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24 September 2014

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You are in: Bristol > History > Local history > Downend crash remembered 50 years on

The scene of the crash at Overndale Road, Downend

Downend crash remembered 50 years on

Fifty years ago - at just before midday on Wednesday, 6 November 1957 - a patch of woodland alongside Overndale Road, Downend, was torn apart in a terrible air disaster.

A long-range prototype Bristol Britannia airliner, G-ANCA, was returning to her base at Filton following a test flight to gain American safety certification.

At 1,500 ft, while turning left to make her landing approach, the Britannia - painted in the colours of US carrier Capital Airlines, and carrying a crew of 15 - suddenly banked steeply to the right and began an uncommanded turn and rapid descent above Downend and Staple Hill.

"On 3 November, 2007 Beryl Statham - whose husband Hugh was piloting G-ANCA that fateful day - unveiled a new memorial plaque."

Despite valiant efforts by her crew to rescue the emergency, the aircraft impacted a field before exploding in woodland now officially named Britannia Woods.

Wreckage tumbled through the trees and seriously damaged a row of ten homes in Overndale Road. All fifteeen of G-ANCA's crew died instantly, but miraculously nobody on the ground was seriously hurt.

Subsequent investigation failed to conclusively establish the cause of the tragedy, but faulty wiring of G-ANCA's autopilot was strongly suspected as the reason for her sudden loss of control.

The scene of the crash at Overndale Road, Downend

With considerable resolve and against considerable economic pressure, workers at Bristol Aero Company pressed-on and the Britannia story continued, proving itself as a successful, safe and much-admired airliner.

The "Whispering Giant" served across four decades, with the last airworthy example returning to Kemble, Gloucestershire, in 1997.

On 3 November, 2007, joined by a crowd of some 200 people, Beryl Statham - whose husband Hugh was piloting G-ANCA that fateful day - unveiled a new memorial plaque alongside the woods on Overndale Road.

Points West has marked the 50th anniversary with three reports, available to watch again here.
We've also released our original film archive of the crash site, taken on the 6 and 7 November 1957 and never broadcast since the time of the disaster. It's also available here, un-edited, minus sound, and shown completely as it came out of our cameras.

Do you have recollections of that day? If so, post your comments below.

last updated: 03/04/2008 at 08:52
created: 06/11/2007

Have Your Say

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

BRIAN HAYNES
NOT ALL THE PEOPLE ON BOARD WERE AIRCREW. I AM NOW 81 AND SEVERAL OF THEM WERE MY VERY GOOD FRIENDS FOR WE WERE ALL ON THE PROJECT TEAM AT REDIFON FLIGHT SIMULATION LTD AT CRAWLEY IN SUSSEX.I WAS FORTUNATELY IN CANADA INSTALLING A SABRE F86 SIMULATOR FOR THE RACF AT CAMP BORDEN.THE FIRM IN CRAWLEY IS NOW THALES.

marjore rice
I was standing in downend road,opposite the top of croomes hill and watched the plane come down in the trees in a garden in overndale Road

Jim Crouch
I was in the aerodrome fire service and was an eye witness to the G-AMAD crash at Heathrow I also successfully rescued two of the surviving crew being in the rescue tender and first on the scene There is a similarity in the way which both aircraft rolled sharply prior to impact due to the port flap failure

PHIL KELLY FORMER BRITANNIA FLIGHT ENGINEER
I consider it a privelege to have been invited to attend the Commemoration event.With 8 years experience on the Britannia I was drawn to wonder what may have caused or contributed to the incident involving CA.I have read the submission from Doug Fergusson. I witnessed in 1968 the crash at Heathrow of Ambassador G-AMAD. There seems to have been some similarity between the two incidents. My attention whilst at British Eagle base on the day was drawn to the sound of sudden power application by an aircraft on short finals. The aircraft was banked steeply to the left and continued its descent and crashed into some aircraft in front of the Queens Building. The cause of the crash was reported as failure of the port flap system followed by un-commanded retraction of the port flap with a resultant roll to the left.It seems from the observed attitude of CA that perhaps there is some similarity regarding the cause.The suggestion of an umcommanded turn caused by the auto pilot could have been possible if the auto pilot was engaged since there was some history of auto pilot malfunction caused by a solder particle short circuiting wiring within that system. Doug Fergusson comments about the ability to override uncommanded auto pilot signals.It would seem that a failure of the flap system may have been the most probable cause of the accident however an uncommanded full deflection of an aileron whether or not it could be overridden would have placed CA in the banked attitude it was seen to be in. At the height CA was the ability to fully recover from either malfunction would have robbed the operating pilot of one vital element and that was available altitude. A great pity that no flight recorder or flight test data system survived the crash. The position of an unretracted flap assuming there had been a flap problem would have been useful in attempting to discover a cause. My memory of the flap system is that a 112V DC motor rotated torque tubes that through gearing rotated screw jacks that either extended or retracted the flaps. If at any time a 3 degree angular difference in flap position took place then motor drive power was removed and the flaps remained at that position. That angular difference was controllable by normal flight control input and would not cause an uncontrollable situation. Additionally the screw jack drive system would not permit the flap to move on its track and would lock the flap at its assymetric position. With that proviso I would have to choose the auto pilot as being the most probable cause of the incident in the absence of any knowledge of any other possible system malfunction. I note the submission from Frank Ogden regarding the flap track detail.

Ian Fergusson, BBC Bristol
Many thanks to all who have contributed so many interesting and thought-provoking comments thus-far.In specific response to Frank's interesting posting below, regarding potential causal factors behind the accident:The official accident report categorically states that G-ANCA's flaps were retracted at the time of impact. I've discussed this with ex-Britannia crew, notably Michael Simpson (he has made a separate posting below). The consensus view is that at the stage of the approach (downwind leg and about to turn base leg) at which G-ANCA began the uncommanded roll and descent, flaps would usually have been selected at 15 degrees, ahead of selection to 30 degrees on base leg, and it is thus very strange how the AIB investigators seemingly discovered the wreckage in a condition with flaps fully up. Even a high-speed crash tends to leave unambiguous evidence of flap position (e.g., witness marks left on flap actuators etc). The AIB report failed to mention eyewitness Rod Shattock's account, which testified to the moment of ground impact. Rod was adamant then - and remains so today - that G-ANCA's flaps were down on the right wing but retracted on the left. Either the AIB were unaware of his account or chose to dismiss it, because they are equally adamant that the flaps were up at impact. Clearly however, an asymmetric flap condition - if it had occurred at such low speed and at circuit height - would have manifested a grave emergency for G-ANCA's crew.....There's no obvious reason for the discrepancy in expected flap position versus what was described by the AIB. Perhaps Hugh Statham selected the flaps up in the early stages of the uncommanded descent, in an effort to enhance recovery. We shall never know. But in so many respects, the AIB report has glaring gaps; areas of cursory description and so-on.... a lack of detail that would make the report unpublishable by today's AAIB standards. I requested copies of all pertinent accident report documents relating to the investigation from the AAIB.... but today, they responded to say they only have a copy of the published report. It's a great shame, because it would be very interesting to source the original field notes, etc etc., including those compiled by BAC, and subject them to a new independent analysis based on today's state of knowledge - e.g., by the air accident investigation school at Cranfield.

Frank Ogden
As an ex R.A.F.Flight Engineer I would suggest that this accident may have been caused by one half of the flap torque tubes drive mechanism becoming overloaded and shearing. This would caus such a violent bank at low altitude just as the Pilot was selecting flaps down for the aprroach. Has anyone any crash reports investigating this possibility? Considerable problems were experienced during manufacture involving thousands of Feel gauge checks on the roller to track clearances before the flaps could be made to operate without undue friction.This problem was solved by assemble with a dummy oversize track,but was this aircraft assembled with this new oversise dummy track??

Peter Wright
Hi,My father in law was one of the policeman at Downend in 1957. As he does not have internet access and is not particularly mobile I wonder if there is a way I could download these videos please? (Hi Peter - contact us on bristol@bbc.co.uk)

Roger Newton
My wife, then aged 17 and my girl-friend at the time, worked in the PR Department at the BAC.She was asked if she would like to go up in the Britannia and was very keen to do so.Later that day, in the evening, when she told me she was going up in the 'plane tommorrow I said that I didn't want her to go.She didn't; the rest is history.Strangely enough, one of the crew who was killed was a customer of the company for which I was working and I had met him on several occasions.

Ian Fergusson, BBC Bristol
The following through-provoking thoughts on the accident cause were emailed from my brother, Doug Fergusson (a pilot with American Airlines, based in the USA, with type experience spanning many years since RAF service on BAe-146, L1011's, 747-400, 777, 757/767,737, 727 and MD-80....I'd be interested in any return views from ex-BAC workers or former AAIB investigators on this:"(seeing) this prompted me to do some more research of my own into what caused this accident, and I read the AIB report. Very odd, coming at the end of what was essentially a short (1.5 hr) test flight....sounds like the gear would not fully extend, followed by loss of control.... I don't believe the autopilot bit for a minute - no autopilot has ever been invented that cannot be overridden by manual input, nor in those times did the autopilots have 3-axis command, ie: rudder as well - we call it "in series" now, and it's only in that mode for autoland and auto-go-around. At all other times, autopilots let the rudder lie fallow (there is limited yaw-damper input to the rudder in flight). My point is: the Britannia had a huge rudder, for assymetric control during outboard engine failure; one would expect this crew to have been on the ball enough to stomp on the rudder if the aircraft suddenly rolled-off to one side and was not responding to aileron input. The rudder would have provided some counter-roll as a secondary effect. Then there's applying assymetric thrust as a last measure...very effective in propeller aircraft due to increased slipstream over the low wing.The parallels to the 737 accidents in the 90's in Colorado Springs and Pittsburgh are very thought provoking, both suspected to be caused by rudder malfunction.Or, did the crew get distracted and stall the aircraft? The eyewitness accounts read like a classic stall-roll-off followed by aggressive recovery and secondary stall. Whatever the cause, just like with the 737 accidents, having an upset at circuit altitude leaves a crew very little escape room."

Barry Aldridge
In Nov 1957 I was a BAC Apprentice at college full time after spending six happy months in the Flight Test Dept. I flew with Hugh Statham several times, and was with him on G-ANCA on 15 Sep just a few weeks prior to the crash on my last Britannia flight. I was allowed on the flight deck during a rigorous 32- stall programme in which the aircraft rolled almost inverted several times before Hugh's mighty forearms returned it safely and impressively to level flight. News of the crash reached us at college around midday and, together with fellow apprentice Derek Franklin, I was allowed by a very understanding Tutor to leave and visit the crash site. Fearful of what we would find, we walked sadly among the wide spread debris as the rescuers salvaged the remains of the crew with whom we had both worked just weeks before. It was a traumatic experience and we were in no mood to return to college. We made our way instead to the Flight Test Dept at Filton to share our sadness with former colleagues, all of us trying to decide what might have brought the beautiful aircraft down with such devastating effect. That evening I described my feelings and sense of loss at great length. In 1961 I was commissioned as a pilot in the RAF and in 1967 found myself flying alongside Richard Statham, Hugh's son, as a Jet Provost flying instructor at RAF Syerston near Newark. I showed him my notes from 1957 in which I had expressed my great respect for his father. Unfortunately, I have since lost these notes. Richard and I both applied to ETPS to be test pilots; he was successful but I was posted instead as an Exchange Officer with the RAAF CFS flying the Aer Macchi 326. The events of 6 Nov 1957 left their mark on me, and I will never forget them.If a DVD of the commemorative films is available please let me know at aldridgebarry@hotmail.com. Barry Aldridge

Michael Simpson
I was employed at BAC when the crash occurred as Chief Flight Engineer and flew over the site immediately after the accident. Nothing could be seen due to the total destruction of 'CA. One of my best friends and colleagues was Bill Todd, the radio operator. I alsorecall that the pilot, Hugh Statham was one of the most gentlemanly and admirable men I ever flew with in myflying career of 38 years, which why I came from Canada to attend this ceremony. My thanks go to the local council for this memorial.

Reg Everson
I know two men who were turned away from this flight at the very last minute, literally as the boarding ladder was being retrieved. One actually saw GANCA making it's last fatal turn. I and the other two were test technicians in the Instrumentation Lab. At the time I was standby crew. It was time to pack in test flights. For further details Tel. 01934 835127

Ron Daws
I was in an Ambulance en route for Cossham for a check up on my ankle break. We were at the traffic lights in Downend when the plane came down. We were diverted to the crash site and the first Ambulance on the scene. My most vivid memory is seeing the engine resting against the house. Cannot believe that it is now 50years on. So sad. Ron Daws

Daphne Fielding nee Hewett
My older brother, Philip (Pip) Hewett was Flight Engineer on that flight. He took the place of a colleague who was unwell. He was just 27 years old. I will always remember the moment I got home from school to be met with the news. Seeing your report brought that moment back vividly. I am glad the crew's heroism is remembered.

John Cairns
Fifty years ago to-day,as a seven year old, I was living with my mother and father and two sisters, at 49 Overndale Road,Downend which at that tme was the end house nearest the woods where the Britannia crashed.I can remember being collected from school at lunchtime by my mother,and returning home to see the utter devastation,but to a seven year old it seemed more like an adventure.I have just watch the archive footage, and saw pictures of my mother,holding my sister, being interviewed.She did appear live on the evening news, being interviewed beside one of the undercarriage.This has brought back many memories of that day.

Bob Nunn
I was a pupil at Oldbury Court Junior School and we seven and eight year olds saw the crash, the explosion, the tall trees shooting up in flame. I am certain we thought a wheel of the aircraft had brushed the roof of the school as the impact was a second or two in flight time from the school. My brother and sister were all at the school. Were it not for the pilot's bravery and skill we would probably have been killed that day.

wendy carman
I remember the crash very well. I was sitting by the glass doors of Oldbury Court Infants School, the teacher was showing us some dolls clothes. There was a terrible noise and then a red fire ball. It affected me for years as every time a plane went over, which was quite often due to the nearness of Filton Airport, I would run into the house. The memory is still so vivid.

Jan Keating (then Janet Coombs)
I was a child attending Oldbury Court Primary School when the crashed happened. We heard the plane overhead, sounding very low just before the crash and there were rumours that it had touched the school roof. We heard talk that the pilot had managed to avoid the school averting the possibility of hundreds of children inside being killed or injured.

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