The Fall of the Petrel

The fall of the Petrel

By Martin Simons

One day in July 1939, Brian Wallace, a friend, asked if I would like to go with him and his father to see the gliding competition at a place called Great Hucklow. They had a Morris 8 car and the drive, about fourteen miles, would not take long. The Sheffield Telegraph newspaper said the National Competition had been going on all week. It would end on Sunday. The site was in the Southern Pennines, the so-called Peak District. I was nine years and a few months old. I had never seen a glider other than the little halfpenny models bought in sweetshops and newsagents. I did not know what to expect. Brian and his father didn’t know any more than I did. We would go on Saturday.

When we got to Hucklow village we had to get the car up to Camphill. The narrow road led through a tunnel of gnarled, wind swept trees with a very sharp hairpin bend half way up. Misjudging this turn Mr Wallace had to reverse and take another bite at it. Up steeply again we emerged onto a broad, treeless plateau high above the valley. Marvellous views opened in all directions.

It was misleading to call this an airfield. Later I learned it had once been a cluster of twelve small sheep pastures, each surrounded by dry stone walls of the kind seen everywhere in that region of England. The gliding club members, over several years, had removed the walls by hand, stone by stone, and made a space about half a mile wide and three quarters of a mile long. There were many ridges and bumps where the old walls had been. Heaps of discarded stones were dumped at intervals round the margins of the property. They made convenient but uncomfortable seats for spectators.

More than twenty gliders were in sight, on the ground, a few lining up ready to take off, one or two in the air.

From the moment we caught our first sight of the sailplanes, I was altogether entranced, totally overcome by their beauty. They had superb, streamlined fuselages, shells of thin plywood varnished to a very high gloss with the wood grain showing in fantastic patterns. Many of them had curved wings like giant seagulls. Wooden skins glistening, large areas covered with lightweight fabric, all highly polished, they were translucent against the sky.

I wandered round in a daze, astonished that I could go right up to the lovely, huge bird-like things and touch them. I watched the pilots getting into the cockpits, listened without understanding to their talk. Surely these men were gods soaring above us.

I had never seen or heard of winch launching before, but this too excited me. The glider would be poised ready to take off, the steel cable attached to it running across the ground to the winch far away at the other end of the field. A man would signal with a pair of orange bats the size of tennis rackets. The winch wire would rustle and go taut, the glider bowing a little as if in homage. The signaller then waved the bats overhead, the glider moved forward rapidly, left the ground and climbed steeply like a kite on a string. The wire whistled in the air.

Several hundred feet up, the cable would fall away and the lovely aircraft floated freely, moving gracefully this way and that, light glinting off the fuselage, shining through the wings, coming down after a while smoothly to touch down on the grass. Hearing the musical, flute- or organ-like sounds of the gliders in the air made a very great impression on me.

To my astonishment, sometimes the sailplane after dropping the line would start circling round and round, gaining height until it turned and sailed away, disappearing in the distance. Earlier in the week we were told, one of the gliders had reached the Thames Estuary, a distance of 162 miles. One of the other pilots present had set a height record some months earlier, reaching more than 14,000 feet in a cloud. These men were gods indeed.

The Petrel climbing on the winch launch.

Clouds drifted in and there was a rain shower. Brian and his Dad went back to the car to find a cup of tea and shelter. I followed them reluctantly, but paused on the way to watch one more glider being launched. It climbed steeply as usual, but nearing the highest point of the launch it vanished into the rain cloud. It re-emerged a few moments later flying in the opposite direction. I saw that the winch cable was still attached, hanging down in a great loop. This could not be right!

The cable never came off. The glider flew on to get into position to turn and land, but suddenly it stopped dead in the air as the cable snapped tight. The sailplane pitched over sharply and dived vertically into the ground. There was a shower of dust and shattered bits of wood. From where I stood, perhaps two hundred yards away, the aircraft that had been so beautiful was reduced to fragments. I knew the pilot must be dead. I did not know who he was. I did know he was a mortal man.

I ran to tell my friends as soon as the crash happened and I don’t remember seeing anyone rushing to the wreck. It fell in the open field some little distance away from the launching point where the various crew members and other pilots would have been. I suppose they must have hurried to see if anything could be done, but spectators, especially children, would have been prevented from crowding round.

I told the Wallaces there had been an accident. They did not believe me at first. They had heard no sound of a crash and there had been no disturbance among the tea parties where they were sitting. Gliding is a quiet sport.

Soon they did believe. Brian and I, an hour later, went to the place behind the hangar, half a mile from the crash site, where the wreckage was stacked in a sad heap against a wall, almost hidden as if the gods were ashamed to show it. Perhaps they were afraid ignorant humans would raid it for souvenirs. Someone did warn us not to touch anything. More had survived than I expected. The wings were still recognisable although smashed. Large pieces of torn, still glossy, varnished fabric flapped miserably in the breeze. A bird of great beauty had been shattered! A piece of varnished plywood carried the name, Petrel.

In accordance with tradition, flying continued afterwards. We left for home late in the afternoon.

Years later I read all about the accident. It was the second fatality this gliding club had had since its foundation in 1934. As far as anyone could tell, the winch driver, seeing the glider go into cloud, had shut down the launching engine and expected the cable to drop when the pilot pulled the release. The pilot never did release, presumably thinking that the cable had broken, which did sometimes happen. The winch man was supposed to cut it with an axe but before he could do so it came suddenly taut and the glider was pulled violently into the ground.

The pilot had been Frank Charles, a well know speedway racing driver, and the glider was the prototype of a new design, the Petrel, built by Slingsby in Yorkshire.

Among witnesses to the disaster were John Furlong and Leonard Ottley. They were not gods but they were good engineers. They set to work to design a towing hook for gliders that would release itself if, for any reason, the cable failed to come off or got into a bad position. When developed, the device was called the Ottfur, after the designers. Safety tow releases became compulsory for all gliders afterwards and saved many lives.

Two months later all civilian flying in Britain stopped when the Second World War began.

Only three Petrels were built. The prototype crashed, the other two are still flying in 2011. Later I came to know Camphill extremely well and I always go back to fly there during my visits to England. Maybe I am the only person surviving now who was actually there on that bad day in 1939!


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