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Turmoil in the Clouds by Joe Burns

The last flight of Flying Officer Fred Sutton, April 29th 1932.

ML 1030

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Turmoil in the Clouds.

by Joe Burns

The sound of the aircraft droned overhead, as I gazed through the canopy of Glenarriff Forest Park, four miles from Cushendall, in the beautiful Glens of Antrim. I could tell by the sound it was low, but so far hadn’t spotted it. Then as I walked clear of the trees and on to the mountain road adjacent to Dungonnel Dam, the Twin Otter of the Tellus Project, carrying out an airborne survey for the Geological Survey, cleared the peak I was walking towards. As it passed over me, I couldn’t help but feel how ironic it was that this should be taking place today of all days. For the mountain I was walking on was Cloughcorr, the peak was Collin Top, and seventy-four years ago to the day another aircraft with a young pilot attempted to clear the top, and became part of the oral history of the Glens of Antrim.

John Frederick Sutton was born on the 4th February 1910, in Enniscorthy, County Wexford. His Father, Mr. Arnold J Sutton, a draper of George Street in the town, and mother, Harriet, brought their three sons and daughter up to be well respected Methodists. Fred, as he was known, being the second son, like his siblings was educated in Wesley College, which was situated in St Stephen’s Green Dublin at that time. Fred was a popular student and became Senior Prefect before leaving the College. A keen footballer, he received his Honour Cap when selected to play in the 1st XV. It was at this time he suddenly became ill and on the advice of the family doctor was sent to recuperate with relatives in the country. After returning from the stay with an aunt and uncle, Fred surprised everyone by announcing he wished to become an aviator. So it was with great enthusiasm in 1929, John Frederick Sutton entered the Royal Air Force with a short service commission.

Fred’s training began at No. 3 Flying Training School, Grantham, Lincolnshire, and in due course he was posted to No. 99 (Bomber) Squadron at Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire. While posted at these stations he continued his great love for sport and represented his squadrons in Rugby, Tennis and Hockey. Fred was a keen airman, and was studying for the necessary exams to be considered for a permanent commission. On the 12th November 1931, Fred, was delighted to be posted to No. 502 Squadron, Aldergrove, County Antrim, not only because 502 was closer to home but also this would give him the opportunity to attain the commission he desired.

At that time No. 502 Squadron was a Special Reserve Squadron of the Royal Air Force and consisted of two flights, ‘A’ Flight being a cadre of regular officers and NCOs while the part-time, Special Reserve personnel constituted ‘B’ Flight. Flying Officer Sutton, being a regular officer, was attached to the cadre flight. 502 Squadron was part of the Air Defence of Great Britain, and the officer in command was Wing Commander L. T. N. Gould, MC who succeeded Wing Commander Leather during the first week in March 1932.

Flying Officer Fred Sutton, standing in from t of an Atlas
Flying Officer Fred Sutton, standing in front of an Atlas













In just a few short months Fred was proving to be a competent and accomplished pilot. On the 19th of February 1932 Flying Officers Sutton and Wardell flew a Vickers Virginia to Catterrick in Yorkshire, returning on the 20th. However on the 23rd the two young officers managed to complete this same trip in one day.

In early April Flying Officer Sutton was returning from leave, at home in Enniscorthy, he, his Mother and sister Marjorie, travelled to Dublin from where he was to travel by bus to Belfast. Fred said his goodbyes and left the two of them in Henry St, Dublin shopping. Later, to his Mother and sister’s surprise he turned up having missed the Belfast bus so
treated the two of them to tea and cakes in a city patisserie. They once again made their goodbyes and Fred caught the last bus to Belfast. This was to be the last time a member of his family was to see Fred alive.

On Sunday April 24th, Fred Sutton was the officer in command of a group of airmen paraded to the Methodist Church Antrim, to hear the Rev. Stanley H Keen, Staff Chaplain, R.A.F. London, who was the special preacher on All Attendance Sunday. Later that evening Fred joined the Staff Chaplain and other friends at tea, and was also present at the evening service. The following day Monday the 25th April, Fred spent the day in the camp and that evening visited his friend Flying officer R. S. Sweet in his home. They parted at 7.30.

On the morning of Friday 29th April, Fred was to make a solo navigational flight, flying from Aldergrove to Larne, and then following the coast North to Cushendall, before returning to Aldergrove, the whole exercise taking approximately one and a half hours. The aircraft was an Avro 504N, this was the standard trainer of the time, and remained so until the mid 1930’s. The 504N had been updated from the 504K by the installation of a Lynx engine, beefed up Siskin-type landing gear and a revision of the wing shape. The 504N had a top speed of around 100mph and carried enough fuel for a two and a half hour flight. Fred’s aircraft on the morning of the 29th April was K1253, this particular aircraft being extensively used for these solo practice flights. The weather over Aldergrove was a mixture of blue skies with the occasional mist patches; the weather over the Antrim hills was of thick mist with the occasional clear patch. Flight Lieutenant Harry King Goode, Adjutant of the 502 Squadron, who lived in the officer’s mess with Fred, looked on, as at 11.10am the Avro 504N with Flying Officer John Frederick Sutton aged twenty-two at the controls took off from Aldergrove. He watched as the thirty-six feet wing spanned aircraft turned and climbed into blue skies.

Even in 1932 Cloughcorr Mountain had seen its fair share of tragedies. At the turn of the century three young local men out hunting with their dogs got lost in a blizzard, two were found dead from exposure the following day. The third had fallen into one of what is known locally as ‘Tanning Holes’. His body was only found because his dog refused to leave the spot. Several years later, a gamekeeper walked off a cliff to his death, not far from the same spot. Local people have a healthy respect for the area. Three such locals were on Cloughcorr Mountain, on the morning of the 29thApril 1932. They were shepherds, each tending their own flock, some distance from each other, and because of the thick fog, they were unaware there was anyone else on the mountain that morning. None of the men carried a timepiece.

John O Boyle, saw an airplane flying abnormally low, as it passed into the only clear patch of sky, heading in the direction of Cushendall. He estimated the time between 11 and 12 o clock.
John Crawford the second shepherd was working in an area two miles from Collin Top. He saw an airplane coming from the Cushendall direction and pass over Cloughcorr Mountain heading in the direction of the peak; he thought the engine sounded unusual. John estimated the time to have been after 11 o’clock. A few minutes after seeing the plane pass into the fog, he heard a loud crack.

The third shepherd was Michael McIlhatton, who was tending his sheep just half a mile away from Collin Top. In that area, the weather had taken on a surreal appearance. Unlike other parts of Cloughcorr Mountain, where visibility was poor, there were patches of fog all round with clear bright skies here and there. The fog drifted from one clear spot to the other making the visible invisible in a moment. Michael thought the time was just after 11 o’clock when he heard a plane in the vicinity. Watching the machine from time to time, he saw it circle round and first appear to go southwest, then, shortly thereafter, it turned round and went out of view in a north-easterly direction. He heard the sound of the engine for around a further ten minutes and then it faded away. It seemed as thought the machine had passed over the neighbouring mountain.

At around 2pm at Aldergrove, Flight Lieutenant Harry King Goode and fellow officers were becoming concerned that there was no sign of Fred. Police stations along the route the Avro 504N had been flying were contacted but there was no report concerning the missing plane. One of the squadron’s twin engine, Vickers Virginias, piloted by Flying Officer Stevens, was sent off to cover the path the missing aircraft was to have taken. Just before 3pm the search plane, flying over the Antrim hills sent a message by wireless that they saw the wreckage of a plane on one of the peaks on Cloughcorr Mountain, but there was nowhere near by suitable for them to land. Flight Lieutenant Harry King Goode informed the R.U.C. station at Cushendall, by telephone, of the situation and prepared a party to meet the police at the site.

Sergeant David Connell R.U.C. Cushendall, with Constable Edward Harrison, Constable Albert Taylor and Doctor Alexander McSparran, M.O. Cushendall, put together a party of volunteers. The Police, who had great respect for Mr Michael McIlhatton’s knowledge of the mountain, and preparing for a search well into the night, called at his cottage. He left his meal and proceeded to guide the party. G.B. Newe, owner and editor of the local monthly magazine, “The Glensman”, was also present. The mist and fog had lifted as the small group set out across the wild mountain, miles from human habitation. After walking for around an hour, high on the slopes of Collin Top the wreck could be seen one wing pointing skywards, sadly showing them their way. It was a sombre group of men that for the next two hours worked their way closer to that point, eighty feet below the summit.

At 6pm the party came to the plane to find Flying Officer John Frederick Sutton lying by the smashed cockpit of K1253, dead. Doctor McSparran preformed an External Post Mortem. The young pilot had suffered multiple injuries including a fractured skull and thigh and his neck was also broken. Doctor McSparran stated that death would have been instantaneous. From marks in the ground it was determined that the aircraft had first buried itself, then somersaulted before coming to rest five yards from where it first struck. The machine was a complete wreck, parts being strewn for yards from the first point of contact. The clock in the airplane had stopped at 11.30.

The small group watched as Flight Lieutenant Harry King Goode and a party of men from R.A.F. Aldergrove made their way across the heather. At 7pm the R.A.F. Officer identified the body as that of John Frederick Sutton and after consulting with both Doctor McSparran and Police Sergeant Connell, gave the order. The body was placed on a stretcher and the long walk over rocks, heather and bog began, as once again fog shrouded the mountain. The remains were taken to Cushendall where the inquest was to take place the following day.

Constable Taylor was left to guard the wreck, and remained until relieved by Constables McMinn and McIvor, who had great difficulty in finding the fatal spot in the dark and the returning fog, and once again had to call on the help of Mr McIlhatton. The R.U.C. guard remained throughout the Friday night being relieved on Saturday morning by R.A F. personnel.

The inquest was held on Saturday the 30th April in the small courthouse in Cushendall. The Deputy Coroner for Mid Antrim, Mr John Owens, presided. District Inspector J.A.Martin, R.U.C. Larne conducted the proceeding on behalf of the crown. Flight Lieutenant Harry King Goode represented the R.A.F, Mr Arthur McAllister, R.D.C. being the foreman of the jury. Doctor McSparran and the three shepherds all gave their evidence. Summing up, the Coroner expressed sympathy with the relatives of Mr Sutton, and stated the inference was that he had collided with the hill in dense fog. The jury returned a verdict in accordance with the medical evidence, which stated that death was due to shock as a result of the massive injuries. The jury expressed their sympathy and those of the people of the Glens to the relatives of the dead pilot and District Inspector J.A.Martin, R.U.C. on behalf of the police associated himself with these said sympathies. District Inspector J.A.Martin then went on to pay a public tribute to Mr Michael McIlhatton, without whom the task would have proved extremely difficult.

On Sunday 1st May in the Methodist Church Antrim, where only a week before Fred Sutton was the officer in command of the airmen paraded there, a Memorial Service was held. The pulpit was suitably draped, and a detachment of the R.A.F. personnel were present. Fred’s friend Flying Officer R .S. Sweet was in command. After the service the Rev. Mr Clayton, called for a vote of sympathy, which was passed by the congregation to the bereaved parents, brothers, sister and friends.

Flying Officer Fred Sutton

Fred Sutton’s parents were asked by the R.A.F. ifthey should like a military funeral held in Northern Ireland or for his remains to be brought home to Enniscorthy at their expense. They chose the latter.

The funeral of Flying Officer Sutton left Victoria Barracks, Belfast, on Monday morning the 2nd May after a brief service, in the presence of officers and men of 502 Squadron. Full military honours were accorded, with eighty of the airmen escorting the cortege for some distance, with reversed arms. The casket, bearing the inscription, ‘John Frederick Sutton, Born 4th February 1910. Killed in Flying Accident, 29th April 1932 was covered with the union flag, surmounted by his cap and several choice wreaths. The cortege was accompanied to Enniscorthy by the squadron’s commanding officer, L.M. Gould, R.A.F. and Flying Officer Stephens, R.A.F. When the funeral reached the town, it was accompanied by a long line of motorcars, with mourners and sympathisers. Attendance was large with family and friends coming from all over the country. The interment took place in the family burial ground in the Moyne Cemetery. Amongst the numerous messages of sympathy were a personal letter from Lord Londonderry, Secretary of State for Air in London and letters from the officer commanding B Flight, R.A.F. Aldergrove; and Sir Philip Sassoon, Under Secretary to the Air Ministry.

The grave was covered with a large number of wreaths and floral tributes from members of Fred’s family and friends. There were also wreaths from Air Marshal Sir W. Salmond and officers of the Headquarters, Air Defence of Great Britain; O.C. and officers 502 Squadron, R.A.F.; Lt. Colonel F.R. W. Graham and Officers of the 1st Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles; the members of the Sergeants’ Mess, 502 Squadron R.A.F. and the airmen of 502 Squadron R.A.F. After the funeral L.M. Gould, R.A.F told Frederick Sutton’s mother that he was a good pilot, and a great loss to the service, and it was through no fault of his own that the accident occurred; it was the abnormal weather conditions which caused the low lying fog to take on the shape of the mountain, causing Frederick to assume he had already crossed the highest peak.

On Tuesday 3rd May an official of the Air Ministry held an inquiry in the R.U.C. station Cushendall. This was a private inquiry and among those present were Sergeant David Connell R.U.C. Cushendall, Doctor McSparran, and Michael McIlhatton. The inquiry found that the aircraft had been perfectly airworthy when it left Aldergrove. This had been determined from the examination of parts, which were taken from the wreck. It was then ordered that the remaining wreck, which was still under guard, should be burned.

The Twin Otter once again droned overhead. I looked up at the peak of Collin Top, now just thirty metres above me, and watched a hare disappear over the skyline. Sitting on the heather, and glancing once again at the photograph taken on this spot almost three quarters of a century before, I looked at the same mountain lough as it changed colour when a breeze passed over it.
Today there was no fog drifting from one clear spot to the other, making the visible invisible in a moment, and thanks to the planting of Glenarrif Forest Park and the building of Dungonnel Dam there are roads and gravel tracks, which reduce the distance that seventy four years ago those men struggled over, through bogs and heather to reach this place.

I stand and adjust my backpack for the journey home and as the sound of the aircraft engine fades over the mountain. I look to the Northeast along the Garron Plateau. For I know, less than six kilometres form here where Flying Officer John Frederick Sutton died in 1932 is the site where, ten years later, his colleague, Group Captain, formerly Flight Lieutenant, Harry King Goode, was also killed in an air crash, with circumstances that, even today, still hold a mystery, but that is another story.

I would like to thank the following people without whose help the research and writing of this article would have been impossible. Mr Ernie Cromie, who kept me on the right course throughout this mission. Victor Cramton, Whitehead, Who put me in touch with Mrs Marjorie Doherty, sister of Flight Lieutenant Sutton, and Mary Sutton of Enniscorthy. Doctor Allister McSparran, Cushendall, and the many people from the Glens for their tolerance of my endless questions.
I also have to acknowledge Ron Parsons and Alan Watsons book ‘Flying the Red Hand’, which I found both invaluable and an inspiration.


Your Responses.

Liz Weir - July '08
A fascinating true story which took place on a hillside that I can see from my house - when the fog descends I can see nothing which is what must have faced that poor young pilot.

Frank Kennedy McLernon - Jan '08
A beautifully written piece of real history, thank you!

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