Hawker Horsley (J8012) crash, Elham, March 1927


Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald - Saturday 19 March 1927


R.A.F. Pilot and Mechanic Killed.

A shocking air accident occurred at Elham, near Folkestone, just before noon yesterday (Friday) morning. A Hawker Horsley bombing machine, belonging to the 11th Bombing Squadron, Royal Air Force, stationed at Netheravon, Wilts., was proceeding from Netheravon to Hawkinge Aerodrome, near Folkestone, when the machine crashed in a meadow to the north of Elham Station and immediately burst into flames. When those who had rushed to the scene were able to approach the wreckage nearly an hour later the charred bodies of two men were extricated. They were: Pilot Officer Frederick Priestman, of the 11th Squadron, R.A.F.; and Leading Aircraftsman Pickering, of the 11th Squadron. The cause of the accident is not yet clear. People in the village, however, who saw the machine flying at a low altitude, state that the engine appeared to be running badly, whilst on the other hand it was suggested that owing to the bad visibility the pilot was attempting to land.

As the heavy plane struck the ground there was an explosion, and apparently the petrol tank burst. Within a few seconds of the crash the machine was a mass of flames, which at times reached forty to fifty feet high. Burning petrol also ran down the slope of the field for a distance of over fifty yards, scorching the grass. People rushed to the scene of the accident, but they were helpless, for the terrific heat made it impossible to approach the blazing wreckage. A message was sent at once to the 25th Squadron, R.A.F., at Hawkinge, and within a very short time the fire tender and ambulance from the aerodrome arrived on the scene. Men of the Squadron used their fire extinguishers on the blazing wreckage, and quelled the fire enough to enable efforts to be made to get at the occupants of the machine. A wire rope was procured, and this was placed over the engine, which lay buried three to four feet in the ground, and by attaching the rope to the fire tender the massive engine was moved a short distance.

The bodies of the two airmen who had been pinned down underneath were then got out. They were charred beyond all recognition. One man was decapitated, whilst the other was legless. The bodies were placed on stretchers near at hand and covered over with blankets. At first the identity of the machine was not known, but Air Force officers who had come from Hawkinge were of the opinion that the machine was a Service one. Pieces of wreckage were strewn in all directions, and amongst it were two partly burnt parachutes. The airmen had evidently had no time to jump clear.

Mr. P. D. Pitcher, an agricultural and electric engineer, of Elham, was the first on the scene. "I first saw the machine approaching from the direction of Folkestone," he told a "Herald" representative. "It was flying low, but nothing particular attracted my attention. The pilot circled over the field, and then, after narrowly missing two trees he turned to the left. He was then very low, and almost immediately after the machine nose dived. As soon as it struck the ground with a dull thud fire broke out and in less than no time the wreckage was a mass of flames. I ran across to the scene of the accident, but it was impossible to get near the blazing mass. I heard no groan; nor was there any sign of life, and the task of extricating them was made even more difficult because the engine was pinning them down."

Mr. T. Goatman, of Elham, told our representative that when the biplane flew over Elham he thought there was something wrong with the engine. "I formed the opinion," he said, "that the pilot was experiencing engine trouble. The machine then headed off in a south-easterly direction and ran into a bank of fog over the railway station. The next minute the machine had nose dived into the field. As it struck the ground there was an explosion. As the ’plane flew over Elham I estimate it was not more than 200 feet up."

Mr. Ben Wylie, of the Rose & Crown, Elham; "I was in my garden at the time," said Mr. Wylie, "when I saw the machine flying very low. As it flew over the village the engine did not seem to be going properly. The pilot just missed colliding with two trees adjoining the field in which the crash took place, and then he rose again. He seemed to be in trouble, and after side slipping a short distance the machine nose dived from a very low height into the ground. Just before the accident I saw sparks coming from the engine, but I do not think the machine was then on fire. As soon as the crash occurred people from the village rushed to the field. Everyone was anxious to do something, but we could not get near the wreckage for the fire. The flames at times were forty feet high, and, to make matters worse, blazing petrol ran down the field towards the railway."

The bodies were later in the afternoon removed to Hawkinge Aerodrome, where the East Kent Coroner (Mr. Rutley Mowll) will hold an inquest. A few weeks ago a pilot of a R.A.F. machine, stationed at Hawkinge, made a forced landing in the same field, not fifty yards from where yesterday’s accident took place.

This newspaper article covers the Coroner's inquest and also Pilot Officer Priestman's funeral.  It is a bit long but worth reading.........

Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald - Saturday 26 March 1927



Airmen "Lost" in the Mist.



A verdict of "Death by Misadventure" was returned by the jury at the inquest, conducted by the East Kent Coroner (Mr. Rutley Mowll) at Hawkinge Aerodrome on Saturday, on the victims of the air crash which occurred at Elham on the previous day.  The deceased were Pilot Officer Frederick Priestman, aged 21, and L.A.C. John William Pickering, aged 23, both of 11 Bombing Squadron stationed at Netheravon, Wilts. The former was the son of Mr. A. T. Priestman of Bradford and the latter the son of Mrs. W. T. Pickering of Reading.

The wrecked machine was one of three that left Netheravon at 10.25am on a cross country flight with Hawkinge as the objective provided the weather was favourable.  A few miles from Lympne the machines ran into a bank of mist and separated.  One landed at Lympne aerodrome.  The pilot of another, losing his bearings, made a descent into Romney Marsh, and on ascertaining his whereabouts, flew to Lympne aerodrome where he landed.  The third machine, piloted by Pilot Officer Priestman, also became lost in the mist, and the pilot apparently not knowing at what altitude he was flying, crashed at Elham.

Before the flight commenced a series of "negative" wether reports was received from Hawkinge indicating that Hawkinge was not desirable on account of fog and mist.  The last report sent read "Thick fog, visibility nil", but the airmen set out intending to land at hawking if the weather was favourable.

A.C.I.,  R.W. Valentine, of No.25 Squadron, R.A.F., stationed at Hawkinge said that he identified one body as that of Pilot Officer Frederick Priestman.  Witness was one of those who extracted the bodies from the machine, and took this body from the position in which the pilot of the machine would have been.  There was no clothing upon the body, and apart from that fact, the identification of the body rested in the fact that the other body was more clearly identifiable.  The second body was that of L.A.C. Pickering, which witness identified from his clothing, a brown cardigan and white wooden pants and the remains of a grey shirt, which were the clothing of an aircraftman as distinct from an officer's.  A cap badge (produced) which was found under the body of this man was the badge which an aircraftsman would wear.  Some keys were found under the same body.


Flight / Lieut. W.M. Yool, of No11 Bombing Squadron stationed at Netheravon, stated that on the previous day he was engaged with the two other machines on a cross-country flight.  He flew one of the three machines.  They intended to land at Hawkinge if the weather was favourable.  All three machines left Netheravon at 10.25am.  One of the aeroplanes was flown by Pilot Officer Frederick Priestman.  He had been in the squadron about 18  months, and had had quite considerable flying experience.  In witness opinion he was a very capable pilot.

He was flying a Hawker Horsley machine J8012.  The machine was a new one but the deceased had flown in others of the same type.  Deceased age was about 21.  L.A.C. Pickering accompanied Pilot Officer Priestman in the flight.  He was about 23 years of age.  Witness last saw deceased's machine at about 11.45am when all three machines were flying in formation as they had been since they left Netheravon.  At the time they were about two miles north-east of Lympne Aerodrome, having flown about 120 miles.Witness then saw a bank of mist about half a mile ahead, so he signalled that he was going to turn to the left.  As he commenced his turn he saw Pilot Officer Priestman in position on his left, also commencing to turn.  Having completed his turn witness looked around for him but could see nothing.  Witness then flew round in the vicinity of Lympne aerodrome for about five minutes, hoping to pick him up again, but saw nothing of him and landed at Lympne aerodrome.  The other machine turned to the right and landed on Romney Marsh.  There, the pilot ascertained where he was and ascended again, and flew to Lympne, where he landed about five minutes after witness.  They descended at Lympne instead of coming into Hawkinge because of the mist.  Witness's theory as to the cause of the crash was that the deceased flew into the mist, lost his way, and not being able to see the ground became confused and probably lost control of the machine near the ground, or probably he flew into the ground.

In reply to the Coroner witness said at the present time it was not possible to prevent the risk of fire after a crash with the with the engines and fuel in use with the Air Force.  When petrol was used there was always the risk of fire.  Crude oil would not be inflamable, but there was no crude oil engine yet designed suitable for aircraft.  Continuing, witness said, judging by the terrific force with which the machine hit the ground the men must have been killed instantaneously.  Witness inspected the wreckage that morning and found an enormous hole where the engine of the machine had hit the ground and tore the propellor completely off the engine, the engine and the remainder of the machine lying some yards away.  

In replying to Mr. H. Kettle (Foreman of the jury) witness said that on that particular day they received a weather report from Hawkinge. It was a negative report, which indicated that Hawkinge was not desirable from the point of view of the weather.  The report said it was foggy at Hawkinge.

Flying Officer L.E. Maynard, Station Adjutant, R.A.F. Hawkinge, said he received information from O.C. Records, Ruislip, that the age of L.A.C. Pickering was 23 years and from the O.C. Netheravon that the age of the pilot was believed to be 21 years.

Pilot Officer L. Freebody, of No11 Bombing Squadron, the pilot of the third machine on the flight from Netheravon, said that after the formation broke up near Lympne he flew about lost for a time and landed three miles from Lympne.  He ascertained his whereabouts and flew on to Lympne.  He saw nothing of the accident.  With regard to the cause of it obviously Mr. Priestman was flying about in stuff so thick that he could not see the rise and fall of the ground and flew into something.


Mr. D. Pitcher, a general engineer of No. 1 New-road Elham, said that about three minutes to twelve the previous day he was at his work in Elham, about 400 yards from where the accident occurred.  He heard an aeroplane, then out of sight, coming from Folkestone in a northerly direction.  From the sound it appeared that the machine went to a point about three quarters of a mile north of Elham, when it turned and came back in a southerly direction.  Witness first saw the machine over a place known as Deep Spot, close to the railway.  Two high trees were at that spot.  It was then flying low, about 40 feet from the ground and turned upwards and in an easterly direction apparently to avoid these two trees.  It then went out of sight owing to the mist but came cack in a circle and went straight to the earth.

On hitting the ground the machine burst into flames.  Witness ran to the spot where the machine was in flames and called out asking if anybody was alive.  There was no answer.  After about twenty minutes the extinguisher came from Hawkinge and the fire was put out in three quarters of an hour from the time of the crash.  Judging by the sound the engine was running perfectly when the machine hit the ground.  The mist that prevailed at the time was a sort of Scotch mist or driven fine rain, more of a ground mist.

Mr. William Newing, a woodman of Wingmore, Elham, said after the crash he heard a loud report and immediately afterwards saw the flames shoot upwards.  This was about 100 yards from where he was at work.

Flight/Lieut  J.E. Cox, medical officer at Hawkinge Aerodrome said that he examined the bodies.  The cause in each case was multiple injuries.  It was his opinion that death was instantaneous.

The Coroner said that it was a pity that they set out with the intention of making Hawkinge when a negative weather report had been sent out.

Witnesses said that they were allowed to use their discretion as to whether they would make their objective or not if the weather conditions were not favourable.

Flying Officer G.P.H. Carter of the 25th Squadron, R.A.F. produced copies of reports sent to and from Netheravon by wireless.  These showed that a request for a weather report was received at Hawkinge from Netheravon the previous day, and the reply was negative, saying there was mist and rain.  Netheravon asked for another report and at 9.25am requested again for an immediate report.  At 9.31am a negative report indicating thick for was sent out and received at Netheravon at 9.40am.  The next think Hawkinge knew was that the aeroplanes were coming and would return to Netheravon if the weather was unfit.  Hawkinge reported again in the negative "Thick fog, visibility nil".  Witness added there were no machines out from Hawkinge on Friday.  It was absolutely unfit.

The Coroner, in suing up, said it had engaged the minds of many people, the fact that unfortunately, there were still a large number of deaths in the Royal Air Force.  He thought he was right in saying that the Prime Minister stated in the House of Commons a few nights ago that he was satisfied that a very small proportion of the accidents which occurred through air crashes was due to the faulty construction of the machines or the engines, or the condition of the equipment.  A great majority of these accidents was due to some error of judgement in flying the machine.  Flying Officers, he said, needed plenty of nerve.  It was a courageous service which had to face risks in times of peace as well as in time of war.  The immense importance of the service to our national life, in the protection of our own country, and of our very considerable Dominions was undeniable, and they should be proud that, notwithstanding the risks that were undoubtedly associated with the Air Force, there were still to be found young fellows willing and keen to enter the force in order that, should the occasion arose, they should assist in the protection of our Country and Empire.

It occurred to him that it was a pity that the previous morning, when Netheravon aerodrome was informed definitely by Hawkinge aerodrome that the conditions were negative, that there was a thick fog, and visibility nil, it was a great pity that the expedition started out from Netheravon with the intention that if the weather conditions were suitable they would take machine and bring it to Hawkinge aerodrome.  They, at any rate, were going to see how far they could get, and they got a very long way on the journey.  There was no doubt that the misty conditions that prevailed in an intensified form at Hawkinge also encircled, perhaps not fully, the neighbourhood of Lympne.  At that point the officer in command felt at any rate that they could not accomplish their entire journey and so signalled a turn.  They might have started out hoping that by the time they got to Hawkinge the weather might have abated somewhat, but one thing was quite clear, that the Hawkinge aerodrome advised them quite truthfully and faithfully of the conditions that prevailed there.  

The jury returned the verdict as stated, the Foreman (Mr. H. Kettle) expressing on their behalf sympathy with the relatives and comrades of the dead men.  The Coroner also expressed his sympathy.


Buried With Military Honours at Hawkinge.

The remains of Pilot Officer F. Priestman were interred in Hawkinge Churchyard on Tuesday afternoon, the Rector (the Rev. A.R. Simpson) officiating.  

The coffin covered with the Union Jack was taken from the aerodrome to the church on a trailer down by an Air Force tender.  Outside the church it was met by a mourning party which had been drawn up on either side of the road, and after the coffin had passed through its ranks, the party fell in behind and marched slowly to the churchyard.  N.C.O.'s acted as pall bearers.  At the close of the service, three volleys were fired over the grave, and then, as the firing party presented arms with fixed bayonets, the Last Post echoed across the valley.  Each officer in turn as he left saluted the remains resting in the grave.

The chief mourners were the deceased's mother and brother, Captain Harrison R.N. (uncle), an aunt, Brig-General G.H. Cunningham.  There were also present Flying Officer Freebody, one of the officers taking part in the ill-fated flight, and Pilot Officer Festin Smith, of Netheravon, the O.C. Hawkinge (Squadron Leader E.D. Atkinson), the Adjutant at Hawkinge (Flying Officer L.E. Maynard), and other officers off the 25th Squadron.

(list of floral tributes skipped)

At the time of the funeral a mist similar to that which hung over the hills on Friday, when the disaster occurred, prevailed.


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