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The 1959 aircraft disaster in North Road, Cardiff

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 15:00 UK time, Friday, 4 May 2012

On 6 May 1959, when civil aviation in Britain was still in the early stages of development, a small De Havilland Dove aircraft crashed on North Road, one of the main routes into and out of the city of Cardiff.

Aircraft wreckage

Four men died in the aircraft crash but there could have been many more fatalities (photo: Wales Media Ltd)

The incident took place shortly after 2pm. With a sports day for the boys of Cathays High School being held in the adjacent Maindy Stadium it was a miracle that a much larger disaster was averted.

The aeroplane, a twin engined monoplane numbered G-Alec, had taken off from the airfield at Pengam Moors, to the east of the city and was supposed to fly over Cardiff to mark the opening of the Ideal Homes Exhibition. It had been hired by Lec Refrigerators and was intended to be something of a publicity stunt for the company.

In charge of the aircraft that day was 24-year-old Paul Chambers, a man who had some experience as a pilot but almost none flying a Dove - some reports say 28 hours, others as little as four.

Flying with one engine

He had recently failed a test that involved flying with one engine out of use and, according to eye witness reports, it seems that flying on only one engine was exactly what the Dove was doing that afternoon. Whether that was by accident or design is not totally clear.

It is unlikely, however, that Chambers would have continued to circle and fly over the city if he had an emergency on board; it would have been logical to expect him to get his aircraft down on the ground as soon as possible. And so we are left with the assumption that the pilot had deliberately stopped one engine.

With Chambers in the Dove were Reginald Burchell, Kenneth Woodfield and Ronald Aston. For them the trip was meant to be the experience of a lifetime. In the event they were on the last journey they would ever undertake.

Poor behaviour

The aeroplane was seen flying low over the city, some eye witnesses estimating its height at no more than 300 feet. A local policeman was so concerned that he actually took the Dove's number in order to report the pilot for such behaviour. Tragically, with one engine out of use, the pilot had little control of the aircraft and it would seem that he began to panic.

Paul Chambers was now flying so low that he was in danger of hitting a row of tree. Still with only one engine running, he attempted to pull up the nose of the aircraft. This caused the plane to stall and nosedive into the ground where it hit an empty van and exploded in a ball of flame.

The Dove came down in the middle of North Road, close to a new petrol station. Although all four occupants of the aircraft were killed in the crash, luck played a major part in the disaster. The petrol station was new and had not yet opened so there were no large quantities of fuel in the tanks. If there had been, the explosion would have destroyed buildings for miles around.

As it was, a river of fuel from the Dove's ruptured tanks was soon running down the road, blazing its passage and raising a gigantic column of smoke above the city. One passer-by tried to get into the aircraft to help those inside but he was beaten back by the flames, being severely burned for his efforts.

Luckier still were the pupils of Cathays High. About 500 of them were at Maindy Stadium that afternoon but the aircraft crashed 50 or 60 yards away from the packed athletics track and surrounding terraces.

Not far away, in the main building of the school, several hundred more were sitting in rows, taking matriculation exams. Once again, luck had played a part.

Just before the crash pupils had seen people inside the plane waving at them. Even now, many believe that they occupants were trying to warn people on the ground to get out of the way. It seems unlikely and it is more probable that the men on the Dove, not realising how close they were to disaster, were simply waving for fun.

Death by Misadventure

The inquest returned a verdict of death by misadventure. When the Ministry of Aviation conducted its report the pilot, Paul Chambers, was blamed for the accident. Certainly flying so low over a built-up area like Cardiff was both foolish and reckless.

If Chambers did stop one engine, possibly for practice as this was an area of flying where he needed to take further instruction and a test, then it was an act of terrible irresponsibility. Ultimately, it was an act that killed him, along with his passengers. Only by the grace of God were hundreds more spared.


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