it was decided nothing was wrong with the engine, a faulty gauge was likely to blame – so it was accordingly replaced and the journey continued…. By now the weather had deteriorated; it was raining heavily and a revised weather forecast now predicted winds over Northern and Central France to reach 50mph…. A new course was set, sending the R101 over Orly – but the estimated wind speed and direction was inaccurate and sent the airship east of its intended course….
The R101 went into a steep dive – emergency ballast was released and slowly the airship recovered…. A second dive prompted orders for speed to be reduced – the airship was flying at full speed on all engines, something it had never done before…. But before the engineer could respond the R101 hit the ground, at the edge of a wood near to Allone, a village south west of Beauvais….The impact speed was relatively low, approximately 13mph – and would have been survivable had the airship not been inflated with hydrogen – a highly flammable gas…. The R101 caught alight immediately – the resulting fire was an inferno…. Britain never operated a rigid airship again….
I suppose you would hardly call Dunsfold a “chocolate box” village – however, it does have a certain charm all of its own. Indeed, William Morris once described its church as being the most beautiful in all of England; Saint Mary’s and All Saints can even claim to have the oldest pews in the Land…. The church was built in the late 13th Century, on the site of a Norman chapel, close to a holy well, which was once visited by pilgrims, as it was believed its waters could cure diseases of the eye….
Dunsfold is a village in the county of Surrey, in the South East of England; it lies in the Weald (the area between the North and South Downs) – 14km South of Guildford and the nearest town being Godalming. It is neighboured by Cranleigh, said to be the largest village in England…. Dunsfold covers an area of 16.06 km² (6.2 sq miles) and the 2011 Census recorded a population of 987, with 467 dwellings, some of which are particularly old…. The village is surrounded by farmland and woodland and is situated at the base of the Surrey Hills…. Dunsfold itself is spread out over grass-land and common-land, with several ponds of notable size, attributed to being located on Wealden clay…. There is an extensive network of bridal-ways and footpaths in and around it, enabling walkers to explore and discover the village and surrounding area…. Maybe the privately owned deer-park – with its herd of white fallow deer – or within the village itself, the pub – (The Sun Inn)….or the cricket pitch – the village shop, with its own post office (a ‘hub’ of local life) – the fire station…. Yes! I did just say ‘fire station’…. Why on Earth would a village the size of Dunsfold need one of these? Ah! Now that is because it is the location of something that really does put it on the map….Dunsfold Aerodrome; (well to be correct half the area the airfield occupies does actually officially lie within the boundaries of the neighbouring village of Alfold)…. “Never heard of it”….many of you will mutter – but you may well of heard of one of the BBC’s most popular TV shows – Top Gear….
Even if you are not a fan and don’t watch it, no doubt you will recall the controversy that surrounded it in recent times…. Since 2002 the aerodrome has been home to Top Gear; one of the hangers is used as a studio and it is the residence of the famous test track, (designed by Lotus test drivers), with its Hammerhead, Chicago and Wilson Bend…. A test track now also used by local driving schools for the under 17s to learn how to drive a car, before venturing out on to the public highways….where my own boy, Jordan, is taking a lesson this very coming Saturday morning…. Wish him luck as he’s let loose on that very famous test track….
Of course, the use of the aerodrome doesn’t just stop there; the track itself is used for cycle racing during the summer months and until recent years the airfield was the base of the Surrey Air Ambulance. It is also home to many businesses, including warehouses, storage and offices….but we must come back to the filming…. A part from Top Gear a number of other popular TV programmes have been recorded there; Panorama, Watchdog, Spooks and the well-known ITV science fiction drama Primeval, to name but a few. Several major films have also made use of the location, such as The Da Vinci Code, Nanny McPhee and the James Bond movie Casino Royale. One of the main reasons Dunsfold Aerodrome is such an attractive proposition for film makers is down to its resident Boeing 747 – the only one in Europe that is used exclusively for filming. The 747 was in service with British Airways until its retirement in 2002; it was then bought by a company called Aces High Ltd., who specialise in supplying aircraft for film and TV work. You may have seen it in the series ‘Come Fly with Me’, starring Matt Lucas and David Walliams….or perhaps more recently when it was dressed as Air Force One in the 2016 film London has Fallen….
Dunsfold Aerodrome also holds various events, from supercar racing to the annual Wings & Wheels airshow and motoring display. Held every August Bank Holiday, the two-day show attracts some 40,000 visitors; it was first held in 2005 with the aim of fundraising for numerous charities. Although the roar of noisy ‘planes may not be everyone’s cup of tea, many villagers either gather on the Common or watch the air display from their gardens…. The weekend before last was indeed August Bank Holiday and we were, for once, blessed with glorious weather….perfect to spread a picnic rug out on the grass and enjoy what was a spectacular show…. For those actually attending the event there is obviously so much more to see; motoring demonstrations, static displays, all kinds of cars – vintage to supercars, monster trucks to military vehicles – for those inclined there’s something for everyone…. For the rest of us, observing from the outside, it’s all eyes to the skies…. The most adrenaline fuelled contribution has to come from the Eurofighter Typhoon; the roar from its twin EJ200 engines sends a thrill that goes right through you….
A Hurricane, Spitfire, Messerschmitt 109 and Mustang added some nostalgia….(usually the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight attends the show but unfortunately, due to technical problems it was absent this year).
We were entertained by The Blades, chasing each other across the skies and saw a variety of helicopters, including the Apache…. Then of course, there was everyone’s favourite….The Red Arrows – The Royal Air Force Aerobatics Team; their motto being “Éclat” – meaning “excellence”….for they really are the best of British….
The Red Arrows were formed in late 1964 and flew for the first time in 1965. Prior to this time there were several other aerobatics teams operating; it was felt too much time was being spent by pilots practising and so it was decided to amalgamate the teams into one. 1947 saw the first jet team of de Havilland Vampires based at RAF Oldham; in 1950 another team of 7 Vampires formed and were the first to use smoke trails in their display. Hawker Hunters were used for the first time in 1955.
The first official RAF team was formed in 1956 and used a uniform colour scheme of black – they became known as The Black Arrows…. In 1958 they set a World record by performing a loop and barrel roll involving 22 Hunters. They were the RAF’s premier team until 1961, when the role was taken over by The Blue Diamonds, with their 16 Hunters. 1960 saw the arrival of The Tigers with their supersonic Lightnings, who sometimes performed co-ordinated displays with The Blue Diamonds…. In 1964 the position of lead RAF display team was taken over by The Red Pelicans, flying 6 BAC Jet Provosts. At the Farnborough Air Show, that same year, another team flying 5 yellow Gnat Trainers from No.4 Flying Training School also flew….they were known as The Yellowjacks….
Initially The Red Arrows flew Folland Gnat Trainers, which were inherited from The Yellowjacks; the Gnat being less expensive to run and maintain than other fighters. The ‘planes were painted red, possibly in homage to The Red Pelicans but also because the colour is more visible and thus safer….
That first season saw the team fly 65 displays, the first public performance being the Biggin Hill Air Fair on May the 15th 1965. In 1968 the team increased to 9, allowing that classic diamond that has become the team’s trademark formation….
RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire was the first base used by The Red Arrows but after Fairford became the test flight centre for Concorde in 1966, The Arrows moved to RAF Kemble. 1983 saw another move, this time to RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, (famous for its role in the Dambusters raid in 1943). Scampton was closed in 1995 and The Arrows moved to nearby RAF College Cranwell; but as they were still using the airspace above Scampton, for practise purposes, the runway and emergency facilities had to be maintained…. So, on the 21st of December 2000 The Red Arrows returned to Scampton and it has become their permanent base and will remain so until at least the end of the decade….
The Gnats flew 1,292 displays in total and were replaced by the Hawk in 1980…. In 2002 the team flew with Concorde over London as part of Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee celebrations and again, a decade later, The Arrows flew a fly past for her Diamond Jubilee…. They were also included in the 2012 opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games…. Each year they have a packed programme of air shows to attend; for example, Sunday the 27th of August they were here with us in Dunsfold at midday – then at 5.30pm they were entertaining the crowds at the Rhyl Air Show on the North East coast of Wales…. 2017 is the 53rd season for the team, which now consists of 9 pilots and 91 support members…. Long, long, long may they continue….
Dunsfold Aerodrome itself was built by the Canadians, as a Class A bomber airfield – it took just 6 months to build! It was known as Royal Canadian Air Force Station Dunsfold – later it was to become RAF Dunsfold….
Life as an airfield began on the 11th of May 1942. The very first ‘plane to arrive at Dunsfold, on the 20th of July 1942, was a RCAF Tiger Moth – de Havilland DH.82 – a 1930’s bi-plane…. Some of the first aircraft to be based at the airfield included Curtiss Tomahawks and North American Mustangs. Later the B-25 Mitchell Bombers and Mosquitoes became resident…. 1944 saw the arrival of Spitfires, Typhoons and Tempests….
After World War 2, the airfield was used to repatriate prisoners of war. Using Dakota, Stirling, Halifax and Lancaster aircraft, over 47,000 were brought back to British soil….
Dunsfold was declared an inactive airbase by the RAF in 1946. It was then employed by Skyways Ltd., an early British airline, which went on to become established as the largest non-scheduled passenger and cargo air service in Europe…. It also notably played an important civilian part in the Berlin Airlift…. As another ‘arm’ to its business, Skyways refurbished ex-RAF Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes for the Portuguese Air Force…. Skyways went into liquidation in 1950….and so enter a new chapter in the history of Dunsfold Aerodrome…..
In 1950, the Hawker Aircraft Company took on the lease for the site and it became the development site for the Hunter Jet Fighter….a jet fighter that was to remain in military service until 2014, when it was still being used by the Lebanese Air Force….
In October 1960, Hawker Siddeley flight tested what was to become the Harrier; in 1961 the final assembly and test flying of the Harrier and Hawk trainer aircraft came to Dunsfold.
The Hawker Company, based at Kingston, used Dunsfold Aerodrome as its test flight centre for testing and also the refurbishing of Hawks, Gnats, Harriers, Hunters, Sea Hawks and Sea Furies…. The Dunsfold site was protected by the Official Secrets Act right up to the 1990s and so limiting public access…. In 1977 Hawker Siddeley became part of British Aerospace…. In 1999 British Aerospace announced its closure of operations in Dunsfold….
Before closing this blog post, I feel it is important to remember all those who lost their lives at Dunsfold; those who flew from the airfield during WW2 and also the losses that occurred in the years to follow…. In 1975 a test flight of a Hawker Siddeley encountered a bird-strike shortly after take-off….which resulted in an emergency landing. The ‘plane over-shot the runway and ended up hitting a car on the A281 – killing all 6 occupants…. The aircraft then went on to burst into flames in a field….all 9 passengers and crew survived….
In 1986 Deputy Chief test pilot Jim Hawkins was killed, whilst testing a developmental Hawk 200, when it crashed on to farmland…. In June 1998 a Hawker Hunter crashed prior to an airshow….the pilot John Davis was killed…. (BAE, in those days, used to hold a staff family fun day, which included an airshow – it attracted some 13,000 visitors….a predecessor perhaps to Wings & Wheels)….
The most recent crash was in 2014 but luckily no major injuries were incurred….
In 2002 the site was sold to the Rutland Group and Dunsfold Park Ltd was formed. Thanks to this present ownership we have the likes of Top Gear and Wings & Wheels….and not to mention the many other fabulous events and productions it hosts; plus it is still an operational airfield for private and business flights…. Controversially, its future hangs in the balance….because of the proposal to build 1,800 houses on it. Obviously, this is a very emotional issue for many, one that divides opinion. An impending decision from the Government will soon decide its fate….I wont say which side of the fence I am on – but I think you can probably guess….