September 6, 1952: Farnborough Airport in Hampshire, England hosts an airshow. The weeklong event combines trade exhibitions for the aerospace and defense industries with crowd pleasing demonstrations. It is held every other year and the first five days (Monday through Friday) are not open to the public. The weekend brings in nearly a quarter million people. It began as an annual RAF Airshow at Hendron in 1920. The show moved a few times before finally landing at Farnsborough in 1948. On this day, a planned demonstration of the DH.110 was nearly cancelled. It had been flown supersonic on the opening and day and then had problems. It was taken to Hatfield for servicing. The prototype plane was flown by John Derry and aboard the plane was Anthony Richards as a test observer.
De Havilland was a British plane manufacturer established in 1930 on the outskirts of London by Geoffrey de Havilland. They began by building biplanes but were noted for their innovative style. They also built weapon systems and were famous for the Mosquito and Hornet, planes used during World War II. Using wood to build planes avoided using strategic materials during shortages brought on by war. The DH.110 was a prototype of a two-seat jet fighter plane for use by the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. Derry had been a pilot during the war and joined de Havilland as a test pilot in 1947. He mostly worked with the DH 108 and is credited with being the first Briton to exceed the speed of sound in 1948.
Derry and Richards brought the plane from Hatfield back to Farnborough with just enough time to start their set. Derry took up the plane with Richards in the second seat. They did a low-level supersonic flypast and pleased the crowd on the ground. There were about 120,000 people watching the show. Derry made a left bank at 450 knots or 515 mph and began to climb. The outer right wing was the first to break off and the left wing followed shortly thereafter. Both engines and the cockpit broke away from the fuselage with one engine breaking into two pieces. The pieces hit into the crowds of people and killed 29 observers as well as both aboard the plane and injured another 60 people. The debris was cleaned up and the airshow continued.
After this disaster, new rules were passed. All jets at air shows had to be at least 750 feet from crowds if flying straight and at least about 1,500 feet when performing maneuvers. They were also mandated to fly at least 500 feet of altitude. It was ruled that Derry and Richards were not at fault. There were modifications made to the plane and it was eventually put into production as the de Havilland Sea Vixen. There were 145 planes built for use by the Royal Navy and the plane was retired in 1972. There is only one remaining airworthy Sea Vixen still flying.
I’ll never forget, it looked like confetti, looked like silver confetti.
The remaining airframe floated down right in front of us. It just came down like a leaf.
And then the two engines, like two missiles, shot out of the airframe and hurtled in the direction of the airshow.
There was a sort of silence, then people, one or two people screamed but mostly it was just a sort of shock. You could hear some people sort of whimpering which was quite shocking. – all from Richard Gardner, a eyewitness to the event
Also on this day: “Simplify, simplify.” – In 1847, Henry David Thoreau left Walden Pond.
Around the World in Years – In 1522, the first circumnavigation of the globe finally ended.
Howard Unruh – In 1949, a mass murdering spree in New Jersey took place.
Assassination – In 1901, President William McKinley was shot.
Greatest Simplicity Rule – In 1803, John Dalton made an observation.