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Chapter Twelve

The crash site viewed from Tuffley Avenue. As fireman smother the area with foam, the damage sustained by both the house and G-APAZ are clear from this angle. Courtesy Gloucestershire Constabulary At 0845 hours GMT on Wednesday 27 March, Staverton Airfield’s Senior Air Traffic Controller, William Johnson, opened the watch in the weather was reasonable for the time of year, with 60% cloud cover (5/8 or 5 oktas at 2 500ft) and a temperature of 8.7ºC, but as far as Johnson was concerned the most important factor was the wind, which was a light southerly breeze which dictated that Runway 22 was to be the runway in use for the first flights of the day. At about 0900, Kelston Thomas visited the control tower and informed Johnson that he and Palmer wanted to make a training flight with the Varsity to Pershore aerodrome and back, which was to be the final check flight of the conversion course that Thomas was undergoing.  The flight was an important one, aimed at establishing Thomas’ ability to fly and land the Varsity on one engine. As part of this flight, Palmer wanted Thomas to make to undertake an ‘asymmetric approach and landing’ at Pershore followed by an ‘asymmetric approach and overshoot’ at Staverton. In this instance, the term asymmetric referred to single-engine flight, with one of the Varsity’s two engines being shut down and its propeller blades being ‘feathered’. Feathering was a standard emergency technique where, if an engine was damaged or had otherwise stopped, the pitch of the propeller blades was altered so that they offered as little drag as possible. After receiving permission for the intended flight from Johnson and D. Close, the Pershore ATC (who had been telephoned by Johnson). Thomas then picked up a weather update after which he returned to Smith’s hanger, where he met with his instructor, Russell Palmer, who had been speaking to another of Smiths pilots, Keith Dougan, the Deputy Chief Test-pilot. While Thomas had been in ATC, Palmer had met with Smiths Chief Aircraft Engineer, Charles Kay, who had earlier made his own pre-flight inspection and had signed the Varsity off as airworthy. By this time, the Varsity had also been rolled out of the hangar onto the apron in front of the structure and it had been fuelled for the flight, with 1 548 litres (344 gallons) of fuel being pumped into the aircraft’s rear tanks. This was far more than was needed but for the purposes of the checkout flight, the aircraft was required to have a realistic fuel load. This was tempered somewhat because for operations at Staverton, the Varsity had a weight limit of 15 455kg (34 000lbs) imposed although even with full rear tanks, the weight of the aircraft was under this at 15 174kg (33 382lbs) - which in addition to the fuel, included 250 litres (55 gallons) of de-icing fluid and a flight trials recorder (which weighed a hefty 53kg / 116lb); Kay had passed this information to Palmer and when Thomas returned from ATC, the two men went into Smith’s flight offices to collect their gear prior to starting the Varsity’s pre-flight procedures. This began with a walk round of the aircraft, after which the two men went onboard to start the cockpit pre-flight checks, using the aircraft’s Pilot’s Notes. These are essentially the aircraft’s user handbook, which contain detailed instructions for the various actions both on the ground and in-flight to enable the crew to fly the aircraft safely. For the purpose of the flight, Thomas sat in the left hand (pilot’s) seat as if in command while Palmer, although officially the check-pilot, occupied the right (co-pilot’s) seat. After completing the final cockpit checks, the two men then started the Varsity’s engines. There were two sets of controls (one for each engine) located on overhead panels between the two seats and the engines were started one at a time. The start sequence required both men to operate the engine controls and once started, the engines were then put through a short test sequence to ensure that they were functioning correctly. As with all aircraft, this involved the engines being run at various extremes while fuel flow, power levels, and fluid pressures and various other systems (such as magneto and generator outputs) were checked. When this was completed, Thomas called Staverton ATC on the aircraft’s radio and requested permission to taxi. In ATC, Johnson granted permission, instructing Thomas to taxi to the holding point of Runway 22 and hold prior to receiving permission to take-off. In addition, he gave the Varsity crew a QFE (air pressure reading) and also figures for the wind strength and direction. While Thomas acknowledged the instructions, Palmer would have used the QFE reading to set the Varsity’s altimeter, essentially calibrating the instrument in order for it to provide an accurate height reading. Then Thomas taxied the Varsity to the marshalling and holding point, where he and Palmer performed a final take-off check, which involved putting the aircraft’s brakes on and then running both engines up to full power for around 30 seconds (simulating the time required for the aircraft to take off and gain enough altitude and speed to make an emergency landing). Thomas than contacted Staverton ATC and requested permission to take off, which was granted and, at 0945 hours, Varsity G-APAZ took off. Once airborne and safely climbing, the two pilots retracted the undercarriage and Thomas banked the aircraft to the left to enter the Staverton circuit [xvi]. He then radioed ATC and requested permission to make a ‘touch-and-go’ landing. This involved the Varsity making a normal descent and making a landing but, as soon as the wheels touched the ground, the pilot would open the engine throttles and take off again. Johnson gave permission for this and a few minutes later, the Varsity made its ‘touch-and-go’ landing then climbed up and out of the circuit, altering course towards Pershore. At around 1000, Thomas and Palmer were approaching Pershore when, according to the flight-plan, they shut down one of the Varsity’s engines. As part of this process one of the two men would have read the ‘engine shut down’ sequence from the Pilot’s Notes while the other carried out the required actions. The engine that they selected to shut down appears to have been the starboard engine and part of the shutdown process involved switching this engines’ ‘engine idle cut-off' (‘ICO’) switch to its cut-off position. This switch was on the central overhead panel to the left of the engine ignition switches and was covered by a U-shaped finger guard to prevent accidental activation (but which also hid the switch’s visual position). This particular switch was adjacent to an identical switch for the other engine and had two positions, ‘Run’ and ‘Cut-off’. Switching it to the ‘ICO’ position essentially stopped the fuel flow to the engine, so causing it to stop running. As soon as the engine power began to drop, the pilots activated the feathering motors for the starboard engine, so causing the engine’s propeller blades to rotate to a more edge-on aspect to the front and allowing the propeller to windmill freely with minimum drag. At 1010 hours, the Varsity arrived in the circuit at Pershore with one engine stopped and, as arranged, made a successful approach and landing, touching down on Runway 21. Later, D. Close, the Pershore ATC, couldn’t remember which of the Varsity’s engines had been stopped, but thought that it was the starboard one. After landing at Pershore, Thomas taxied the Varsity off the runway to a holding point, where he and Palmer restarted the stopped engine. After warming up the engine back up, Thomas requested permission to take off and at 1025, the Varsity again took to the skies, climbing up and heading back towards Staverton. Five minutes later, at 1030 hours, Thomas radioed Staverton ATC and requested permission to make a straight in asymmetric approach. Johnson acknowledged the request and granted permission, with the proviso that Thomas to call ATC when the Varsity was 2 miles away and, on its finals, (final approach). Not long afterwards, Thomas and Palmer again began the process of shutting down and feathering an engine. This time they selected the Varsity’s port engine and, by 1025, this had all been done successfully and the aircraft was closing on Staverton from the northeast. As the Varsity headed in toward Staverton, Thomas began reducing height following an imaginary glide path that terminated at the threshold of Runway 22. This was normal operating procedure and both Thomas and Palmer no doubt knew the characteristics of the flight path precisely, having landed the Varsity so many times. When the aircraft passed over Hayden, Thomas radioed Staverton ATC as requested and was given permission to make the approach and overshoot, at which point, observers along the aircraft’s flight path saw that the Varsity had its port engine stopped it was fully feathered) and had its undercarriage lowered. At about a mile from the runway threshold with the aircraft at an altitude of 100m (300 ft), the pilots began the overshoot procedure, which involved raising the landing gear and the flaps. A few seconds later, the Varsity crossed the threshold of Runway 22 at an altitude of 78m (200 ft) with the landing gear and flaps retracted. The aircraft flew down the centreline of Runway 22 in a straight and level attitude and, when it had passed over the far threshold of the runway, it began climbing slowly upwards along the same heading. At this point, everything seemed normal to those on the ground who happened to be watching the Varsity. Foremost amongst these was Keith Dougan who at the time was sat in Smith’s Miles Gemini, G-AKHY, which was at the holding point of Runway 22 waiting to take off. As the Varsity climbed away, Dougan’s attention was drawn away as he received permission to take-off, but before he became totally engrossed in his own aircraft, he noticed that the Varsity – which he later estimated to be about 3-4 miles away and still climbing - had begun to turn to starboard, which he thought was unusual as one of the flight rules for Staverton was that aircraft had to turn to port after take-off in order not to fly over Churchdown and the centre of Gloucester. Forty seconds or so later, Dougan had taken off and was climbing through 135m (400 feet) when his radio crackled into life with a he knew was Thomas’,“Mayday. Total engine failure. Going down on outskirts of Gloucester” Looking up from his own instruments, Dougan spotted the Varsity low over Gloucester, flying straight and level but very, very low and moments later he “lost sight of it and saw a cloud of smoke” It is likely that upwards of several hundred people in Gloucester saw the Varsity during its last moments and most tell the same story. The aircraft had one engine stopped and was flying very low and slow - much lower and slower than was usual for aircraft flying close to the city (let alone over it) – and it was also losing height all the time. When the Varsity completed the overshoot and headed away from Staverton it was still climbing, but only by virtue of trading speed for altitude. By the time it passed over the Barnwood Road, when it began its 30-degree turn to starboard, it was at an altitude of about 230m (700 ft) but at this point, its starboard engine appeared to lose power suddenly and what little engine noise it was generating ceased. A few moments later the Varsity flew past the RAF Offices on Eastern Avenue (now the trading estate adjacent to the site of the Fire Station replaced in the early 21st Century) where it was seen by the base’s commanding officer, Wing Commander R. Stevenson, who instantly realised that it was going to crash. Accompanied by Squadron Leader Malloy and another (unnamed) officer, Stevenson ran out to a car and sped out of the complex to give chase. By this time, the Varsity had straightened up its starboard turn and was passing over Tredworth, flying almost parallel to the railway line down Hatherley Road. Passing over Stroud Road and then Linden Road, it just cleared the roof of Ribston Hall High School for Girls by only a matter of feet before flying over the school playing field at an altitude of less than 30m (90 ft), scaring some girls playing hockey. At this point, it seems likely that Palmer and Thomas were attempting to put the Varsity down on playing fields of the Crypt School, which lay a few hundred feet ahead of them beyond Tuffley Avenue. Some witnesses then saw the Varsity’s undercarriage start to come down but by this time the aircraft was only 15m (45 ft) off the ground and a split second later it slammed into the gable end of the roof of number 189 - named Longmead - the left-hand side of a twin house on the north side of Tuffley Avenue. The impact was devastating, completely smashing the nose and cockpit, and killing both pilots instantly. It also tore off both wings, sending the port wing scything away to land half in the front garden and half in Tuffley Avenue (blocking the road), while the starboard wing struck the south-east sidewall of 187, and then fell in between the two houses jamming into the gap between the walls. The fuselage ended up perched precariously on top of Longmead with its tail section overhanging the rear north wall. The crash had demolished most of the roof of the building and scattered bricks, slate and wood debris everywhere. It had also ruptured the aircraft’s fuel lines and aviation fuel was pouring out of the wreckage into the house, garden and road. Amazingly there was no explosion or fire and this was probably responsible for the miraculous escape of the three female occupants of the house –85-year-old Florence Drury, Mrs Bertha Franklin (Mrs Drury’s home-help) and Mrs Edith Hitchins (Mrs Drury’s companion) – all of whom survived the impact and managed to escape from the ruins Mrs Hutchins had a particularly lucky escape as she had been in an upstairs bedroom when the aircraft hit. Though all three women were subsequently taken to hospital, none were suffering from anything worse than slight cuts, bruising and shock. They were helped from the house by Mrs T Drury (Mrs Drury’s daughter-in-law who lived next door) and also by one of the RAF officers, who arrived in time to assist them. After helping the women, Wing Commander R Stevenson and Squadron Leader Malloy saw one of the pilots (Mr Palmer) slumped forward in his seat in the wreckage of the cockpit. Despite the fire risk the two men ran into the house and went upstairs, where they climbed into the wreckage to try and effect a rescue. Upon reaching the upstairs front bedroom, they then found the body of Mr Thomas on the floor and while Malloy checked for signs of life, Stevenson continued on into the aircraft until he reached Palmer. It was soon apparent that both men were dead however and due to the situation, the RAF officers decided to leave the bodies in place until more help arrived. The City’s emergency services were already on their way as they had been alerted to the crash by scaffolder John Mansfield. Mansfield was working on the (new) Bon Marché in King’s Square and saw the Varsity start its terminal dive towards the ground. Being an ex-member of the Parachute Regiment, Mansfield not only recognised the aircraft type but also realised that the Varsity was going to crash. He immediately climbed down the scaffolding and alerted a Police motorcyclist in King’s Square, who contacted his control room at Police headquarters. As a result, the Police were already reacting when ATC Johnson made his 999 call from Staverton but whereas Mansfield could only offer a rough guess as to where the Varsity had come down, Johnson was able to provide an accurate location of the crash thanks to Smith’s pilot Keith Dougan. Dougan, in Smith’s Gemini G-AKHY, had flown straight to the scene and circled overhead as soon as he had taken off from Staverton. As a result, the first fire engine, a pump escape from Eastern Avenue fire station with Sub-Officer L Jones in charge, was reached the scene at 1042, only a minute or so after the crash had taken place. Seeing aviation fuel leaking all around and fearing an explosion, Jones detailed his crew to start spraying the wreck with foam. As the firemen were setting up their equipment, more help arrived in the form of two off-duty Police officers, PC Roy Curley and PC Williams, and Jones asked them to go from house-to-house to ensure that the inhabitants refrained from using any cookers or naked lights. Then Jones and another fireman, Fireman J Moon, took two extension ladders from the pump and erected them against the ruined front of the house in order to try and reach the cockpit and the trapped pilot. They were joined by Wing Commander Stevenson who returned upstairs and released the harness of Mr Palmer, allowing the fireman to lower him to a stretcher onto the floor. Both men were subsequently pronounced dead by a Dr Neill who had arrived at the scene and had gone upstairs to try and help. The bodies were then lowered to the ground on stretchers where waiting ambulance men collected them and then took them to the City mortuary. By this time, a crowd of onlookers had formed and was growing steadily. PCs Curley and Williams began to try and push them back due to the fire risk and before long more police officers arrived and some sort of order began to be imposed.  Soon afterwards, soldiers from the Royal Corps of Signals stationed at Robinswood Barracks also arrived and with their help, the Police were able to establish barricades at the Stroud Road and Calton Road junctions. Roadblocks and diversions were also put in place (with Linden Road replacing Tuffley Avenue) to isolate the whole area from vehicle traffic. As well as the emergency service heads – the Chief Fire Officer, Mr H Corless, the Police Chief Inspector D Baker and the Ambulance Acting Chief Officer, Mr L Rust - the Gloucester City Surveyor, Mr Pollan, also visited the site and subsequently contacted Netheridge Pumping Station to warn them of the possibility of aviation fuel being washed down the sewers. By early afternoon, the fire brigade had secured parts of the wreck with ropes, as the breeze was increasing and it had begun to rock to and alarmingly. Somewhat preposterously the main restraint was a thick rope that had been passed through the fuselage and then around the rest of the house, being tied through the windows! Overnight a guard of police and soldiers were put in place to guard the aircraft and the crash site, which remained cordoned off.  One reason for this was not just because of the possible risk of explosion, but also because the autoland avionics that the Varsity was equipped with were still classified.

RECOVERY AND INVESTIGATION. 

Early on the morning of Thursday 28 March 1963, moves to recover the aircraft commenced.  The first element to arrive was an RAF salvage team from 71 Maintenance Unit of Aston Down, although this unit (having travelled without the heavy equipment) had first called into 7 Maintenance Unit at Quedgeley who collected a crane and recovery vehicles - which included two ‘Queen Mary’ transporters. Not long afterwards another RAF team from RAF Bicester arrived to assist but before any salvage work could begin, the RAF had to wait for the inspectors from the Air Ministry’s Accident Investigation Branch (AIB). The Air Ministry had been alerted to the crash at 1115 on Wednesday when Air Traffic Controller Johnson had telephoned the Ministry in London from Staverton control tower [xxi]The duty inspector, Mr R C Warren left London with a colleague but did not reach Gloucester until after dark and so waited until morning before visiting the crash scene at around 0900. After checking with the fire crew still on the scene that it was safe to do so, Warren and his assistant climbed up into the house and undertook a brief survey of the wreckage, concentrating on the remains of the cockpit and its instruments. During this inspection they noted that the fuel cock-levers were both in the ON position and that the fuel cross-feeds were also ON. Importantly both engine idle cut-off (ICO) switches were in the cut-off position while the magneto and generator switches were ON. The throttle levers and propeller pitch levers were found to be in the fully forward positions. He also checked the flap controls (which had been selected to 15˚) and the undercarriage levers (selected to DOWN) then compared these with the actual mechanisms, finding that they matched. With this initial inspection completed, work was able to start on salvaging the aircraft. The first large piece of wreckage to be removed was the port wing (not the starboard wing as reported in The Citizen), which was craned onto a transporter around 1000 and taken away. This was followed by the port engine, which had been wrenched free from its mounting and had ended up in the front garden. The starboard engine was still partially attached to the starboard wing and this could not be moved because it was thought that the wing was actually propping the wall up and if it was removed there was a strong chance that the whole wall would collapse. All of the recovered wreckage was taken to Staverton, which was acting as a temporary storage facility. A little later on Thursday morning, the Gloucester City Coroner Brian Wellington, of Wellington & Clifford, solicitors, opened an inquest into the deaths of the two pilots at the firm’s offices at 57 Westgate Street. The initial responsibility was to take evidence to identify the dead pilots and Smith & Sons’ Chief Aeronautical Engineer, D Brown, identified the body of Russell Palmer while Kelston Thomas was identified by his father, Mr Gifford Thomas, who had travelled up from the family home at Bristol overnight. The also took evidence of the two pilot’s personal details, employment and general background before adjourning the inquest until Thursday 18 April 1963 in order to collect witness statements, empower a jury and to await post-mortem reports – these were to be conducted by the Royal Hospital’s Consultant Pathologist, Mr Edgar Davey at the hospital later in the day. Throughout the day the salvage operation continued, until by mid-afternoon, most of the wreckage and other debris had been recovered with the exception of the starboard wing and the fuselage. The removal of the latter was problematic because of its size, weight and extraordinary position. As the RAF had nothing that was able to lift the wreck in-situ, the Air Ministry had to turn to civilian contractors to do the job and the only firm that had a suitable crane was G. W. Sparrow & Son Ltd of Bath (which, by coincidence, had a branch in Gloucester at Monk meadow Dock). The crane in question was the largest mobile crane in Europe; a monstrous American Lorain model that could lift a weight of 70 tons using an 80m (240ft) long jib on a 9.7m (32ft) long, 12-wheel chassis. This left Sparrow’s depot in Bath with a three-man crew and a Police escort early on Thursday morning but its progress was delayed for over an hour by a minor car crash on the outskirts of the city. As the crane made its slow way up the A38, Mr D Moon of Sparrows’ Gloucester branch arrived at Tuffley Avenue to take charge of preparations for the lift. To enable lifting, the crane had to be placed as close as possible to the wreck (which Moon estimated weighed around 5 tons) and the most suitable place was the Memorial Gardens of Rest that lay adjacent to Longmead to the south-east. From here, the crane would be able to lift the aircraft’s fuselage and then swing it into Tuffley Avenue where it could be placed onto a low-loader. Access to the garden was to be gained via Ribston Hall School where the school fence was knocked down to enable the crane to reverse in. This was completed by late morning when the crane arrived in Gloucester. After reversing the crane into the garden, the three-man crew then began the task of assembling the huge jib boom and lowering the crane’s lifting legs. When this was completed and the crane was functional, a spa beam fitted with two thick webbing slings was attached to the jib hook and this was swung around into place above the top of the fuselage. With Moon in overall charge, the crane team then slipped one end of each sling and the help of the RAF crew, worked them around the fuselage. The forward sling was placed around the fuselage just forward of the wing root while the rear one was fitted around the fuselage just abaft the cabin door (which was located at the rear of the fuselage just in front of the tail section). Several guide ropes were also secured to the airframe to help control the fuselage during the lift. With everything in place, the recovery operation began. The slack was taken up extremely slowly but even so, when the aircraft finally lifted free of the house, a large amount of debris was disturbed and fell to the ground causing a mass intake of breath from the large crowd of onlookers. In all the lifting operation took some three hours and it was not until around 3.30pm that what was left of the Varsity’s fuselage was lowered onto a waiting ‘Queen Mary’ trailer. As soon as it had been secured, the RAF personnel started work on tidying up the fuselage and also on removing the tailplane (the two horizontal sections of the tail). This was not a quick task and as night fell, guards were once again posted around the aircraft to prevent any interference from souvenir hunters. Work recommenced on Friday morning and by early afternoon, the fuselage and tail section were driven away from Tuffley Avenue to Staverton. Clear up work continued for most of the rest of the day and by late afternoon, the starboard engine and wing were recovered after work to secure and stabilise the end wall of the house had been undertaken. An insurance assessor from the Air Ministry estimated that the damage caused to the house, garden and school by the salvage, which worked out at £80-£90 [xxii]. Also on Friday 29 March 1963, the Coroner received post-mortem reports on the two pilots from the Gloucester Pathologist. As the injuries were all consistent with having been caused by the crash, the Coroner released the bodies and issued Burial Orders. After the crash, Daphne Palmer had gone to stay with her mother in Felixstowe and, as she had decided that this was to be a permanent arrangement, this was where the body of her husband was sent. The following day, Saturday 30 March 1963, Russell Palmer was buried in the northwest corner of the churchyard at St Peter & St Paul’s Church, Felixstowe. His gravestone was inscribed with the following epitaph:

PROUD AND TENDER MEMORIES OF RUSSELL A PALMER MASTER AIR PILOT WHO LOST HIS LIFE 27TH MARCH 1963

Unfortunately, the author has been unable to locate where Kelston Thomas was buried. The most likely candidate is Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol, which was the nearest cemetery to his family home in the city. Although Bristol Record Office holds the registers for this cemetery, they are currently unavailable for public consultation due to legal reasons.

AIR MINISTRY & GLOUCESTER CITY CORONER INVESTIGATIONS

A few days after its recovery from Tuffley Avenue, the remains of the Varsity were quietly removed from Staverton and taken by road to RAF Aston Down. Here, the Air Ministry’s inspectors were able to begin their work in earnest to try and determine the cause of the crash. As part of this all paperwork relating to the Varsity was checked to see whether any lack of maintenance or servicing on Smith’s part might have contributed to the crash [xxiii] Everything was in order however and this was all subsequently returned. However, one vital piece of evidence was determined quite early on from the examination of the aircraft’s fuel system. After checking the engine oil and fuel filters, both of which were clean, the fuel feed mechanisms were examined and here it was found that the electric actuators for the engine idle cut-offs for both engines were closed. This indicated that the position of the cockpit ICO switches noted in the initial examination at the crash scene was correct (i.e. were both in the cut-off position) and that the impact had not caused them to move [xxiv] A few days afterwards, both engines were crated up and shipped to Bristol Siddeley Engines Ltd where their engineers performed a full strip down inspection. This subsequently concluded that no mechanical fault had caused the engines to fail. It also revealed another fundamental piece of evidence in that the damage suffered by the engine reduction gears indicated that neither engine had been under power at the time of impact. Eight days after the crash, the Air Investigation Branch convened an afternoon hearing at the New Inn in Northgate Street, Gloucester to collect witness statements. A total of 17 were taken from witnesses whose occupations included housewives, schoolteachers, school children, engineers, policemen, RAF officers and pilots. Present at this hearing was Mr Jones of the solicitors W C Davey Son & Jones of Cheltenham who represented the relatives of Kelston Thomas and Mr Littler, of the solicitors Cartwright, Taylor Corps, representing Smiths and the Varsitys insurers. At 1430 on Thursday 18 April, the Gloucester City Coroner re-opened the inquest into the deaths of the pilots, this time at the Magistrate’s Courthouse in front of a seven-man jury Since the adjournment in March, the Coroner had taken a large number of statements from witnesses, although only 17 witnesses were actually called to give evidence. Though the purpose of the coroner’s inquest was to determine the cause of death of the pilots, one question that the coroner wanted to know the answer to was how common single-engine overshoots and over-flights of built-up areas at Staverton were. He voiced these concerns on two occasions, once to Keith Dougan when he was giving evidence and once to William Johnson. Although Dougan - pilot of Smith’s Miles Gemini G-AKHY, pictured above, on the day of the crash - replied that “This was a special occasion. It is not usual” [xxviii], Johnson contradicted this by saying that he didn’t think overshoots on Runway 22 were unusual [xxix]. This was not discussed at length however and the inquest wound up the following day when the jury returned a verdict of accidental death on both of the pilots.

THE CAUSE OF THE CRASH

The port engine and debris from the impact fill Longmead‘s front garden. Courtesy Gloucestershire Constabulary. By late autumn 1963, the Accident Investigation Branch had finished the physical investigation of the crash and Inspector Warren had started writing his report. Warren had already formulated a working hypothesis of the events that caused the crash and one aspect of his work had already impinged on civil aviation in the UK for the Air Ministry had issued two Civil Aviation Circulars or NOTAMS (Notices to Airmen) concerning single-engine flying on twin-engine aircraft. The first of these, NOTAM No.53/1963, drew attention to the risk of errors during the unfeathering and restarting procedures when aircraft were being flown with one engine stopped. The second, NOTAM No.95/1963, advised that twin-engine aircraft should not carry out practice single-engine landings and overshoots at low altitude and recommended that the power on one engine should just be reduced to the point where it was equivalent to it being feathered. Warren finished his report (Civil Accident Report No. EW/C/014) in November and after it was approved by his superior, the Chief Inspector of Accidents, J Veal, it was sent to the Ministry of Aviation in December. From his investigations into the wreckage and the engines, Warren had concluded that the Varsity had been airworthy, properly maintained and correctly loaded. He was also able to determine that there had been no pre-crash defect that had resulted in the Varsity crashing. With all the evidence behind him, Warren concluded that the cause of the crash had been that the fuel to the starboard engine had been mistakenly shut off by the act of switching the starboard ICO switch to the cut-off position. This occurred when the two pilots were in the process of trying to restart the stopped port engine and it appears that instead of switching the port ICO switch to run, one or the other simply missed and moved the wrong switch. As soon as they had moved this switch, the outcome was assured because as the fuel left in the fuel lines was used up – a process that would have taken about two seconds - the engine simply died and, being at such a low altitude and with so little velocity, the pilots did not have enough time to try and determine the problem, rectify it and restart the one or other of the engines. Warren also concluded there was no way of knowing which of the two men made the inadvertent selection of the ICO switch. Though no information had been made available prior to the report being passed to the Air Ministry, some details were apparently passed to the relatives hinting as to the probable cause of the crash. On 28 September 1963, Kelston Thomas’ father, G Thomas, wrote a letter to the Air Investigations Branch stating that he could not “accept that experienced and efficient pilots such as Mr R Palmer and my Son were, would make such an elementary mistake." [xxx] Mr Thomas argued that the reason that the ICO switches were both in the cut-off positions was that they had moved as a result of the crash impact. Warren however had checked this possibility and found that the mechanisms of the ICO switches prevented such movement.  He also gave consideration to the fact that the pilots had deliberately moved the ICO switches to the cut-off position as part of an emergency drill, but this action was not part of the Varsity’s standard rash-landing drill. Warren also made a number of other observations that he wanted brought to the Ministry’s attention. Firstly, he thought that the proximity of the cut-off switches and ignition switches might have been conducive to making errors, especially as these operated conversely (i.e. the ignition switches were On when up and Off when down, while the ICOs were the other way round). He also noted that the ICO switches were separated by a finger channel guard and covered by a spring-loaded U-shaped cover. Although this arrangement was supposed to guard against accidental operation of the switches, it also meant that if the switches were moved accidentally, then it would not be immediately obvious. This was of note because in March 1957, the Air Ministry had issued a order [xxxi] that ordered the fitting of ICO switch guards on all existing and new build Varsity aircraft due to a number of incidents when the switches had been accidentally moved. No further action was taken regarding this however and, satisfied by the report’s findings, the report into the crash of G-APAZ was published by HMSO on 14 February 1964. After the loss of G-APAZ, Smiths Flying Unit faced an escalating workload with one less aircraft. In order to rectify this, a replacement aircraft was procured and arrived at Staverton in October 1963. This aircraft was an Avro 748 srs107, registration G-ASJT, which had been selected as being typical of the current design of civilian aircraft at the time. Apart from test and development flying from Staverton and Hatfield, this aircraft also undertook sales and demonstration flights in Britain, USA, Canada, Scandinavia and Europe. The Avro however was first used to help develop the Smiths SEP6 Autopilot and control system and so it was the second Varsity, G-ARFP, which bore the brunt of the autoland programme work. This aircraft continued flying with Smiths until in January 1968 when it was withdrawn from service and returned to the RAF as WF387. Part of the reason was that the autoland programme was winding down but it was also a cost-cutting measure. By this time the escalating costs of running a flying unit was beginning to become a strain on Smith’s finances. In October 1969 the management decided it was an expense that the company could no longer afford and it was closed down. Over the next three months, the flying unit personal and the company’s three remaining aircraft were moved or sold to other establishments. The de Havilland DH104 Dove 6 G-AOSE was sold to Precise Surveys on 22 January 1970 and was eventually scrapped at Coventry four years later. The Avro 19 srs2 G-AHKX was acquired by British Aerospace and has been restored to flying status. The Avro 748 srs 107 G-ASJT was transferred to the RAF on 13 January 1970, dropping its civil registration and acquiring a military serial number, XW750 [xxxii] Initially based at Farnborough, in 1990 it was still flying as a part of the Royal Aircraft Establishment’s test fleet at Bedford. In 2007 however it was given the American civil registration N748D and flown to Robin Hood Airport near Doncaster to become an instructional airframe with Directions Finningley Aviation Academy. Among Smith's earlier aircraft Douglas Dakota G-AMZE was broken up for spares at Burnaston (Derby) aerodrome in March 1964, Miles Gemini G-AKHY was written off after a forced landing at Shebbear in Devon on 4 April 1965, Percival P34 Proctor P3 G-AHFK went on to win the 1959 King's Cup Air Race before being exported to Kenya and Percival Vega Gull G-AFIE, having been impressed into RAF service, was destroyed in an air raid on Hendon on the night of 7-8 October 1940. The other loaned Vickers Varsity, G-ARFP, continued with development flying but by 1978 was a haulk at the RN Firefighting School at Predannack, Cornwall.

THE TALE OF TWO ADVERTS

When the verdict of the Coroner’s Inquest was reported on page ten of The Citizen on 19 April 1963, it wasn’t the only reference to the Varsity crash in the newspaper for by coincidence or design, Sparrow’s had placed an advert. This was a quarter page advert and showed a photograph of the Lorain crane lifting the wreck of the Varsity at the crash site with the caption “For all your lifting problems…consult Sparrows crane hire ”At the time, this caused little apparent fuss and none of The Citizen’s readers commented it on in the paper’s letter page. This was not the same 30 years later when the insurance company Commercial Union used a similar image - with the caption “Don’t worry. You’re with Commercial Union. The Citizen decided that this advert, which was only run in Australia, was in bad taste, which is somewhat hypocritical when it made no such inference with the Sparrow advert in 1963 and was also happy enough to charge the company for the advert. The Citizen justified its stance by bringing attention to the fact that the advert was misleading. This was because Commercial Union had been the insurers for 189 Tuffley Avenue in 1963 and the firm hadn’t settled the claim until 1968, five years after the crash. The newspaper also argued that the rest of the wording – that the company “settled claims quickly and fairly” was also deceptive, especially as the paper pointed out that the claim payment was made only after intervention by the then City M.P. Jack Diamond. The house itself lay derelict after the salvage of the Varsity and on 27 August 1964, it was announced that it was to be demolished. Although the Air Ministry had fairly promptly settled a claim with the Drury family for compensation, this had been based on the fact that the Longmead was to have been rebuilt, but in the space of 18 months it had deteriorated to the extent where the architect in charge had advised that both Longmead and 187 should be pulled down. This took place later in the year and the building was subsequently replaced by a modern, rather soulless three-storey structure, reminiscent of a decapitated tower block. There can be little doubt that the crash of G-APAZ was caused by pilot error and that the Air Ministry’s investigation reached the correct conclusion. In general, the Varsity was a fairly safe aircraft and some are still flying today. Of the 163 built, only 17 have been lost through accidents and all except three of these losses were RAF aircraft. All of these crashes have been attributable to pilot error and given the nature of the RAF use of the type at the time, this is probably to be expected. The worst crash in terms of loss of life was the most recent, when Varsity G-BDFT of the Leicester Aircraft Preservation Trust crashed on 18 August 1984 with the loss of all 11 onboard [xxxvi] In the intervening years since the loss of G-APAZ, much speculation has taken place discussing whether Russell Palmer and Kelston Thomas were heroes in that they deliberately avoided hitting Ribston Hall School. This attitude is not surprising as both men were popular, well-respected members of the local aviation community and their deaths came as a great shock. Russell Palmer, especially, had a national reputation as a pilot and test pilot. In all probability however and without denigrating the memories of these two fine pilots, the fact that G-APAZ avoided crashing into the two schools was more a matter of luck than judgement. Given the situation they found themselves in, the pilots were not really in a position to do much about it and in all likelihood they were just concentrating their efforts on trying to reach the Crypt playing fields – which would have appeared as a splash of green in a sea of red brick and grey roof tiles below them. Despite this there is no doubt in the author’s mind that had the two men not been better pilots then the Varsity may have crashed earlier than it did or, continued its turn to starboard before it came down. The first scenario would have seen the impact occur in the streets of Tredworth, while the second would have resulted in a crash somewhere along Southgate Street, probably close to the Docks - pictured above in 1969. If either had been the case, the impact would probably have been far more devastating and the death toll would have been much greater. 

The merits of having an aerodrome so close to two major urban conurbations has often arisen and discussed by the authorities (not least by Gloucester City Council and Cheltenham Borough Council who now own and operate the facility on a joint basis). Despite the attendant risk, the author feels that Staverton – now officially known as Gloucestershire Airport – has much to offer and should remain as an active aerodrome (if only to prevent local planning authorities from building on the site!). At the time of writing the airport’s future, which was once in serious doubt now secure. Much rebuilding work has taken place and the facilities have changed beyond recognition since the days when Smiths took control. Although only one commercial airline - Citywing - operates out of the airport, Gloucestershire is still busy with a large number of aircraft movements and much commercial investment. As well as various private business jets there are several flight training schools based at the airfield together with two private flying clubs. Another frequent user is the RAF, who use Staverton as a refuelling facility for rotary wing operations (and pay for the privilege). Acknowledgements I would like to thank the Staff at the following places for their help with this article: RAF Museum, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Gloucester Coroner, Gloucestershire Constabulary, US Navy Historical Centre, Air Historical Branch (RAF) MoD and the RAF Personnel Management Agency (formerly based at RAF Innsworth), MoD. I would also like to thank Bernard Seeley (Churchwarden of St Peter & Paul Church, Felixstowe) and my colleague Vicky Thorpe (for photographs of Russell Palmer’s grave). Bibliography Card, F., 1993 Whensoever: 50 years of the RAF Mountain Rescue Service 1943-1993, The Ernest Press, ISBN 0948153237

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