• Air Pilot Killed At Biddenham

Bedfordshire Times and Independent - Friday 20 August 1920

About 8.20pm on Monday night, an aeroplane, which had been near Biddenham some time, was taken up by its pilot, accompanied by a mechanic. When about 100 feet up the engine stopped and the plane began to descend. In attempting to avoid a barn it crashed.

The pilot, James Gordon Riley, aged 21, of 5, Oak Tree Avenue, Palmer’s Green, London N., was jammed in his seat owing to the front of the engine being crushed in. He received severe head injuries.

Mr Blick, of Ford End road, was first on the scene, and was shortly joined by two of the Beds Constabulary, who were on the riverside patrol at Honey Hills.

The mechanic, named Hamblin, of Brixton, also received injuries about the head. He was the first to receive attention, and was conveyed by boat to Kempston Mill, and later to the County Hospital. The pilot was then removed, and died about five minutes later.

The plane was one of those belonging to the By-Air Co., of Coventry, who were giving passenger flights a few weeks ago.

The first machine sustained damage and this was the second which, it will be remembered, came to grief in a field of growing corn belonging to Mr R Whitworth. It had to wait for removal until the corn was cut, and this accomplished.

Mr Riley and his mechanic got to work upon the machine. On Monday evening we believe it was their intention to fly to Hendon.

The inquest was opened by Mr Gregory Whyley at the ‘Three Tuns’, Biddenham, on Tuesday afternoon.

Riley, a bank clerk, living at the same address as the deceased, identified him as his brother, a civil airman and a shareholder and pilot in the By-Air Co. He took his certificate in 1917 and had served in the RAF.

The inquest was adjourned for a fortnight in order to enable the evidence of the mechanic, who is the only witness who can throw light on the mishap, to be taken.

In a follow-up article covering the inquest proceedings some additional details emerged.

William Roe, of Coventry Road, Bedford, described how on Aug. 16th about 8.15pm, he was in a stubble field at Biddenham, when he heard the engine of an aeroplane. He crawled through the hedge, and saw an aeroplane in the field.

The pilot tested the planes, and then the machine started off. It went about 100 yards along the ground before it began to rise, cleared the hedge, and went up towards some sheds. Near the sheds it circled. It was about 60 or 70 ft up. It then seemed to come down at an angle of 45 degrees. He did not see it strike the ground, as he was behind the hedge.

He ran to the spot, and saw that both men were seriously hurt. He obtained a bicycle and rode into Bedford for a doctor. The passenger, Corporal Hamblin, RAF, stationed at Uxbridge, recovered sufficiently to give evidence.

Mr Riley had wired him on Aug.13th to come to Bedford, and he came the next day. He worked for some time on the engine, which was lying in a field, and put in a new cylinder and piston. The machine was then in good order, except for filling up.

On the morning of the 16th Mr Riley assisted him in changing one of the ground wheels, and getting in stores of oil, etc.

Hamblin did not remember getting into the machine at the start, and had no recollection of what happened afterwards.

Mr Trevor Laker, of Coventry, formerly a pilot, gave evidence as to the history of the machine. He said he had got it down from Hounslow, after some trouble, to Lilbourne Aerodrome near Rugby. The water circulation failed, and he had a forced landing a Lilbourne.

After that the engine was thoroughly overhauled by their ground engineer, and he made several flights before he left the Company, the machine flying perfectly. He tested it on July 16th, when they were flying it at Kempston.

It was then (in his opinion) being flown badly, and he expected to see the pilot crash at any moment. He deduced that the tail trimming was out of order. He went to the field and found that Riley had made a bad landing, and bent his under-carriage.

Witness told Riley that if he made a similar mistake that would be his last. Finally Mr J W Batchelor, aeronautical draughtsman, Coventry, said the machine was passed as air-worthy in July. He had seen Mr Riley’s log book, which showed that he had spent 789 hours in the air, and had sunk a German submarine.

The aircraft involved - if it is the same one as was auctioned (Airco DH6, ex C7815) – did not fly again. Records show that it was withdrawn from use at this date and the registration cancelled. Beyond this little is known as to how the sale went, however two papers in the same file as the poster give some clues ... and raise some questions.

The first is a short note from a Superintendent at Bedford Police Station to Mr Mr H Peacock (Auctioneer in Bedford), dated 1st September 1920. It reads ...

"Dear Sir, I received a request from Mr Whitworth yesterday to move the Aeroplane from his field, as he wanted to put horses in. I did so and it is now at the rear of the “Three Tuns”, Biddenham, as it is a better place and it will not be tampered with. When allowing permits to view kindly put “Three Tuns” instead of Mr Whitworths farm, Honeywells. This is also an easier place to find. I see by this mornings paper that Aeroplanes sold very badly at Cambridge but I should think that probably there were a lot for sale."

The second is a typed letter (carbon copy) from the auctioneers, dated 31st January 1921, to O Bach, Esq. Aberlady NB (near Edinburgh).

"Dear Sir, We offered your Aeroplane last week but were unable to get any bidding at all for the same. We offered it again last Saturday, after advertising, and have sold it for £6, and will render you the account on Wednesday. Yours faithfully / (unsigned)."

The reference to the pilot's WW1 service record in reputedly sinking a submarine is interesting.

It is a little known fact that in the last year of the war the DH6, which had been specifically designed as a trainer, was adapted for use as a submarine hunter and may therefore have been a type on which he had some considerable experience.

DH.6 must hold the record for the number and variety of disrespectful epithets. The “sky hook”, a favorite of Australian airmen, probably referred to its lack of speed, although the shape of the exhaust pipes has also been mentioned. Other nicknames for the type included "crab", "clockwork mouse", "flying coffin" and "dung hunter" (these last two on account of the shape of the plywood cockpit - thought to resemble either a coffin or an outside toilet). The type’s unforgiving nature was probably behind yet another nickname, the "clutching hand", although this may also have been associated with its notorious lack of speed.


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