Trustworthy Freedom Fighter
Joined: 13 Jan 2007
Location: Westminster, LONDON, SW1A 2HB.
|Posted: Sun Sep 08, 2019 11:34 am Post subject: Flying under Clifton suspension bridge, no longer allowed
|"Those Daring Young Men in Their Flying Machines"
Flying under the suspension bridge.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Dermot A. Boyle once said of those who reach for the skies that they ‘display traditional British virtues, love of adventure, endurance in adversity and a sense of humour’. He was probably well aware that for some high spirited RAF pilots, bravery could easily turn to bravado. Those ‘daring young men in their flying machines’ would ‘lose their goggles’ or go ‘loopy’,
Flying under Clifton Suspension Bridge seems to have been a temptation for pilots almost since aeroplanes first flew. ‘It just asks to be flown under,’ said Group Captain Peter Heath when he related an extraordinary history of daring flights before he died in 1984.
Having served with No. 25 Squadron, he would have been well aware of the amazing manoeuvrability of the Hawker Fury, an aeroplane which thrilled the public with aerobatic displays at Hendon in the late 1930s. He also found, through personal research in later years, that Clifton’s bridge had encouraged an impromptu kind of aerobatic fever since 1911.
‘It seems the ﬁrst pilot to give way to temptation was a Frenchman, M. Tetard, smartly followed in 1912 by someone once reported as Alan Cobham, mistakenly I think,’ related Peter.
‘Somebody certainly went through in 1912 because the police stopped an Englishman having a shot the next year, when a ban was imposed on the whole idea because of danger to people below or damage to the bridge itself. Possible damage to the pilot does not seem to have come into it.
‘That ban did not survive long into the first world war. By 1916 there was a flying training unit, No. 66 Squadron, at Filton and those pilots were soon ‘eyeing’ the bridge.
One evening in the Mess, Lieutenant Basil Scott-Foxwell announced that he might have a go and accepted a bet from his instructor for five pounds, a lot of money in those days.
So on Christmas morning, 1916, the two set off in separate aircraft, Scott-Foxwell to go through the bridge while his instructor stayed up aloft to “see that he damn well did”.
And he did, flying along above the Gorge from Avonmouth and dipping under the bridge at the last moment. Scott-Foxwell did not enjoy it much and thought it a hard-won fiver.
Not surprising really, with the unreliability of the little 80-100 h.p. rotary engine in the old Avro with a top speed of about 80 m.p.h. The flight must have been the ﬁrst, I think, of that era because they became so frequent later that no-one would have wagered five bob, let alone ﬁve pounds on it.’
Peter went on to say that witnesses were actually on the bridge as aircraft flew under them, while others saw the amazing sight of formations of three going through usually ‘on Sunday afternoons after Sunday School at Clifton’.
He gained some fascinating evidence from a Mr Downs who, as a youth, worked in the top terminus of the Rocks Railway near the Vincent Rocks Hotel. ‘The hotel usually had about a dozen pupil pilots billeted in it and they all knew Arthur Downs.
They would tip him off. “Watch tomorrow morning, Arthur.” He would and, as he put it.
“Someone would always go through the bridge, two or three times a week sometimes.”
Probably by that time, no self respecting pupil thought himself fully fledged unless he had “done the bridge”. Reprehensible possibly, but when you remember that, once they got to France, their life-expectancy was statistically just three weeks, you can hardly blame them.
A Lieutenant P.G. Taylor went through in those days but a Pilot Officer K.T. Irwin and a Squadron Leader Shales both claimed to have “looped the bridge”.
Shales, I understand, did it later in 1920, long after leaving Filton when he would have been flying Bristol Fighters, much more powerful machines. I have ﬂown them myself and, yes, they loop very nicely — but sooner him than me.’
When the war ended the Gorge and Bridge were also left in peace.
Then in 1930 a Mrs Hunt saw, from the Portway, a small aeroplane ‘dip gently under the bridge and climb quietly away. No fuss, no noise.’ The description ﬁtted that of a civilian D.H. Moth.
Three months later on a September morning, ‘a Siskin fighter went clattering through, flipped up over Leigh Woods and vanished’.
Peace reigned once again. The second war, unlike the ﬁrst, saw stricter controls over aircraft, their services fulfilling a more desperate need. During this time Clifton College was used as a Headquarters for the 1st American Army and they kept a few small aircraft on The Close. Maybe our gum-chewing friends were ‘bitten by the bug’ as what was probably an Auster took a ‘jolly’ under the bridge in 1943 and 1945.
Then in the autumn of 1945, at over twice the speed of the Auster, Lieutenant Dennis Hartas, RNAS flew across from Yeovilton in a Corsair to put on a show for a favourite Aunt (Christmas coming up?). He ﬁnished his display doing 300 knots and had to make such a steep turn into the Gorge that he thought he was going to hit the cliff by Sion Hill.
The close-up he got of that cliff — and perhaps of Auntie as well — scared him stiff.
However, he missed them both and went on for a long career with British Airways.
In 1955 RAF Westonzoyland grounded its Meteors to investigate which culprit, if any, had at the time flown under the bridge. The more powerful the aircraft obviously the more expertise required to fly them and this love of adventure which resulted in such escapades needed tempering. As Peter related, not everyone survived the curious call of the bridge.
‘The next and last flight under the bridge ended in tragedy. On Sunday, 3 February 1957, No. 501 (City of Bristol) Auxiliary Squadron was to hold a parade and fly-past to mark its ﬁnal disbandment. Prior to this, in the morning, Flight Ofﬁcer John Greenwood Crossley flight-tested his Vampire fighter and, presumably, to mark the occasion in a less official manner, shot through the bridge at what the current newspapers reported as “terrific speed”.
High speed was nearly the undoing of Lieutenant Hartas, and Crossley was ﬂying probably half as fast again. Sadly, he misjudged things and hit the Gorge-side at Leigh Woods, killing himself instantly.
‘After that, as far as I can discover, no-one else has tried. Times, aircraft and pilots have changed. The light-hearted pilot-boys of the wars, who would stick two ﬁngers up at authority on the slightest provocation, have gone.
The modern service aircraft is too fast, too heavy to ﬂip casually in and out of gorges, and, perhaps, everything is taken a little more seriously now.
You might say that the bridge, with its beautiful massive dignity, has seen them all off and won.
It is for the best I suppose but, as a one-time wayward pilot-boy myself, I sometimes look at Clifton Suspension Bridge, shake my head slowly and think — Y’know. That thing still wants flying under!’
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