Len Hatcher

My father Len Hatcher was born in 1906 and died in 1979. From the late 1920s to 1950s he was a gliding enthusiast, a member of the Surrey Gliding Club, the South Downs Gliding Club, and the London Gliding Club. During the war he commanded an RAF gliding training school at Kenley (Hamsey Green) airfield. In his later years he wrote brief accounts of a number of incidents in which he had been involved. I have typed them up exactly as he wrote them by hand. Some he titled and dated, others I have added a title to (in square brackets) and have had to estimate the chronology.

Richard Hatcher
March 2007

The Surrey Gliding Club. 1929

The original Surrey Club was formed by a few enthusiasts in Guildford. I was one of the founder members.

The club first started to operate at Chilworth Surrey. There was not more than a dozen flying members and a half of those were ex power pilots. Captain Stratten was our chief instructor.

The ground was rather small at Chilworth so a new ground was discovered at Meonstoke Hampshire. Later we absorbed the Sky Sailing Club of Brighton and the Club was renamed The Southdown Gliding Club and used the New York Hotel, Bedford Sq, Brighton as its headquarters. A new flying ground at Balsdean was obtained. Soaring from the Devil's Dyke took place.

I obtained my "A" "B" and "C" with this Club. But later resigned and joined The London Gliding Club Ltd.

Several members of the latter club formed a new club at Reigate and it was named The Surrey Gliding Club. 1938. After Hitler's war the club moved to Lasham where it still exists today and glides from there.

[my ticket number being 165]

Surrey Gliding Club. 1929

The first Surrey Gliding Club was formed by a few enthusiasts. Some from Vickers of Weybridge. Others from R. F. Dagnal, balloon makers of Guildford. I became a member and flying was carried out at Chilworth near Guildford.

I was a member before I went to Vickers. That would be about 1928.

Accident with Dagling

Firstly I must mention that in our gliding training it was impressed upon each of we learners that when we were given a job to do, that it must be carried out to the letter! The place was Smalldale in Sussex. The machine was to be flown up by Thompson, who was already sitting in place. I had been instructed to hold back the tail and not to let go until instructed to do so by the pilot. The elastic rope had not as yet been attached. The wind was quite strong, an extra strong gust made the machine "Balloon up", I grimly hung on to the tail. The machine blew backwards, carrying me with it. Unfortunately, an Austin Seven car had been parked to the rear of take off position. I was swept towards the car and did collide with the same and the Dagling collapsed on top of me. The car protruding starting handle made severe cuts to my head. It was necessary for me to be taken to a doctor for the insertion of some 15 stitches. In this case, had I left go of the tail, all would have been well. The machine would have been lowered back to earth by the pilot and I would not have been injured.

South Downs

In my early days of gliding I once smashed a Dagling A frame this way. I had been bungy launched from the top of a steep hill. It was not very windy and I had a good launch and quickly rose to 100 feet or so. Thinking to extend my flight I turned to the left and sidled along the slope of hill but left it too late to turn away as my height dropped. I must have touched to the side of slope with my port wing tip, the machine at once swung into the hill and the sideways digging in of skid snapped the king post. I hold the old Surrey club's logbook and this incident is mentioned therein.

Smalldale site at Sussex

To encourage progress in gliding the B.G.A. had notified all clubs that a grant to clubs for each "A" ticket would be made.

I was considered as being ready for such a ticket, together with one or two others. The machine was taken to the site and erected. This was an open Dagling. The weather was poor, overcast and damp. When we arrived at the top of the hill it was extremely misty. I was chosen to make the first attempt. A timekeeper was posted halfway down the very steep bowl and, thinking it was my last moment and not able to refuse, away I went. I must admit I flew much too fast, not wishing to stall and not bothering whether I got an "A" or not. As I descended the visibility improved, so I slowed up a little and carefully chose my landing path across the ploughed combs or ruts. At last I stopped, all intact. Soon the timekeeper came running up. Congratulations Hatch, he gasped. You made it. And I have a ticket to prove it.

B.AC. VII Two seater sailplane

I had made several passenger carrying flights on this particular day, being autotowed up to approx 1000 feet. John Copeland and I were about to make the next flight. All was made ready. We took off as usual. Began to climb at about an angle of 30°. We were about fifty feet up when the cable snapped, with the weight of cable still hanging on the nose and the a/c in a stalled condition, the result was inevitable. A wing dropped and the machine nosed in. I went straight through the nose panel with John Copeland on top of me! But neither of us sustained any injury. But the B.A.C. was badly damaged.

Crashed B.AC. VII at Falking near Devil's Dyke Brighton

I had taken off from the hill top at Devil's Dyke in a fairly strong wind, but failed to soar and was slowly forced down below the hill. I should have flown away from the hill and landed in a sheltered field, but decided to land at the bottom of the hill. My approach was poor and I undershot and was not able to clear a line of trees which spun the machine around and it dived straight into ground, throwing me through the splintered nose. I was not injured, but the machine was badly damaged.

B.AC. VII Incident, Devil's Dyke Brighton

I had brought my brother Douglas down with me to the above site to see some gliding and to halve a flight in the B.AC. VII 2 seater. It was a very fine day but with very little wind.

The method of launching was to use a very long cable pulled by a motor car. With my brother aboard, two attempts were made but were not successful as insufficient height was being obtained to make a circuit of airfield. The younger car driver by name Dyke was instructed to drive much faster, particularly at take off. This was indeed and a good climb up to 1000 feet was obtained. I was nearing the position for dropping the cable when my forward speed suddenly stopped and a loud bang was heard. On looking over the side I could see the car which was still moving and appeared to have firework catherine wheels in place of normal wheels. I suddenly realised what had happened. Dyke had driven the car underneath and beyond the H.T. transmission cables, which I know carried 132,000V. I. was at once concerned with the life of Dyke and decided to get down as quickly as possible alongside the car which had by this time come to a stop. It was necessary to drop my end of the cable. I took hold of the release ring from which I collected a severe electric shock. Naturally I quickly withdrew my hand. Before making another attempt, I took my handkerchief from breast pocket and used it as an insulating material. I felt the cable drop away by this means, but unfortunately the few seconds delay added to my drift and the falling cable dropped onto the alive side of the power wires, causing many fires to the dry grass. However, I alighted near the car and to my surprise saw Dyke standing alongside and very much alive although very pale and obviously suffering from shock. The car was still alight, small explosions occurring at the rear petrol tank, the cap of which was missing. By stuffing my handkerchief into the opening, the explosions ceased. I observed that all the cables were severed and that it added up to a major catastrophe. The Portslade power station was advised what had happened. Some time later a car arrived with power station officials who took a very serious view of the situation. Having cut off current to both Eastbourne and Hastings. In due course I was advised that £10,000 worth of damage had been assessed. Also that pilot, passenger and car driver were extremely fortunate that the weather was very dry and no moisture in the air, otherwise the result would have been fatal.

[2 seater flight circuit]

2 seater flight circuit with younger brother as passenger. A first attempt over the low altitude pertained, as towing car not pulling well. Second attempt after adjustments, 15,000 feet obtained. At the peak of pull heard a loud bang and observed much fire below and considerable smoke. Realised serious mishap below. Decided to release tow cable. Touched a control lever, received violent shock. Second attempt, using handkerchief as insulation, successful drop away on cable. Second loud bang and more fire. Car appeared burning and feared for safety of driver. Circled around downland and prepared to land. Looked back at brother whom seemed somewhat frightened. Landed near a car which was burning badly. Stuck handkerchief in tank filler, which stopped flames. Car driver apparently unhurt, but badly shocked. Saw extensive damage to H.T. cables on grid system which runs across downland. Phoned power station at Portslade and learned power supply to Hastings and Eastbourne off. Met officials at site who advised damage very considerable, but was excused from liability. Brother decided against flying, but later became fighter pilot.

South Downs

All the club members were busily carrying on the business of gliding, towing and flying the club machines. A private owner by name Dunning was being ground gliding in the valley below. This particular machine had been constructed by Dunning over the past two years, but not being very advanced in flying ability he was not able to take the machine clear of the ground, furthermore no other member was anxious to do so either. Not that there was anything wrong with the design, only that there is always a reluctance to take an untried machine up until some other body has "broken the ice". Dunning asked me to try the machine, to which I said yes, but not near the ground and I would prefer to have plenty of space underneath me so that I could get accustomed to any idiosyncrasy the machine may have and that I would have time to correct. Being late in the day and a drag to the top of the hill would be necessary it was arranged that I would arrive the following weekend to make a test.

Now at that time I owned a motor garage and on this particular day I went round to get my car out with the intention of getting down to Brighton on time. But was accosted by one of my customers whose car had developed a fault. I felt obliged to help him and became involved in the repair which took longer than I had hoped and prevented me from arriving at the S. Downs on time, but some two hours late. Meanwhile, Dunning thinking I was not going to turn up, allowed another willing member to "have a go". This was Lawford. Now Lawford preferred a low hop in the valley, so that was organised. Immediately the machine took to the air a gust of wind swung the aircraft around and the nose struck the ground heavily, the king post snapped and poor Lawford was very seriously injured. As soon as possible an ambulance arrived and took Lawford to the Brighton hospital. But Lawford never recovered, and three days later he died. Lawford was a knowledgeable pilot and quite able to test the machine, but it is better to boldly take a fairly high flight to give one time to sort things out. But being so near the ground, he had no time.

Cats in glider wings

It was a fairly windy day, two gliders were dragged over to the top of the hill. I was to take off in the Prufling. The elastic rope was hooked on and the usual walk, run and release took place. I rapidly soared to 100 feet or so above the hill and turned 90° on the first leg of a slope soar at the same time hearing an unusual sound which appeared to be coming from a position above my head. It sounded to me like tearing canvas. Fearing that something was wrong, I decided to land. Possibly because I was anxious to get back on land, I touched down carelessly out of wind, the machine swung round, the strong wind lifted the tale and turned the machine over on to its back, crushing the top of the rudder. That was the only damage and the machine was soon turned the right way up. Then the debate started as to why did I land? And why did I land so badly? I stated that I had heard strange noises in the winning, in fact I said, I can hear something in there now! I removed the centre fairing from between the wing roots and to everyone's surprise, out jumped a large cat and two kittens.

Now the machine had been stored in a barn where the cat had found a draught free place. When we hurriedly assembled in the machine the cats remained inside. The noise that had troubled me was the cats running up and down inside the wing as I banked around.

A flight in glider on a beautiful summer's day that nearly ended in disaster

I was autotowed into the air at approx 1200 feet. I cast off the towing cable, the conditions were perfect and the view over the Brighton Downs and sea was magnificent. I became so deeply impressed with the wonderful view that I allowed my flying speed to drop below the stall. The Prufling type of secondary machine had dropped a wing and immediately went into a spin. Height was being rapidly lost. I had never been in a spin before, but had read a great deal about such manoeuvres and how best to recover. The instinctive thing to do was pull the stick back! But I resisted this and held the stick just before neutral, and put on opposite rudder as the "Book" advised. I waited until I could see that the ground was very close indeed and then pulled out, could feel that there was "load" on the elevator. The final landing was normal, but I must confess, the spinning descent was somewhat frightening.

Accident with Prufling at Lancing

Jameson and I had motored down to this gliding site for a day's flying. We collected the aircraft from a nearby barn where it was stored and rigged for flying. It was agreed that I made the first flight. Jameson attached the elastic rope to nose of the machine and the other end to the rear of his car. He began to drive forward thereby stretching the rope. The machine did not "unstick" quickly and the elastic rope snapped and sprang back, hitting the nose of the machine. One piece of the rope struck me in the face and damaged my right eye, from which the sight became lost, the retina becoming ruptured. Some time later it became necessary to have the offending eye amputated.

[Took off in German Prufling sailplane]

Took off in German Prufling sailplane. Good soaring conditions, but very windy. Climbed to 1000 feet over valley, much calmer but concerned over unusual behaviour of machine. Difficult to keep level and much mysterious noise which became progressively worse. Became a little frightened, as felt wing was breaking up. Left valley and turned back to make hill top to land. Hill top much nearer, so not so far to fall if the wind failed. I made too hurried a landing and failed to heed small scrub. Touched small scrub and spun around tail to wind. Wind caught tail and turned machine over on back. Managed to crawl out and inspected aircraft. Very little damage and could not therefore explain noises. Opened up suspected wing by slitting canvas, amazed to find one large cat and three kittens. All black, and looking as frightened as I.

[Took off in Prufling]

Took off in Prufling, climbed to 1500 feet headed towards sea. Beautiful day, visibility wonderful. Sky blue, sea very blue, many sail craft on the sea. Never had I seen such a beautiful sight. I wanted to hold on as long as possible, in doing so allowed air speed to drop. Had to turn soon in order to get back to airfield. Did a very stupid thing. Turned on a point of stall. Machine flicked over on its back and then dropped stone-like with nose right down vertically. Suddenly from a supreme ecstasy I became horrified. I had no control at all and the ground was coming up at an alarming speed. The "stick" was as loose as though it had been deconnected and I realised I was spinning. A terrible thought struck me. I was just about to die. I knew I would hit the ground at something like 100 mph and could not possibly survive. One does get a dry throat under these circumstances, I actually recall saying Oh God, what can I do? When to my utter amazement the machine lifted its nose, put itself in correct flying trim and because I was so near the ground, it landed. At first I could not leave the craft, for I was still very stunned. I did eventually get out. There was no one around. I lay on the ground still unable to believe so much could happen in five minutes or so. From that moment on I became somewhat more religious.

B.A.C. VII [a very big man]

A flight with Lowe-Wylde helped me to master the feel of the above machine and from then on I felt quite the master of it, making many flights, solo and with passengers. Each fine Sunday when spectators would turn up to watch the gliding, the Club let it be known that passengers could have a joy flight for five shillings a time. All of which helped the club's finances.

On this occasion, I had taken up several people, then along came a very big man who expressed a wish to have a trip. Having looked him over I felt that he must be very heavy and therefore constituted a risk. I politely pointed this out to him and said the machine's ability to lift too much weight was limited, but he argued and said he only weighed 18 stone. So I changed my mind and took him on. All went well except that I did not gain so much height. On coming into land and near the ground the machine touched down with a heavier than usual bump and the near side axle brake, the wheel came off and the fuselage dug in. The impact was not heavy but the jerk snapped the seat bearers and the full weight of the man was transmitted to the floor ply covering, which unable to carry his weight bulged out and sank about 6 inches. However, no one was hurt and the passenger expressed his regret that after all, obviously he was too heavy, but that he had enjoyed the flight! It was a day's work by three men to repair the damage.

B.A.C. VII ["Diced with death}

I spent most of my weekends at Brighton, staying at the New York Hotel. There I met many private guests, some of whom stayed there permanently. One was Dora, a middle aged lady who had been a professional dancer and who before the 1914 war had spent a lot of her time in Budapest. She was a very sporty type and expressed a wish to have a flight in a glider. So I invited her along one fine Sunday. Lots of people had gathered to have a five shilling circuit and I made several flights while Dora watched the monotony of going up, round and down by which time her courage had strengthened. Well I tucked her in the rear seat and up we climb. When I had flattened out after dropping the cable I heard a shout from the rear. I turned around and there was Dora shouting and waving her arms about. "Let me out let me out" she cried. "I don't like it. Let me out". At first I thought she was joking but soon realised that she really was scared stiff and quite hysterical. I shouted to her to keep quiet and stop screaming and as gently as possible lost height and landed. Our honorary doctor McGlashan came over and together we helped Dora out of the cockpit, when McGlashan took her over and sat her in his car and gave her something to calm her, after which she became her usual self. She told me that she did not enjoy the flight at all, when she looked over and saw how high she was, she became very frightened. She had a lot of fun later telling the Hotel guests how she had "Diced with death".

[Band themselves together and make up a party]

Apart from Club flying, if private owners had sufficient equipment and helpers they would go to suitable sites simply or with other private owners. Usually these private owners would know of several sites and the people who owned them, mostly farmers. Permission to fly would be obtained by telephone and if convenient would be granted.

The late Cecil Palmer, I and John Copeland would consist of a party and on this occasion we went to Oxted where there is a high hill including a cup from where chalk had been dug. We were made up as follows: an H17 belonging to Palmer, our Cambridge and our own winch. We had launched each, but we could not keep the Cambridge up for the wind was not strong enough. But Palmer was more successful with this machine and was able to soar in the light wind for over half an hour. That is the luck of the game if the wind drops

Many such trips were made about the South of England. Sometimes as many as half a dozen machines and owners would band themselves together and make up a party. It was an excellent way to get some really advanced flying, always choosing a site where it was known that the wind was blowing up.

A site we had near to our home was Cearn's Farm Chipstead.

Now I have returned down to Cornwall I have part of my ground comprising a section of a long reach which with a modern sailplane would be very usable. Even the fields I own on the top of the hill are very suitable for auto launching. But more of this later.

[I set out for Brighton]

I set out for Brighton and the gliding airfield towing a trailer on which was mounted a Dagling glider which I had been repairing at the Cavendish workshop situated in Croydon. It turned out to be a very windy day and as I was going up the hill after leaving Redhill the trailer blew over in a gust of wind and laid over on my nearside. Had the wind been blowing the other way, the trailer might have blown on the off side and being struck by a passing motor, there being several motorists passing by, being a Sunday morning and the Brighton Road being very busy at that time. Several motorists stopped and together we turned the trailer up right again and as far as could be seen at that stage, none the worse for its impact. I then loaded as much weight as possible on my offside of the trailer, spare wheel, tools, I found large stones and waged along the sides. From then on I had no more trouble and I arrived safely at my destination. On examining the glider components no damage was found. I had the same trouble some time later when towing a glider trailer back from Yorkshire. The trailer kept lifting a wheel up some 18 inches. This time I was able to find plenty of large rocks which I was able to lift on the up wind side of the trailer which was able to keep the machine on its two wheels.

Dunstable 1937

Dudley Hiscox introduced to members of the London Gliding Club who had built a machine in France, towed it all the way to England with the intention of using the aircraft at the Club, but soon found out that to operate successfully, two people are really necessary. I was regarded as a possible partner for him. Now this M. Todt was an English speaking Frenchman and struck me as being a first-class gliding enthusiast and I had no hesitation in joining with him. Together we reached the machine and thoroughly checked it over. Todt suggested that I should fly it first as I possibly had more experience than he. I took the aircraft on a full launch and having cast off the tow line soon found that the performance was fair but aileron control was poor, possibly due to the fact that the wing was long and parallel and the width of aileron was small. However, being used to a B.A.C. VII which suffered from the same complaint I soon adjusted myself to it. On completing a circuit I came in to land, deliberately rather high so that I could find how the machine behaved in a side slip, but keeping the nose rather down to retain forward speed and that is increasing aileron reaction. I was not able to straighten out well in hand and touched down in a horizontal plane. Todt asked how I found the machine perform to which I explained its behaviour. Todt then took the machine up repeating my performance, but in sideslipping to land, he left it too late to recover from the slip and struck the ground very heavily. The entire aircraft collapsed and from the heap of debris Todt was able to extract himself fortunately unhurt. So the proposed partnership never materialised. I think the machine was beyond repair

The Reigate gliding site. 1938

When a glider is being launched up the pilot as soon as he realises that he has reached the top of his climb and cannot obtain a further lift releases the cable by opening the "Hook" so that the cable can fall away.

On this occasion I was operating the winch and had given a correct type of launch to the pilot of Kirby Tutor. I stopped the winch when I could see that all lift by cable had been exhausted but observed that the cable did not drop away but expected it to do so any second when the pilot 'got around' to it. But the cable hung on and I decided to cut it. One does not do so unless it really is necessary as cutting increases the wear and tear. It was just as well, for the machine carried on its circuit of the airfield and would undoubtedly have been brought down had the cable not have been cut. Upon landing the pilot was asked why he had not had detached the cable. He was greatly surprised when asked and had to admit that he had forgotten to do so.

Some three years later I was again confronted with a similar situation but under different circumstances. In this case the pilot held up the aircraft after the cable was at its maximum lift or pull and to save the machine from a dead stall I "Cliped" up the engine to give the machine a tug that would pull the machine out of its stall and also warned the pilot that he must fly faster by putting the nose down. Unfortunately he did not do so and the machine dropped a wing and turned down wind before I could cut the wire the machine outran the slack and turned over on its back. It fell to earth like a stone and the pilot was killed. Had I been able to have cut the cable the machine would still have crashed as although carried off downwind it was still in a stalled condition and the pilot was not sufficiently skilled to have got himself out of a very difficult position. This tragedy occurred at Hamsey Green airfield during 1944.

Arrived Juniper Hill

Arrived Juniper Hill. What a wonderful day, hurriedly rigged Cambridge sailplane and lined with other machines for a launch. Impatiently awaited my turn. At last and away we go, quickly, climb to 100, 300, 500, top of the hill now. Drop cable, turn over hill, circled large house, how beautiful it looked. Turned along the hill and made beats between Box Hill and Colley Hill. One of those rare days when it was all so easy. Height about 3000 feet, entered fringe of cloud, waited for larger flowered to come along where I expected to receive better lift. Made juicy cloud and climbed to 4000 feet, popped out at top of cloud and found myself very close to another machine and suddenly realised we had both been circling in same cloud, turned away and decided to fly away from danger zone. Arrived Kingswood, could see Thames from Staines to London. After about an hour spent circling around Burgh Heath area, turned back for Reigate. Lost height too quickly and had to make for a dip through valley, passed over bridge at Reigate Hill with only a few feet to spare. Turned down into that very beautiful valley, but soon realised no place to land. Many houses and I was down to rooftops. Nowhere to land and my interest in living became intense. Realising I had only a matter of one minute or two left, a snap decision was necessary, whether to pile into the largest tree or smash into or rather between a pair of houses, a road landing was quite out as there were too many wires and obstructions and my wingspan was 50 foot. I chose the houses, if one survives one can always get tea. I was all braced out for the impact when I spied some chaps playing cricket, away to my left. I hardly had time to make a decision and instinctively banked over and shot across the tops of some cottages only to be confronted with a line of trees between me and the cricket ground. But I had to go on and choosing the largest gap spent the rest of the time praying. I did get through and shouting as loud as I could do, managed to open up a path across the pitch. Violent rubbing of the nose on the ground at least prevented me from penetrating too deeply into the hedge at the other end.

Soaring at Juniper Hill Reigate. 1938

The conditions were very good for soaring and I was launched up in the Cambridge sailplane. I soon climbed to some 2000 feet above the hill and the view was excellent. I could see the Thames glittering in the sunlight. Croydon aerodrome appeared quite close, and I could not resist the temptation to attempt the flight there. I lost no height until I arrived at the church at Kingswood when height began to fall off, so I changed my plan and decided to turn back. From Kingswood to Reigate hill the terrain rises whereas my height was lessening and by the time I'd got to the bridge over the road at Reigate hill I was down to 200 feet. From then on the hill fell away so my clearance increased. Could I get back to Colley Hill? I was now over a built up area. I passed the main road at the level crossing. But at first could see no chance of getting back should I stall the machine between two houses, or run into a tree. The situation became desperate. Suddenly I espied a cricket match in progress, so guess there would be room to land, but there was a line of tall trees between me and the pitch. I was coming ever closer. I had to try and get there. I was too low to jump the trees. I chose the gap between the widest apart and knowing my length was less than the span I put the machine into a steep side slip and waited for the splintering noise. But none occurred! I quickly straightened out, shouted as loud as possible and put her down. I managed to stop just short of the far hedge, and complete. Eventually, Gwen turned up with the trailer and took me back to Juniper Hill site. So Gwen, I. and guest Norah put the machine together again. It was a most enjoyable flight that it did have its frightening moments.

PS I have a photo of the field and machine where I landed.

Soaring at Juniper Hill Reigate

I had been making several beats back and forwards on this hill whilst flying the Cambridge. I was facing west and my airspeed was approx 40 mph. I noticed what appeared to be an aeroplane at about my own height and a considerable distance away, as the craft seemed quite small. But what in fact was a model aeroplane only 100 yards or so ahead of me and approaching dead on. I had no chance to avoid a collision as the model's speed was at least equal to my own and the impact was almost immediate. The model disintegrated upon striking the cockpit cover and wing strut. I turned back to the take off field and landed. In due course two small boys turned up having collected the pieces of model. They were very concerned with the loss, but stated that they would repair. I noticed that it was a petrol driven model. The damage to sailplane was slight, a scar on the perspex cover and strut. Had it not been for the cover, I should have been struck in the face, which could have had disastrous results.

Biggin Hill to Croydon

The Cambridge was parked at the downwind end of the airfield. There was very little wind that day and all the staff were busy training cadets. I did not anticipate flying the Cambridge again, but thought I would "hop" the machine back to the hangar rather than drag it back, to save wear on the skid so the cable was run out and the launch began. I dropped the cable at about 200 feet which was sufficient to get me back to the hangar. I noticed that the green ball was up and I continued to rise. By the time I arrived at the end of the airfield I had gained 100 feet. One never wastes height, so I turned to make a low circuit and then make a landing. But still I continued to climb, and at the airfield end I was at 500 feet. Thinking that this was too good to be true I decided to make another circuit. This time to increase the diameter of my circuit I passed behind the Officers Mess and obtained a strong upcurrent which, after making a figure of eight, took me to 1000 feet. I decided to make the most of it and started to make tight circles, banking at 45°. The green ball went right up. My nose was following the horizon around and I did not know which direction I was going in. I must have made dozens of circuits and my altimeter registered 5000 feet. I began to feel the effects of vertigo, so levelled out and looked around in order to recognize my whereabouts. I was over a large town which turned out to be Orpington. Not wishing to get too far away I turned south and was soon over Westerham, where I picked up more lift. I was soon at 6000 feet. The view was magnificent. I could see Biggin Hill and Kenley airfields. Knowing that gliding was taking place at Kenley, I decided to try and make it there. But when I arrived at Whyteleafe valley I began to lose height so turned back to the east side of the valley. Always ready if necessary for a dive downwind to Biggin Hill. Once again I started to climb without much effort and being over Purley with Croydon airfield slap in front of me, within easy reach, I pass over the valley and was soon over Croydon airfield and back at 6000 feet. I could not possibly waste all this height but made a wide detour to the southwest and became well within sighting distance of Epsom Downs where I could see the model flying club in action. I turned back, not wishing to get too far away, but still over 5000 feet. I was now flying downwind and in no time I was over Wallington, where I made a point of looking for my house in Buckingham Way. This I found and circled above, noticing my wife in the rear garden but circled away towards Forresters Drive and then back again to Buckingham Way. .I was over Forresters Drive and circled around south Beddington. I passed directly over Buckingham Way and picked out my rear garden by the circular rock garden. And there was Gwen talking to the next-door neighbour, standing by the fence. I was still at 5000 feet. I had no means of attracting her attention. So flew along over Bandon Hill school and making for the Wallington to Croydon railway line. Picked out Mellows Road and Sandy Lane. Went as far as the power station and looked down the cooling towers, which appeared to be quite empty. Always I was within gliding distance of Croydon Aerodrome, but it was no effort to maintain height. I had now been airborne for over two hours, what a pity I had no barograph to prove my height and time. I'm sure that I could have remained aloft a lot longer, but began to think of the chaps back at Biggin Hill who must have wondered where I was and also that someone would have to bring the trailer. So I kept away to the east of aerodrome and allowed my height to drop. Once I had got down to 3000 feet the sinking speed went up rapidly and after several figure of eight turns over the east side of Purley Way I made for a landing to the south of airfield away from the main runway. A few minutes after I had touched down, up came a fire engine and ambulance! They had been ordered to the machine, thinking there was trouble, it being seen that I had landed with the undercarriage up. Not realising that it was a glider which did not have such apparatus.

Sir Allen Cobham's Circus at Shoreham

As a member of the Southdown Gliding Club, we were invited to the above show to make our contribution and give a gliding display. There I met one of Cobham's pilots who flew a Gypsy Moth, by name Lawson. He happened to mention where could he get digs for the night and I said come along to our headquarters which is an hotel and I'm sure you will be all right there. So I gave him a lift on the back of my Norton back to Brighton and in the morning took him to Shoreham. I do not think he approved of the speed I drove at for he said that he was glad it was over as it was certainly more risky than flying. Later on in the day he said "why don't you have a flight with Phillips in his Avro, I'm sure you would like his aerobatics, come over and meet him and I'll fix a flight". So that is how I came to have a "Basinful" of Phillips' aerobatics. His Avro was fitted with a Linx radial and off we went. I belted myself in with the old-fashioned single waist belt, which I failed to adjust really tightly not thinking on this flight that it would be all that necessary. I think Lawson must have had a word with Phillips beforehand, telling him to give me full treatment for the rough ride I had given him (Lawson) on my Norton, for he threw that Avro all over the place. During the inverted flying I almost slipped through the waist belt and only retained my position by holding on to a couple of wires that later I realised were the rudder control cables! When finally we got down Phillips said "how was it? Did I miss anything out?" No I said, it was great. I thanked him and he gave me a postcard with a picture of his Avro on same and duly signed by himself. But I must admit I did feel somewhat airsick. Some years later poor Phillips was killed while towing off a glider the pilot of which pulled up too steeply there by lifting the tail of the Avro which dived into the ground. Both pilots were killed.

Sir Allen Cobham's Circus

I managed to get a flight with the whole circus which would fly in formation on an advertising display.

In this performance we flew from Shoreham to Eastbourne and back. I flew with Turner Hughes in his Tiger Moth. It was a wonderful flight. We followed the coast along just on the seaward side at about 500 feet of altitude. I also met a Mr Stewart who was a nephew of Mrs Cooper and performed with the circus as a professional parachutist specializing in delayed drops. We met again some time later at Reigate and went along to the Red Lion for a drink where we chatted and pulled each other's legs. Stewart said to me 'Dangerous business that gliding -- not having an engine to get you out of trouble'. Nonsense says I, we don't get into that kind of trouble. But what of you? You're living dangerously all the time. I think you are pushing your luck too far, leaving it so late before you open your chute. Oh no says he. I know what I'm doing and just what the chute can do. But regrettably, a few months later Stewart was killed doing just that, leaving it too late.

Gatwick Airfield

The Tutor Glider had had a few small repairs carried out and the cadets who had completed the work asked me to test fly same. It was a fairly warm day but inclined to be stormy, but as I was only going to make a circuit it would be carried out between the rain squalls. I had a full winch launch and could feel the strong lift about. Wishing to make the most of my flight I made a few circuits and in no time at all I was at 1500 feet. A few more circuits and I was at 3000 feet and I then flew level under a black cloud and climbed to 5000 feet. Then suddenly the cloud seemed to burst. I was submerged in a terrific hail storm. It was an open cockpit and I was in my shirtsleeves, within seconds I was saturated. The bottom of the cockpit was swimming with water. The skin of my face was painful with the sting of hail. I could not see properly and I was extremely cold. By this time I had had enough. I turned to the direction where the sun was and where it had been before I left. In the distance I could see the "Beehive" on Gatwick airfield. I was some way from the field but had plenty of height, but I had to make my way back against the wind. I began losing height gradually and it took me about 20 minutes to get back, still with plenty of height in hand. When I landed the machine had to be bailed out and there were many small holes punctured in the wing canvas and tail plane. Unfortunately there were no instruments on board and I carried no barograph. If I had had the Cambridge I would have stuck it out and I'm sure I could have got to the coast, which I could see the glint of.

Aston Rowant, Oxfordshire

London Club members were invited to attend an Oxford Club's ground at the above site where machines were winched up. On one of my launches I accidentally dropped the cable across the rail line which was close by. The cable was easily recovered, but the cable had fallen also across the telephone line which was severed. As it was a single line, it was necessary to control each way traffic by this telephone. The line now being out of order meant that no further trains could run until contact could be made once again. This did not happen during the day we were there.

On another flight John Copeland landed back in the centre of field which was in a fairly deep depression to the extent that a machine or retrieving car could not be seen from either end of field. I had driven the Chrysler saloon car out to recover the Cambridge and was parked nearby for a tow rope to be attached, when both of us heard a buzzing noise. At first we thought it to be an insect, but as the tempo increased we realised it was the launching cable. We suddenly jumped into action for the cable was passing right under the resting down wing and obviously as the cable would lift as the machine being launched rose in height the Cambridge was in immediate danger. The two of us hurriedly lifted the aircraft to one side, but had no time to move the car and the cable was passing from winch to front tyre and then up to sailplane which was climbing steeply. It all happened very quickly, the cable sawed its way right through the outer cover, the tyre burst out and exploded, the sailplane pilot was forced to drop the wire prematurely, because he was now being pulled down as much as forward and as he later explained, he could not understand why because he had by no means reached his expected height. Also, the winch driver was totally unaware of what was happening.

Sutton Bank Yorkshire

As an officer in the RAF T branch I was invited to attend a course at the above site. All was going well and the spell of weather was very good on this particular day. Of the many machines there, was a two seater Slingsby prototype which looked very good but was reputed to be very heavy. The pilot to be, a local Yorkshire man, had rigged the machine to his satisfaction and declared his intention to take off by winch launch. Looking around at we bunch of course members, he said "Right I'll take Hatcher for a passenger". Although so keen on gliding, I was not busting for this flight. Firstly, the machine did not have good reports of its performance and secondly the pilot did not strike me with enthusiasm. However we were duly launched and turned to starboard at about 1000 feet above the hill. We flew along the escarpment, but not climbing, in fact gradually losing height. Having proceeded about a mile it became necessary to turn back and I expected the pilot to turn to port on his return beat, but instead he turned to starboard and turned along the back of the hill. We began losing height rapidly, and I realised we were not going to make it back to the take off point. "Look, I said, you're not going to make it". He said something about having to land short. We were dangerously close to the ground and I saw a fence coming up. I could not resist pushing the stick forward and then back lifting the machine over the fence. It soon touched down, about half a mile short. Incidentally, we had landed in a pig farm.

Bramcote R.M. Shore Base

On similar course.

One of the tasks I was allotted was to take passengers up in the Falcon sailplane. Each flight consisted of a winch launch to 15,000 feet, a large circuit of the airfield and land at take off point. With practice one was able to land within a few yards of starting position, but in the interests of safety one always tended to overshoot slightly and side slip if necessary to stop at the right spot. Having accomplished some two hours of this circuiting, an officer applied to the controller for permission to take over from me, which he obtained and I was briefed accordingly. This new pilot took over and was winched up and made a circuit. On coming into land he too made a side slip, not very gracefully and left it too late to recover. The machine struck the ground heavily smashing a wing and damaging the nose and skid. Unfortunately Lord Tedder together with a number of officers had been standing by watching the performances. At the time I too was standing near them, and heard Tedder remark "How very unfortunate!"

Bramcote R.M. Land Station

I was invited to attend the course laid on by the Navy which lasted a week. The hospitality was excellent. Many gliding flights were made. On a first-class day I had a launch to 1200 feet and after making many circles in the weak lift managed to get to 4000 feet. So I turned off downwind on the Cambridge and managed to make some 20 miles, but then the lift petered out. I picked a nice large field free of cattle and came in for a comfortable landing. I no sooner landed than a cowman drove in about a hundred cows. However, several people arrived and guarded the Cambridge while I walked over to the farmhouse and telephoned the airfield as to who and where I was situated. About two hours later I was picked up.

A dangerous occurrence during a gliding R.A.F. course held at Sutton Bank in Yorkshire

I was instructed to attend this course during my term of commission whilst in the R.A.F. and the first thing that was impressed upon the several officers attending this course was that instructions must be carried out with the utmost discipline. The previous week an officer had been killed and that the two O/C intended to tighten up their control and pursue a policy of extreme caution. So after this lecturette held in the Hotel, we proceeded to the Sutton Bank site. On arrival at the top of the 600 ft escarpment, the wind was quite strong and a short debate was held on the field below between the two C/Os re the procedure for flying. They decided that I was to make the first flight on a Kirby Tutor machine. Further, that I was to make a circuit of the plateau and come in to land between a copse of trees and a hangar. Knowing the site very well, having flown there several times during a competition week where we all learnt to come in a certain way for safety and to avoid the above mentioned approach because of extreme turbulence there coupled with a severe down current, I protested to Sqr Leader Harcombe of this fact. To which he replied that it was not true and further that he would stand in a position ahead of my approach and armed with two yellow painted bats to leave me in and that therefore the direction of my flight path was an order. Wishing to carry out the instruction in spite of my fears I made up my mind that I would make a very fast flight in order to obtain plenty of control and penetration. It was just as well that I did so, for when arriving at the prescribed position for entry I did meet a really bad turbulence which seemed to suck me towards the hangar. Fortunately my high-speed enabled me to accomplish an almost vertical bank to port just missing the hangar by roughly a wingspan, after which a very steep starboard bank was necessary to place me on a horizontal course and into wind for landing. I had not quite sufficient height to get straight into wind and damaged the skid on touching down. Harcombe came up and said My God! That was a near thing. All I could say was "I told you so". I think it frightened Harcombe more than I, because he stopped any further flying for the rest of the day.

Sutton Bank Yorkshire

I was attending a course at this site and John Furlong invited me to join him on a flight in Falcon sailplane. We began the winch launch and had climbed to about 1000 feet, but could not obtain the right speed. I looked over the side thinking that the winch was giving trouble, but to my amazement I could see a sheep hanging by its horn some two or three hundred feet above the ground. I yelled John we've got a sheep on the wire, do not drop the cable, but lower down gently. John looked over and too saw what had happened. Gently the sheep was lowered down and on catching, quickly ran off, apparently quite unharmed.

The Olympia at Bramcote

Whilst I was up at the above station on a week's course I was invited by the owner of the above machine to make a flight in the same with the request "Could I find anything wrong with it?"

I had a full launch on this aircraft and immediately realised what a delight it was to fly. I did a complete circuit of the airfield, testing its response to control and general performance and could not fault it. It proved to be one of the best machines I had ever flown.

Spitfire incident at Biggin Hill

It was towards the end of the day's gliding. I had seen the last flight off from the far east end of the airfield at a position parallel to the main runway and about 200 yards to the south of same. I was alone and had started walking back to the take off position of winch. Suddenly I heard a swishing noise and glanced back to where I felt the noise was coming from and much to my amazement a Spitfire was hurtling towards me, smoke issuing from the engine and the wheels had not been lowered. I made what movement I could to my left side and the machine skated to a grinding stop a few yards away. The machine was not on fire but glico was leaking from it. The pilot thinking the machine was on fire and not being able to see clearly owing to glico obscuring the screen, was not able to see me. A few yards one way or another could have meant life or death to me.

Flying bomb incident

It was necessary for me to go up to the airfield at Hamsey Green. To do so from Wallington meant taking the Selsdon Road. It was dark and about 7 p.m.. As I climbed up the hill in my Riley car I noticed a light coming towards me and approaching at a fast speed. I instantly realise that it was a flying bomb and that it might cut out at any moment and dive in. The thought had no sooner passed through my mind than the light went out and the throbbing ceased, should I stop or go on, I accelerated full throttle and the Riley was good at responding fortunately for the bomb fell some 300 yds behind me onto a house on my near side.

Hamsey Green Airfield 1944

I was making a circuit flight and my course took me over some trees. To my amazement two large birds arose from the trees and approached the machine, an open cockpit Kirby Kadet. The birds came quite close, making loud squealing noises. As I slowly drew away the birds left me. On returning to the airfield I mentioned the incident to an officer and several senior cadets who found it hard to believe. To convince them I invited the above to walk over to the woods and watch points. Meanwhile I was winch launched up once more and followed my previous course. When I arrived over the trees, as on the previous flight, up came the birds who flew quite close to the nose of the machine, screaming as before, leaving me only when I had moved away. Undoubtedly, the birds (rooks) were nesting and felt in some way that their security was threatened.

Hamsey Green 1945

Soaring conditions were good and I had had a very good launch to over a thousand feet and was proceeding along on a northerly course when I heard the familiar noise of an approaching flying bomb. I glanced round and coming up fast on my port side was one of these fantastic machines. It was below me by some 200 feet and rapidly passed by, looking very determined to get to some place quickly. I watched it until the inevitable happened. The engine cut and the dive began, the final bang and a large black cloud climbed up from the point of impact. From my position it was a perfect aerial view.

F/lt Benson 516 Sqdn.

Benson was a very keen Spitfire pilot. He was also an extremely skilful one and had been selected to put on an aerobatic display for the forthcoming show at Biggin Hill. One of his special show pieces was to power dive from some 10,000 feet and pull out at some 2000 feet obtaining some 500 mph on the way down. He would put in as much time as possible performing his aerobatics, each flight, the performance of which would be more exciting and bolder than the last. But disaster struck! He left it just too late on one of his power dives and although had flattened out, he was much too low. First the machine struck a tree, then tore into the side of a cottage, passed the engine straight through and out the other side. In doing so a young woman was killed instantly and poor Benson was killed when the machine first struck the tree.

Biggin Hill

As C/O of 162 Gliding School I was invited by the C/O of Biggin Hill 615 Sqdn to provide a 15 minute show in their three hour show. I was given a week's warning of the coming show to provide a plan of an entertaining exhibit to include gliding flight and to be placed before the Station C/O for his approval.

It was considered that Palmer's H17 and my Cambridge should be used in some way but that we should introduce some other interest than just two winch launches. We came up with the following: that I was to be dressed as a small boy in shorts and jersey, that I was to appear from the far side of the airfield which had a natural dip and therefore below the vision of spectators. I was to be loaded with scrumped apples and fleeing from a pursuing policeman (Palmer dressed in hired uniform). That to escape the policeman I would run towards the spectators barrier alongside of which were parked the two sailplanes with the launching ropes attached and the winchers briefed to start towing when each wing was lifted to the horizontal position. I would climb into the Cambridge (deliberately dropping apples) and take off. The policeman would upon reaching the machine position climb into the H17 and also take off in pursuit. The Station C/O approved and arranged that a running commentary would be broadcast over the Tannoy system. The broadcast would, of course, make the incident appear as something unusual and off the prepared programme. As far as the time when I had reached the Cambridge and climbed away all went according to plan, but looking back as I was climbing I noticed that the H17 moved a few yards and stopped. Thinking that the winch had stalled or the wire had broken I decided to adjust my performance to be as entertaining as possible. I made my maximum climb and flattened out before dropping the tow cable. On glancing down at the two winches I was amazed to see the Packard winch (attached to Palmer's H17) lying on its side. There being nothing I could do I just threw the Cambridge about, did a loop, flew back behind the crowd and came in to land at a fast speed about 100 feet above them, arranging my landing to be below the horizon and out of sight, so that it would appear that I would have got away. Having safely parked the Cambridge, I walked around the airfield track to where the winches were and there I learned that Palmer had pulled up so steeply that he had pulled the winch over. Palmer must have felt embarrassed with the way things had unexpectedly turned out, but there was nothing anyone could do about it. I in turn was not looking forward to meeting the Station C/O. But he made a point of finding me. He kindly said that it was a good plan, it being limited what one could do with gliders, it was a pity that the other machine could not take off but felt that the public (an estimated 70,000 of them) would think that was supposed to be that way, and finally that the Cambridge had put up a good show and thrilled the spectators. No one was injured when the winch turned over and it was soon pushed up right again without damage.

Spitfire Trouble

I was on my way to my work at Croydon riding my motorcycle I had passed "Four Went Ways" a corner property between Plough Lane and Stafford Road and was "travelling" when several yards ahead of me a Spitfire burst through the corrugated iron fence that was bordering the airfield, swept across the road and smacked up against houses on my left side. I had had time to brake and slow down so was well clear. I did not stop, being already too late, but pressed on. Had I been just a few seconds earlier it may have ended a different story. I knew of a previous time when a machine that came through that same fence. A French "Goliath" but I was not there when it happened, but did see the point of impact and machine later.

Kenley to Manston and back and the '1250'

I had been invited to attend a course of gliding in Germany. This was to be an excellent chance to do some first-class soaring. All was set for the day. I had had the various injections insisted upon and the documentary proof of this was to be ready for me to pick up at Manston airfield. I motored out to Kenley where I joined the party and boarded the Anson. Away we flew to Manston where we were to break the journey. But no 1250 had arrived and I could not leave without one. So I was left behind. I spent a whole week hanging about the Transit Camp at Manston. I could have returned by train, but that would not have taken me to Kenley where my car was parked. So I hung on and waited for the Anson to return from Germany. This arrived in due course and I joined the return party arriving later at Kenley. Naturally it was a very disappointing affair. The hospitality of the transit camp was excellent. And I spent each day wandering about the airfield. Summing up, I enjoyed my flights to and fro, and it was very interesting at Manston. But no gliding!

Later, on another occasion I had a flight from Kenley, down to the sea and return. After gliding, the lumbering Anson seemed to be struggling all the time to keep airborne.

162 Gliding School had been approached by the local committee for "Wings for Victory" week, and could we help?

We agreed to do what we could. A demonstration of Cadet training ground sliding to get accustomed to movement of control stick for the application of ailerons and rudder movement. Low hops for Cadets in order that they can control the aircraft in flight. As they become more competent, high hops are permitted, after several high hops over a period of time, a circuit of airfield is permitted when the weather conditions are suitable. Also squad drilling was demonstrated. Instructors made high flights with dives and banks.

The highlight of the show was as follows. Dolls were made up with mini parachutes attached, these were taken up by sailplanes and dropped over the side, explaining over the broadcast system that "Gremlins" were being "turfed off".

Also two rigid sticks were driven into the ground about two wing spans apart. From each was strung a string threaded with coloured strips. A machine then had a full launch and turned facing the "Goal Posts" dived steeply and flown under the "Bar". Two of these flights were made. The speed under would have been about 100 mph.

There were some 5000 spectators and it was stated that all enjoyed the show. A considerable amount of cash was raised in the one afternoon, exceeding the total which had been raised during the whole week by the village.

[During the "Take Over"]

During the "Take Over" of Hamsey Green airfield we had an Army Cooperation Squadron of Austers operating from the airfield. The pilots of these machines were taught to fly very low indeed, so low in fact that they actually flew in between trees where possible. I was invited to have a flight in one of these machines, which lasted about half an hour. Whilst always enjoying every chance to have flying, I must confess that this type of low-flying shook me. Had the engine cut over all the woodlands we flew over "or through" there would have been no chance to avoid a nasty crash. I wasn't sorry to get back on the ground!

[Wheel incident]

John Copeland and I were on our way to Dunstable for a day's gliding and were only a few miles from our destination. I was taking my turn at driving John's Chrysler saloon. We had been doing a steady 60/70 mph when I noticed that the steering was developing a roughness. When it became necessary for me to drop down to about 40 mph because of a bend in the road the vehicle gave a lurch and skated to a stop. We jumped out to see what the trouble was and to our astonishment found the near side front wheel missing. We looked around expecting to find the wheel close by, but without success. I had noticed a man walking along the road whom we had passed about a mile back and when he arrived where we were parked I asked him if he had seen our wheel. He said that he had caught a glimpse of something that seemed to come from the car as it passed, but thought we had just thrown something away.

But that was the only help we got from him. So we walked back to where it was considered that he was when we first passed him. We looked everywhere, all along the roadside ditch. We had almost given up hope when John said would it have gone over the hedge, so we got through an entrance and searched about. And sure enough, there it was. Now that was a good mile back from where we were stopped. Well! We rolled it back, jacked up the car and replaced the wheel, which was held on by bolts and not nuts on studs. So we had to rob a stud from each other road wheel. After which we were back on the road once again.

Gliders flown in

Dagling nacelled
Type 25 German type
Grunau Baby
Falcon III
Kirby Kite Jack Ruck's
Kirby Kadet
Kirby Tutor
B.A.C. V
Hiscox's machine A Gull
2 seater Gull


WW2 People's War
An archive of World War Two memories - written by the public, gathered by the BBC

Training with the Air Training Corp was the closest one could get to the real thing, while at times it could be very close.

I started my flying experience by attending the ATC Gliding School at Hamsey Green nr Warlingham in Surrey. I had been there before but as an employee of the C.O. Len Hatcher who was in charge of the maintenance at the garage where I worked. Len H. was an experience pre-war glider pilot and was instrumental in starting the school at this private aerodrome. My involvement in the early days was in helping to deliver ex Hudson Terraplane cars that had been AFS Fire Engines and with the bodywork removed was ideal for towing glider back and forth for hitching to the winch.

Late one Sunday after the normal training sessions were completed the civilian instructors would be flying. On this occasion Len drove up, looked at me and said "You haven't flown yet"? And no I haven't, not even sat in the seat, let alone heard of the theory of flight. Without more ado I was taken back with the Haflinger Glider to the start point where upon Len sat me in the cockpit, explained Joystick and Rudder controls and departed for the winch saying "hold it steady at that point". Within a short time the slack in the tow wire was taken up and the person holding the wing tip was sprinting across the grass and I was airborne with silence, apart from the wind noise. Having crossed the field at no mean height, further airspeed reduced until terra firma was regained.

I had flown further than Wilber & Orville Wright after less than a minute's flight instruction.

Life Insurance for Glider Pilots


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