Another Anniversary – Crash of a “Killer”

Another Anniversary – Crash of a “Killer”

Whenever I get a spare moment,  I look through the pages of  This Day in Aviation in case there is something that catches my eye.  Today I saw an item about the crash of the second prototype DH.108 “Swallow” TG306,  which occurred 70 years ago today on 27 September 1946.   Test pilot Geoffrey de Havilland Jr. (son of Geoffrey senior,   the founder and owner of the  de Havilland Aircraft Company Ltd.) was killed.

DH. 108 Swallow TG283

The first DH. 108 Swallow, TG283, at Hatfield on 30 May 1946 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The DH. 108  was the first British swept-winged jet aircraft and the first British tailless jet aircraft.  It was intended to test the low speed handling of swept wing jets and  in that respect was a design study for the future Comet airliner.   Its resemblance to the Messerschmit Me163 “Komet”  is striking but appears to be coincidental.   The Ministry of Supply gave the DH 108 the “Swallow” name,  which  was never officially adopted by the company.

Second Prototype DH.108 TG306

Second Prototype DH.108 TG306 (

I hadn’t realized, until looking closely at pictures of TG283 and TG306,  that the forward fuselage is that of a Vampire, slightly extended, with swept wings attached.   (Train spotters will note the Air Ministry serial of the prototype Vampire F.1  was TG274 – the fuselages of the first two DH.108 prototypes were taken from the production line at English Electric).   Eric “Winkle”  Brown described the DH.108 as  “A killer. Nasty stall. Vicious undamped longitudinal oscillation at speed in bumps”.

TG306 suffered structural failure while flying over the Thames Estuary on September 27th 1946 in a dive from 10,000 ft at Mach 0.9 and crashed in Egypt Bay. The subsequent accident investigation “centered on a structural failure that occurred as a shock stall placed tremendous loads on the fuselage and wings. The main spar cracked at the roots,  causing the wings to fold backwards immediately.” (Wikipedia edited by me)

I found some interesting YouTube footage of the three Swallows including TG306 and Geoffrey de Havilland.

Egypt Bay has a personal significance for me,  since it’s located a few miles from where I grew up. The North Kent marshes have always been fairly atmospheric. They certainly inspired Charles Dickens, especially in Great Expectations, (the grave that provided Dickens with his inspiration for Pip’s dead siblings is located at Cooling church. Cooling village is visible on the map here),  but they also have their share of aviation lore too.  The last resting place of Amy Johnson is somewhere in the Thames Estuary – her Airspeed Oxford crashed in mysterious circumstances there on January 5th,  1941.

The little red Google location indicator on the map below shows roughly where I grew up, across the River Medway from Rochester, and Egypt Bay is also shown. Just to the east of Egypt Bay is  St. Mary’s Bay (not to be confused with many similarly named bays in Kent). Interestingly, searching for “Egypt Bay”  in Google Maps elicits no results at all.

The wreckage of TG306, according to Bryan R. Swopes, was found on September 28th.  Another ten days passed before Geoffrey de Havilland’s body was recovered. He had suffered a broken neck and fractured skull, probably as a result of being thrown around the cockpit as the aircraft entered its “vicious undamped longitudinal oscillation at speed”  as Brown described it.




15th September

21st October is Trafalgar Day. I may have said this before.   Trafalgar Day has receded from the collective memory of popular history, and I suppose it’s inevitable that, as the generations pass, 15th September, Battle of Britain Day, will pass similarly into the mists.    As Abraham Lincoln said:   “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.” (Washington, D.C. December 1, 1862).

No doubt we will be remembered in spite of ourselves.  As a practising historian I would like to think we can’t escape History, and it is a bit of a duty to make some recollection of our versions of events.  I wasn’t there but I remember my friends families, teachers, shopkeepers and others reminiscing about 1940 in southern England. Somewhere there is a picture of the Messerschmitt 109 that crashed on Broom Hill, Strood. This was the closest aircraft crash to my home.    I have memories of seeing Spitfires and Heinkels flying over my parents’ house in Rochester when the  Battle of Britain movie was being made.  Watching the movie doesn’t bring back memories of 1940, obviously, but it brings back memories of those days in 1968/9 and of going to see the movie sometime before I started secondary school in 1970.  I would have started school about a week before the 30th anniversary of Battle of Britain Day.   How odd to be thinking about the 76th anniversary today.  In the words of the British musician Brian Eno (and Brian,  you played a part in my youth too)  “The passage of time is flicking dimly upon the screen” (“Golden Hours” Another Green World, 1975)

Rather than use one of the more warlike images available on the interwebs, here are the ground crews working flat out to repair Spitfires after the day’s fighting.  I do believe that’s Robert Shaw’s car in the middle distance, and after a while Ian McShane is about to utter the immortal riposte to Shaw’s question “Did you get one?”  –  “All I got was a bellyful of the English Channel”

Scene from the 1969 movie "Battle of Britain"

Scene from the 1969 movie “Battle of Britain”

7th September

Many anniversaries on this day according to Brian Swopes’ excellent This Day in Aviation site, including the first flights of the F-22 and the AH-1 Cobra.

For this Brit, however, 7th September refers to 7th September 1940,  and the day the Luftwaffe campaign against the UK – aka the Battle of Britain –  saw a very distinct change.  As the Wikipedia article on the Blitz says:  “From 7 September 1940, one year into the war, London was systematically bombed by the Luftwaffe for 57 consecutive nights. More than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged and more than 40,000 civilians were killed, almost half of them in London”  A couple of memorable images were taken on September 7th, including one very iconic view of an He111 directly over the London docks.

A German Luftwaffe Heinkel He 111 bomber flying over Wapping and the Isle of Dogs in the East End of London at at the start of the Luftwaffe's evening raids of 7 September 1940. Taken from a German aircraft at 1848 hrs German time. (Imperial War Museum)

A Heinkel He 111 flying over Wapping and the Isle of Dogs in the East End of London at at the start of the Luftwaffe’s evening raids of 7 September 1940. Taken from a German aircraft at 1848 hrs German time. (Imperial War Museum)


Smoke rising from fires in Surrey docks, following bombing on 7 September 1940

Smoke rising from fires in Surrey docks, following bombing on 7 September 1940 (New York Times Paris Bureau Collection. National Archives and Records Administration)

Forty Years of the Foxbat – and Firefox

A news article from the BBC website entitled “The Pilot who stole a secret Soviet fighter jet” caught my attention today.  It was a reference to the defection of Lt. Viktor Belenko in his MiG-25 “Foxbat” to Japan on September 6, 1976.   It’s a little amazing to me, partly because it doesn’t seem that long ago,  and partly because somewhere in my pile of still-packed model aircraft I have a contemporary Hasegawa model of that very same MiG-25.


Lt. Viktor Belenko’s MiG-25 “Foxbat” at Hakkodate Airport, Japan in September 1976


From some of the contemporary accounts and pictures that are floating around on the web it would appear that Belenko planned his defection to the West for some time, coming as he did equipped with several technical manuals and other materials relating to the MiG-25.  The only thing which seemed to catch him by surprise on his arrival at Hakkodate was the length of the runway.

Lt Viktor Belenko's MiG-25 "Foxbat" on the ground at Hakkodate Airport, Japan in September 1976

Lt Viktor Belenko’s MiG-25 “Foxbat” on the ground at Hakkodate Airport, Japan in September 1976


MiG -25s are museum pieces now, which in itself is amazing.  There was something about the MiG-25 which inspired me and also prompted me (just a little) to buy a hardback first edition copy of Craig Thomas’ 1977 novel Firefox, about the hi-jacking of the fictitious Mig-31 “Firefox” by the burned-out Vietnam veteran Mitchell Gant on behalf of the British Secret Service.   If you have only seen the Clint Eastwood movie, do yourself a favor and find the original novel.  It’s worth the effort.

Thomas, Craig: Firefox. London: Michael Joseph, 1977

Thomas, Craig: Firefox. London: Michael Joseph, 1977

In the days when I had a different job, and a certain web browser was in its infancy I sent out an email referencing the book and the movie and said “this email refers to neither – the latest version of Firefox the browser is now available, please update your installations as soon as possible.”  But that was a lifetime ago, too.  🙂