Thursday 6 October 2011, 16:18
In the years after World War Two there was a surge in demand for air travel. Numerous private companies, many operating aircraft that had been sold off as surplus to requirements after the war, were established when people began to realise that travel by aeroplane really was something that was available to everyone, not just the rich.
In 1950 the Welsh rugby team was on the brink of its first Triple Crown for nearly 20 years. Victories over England and Scotland set up a deciding match with Ireland and thousands of Welsh supporters decided to make the trip across the Irish Sea to watch the game. Most travelled in the usual way, by boat from Holyhead or Fishguard.
However, a Cardiff entrepreneur called Harry Dunscombe planned to charter an aeroplane and, at £10 a ticket, fly from Llandow airfield in the Vale of Glamorgan to Dublin, especially for the game.
The aircraft Dunscombe hired was an Avro Tudor V, owned and operated by Fairflight Ltd in Buckinghamshire, a small company operating just a couple of planes. And Llandow field was certainly not a commercial airport. In fact it was an old RAF war time base, one that was still operating in a military capacity, and did not have facilities for passenger comfort or for essential requirements like weighing baggage.
The flight to Dublin on Saturday 11 March 1950 was piloted by Captain Parsons. The trip was uneventful and the passengers were soon making their way to Lansdowne Road to watch the match. Wales duly won an exciting and pulsating game of rugby and the 78 passengers, after a night in the bars of Dublin, arrived at Collinstown Aerodrome the next day just after lunch for the flight back to Llandow.
The return flight took just under an hour and, with dozens of friends and families waiting to welcome people home, the plane was soon spotted in the west, about two miles from Llandow airfield.
With its undercarriage down the aircraft seemed to be flying very low and then, when it was just half a mile away, the engines seemed to be suddenly boosted. There was a roar like thunder and the aircraft rose steeply about two or three hundred feet.
Then, before the horrified gaze of the spectators, the engines cut out. The plane dropped like a stone and fell into an adjacent field. After the crash there was a deathly silence before panic and utter pandemonium set in.
RAF rescue crews were hurriedly despatched from the nearby St Athan air base, as well as ambulances and fire tenders - although there was no fire - which came from Cardiff.
Three survivors, cut and bleeding, had already staggered from the wreck and 10 more were quickly pulled, alive, from the fuselage of the Avro Tudor. Unfortunately they later died in hospital and when the casualty figures were finally put together it was only the three men first out of the plane who had survived. They had been sitting together in adjacent seats at the rear of the aircraft and must be regarded as three of the luckiest men on the planet.
One of the three survivors was Handel Rogers. Traumatised by the crash, he vowed that in the future he make every second of his life count for something special - and he did. He became president of the Welsh Rugby Union.
Many of the dead came from the Monmouthshire area of Wales, and several villages lost three or four of their inhabitants. It was a tragedy on a national scale and the Western Mail organised a disaster fund that soon raised over £40,000 for the families and the bereaved communities.
In total 75 passengers and five crew members died in the Llandow Air Disaster. It was, at the time, the worst accident in British aviation history.
A court of enquiry was held in Cardiff a few months later, lasting for eight days. All sorts of rumours had been rife, including one that passengers had been singing and dancing in the aisles as the aircraft came in to land. This report was duly squashed at the enquiry but no firm or clear causes of the accident were ever established.
One possible cause, it was decided, might have been uneven loading of luggage - certainly extra baggage had been taken on at Dublin and with no weighing facilities at Llandow it was never clear how much extra weight the plane was carrying.
In the years after the Llandow air disaster many more commercial airports were established in Britain, Rhoose Airport - later renamed Cardiff International Airport - being just one of them. And whether or not extra baggage contributed to the crash, the weighing of luggage has been a crucial factor in air travel ever since.
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