AUGUST 27TH, 1923 WAS TO BRING AN UNEXPECTED DISASTER TO EAST MALLING.
ROBIN J BROOKS LOOKS BACK AT AN INCIDENT THAT SHOOK THE ENTIRE VILLAGE
By the early 1920’s, civil aviation had become widely accepted and many people were, taking the opportunity to travel by air. One of the more widely used routes was the Paris to London (Croydon) route, which passed through the Kent airspace and it was one of the scheduled aircraft flying this route that came to grief on the fateful day.
Despite the fact that it was high summer, August 27th, 1923 was a damp and squally day. At East Malling the showers were accompanied by a south westerly wind making it very miserable. Around 5.15pm with low cloud beginning to increase in density, the sound of a very low aircraft was heard by the village residents. It appeared to be circling and from the sound of its engines as in some kind of trouble. Minutes later a crash was heard and then silence.
The local policeman was alerted and quickly cycled to Upper Joy Farm from where the crash had been heard. Arriving at the farm entrance he came across some wreckage together with a group of very frightened people, some of whom were obviously seriously injured. The realisation came to him that this was the scene of a major air accident.
The aircraft that had crashed was a Farman Goliath registration F-AECB. Owned previously by the Compagnie des Messageries Aeriennes it had passed to the French Air Union in January 1923. It had been built at the works of H and M Farman and had been in regular use on the Channel service since July 11th, 1923 with total flying hours of less than 100. The pilot, Mons J J Denneulin, was very experienced having been a wartime member of the French Air Service and had been employed on the Channel service since May 1921.
With the six passengers aboard, the aircraft left Le Bourget airport near Paris at 12.45hrs on the 27th landing about one and a half hours later at Berck to take on board three more passengers.
Leaving Berck at about 14.45hrs, the weather appeared to be deteriorating with squally showers every now and then.
Flying over the Channel and picking up the English coastline at Hythe, the pilot was forced to adjust his height due to increasing cloud. Approaching Lympne airfield just inland from Hythe; a change in the engine sound developed whilst the instruments in the cockpit told that the port engine was overheating. Mons Denneulin decided to land at Lympne to see just what the problem was.
Landing safely the mechanic attended the faulty engine and found that the radiator was leaking. This was not considered serious enough to ground the aircraft and after a temporary repair and refill of the radiator, the aircraft left Lympne at 16.47hrs with both engines sounding and working satisfactorily. Climbing to a height of 1500ft the Goliath approached Maidstone, from the south intending to overfly and cross Biggin Hill to land at Croydon Airport. Suddenly whilst flying at about 65 knots at an altitude of 2000 ft. and with no warning, the starboard engine failed completely with the propeller coming to a standstill. Over East Farleigh the Goliath began to lose height and Mons Denneulin realised that he had to land somewhere or fall out of the sky.
Hoping to have the power to reach either Marden or Penshurst landings grounds with the other engine running on full power, the pilot realised that he could not keep the aircraft in level flight.
Coming down even lower he saw a large field on East Malling Heath. With the mechanic, Mons J Morin, sending a wireless transmission to Croydon airport notifying them of the engine failure, two of the passengers, in accordance with standard safety procedure, were told to move from the nose area to the back in order to balance the centre of gravity. Above the noise of the engine the message was misunderstood and as four passengers moved to the back, the Goliath entered a spin and crashed in a nut plantation at East Malling at about 17.30hrs.
Luckily the aircraft did not catch fire and within minutes of the crash the local policeman and local villagers had rushed to the scene in the hope of finding survivors. Sadly one of the passengers, Mr. Leslie Gunther was dead whilst the other eight suffered various degrees of injuries. The Maidstone Ambulance Brigade under the direction of transport officer, J C Dunk, were soon on the scene resulting in six of the passengers, the pilot and mechanic, being transported to the West Kent
General Hospital in Maidstone whilst the remaining with less serious injuries were treated in private houses at East and West Malling.
The Air Accident Investigations branch of the Air Ministry were informed of the crash and arrived the next morning to examine the wreckage. After several hours of investigation it was found that all the control wires were intact and ran free in the fair-leads and pulleys.
The starboard engine was more extensively damaged than the port and upon examination it was sound that the crankshaft had fractured. This was the cause of the engine failure, but the final opinion of the inspector of Accidents was that the crash was due to the aircraft stalling near the ground whilst the pilot was attempting to make a forced landing.
An inquest into the incident was held three days later at the ‘Ship inn’ East Malling. One of the survivors stated that following the failure of the starboard engine, the fact that four passengers moved to the back of the aircraft instead of two caused the Goliath to crash. Due to the rest of the passengers being hospitalised the inquest was adjourned until September 11th. When it resumed, the pilot gave his evidence at the end of which the Coroner decided that nothing further was to be gained by waiting for the other passengers to recover and give evidence. He therefore directed the jury to return a verdict of ‘accidental death’ on the passenger who died.
Despite the fact that the crankshaft had fractured on the aircraft, many other Goliath airliners continued to fly without being grounded for inspection.
Several other similar aircraft were to crash-land in the county whilst on scheduled flights, but none with such an impact on a village as the East Malling incident did.
(I acknowledge with thanks the use of the official document relating to this crash now held in the National Archives at Kew).
by ROBIN J BROOKS