On 31st May 1944, a Short Stirling III, registration LK517, of the RAF’s 1654 Heavy Conversion Unit, based at Wigsley (near Lincoln), took off for a 5 hour flight of navigational and bombing exercises. The crew were warned that cumulonimbus (thunder) clouds, with tops up to 20,000 feet (6,000 metres), were forming over the Pennines, and were expected to move east.
At about 4.45 pm the Garrison Engineer of a Prisoner of War Camp near Darlington, heard an aircraft, and from the unusual noises it made, it appeared to be in difficulties. Shortly afterwards he heard two muffled explosions, immediately followed by the sound of the aircraft’s engines at full power, and in his words “producing a noise such as I have never heard from any aircraft before”. He then saw pieces of the aircraft falling out of the clouds.
This aircraft, which proved to be Stirling LK517, crashed between Middridge and Shildon, just off Spout Lane, opposite the access road to (the then existing) East Thickley Farm, in “Store Fields”. There was local witness to the crash, Mary Grant (who wrote about it to the Northern Echo in June, 2004).
NOTE: It should be remembered that at that time, the land between Middridge and Shildon, which was much smaller then than it is now, was basically all fields. Moreover, at the time, Middridge came under Shildon Urban District Council.
The Crew of LK517 were:
Pilot Officer Stanley Wilson (Pilot)
Flying Officer John Brooks (Bombardier)
Sergeant Donald Curtis (Flight Engineer)
Sergeant Nathaniel Crawford (Navigator)
Sergeant Fred Bates (Wireless Operator)
Sergeant Walter Lawton (Air Gunner)
Sergeant Thomas Parr (Air Gunner)
They were all killed, and are buried in their local Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery (the Pilot in the Ryker & Heaton Cemetery in Newcastle Upon Tyne). There is also a seat on the boundary of Shildon Cricket Club, n Hackworth Road, which has a plaque dedicated to the Crew, and carries the A. E. Houseman verse "Here dead we lie".
The remains of LK517 comprised the forward fuselage, with the wings, with their four engines, still attached, although both wing tips were missing, as was the rest of the aircraft, which had broken into pieces.
Air Accident Investigators were unable to ascertain which part of the aircraft had failed first, or more importantly, why. The subsequent RAF Board of Inquiry into the loss of LK517 was only able to surmise that the “loss of control when flying in cloud in which icing and extremely bumpy conditions were to be expected… may have resulted in a steep dive at very high speed in which over-speeding of the motors occurred. A violent pull out of the dive, probably on catching sight of the ground, may have resulted in an initial structural failure, followed by the disintegration of other portions of the airframe”.
This crash near Middridge was the third in a series of five crashes of Stirlings, all of which occurred in similar circumstances, with the aircraft coming out of a storm cloud in a steep dive, and apparently breaking up due to the airframe being overstressed when the pilot pulled back on the control column in an attempt to level the aircraft out.
However, the subsequent fifth crash (of LK207 near Potton in Bedfordshire), showed that the fuselage floor had failed in compression, so that the aircraft must somehow have ‘bunted’, or got onto its back! Flight tests showed that if the Stirling was dived beyond its limiting speed, a nose-heavy tendency progressively built up. This loss of control would eventually cause the aircraft to “bunt” over onto its back, and disintegrate due to being overstressed in this inverted condition. Thus it was now believed that all five Stirling crashes were due to their having “bunted” over after a steep dive, but the question remained as to why they had got into such steep dives in the first place?
The pilot’s seat harness in the Stirling was restricting, and very uncomfortable to wear for long periods, and it was eventually discovered that pilots were in the habit of only wearing their harnesses for take-offs and landings, but not during the rest of the flight. Thus if a Stirling was pushed into an unexpected dive by encountering turbulence in a storm cloud, the pilot could slide forwards out of his seat, pushing the control column forwards, leading to an even steeper dive, and complete loss of control.
NOTE: We will never know how many of the Stirlings which were lost on Operations may have been due to this reason, rather than Enemy Action.
Such accidents were eliminated in the short-term by strict orders that Stirling pilots must wear their harnesses at all times. Eventually a much more comfortable ‘Q’ type harness was fitted to all RAF Bombers.
The Short Stirling
The Short Stirling was the first of the RAF’s World War II four engined Heavy Bombers to enter service. Indeed, it was the only British four engined Bomber to see operational service in the War that was designed from the outset to have four engines, as both the Avro Lancaster and the Handley Page Halifax stemmed from what were originally two engined designs.
Unfortunately the RAF Specification required that its:
Wingspan be limited so it could fit the 100 foot (30 metre) wide door openings of the standard RAF Bomber Hangar.
Fuselage cross-section would fit within standard packing cases!
In order to keep the wing-loading within reasonable limits, the designers were forced to use a low aspect ratio wing, which had high drag. This gave the Stirling outstanding manoeuvrability for its size (which may well have contributed to the circumstances of the Middridge crash). However, it also severely limited other aspects of the Aircraft’s Performance, such as its Speed and Range, and particularly its Service Ceiling. Not only did this make the Stirling vulnerable to Anti-aircraft fire, which it could not fly high enough to avoid, but on Raids to Italy they often had to fly through the Alps, rather than over them!
Moreover the Stirling’s Bomb-bay was designed to hold the 500 lb. (225 kg.) and 1000 lb. (450 kg.) Bombs which were all that the RAF used at the time, and it was unable to accommodate the larger Bombs which later proved necessary.
Overall the Stirling was officially described as “a disappointment”, although this was the fault of the RAF rather than the aircraft’s designers. After a relatively short career as a first-line Heavy Bomber, it was relegated to other duties, particularly towing Gliders (for which it was used on D-Day, and for Operation “Market Garden” at Arnhem).