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Near Miss at Princetown

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It’s Tuesday the 19th of June 1933 and Dartmoor was enveloped in one of its infamous mists, the inhabitants of Princetown are going about their daily business with the odd day tripper viewing the notorious Dartmoor Prison. At about 1.00pm the sound of a distant approaching aircraft could be heard, gradually it got closer and much, much louder, so much so that bystanders began to look skywards. Suddenly the aeroplane loomed out of the mist at a frighteningly low altitude.

The noise of the aircraft became deafening and people came rushing out of their houses to see what on earth was going on. As the plane flew over the prison it twice circled the prison and then headed off in the direction of Two Bridges. Clearly the aircraft had some kind of mechanical problem and it appeared to the anxious spectators that the pilot was desperately looking for somewhere to crash land. Suddenly the plane banked sharply and headed back to Princetown, flying so low that it almost appeared to touch the top of the prison’s farm buildings. once again it banked sharply and nose dived towards the ground. Immediately an almighty crash could be heard with the terrible noise reaching as far away as Princetown’s square which was a good kilometre away. Then there was a deathly silence and it was almost as if nothing had happened.

Immediately local residents dashed over the fields towards the scene of the crash, everyone of them fearing as to the fate of the crew. On approaching the crash site they saw the plane with its tail and wing projecting skywards whilst its nose and fuselage deeply embedded in the ground. Logic would have said that nobody could have survived such an impact and the helpers feared the worse. However as the folk got closer they saw, much to their relief, the figures of two men clamber out of the cockpit and stagger towards them. Luckily being so close to the prison meant that medical assistance could be had at the prison’s hospital.  On examination by the medical staff it transpired that the pilot had sustained a broken nose and his colleague a fractured rib, both also had slight concussion along with various cuts and bruises. The two airmen were then transported to the Royal Naval Hospital in Plymouth for further treatment. Meanwhile an R.A.F. tender and a team of men arrived from Okehampton to dismantle the mangled aircraft. It was never revealed as to what actually caused the plane to crash but when the recovery team arrived they found a broken propeller, the wheels doubled up underneath the fuselage, most of the undercarriage smashed and the underpart of one wing deeply embedded in the ground.

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The Crashed Audax

The aircraft the men were flying was a two-seater Hawker Audax  (K2024) belonging to the Number 13 Army Cooperation group Squadron based at Netheravon near Sailsbury. The plane was flying from Netheravon to the military camp at Okehampton for observation duties prior to scheduled artillery practice on the moor. It was during this flight that the plane met with dense fog and heavy rain which meant the pilot was unable to locate the camp and became lost.

The Pilot Officer was twenty year old Alfonso Rudolph Gordon Bax otherwise affectionately known as ‘Porpoise’ who originally hailed from Boscastle in Cornwall. He began his flying career in 1931 as an R.A.F. Cranwell cadet and received his first commission in 1932.  He was posted to Netheravon in the January of 1933 which meant he had been there for six months before pranging the plane. However, he remained in the R.A.F. until 1955 by which time he had reached the rank of Squadron Leader, if you want to read more about his career see – HERE. The other man flying in the plane was  Aircraftman C. E. John who originally came from South Wales.

The general consensus of opinion was that there were a few guardian angels at work in Princetown that day, firstly because considering the severe damage to the plane the two airmen were more than lucky to walk away with minor injuries. Secondly, on crash landing the plane just missed a large, sturdy granite stone wall and finally some prisoners had been working in the very field in which the plane crashed shortly beforehand. I suppose also that thanks to the flying skills of Pilot Officer Bax he did manage to avoid crashing into the prison buildings which again could have been disastrous.

Just one afterthought, the earliest report of a plane crash on Dartmoor that I have managed to find was that of a Tiger Moth crashing near Crazywell Pool in 1931. So would this incident be the second earliest plane to have crashed on the moor?

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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