Memories of Gorleston Auster air crash tragedy

THANKFULLY, incidents of aircraft plunging to the ground are very few, and those coming down on a residential estate are even more scarce. But when the unthinkable happens, it stays in the memory forever, especially if there was loss of life.

Half a century ago an Auster taking summer holidaymakers on a pleasure flight from the Caister Road airfield crashed into the garden of a bungalow in Elmhurst Close, Gorleston, killing the pilot and his three passengers. I recalled the fatalities recently when looking at noteworthy events in 1962, and two Mercury readers got in touch with their recollections of that fateful afternoon.

One was ex-Yarmouthian Jack Stowers, an 87-year-old retired railwayman long resident in Lowestoft, who was one of the first on the scene. “My wife and I were visiting her mother at her home in Elmhurst Close when she said, ‘I’ve just seen a plane go past the window’, and we wondered what she was on about”, Mr Stowers tells me.

“A moment later, we heard a bang and immediately ran outside where we saw an overwrought elderly lady in the garden of a bungalow about 30 yards away and the wreckage of this plane. At first we worried about the possibility of the plane catching fire, but there was no fire. I could see the pilot and his front-seat passenger were dead.

“My wife went to fetch a policeman we had seen nearby before the crash. When he arrived, and we said we’d better try to get the two bodies out of the wreckage. Then the fire brigade and an ambulance came and set to work, and suddenly they said, ‘There’s two more bodies in here!’

Ex-Gorlestonian Mike King, also a Lowestoft resident and a regular contributor to this column, writes: “I remember it well.”

Mr King believes the first policeman to reach the scene was PC Calder, “a near-neighbour of mine who lived not far from the crash site.” He thinks Sgt Stanley Cox was also involved. “One of those two told me that when the police arrived, the lady occupant of the bungalow was in a state of total shock! Hardly surprising.”

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That occupier was Miss Ethel Kidd who had been sitting quietly at home, watching television with her friend Miss Gladys Harvey, of Upper Cliff Road, when “suddenly there was a terrific noise like an explosion which rocked the bungalow. I rushed to the bedroom and saw the plane in the garden.”

The Auster had caught her roof as it crashed, and its tail snapped off when it struck the ground. The plane belonged to Anglian Air Charter which had been operating pleasure flights from Caister Road for 12 years.

Mr King adds: “Just two years before that crash my wife, her brother, father and a German pen-friend had a trip in one of the Austers. She recalls flying over Gorleston where she lived and over her school (where she was still a pupil for two more years) at Lynn Grove.”

From another regular correspondent, Peter Allard, of Mallard Way, Bradwell, comes information that the pilot had joined Anglia Air Charter only 12 days before the fatality. Investigators failed to find the exact cause of the crash, he says, but in aviation circles it was believed that the pilot banked the aircraft too much, causing it to stall and fall from the sky.

Here I must apologise for writing incorrectly that the Auster crashed only a short distance from the “unused” railway line: in 1962 the Yarmouth to Lowestoft service was still in operation, continuing until 1970.

Talking of railways, a subject featured in several columns this year, it began with my publication of a 1958 picture of little Chris Wright on a Yarmouth South Town Station platform beside a steam passenger locomotive, on the footplate of which of which were his uncle, Ted Gilbert...and fireman Jack Stowers, the first man on the scene when the Auster crashed in 1962!

From Canada, where he has lived for may years, ex-Yarmouthian Danny Daniels reports that his wife Marjorie’s father, George Gillings, was an engine driver mate of Ted Gilbert and Jack Stowers senior, father of the surviving Jack junior - brother of Vic Stowers, “of revered Great Yarmouth Grammar School memory”.

Events in 1962 I mentioned previously included the removal of the buttresses that had supported the redundant Breydon swing railway bridge. Mr King says: “These piers were demolished to water level at low tide. They were packed with explosives under the guidance of experts from ICI. The whole lot was then covered with sandbags.

“Prior to blasting, a deep trench was dredged around the base of each pier. The theory was that the masonry would end up in the trench thus leaving the maximum depth of water. Blasting then took place at high tide so that the force of the explosion was pushed downwards.

“Afterwards, a diver was sent down to check there were no underwater obstructions. As visibility in the river was zero, the divers literally had to crawl around on hands and knees feeling the way as they went.”

He also responded to the 1962 incident when five senior Grammar School pupils were taken to hospital after an explosion in a classroom. The five, said by the education authority to have been in unauthorised possession of explosive material, were Michael Elliott, of Princes Road, Yarmouth; Richard Ward, of Bately Avenue, Gorleston; Richard Farman, of Selwyn Road, Gorleston; Trevor Fairhead, of St Catherine’s Way, Gorleston; and Roger Thompson, of Seafield Close, Yarmouth. All were sent home from hospital after treatment.

Headmaster Peter Marsden said the consequences of their unauthorised experiment could have been fatal. Mr King, a GYGS pupil at the time, remembers: “I knew them all well. They were not in the school laboratory but an ordinary classroom. An unofficial chemistry experiment, methinks!

“Mr Marsden was angry and upset at the bunch of sixth form science students. They were not in possession of explosives as such but were experimenting mixing chemicals in an ink well!

“The resultant explosion blew the wooden desk to pieces and the scar in the ceiling remained visible long afterwards. Worse was to come: the following Sunday, the incident was reported in one of the popular newspapers in very dramatic fashion!”