Weather was problematic for all aircraft operation in Europe during World War II, but particularly in England because of the abundance of moist, cloud-laden, air that often reduced visibility to near zero. Things have not changed in England, but modern day pilots are now equipped with a raft of instrumentation and training to make flying in poor weather a routine occurrence – though this is not to suggest that it is no longer an impressive skill.
This was not true seventy years ago – good instrument flyers were a rarity and it was something that only came with experience. Most American pilots had been trained back home at bases located specifically to take advantage of the abundance of good weather and were given little in the way of instruction on flying solely on instruments. Fred Lefebre once told me they were taught only to use the needle and ball instrument and the airspeed indicator for flying in poor weather and not to rely on the artificial horizon. I am not a pilot myself, so there are many out there who could appreciate, better than I could, the full significance and meaning of this statement by a Squadron Commander. What it does illustrate is that instrument flying skills were rudimentary even with senior Group pilots. In those days of scant training, instrument flying ability often reduced as you went down the ranks and junior pilots commonly relied on their flight leader to guide them through the murky blankness. This state of affairs brought about simply by lack of knowledge and rushed wartime training could, and often did, lead to tragic losses.
One such day was September 5, 1943 when the 350th Squadron’s “B” flight set off on a training exercise to visit to the famous Battle of Britain airfield at Biggin Hill and learn how the RAF flew fighter operations. Twenty-nine enlisted men were to travel on ahead by truck, while seven pilots would fly their aircraft down to the RAF station. The weather at Metfield was good and so at 14.45 hrs the pilots took off and formed up into two flights as follows:
Capt. Stanley R. Pidduck (a/c 42-8373)
1st Lt. Harold W. Long (a/c 42-8475 LH-X)
1st Lt. Wilford F. Hurst (42-7940 LH-M)
1st Lt. Melvin P. Dawson (a/c/ 42-22475 LH-N)
Capt. Irvin E. Venell (a/c 42-7956 LH-K)
2nd Lt. William J. Price (a/c 42-7989)
1st Lt. John L. Devane (a/c 42-8392)
The weather remained cooperative until the formation reached the Thames Estuary where cloud forced them down below 1,000ft. I should point out that altitude indicators were notoriously inaccurate at this time – a factor that further contributed to the uncertainty when pilots were flying on instruments. Capt. Pidduck made the decision to continue on to their destination and, when about two miles from reaching Biggin Hill, noticed some low clouds ahead:
Knowing the field was dead ahead, I let down under the clouds and flew at an altitude of about 2 or 300 feet above the ground level for a minute or two when I saw the field under my left wing. Immediately upon passing the field the clouds closed in completely. Knowing I could not stay below the clouds and find the field I decided to ascend to the clear area immediately above the low fog and return to Gravesend. I climbed to 3,000 ft found no clearing at all, so leveled [sic] out. During the start of the climb I noticed Lt Long, who was flying my wing, disappear in the fog.
Lt. Hurst was flying second element in Capt. Pidduck’s flight:
We came in sight of Biggin Hill and Capt Pidduck dipped his wings for echelon formation to the right. I started to cross over into echelon and Lt Long broke away and up into the cloud. Right at this time we ran into a solid cloud and I became separated from the entire flight. I was in cloud and started a gentle turn right and away from the formation. I broke out of the cloud and was able to see the field to my left. I turned toward the field riding in tree tops and just below the cloud. I came across the field and put my wheels down in level flight and made a flat approach to the south runway. As soon as I taxied to the line, the ground crew told me a ship had crashed just off the edge of the field.
The crash was Lt. Long flying LH-X (a/c 42-8475). Investigators believed he had gone onto instruments in the low cloud but had lost control of his aircraft. When he attempted to bail out he was to low and his parachute failed to open.
The day, however, quickly became a double blow for the Squadron. The second flight, led by Capt.Venell, lost sight of the lead flight and attempted to catch up with a tight turn. As the flight approached Biggin Hill, Capt. Venell flying LH-K (a/c 42-7956) came in over the trees and banked sharp to port (perhaps making the ‘catch up’ turn) and in doing so caught his left wing tip on a bungalow and crashed his Thunderbolt in Jail House Lane, Biggin Hill. Venell was killed instantly and flames quickly engulfed the aircraft and surrounding area – though luckily nobody on the ground was injured. The rest of the Venell’s flight continued on to find some clear air and landed at RAF Weathersfield where they were informed of the crash.
This accident illustrates that even senior flight commanders could be caught out by the changeable weather in England and that insufficient training could be deadly. The loss of two original and well-liked members hit the Squadron hard and some 50 years later Bill Price wrote a painful and honest account of the accident in his book Close Calls – Two Tours with the 353rd Fighter Group (p.34). In it he recounted how he and Devane had been flying either side of Venell with Price on the left and low position as they made the turn. He glanced over and saw a tree at the bottom of his left wing and so slid under Venell to put the flight in right echelon formation. Price, thinking the more senior members of the flight knew what they were doing, did not realize the extreme danger and call the alarm. Regrettably, the loss of Venell and Long would not be the last tragedy of this type suffered by the Group during its time in England.
Postscript September 14, 2012
At quick search of the internet reveals that Venell’s wife Edna Marie did find a way to rebuild her life after her sad loss – even if she never forgot her first husband. Marie Avers obituary is located HERE.