John Derry and the DH 110 tragedy Farnborough 1952 - "Empire of the Clouds" in Recommended Aviation books - latest update November 2015
In 1945 Britain inherited the title of the world’s leading pioneer and builder of jet aircraft. During the first post-war decade innovative new British aircraft made their debut several times a year, and pilots were the 'celebrities' of the age. It is a period of aviation history celebrated in this excellent work. Some of the aircraft described over these pages were extraordinary world-beating types - the sleek Comet, the first jet airliner, the awesome delta-winged Vulcan, an intercontinental bomber that could be thrown about the sky like a fighter, the Hawker Hunter, the most beautiful fighter-jet ever built, and the Lightning, which could zoom climb to heights of ten miles in minutes and whose pilots rated flying it as better than sex. But ominously many types then under development by Britain's many aircraft constructors would prove to be incredible duds - the ten engined intercontinental flying boat the Princess and the deadly DH 108 Swallow to name but two - IIRC all three DH 108 Swallows built took their pilots to their deaths. By the early 1960s, the designers, the extremely brave test pilots and the legendary companies they worked for – Avro, Hawker, Vickers, de Havilland – were gone or facing a bleak future. A heroic and distinguished industry was coming to an end, and now many of the aircraft described here are museum pieces. How did Britain lose the plot so completely? James Hamilton-Paterson describes all in a compelling story that fuses his own memories of being a schoolboy plane-spotter with a rueful history of Britain’s loss of self-confidence and power. It is a glimpse of a vanished world: the exhilarating story of atomic-age aviation pioneers, their great and charismatic machines, and the men who flew them.
" ..The fighter floated apart leisurely, as in a slow-motion movie. Light pieces fluttered to earth. The nose and part of the fuselage skidded through a wire fence lined with spectators. The two jet engines, weighing a ton each, curved across the field in an awesome arc. Tumbling over & over and whistling faintly, they headed for a little hill packed with picnicking families. The great crowd stood in stunned silence, watching the hurtling engines. Over the public-address system, the announcer shouted: "Look out!..."
Diagram of the DH 110 breaking up in mid-air shortly after breaking the sound barrier from Michael J. Bowyer's account of Farnborough 1952 'Deltas, supersonics and tragedy' published in Aviation News (1992)
Time magazine's account from their 15 September 1952 issue...article also entitled 'Death at Farnborough..'
".....Last week, at Britain's annual Farnborough Air Show, Derry was flying a De Havilland DH-110, a twinjet, all-weather fighter. Before 120,000 spectators, including his young wife, pilot Derry climbed to more than eight miles and dived, jets screaming, straight toward the crowd. Down he flashed at more than 700 m.p.h. When he leveled off, the double thunderclap of his shock waves—palpable as ocean breakers—crashed against the crowd's bodies and ears. Derry turned again to make a low pass. Then the crowd saw disaster: in eerie, total silence, the DH-110 disintegrated.
The fighter floated apart leisurely, as in a slow-motion movie. Light pieces fluttered to earth. The nose and part of the fuselage skidded through a wire fence lined with spectators. The two jet engines, weighing a ton each, curved across the field in an awesome arc. Tumbling over & over and whistling faintly, they headed for a little hill packed with picnicking families. The great crowd stood in stunned silence, watching the hurtling engines. Over the public-address system, the announcer shouted: "Look out!"
The engines soared for about a mile. One of them missed the hill, tore through a radio truck and smashed two motorcycles. The other engine, flying lower, broke in two and plowed two bloody furrows through the churning crowd. Besides pilot Derry and his observer, Tony Richards, 28 people were killed, 63 injured.
In spite of this spectacular human tragedy, the show was an aeronautical and military success. Distinguished foreigners from 94 countries, including top aviation men of the Western world, swarmed out of London with hordes of eager Britons. Farnborough turned into a gigantic county fair as families picnicked on the grass or watched from the tops of cars. The watchers got their money's worth as Britain's flyers showed their new wares with superb and sometimes reckless showmanship. The Supermarine Swift and the Hawker Hunter, R.A.F. interceptors, flashed past the stands 100 ft. off the ground at an official 715 m.p.h., only a shade below the speed of sound. Pilot Derry in his DH-110, which was later to crash, zoomed to 17,000 ft. in a vertical, barrel-rolling climb. All three planes dived at the field, bombarding the stands with shock waves that sounded like cannon fire. Then came airliners and bombers. A Vickers Viscount liner swooped over the field with three of its four turboprop engines feathered, and did a climbing turn. A Canberra jet bomber whirled in acrobatics as if it were a carnival stunt plane. A Comet jet liner lumbered down the runway, then jumped steeply into the air, pushed by rocket boosters........"
(continued at the Time magazine 'this day in history' site here )
more press coverage of Derry's crash - click on the images to view large. Courtesy Jo Ayres of the F.A.S.T museum Farnborough
Derry tragedy from 03:00 on the footage below