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Lost, alone and flying in a blackout, how young pilot hunted for his home airfield

By Ashbourne News Telegraph  |  Posted: June 11, 2014

  • An FE2b similar to the one flown by Lieutenant Achurch. Designed by Geoffrey de Havilland, the FE2 (Farman Experimental) was quite a versatile aeroplane and was well-suited to night training.

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Peter Kirk and Peter Felix, of Derbyshire Historical Aviation Society, share a tragic story from the First World War.

IN April 1918, when the RAF was not yet a month old, Second Lieutenant Henry Graham Achurch was undergoing training as a night bomber pilot with 199 (Night) Training Squadron based at the aerodrome at East Retford.

The aerodrome, now the site of Her Majesty's Prison Ranby, had opened in April 1916 and became operational as a night landing ground after the installation of the necessary lighting.

In the late evening of Wednesday, April 24, Achurch and five other student pilots were instructed to take off, circuit the aerodrome and make six landings.

Achurch had accumulated just over 21 hours of solo flying, but this was to be his first night flight.

He took off at 10.50pm in his single-engined, two-seat FE2b aeroplane to carry out the exercise. The weather for the sortie was fairly good, though some cloud was forming, and the exercise should have taken about an hour, within which time Achurch's five colleagues all finished and landed safely.

When Achurch's absence became known, flares were lit on the aerodrome and, when this had no result, rockets were fired. It began to appear that he had lost the aerodrome in the blackout.

Three-quarters of an hour into the following day, farmer Robert Potts, of Manifold Farm, Idridgehay, and his farm-hand Ernest Fletcher were up tending a sick cow when they heard the sound of an aeroplane engine which Potts thought might be a Zeppelin – they were still making spasmodic raids at this time.

Potts and Fletcher went out to the west of the farmhouse and saw nothing, but the engine suddenly stopped and, on moving to the east side, they saw "a great blaze over the hill".

They decided to not to investigate until daylight. Rising again at six o'clock, the pair spent a further hour attending to the sick cow before finally venturing the quarter-mile to the scene of the blaze, where they discovered the charred remains of an aeroplane and its pilot on rising ground adjoining Ashley-hay Lane.

At the subsequent inquest, both men were strongly criticised by the coroner and the police for "not going to render assistance in the interests of humanity" and for putting the cow before the safety of another human being.

After straying from the airfield circuit, it appears that Achurch became completely lost and, after meandering around for nearly two hours, it is not hard to imagine how he must have been feeling.

Although it is 32 miles as the crow flies from East Retford to the crash site – far enough considering he should have been no more than a mile from the aerodrome – Achurch would have covered about 140 miles getting there, and the aeroplane would have had fuel for a further hour's flight.

Achurch would be straining his eyes to pick out any landmarks in the darkness, and we can only wonder if he might have located his position. He was heading in the direction of his home aerodrome when he flew into the rising ground.

The left wing of the FE2 clipped a tree, flipping the aeroplane into the ground a short distance away, whereupon one of the petrol tanks burst and ignited, destroying the aeroplane and burning the airman beyond recognition.

The offending tree became known for many years as Aeroplane Tree.

At the inquest, the RAF's investigating officer, Captain HA Thomas, told the court that he had identified the body of the pilot from the remains of the machine and the serial numbers on the instruments.

He said that the machine was in good order and that the accident could not have been due to the engine.

He also remarked that Achurch had "a good nerve, and was in his normal health".

In reply to a question by the police, Captain Thomas reiterated the suggestion that Achurch "had lost his bearings".

The coroner said it "had been a tragic occurrence to a member of a service which had covered itself with glory". He returned a verdict of "accidentally killed due to a forced landing at Shottle".

Lt Achurch was buried at his home town of St Neots, Cambridgeshire.

An intriguing aspect of this tragic accident is how Lt Achurch, with only 21 hours' flying experience and the most rudimentary of flight instruments, managed to maintain control of his aeroplane for nearly two hours in poor weather and almost blackout conditions. It can only be assumed that he was getting some visual reference or he would never have lasted as long as he did.

We are indebted to Dr Roy Bennett, of Ashbourne, for his original research into this incident.

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