The 7th June 2017 was the 75th anniversary of the worst accident, in terms of casualties, in the history of British military test flying.
On the afternoon of Sunday 7th June 1942, a Handley Page Halifax bomber, V9977, took off from RAF Defford in Worcestershire. This aircraft was equipped with an experimental radar, code-named ‘H2S’.
The aircraft was operated by a five-man RAF crew from the Telecommunications Flying Unit, based at Defford. Their captain was Pilot Officer Douglas Berrington, an experienced pilot. Also on board were Geoffrey Hensby (a TRE scientist in the H2S radar team led by Dr Bernard Lovell), two RAF liaison officers attached to TRE, and three engineers from EMI at Hayes, including the distinguished electronics engineer Alan Blumlein.
EMI had been granted the production contract for H2S, and Blumlein, who had pioneered stereo sound recording and the 405-line television system used by the BBC, was leading this radar work at the Company.
The Halifax headed to the Bristol Channel area to provide the EMI engineers with a demonstration of the H2S radar, but at 4.20pm the bomber was seen over the Forest of Dean, trailing smoke from one of its four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. A servicing error a few days previously had led to a catastrophic engine failure which resulted in a fire that spread to a fuel tank.
Just two minutes later the starboard wing detached and the aircraft crashed in a field north of the River Wye, at Welsh Bicknor, Herefordshire. All 11 on board died instantly.
A few days after the accident Dr Lovell was informed personally by the Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, that H2S radar development must retain its priority status. H2S went into action with Bomber Command in January 1943 and provided crews, for the first time, with a means of navigating accurately to targets as far afield as Berlin.
The sacrifices made in furtherance of radar test flying are commemorated in the stained glass of the Radar Memorial Window in the chapel at Goodrich Castle, close to the crash site of Halifax V9977. This window was dedicated on 7th June 1992, the 50th anniversary of the crash.
Memorial Window in Goodrich Castle Chapel
Defford has its own RAF memorial on the Village Green. This was unveiled in 2002 by Sir Bernard Lovell OBE FRS, Emeritus Professor of Radio Astronomy at the University of Manchester.