1938 air crash

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1938 air crash


F18AirportStCatherine'sBay.jpg

St Catherine's Bay on the airport apron


On 4 November 1938 a Jersey Airways DH86 Express crashed shortly after take-off from the new airport at St Peter. This article by Richard Heath, recalling the tragedy, was first published in the Jersey Evening Post in 2019


The scene after the crash

Shortly before 11 am on 4 November 1938, the Jersey Airways 'St Catherine's Bay' biplane took off into the low cloud hanging over St Peter, its 11 passengers and two crew no doubt settling down for the routine flight to Southampton.

Seconds later it plunged towards a field 500 yards from the Airport. It smashed into the ground and skidded through a hedge, over a lane and into a second field, where it exploded into flames.

14 deaths

The passengers and crew were killed instantly. And in the minutes after the crash, as the emergency services arrived at the scene, it emerged that the accident had claimed one more life - that of farm foreman Edmund Le Cornu, who was struck by the plane's tail as it careered across the fields.

Another farmworker, Peter Le Saux, escaped by a matter of inches after taking evasive action when he heard the noise of the plane bearing down on him.

"It seemed to swoop down on us with engines roaring," he told reporters. "I only saved myself by throwing myself flat on the ground, the wing tip grazing my cheek as the plane roared by".

By 1938 travellers well understood the perils of the early years of air travel. There had been several accidents in recent times, and the loss of the Cloud of Iona seaplane and its ten passengers and crew just two years earlier was still very much in the minds of islanders.

But it was the scale of the devastation of the St Peter air crash, and the fact that the charred remains of the plane were scattered across a farmer's field for all to see, which left so many people so shocked.

Witness James Huelin

The accident was extensively reported in the Evening Post Under the headline 'Appalling air disaster', the paper carried eye-witness reports from those who tried to help the victims before realising they could not be saved.

Farmer witness

Among them was James Philip Huelin, who was working on his farm with his son when the plane ploughed into the ground 80 yards away.

"We saw the plane take off and saw nothing unusual about it, except there was thick fog about 100 yards up. The plane came round and as soon as she was over a house known as Les Minquiers, we noticed that she seemed to be coming down with the engines revving madly.
"Immediately afterwards she came down at a terrific rate with the engines roaring and struck the field just over the road. She seemed to bounce off the field and strike the hedge, landing over the road where she seemed to explode and burst into flames.
"We rushed to the scene but it was almost impossible to get to the raging inferno. Some of the bodies were outside the wreckage and we managed to pull them clear, but they were past all human aid." said Mr Huelin, who was pictured in the paper wearing a cap singed by the flames.

An ambulance and a fire engine were on the scene within five minutes of the crash. They were soon followed by members of the honorary police and personnel from St Peter's Barracks, but nothing could be done to help any of the 14 victims.

An ambulance crew and fire engine arrived five minutes after the plane came down but none of the victims could be helped

Victims

Details of those who had died started to emerge in the days after the tragedy. Mr Le Cornu, the farm foreman killed in the field, was a 32-year-old father of two young children. His wife had died several months earlier and the tragedy left his two young daughters, Daphne and Dulcie, orphaned.

British Army Captain W D Swan was travelling with his wife and baby to rejoin his unit in India when the plane crashed. The former Victoria College student was described as a 'fine athlete who was 'outstanding' at cricket and also captained the school's football team. Very little was written about his wife and child.

The best-known victims were Major Gerald Voisin and his wife Eleanor. Major Voisin, a veteran of the Western Front, was the head of Voisins department store in King Street.

He was described as 'very well known and deservedly popular among not only his employees but a large circle of business and other friends in the island for his charm of manner'.

The couple, who were travelling to England for a family baptism, had three children aged between seven and 13.

A General Hospital nursing sister, Janet Hansford, also died in the crash, along with Mr T O Cox, a 29-year-old chartered accountant who had visited Jersey from the UK to audit his brother's accounts; Mr Spring, who was a representative of the Skefko Ballbearing Company in Bristol; Mr Kersley, who was returning to Lancashire after a business trip; Mr F Berry, who was aged about 60 and had been on business in the island; Mrs L H G Wall, a UK resident who had been staying at the Royal Hotel in David Place.

The crew members were pilot A G M Cary, who had previously been a private pilot for the Viceroy of India, and was well known in Jersey as one of the island's best squash players; and flight radio officer R J Lyons, who lived in Southampton.

Alongside the stories of those who lost their lives were reports of the sheer good fortune of two men who should have been on the fatal flight but were turned away after arriving late.

One was Louis Morris, described as a 'well-known cinema magnate' of Shaftsbury Avenue, London, who missed the flight after his boat from Guernsey was delayed. He told reporters that he had pleaded with airport officials to let him on the plane, but they refused as the load sheets had been completed.

"I argued with them as I urgently wanted to get back. They were adamant, now I am thankful they were."

Mr Morris described how he watched the plane take off and then plunge into the field. He described how he and his chauffeur ran to the scene and found the plane in a 'mass of flames'.

"It was a ghastly sight, one which I shall never forget. I am thankful now that I was not allowed on board, or else I should have been lying there with those poor people. It is fate, I suppose."

In the following days post-mortem examinations were carried out and an inquest jury was taken to the scene of the crash, as an Air Ministry inquiry into the accident began. Investigators concluded that the crash was the result of pilot error during a turn seconds after take-off.

Today there are few reminders of what at the time was Jersey's worst air crash. The landscape has changed; houses near the impact site have been demolished and lanes reconfigured to meet modern aviation regulations and make way for the expansion of the Airport.

The fire engine which arrived just five minutes after the plane went down has survived the last 70 years and is on show at the Pallot Steam and Motor Museum.
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