Curator expands on 1915 fatal crash

LAST week we printed a letter from Mr Patrick Anderson, Letham, about the loss in 1915 of a Montrose-based plane in which a Lieutenant Hardy and Captain Arkwright were killed.

Mr Daniel Paton, curator of Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre, has replied with a fund of additional information.

I was interested, writes Mr Paton, to read the letter from Patrick Anderson about the fatal crash in 1915 in which I cannot add much to the details of the incident but can provide background information which adds to our understanding of what happened.

The men had flown from Montrose which was the base of the 6th Reserve Aero Squadron, which was set up at Montrose in 1915 to train pilots for the Royal Flying Corps.

Montrose had been established by No2 Squadron the RFC in 1913 and was the first operational military airfield in Britain. Military aviation was pioneered at Montrose and No2 Squadron led the RFC to war in August 1914 with 36 aircraft. Nobody expected the war to last long and No2 Squadron left their kit, expecting to be back at Montrose.

By 1915 it was clear that the war would not be over soon and that aircraft were far more valuable than the generals had ever imagined. More trained pilots were needed for a rapid expansion of the RFC so reserve or training squadrons were created.

The 6th Reserve Training Squadron was set up at Montrose and remained there until 1918 when the RAF (which succeeded the RFC in April 1918) made major changes to the system of pilot training and the 6th became part of No 32 Training Depot squadron.

We have to remember that in 1915 flying was still in its infancy and there was no proper system for pilot training or aircraft specially designed for the training role.

It is not clear what type of aircraft Lt Hardy and Captain Arkwright were flying but it would probably be one of two types, a Farman Biplane or a BE2. Neither had dual controls or means of communication between Captain Arkwright, instructor and Lt Hardy, pupil pilot. Many instructors carried a stick to hit the pilot if he was doing something dangerous.

Aircraft were still primitive and engines unreliable and basic manoeuvres like avoiding a stall or getting out of a spin were not well understood. It seems like that the aircraft stalled and spun in, a common type of accident.

In the circumstances it is not so amazing that there were so many accidents in training and that the RFC, which suffered horrendous casualties from enemy action, lost more pilots in accidents and training.

An American airman, in training at Montrose in 1918, wrote: “There is an accident every day and a funeral every week” and we have many photographs of wrecked aircraft.

There are over 80 RFC and RAF graves at Montrose but that is a small proportion of the total number killed in training in two world wars.

The bodies of most of the men who died, like Lt Hardy and Captain Arkwright, were taken home for burial. Coffins escorted by a guard of honour must have been a common sight at the railway station at Montrose.

Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre exists to commemorate and celebrate the men and women who served there. One of the ongoing projects is to create a role of honour for the hundreds of casualties in training.

Work is well advanced with the Second World War but the records of early units like the 6th Reserve Squadron are hard to locate. It is unusual to get such a detailed account of an accident like this one so the Heritage Centre is grateful to Mr Anderson for his research. Any further information would be welcome as would photographs of the men which would be included in the role of honour.

No2 Squadron never did return to Montrose but we hope to see them next year which is the centenary of their historic flight to Montrose and the establishment of the air station.