WHEN they’d landed on the beach at Seaton Carew the previous lunchtime, the ten pioneering aviators in their primitive biplanes had been greeted as heroes, tens of thousands of people flocking to see their daring descents.

But next morning, as they resumed their journey south, the magnificent men in their flying machines crossed the Tees and hit a bank of dense fog. It plunged them into confusion, and they blindly sought safe landing places, crashlanding into crops and paddocks to the north of Northallerton.

“One of the aeroplanes was found lying overturned in a field at Hutton Bonville with two terribly mutilated bodies pinned underneath it,” said The Northern Echo on May 16, 1914.

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The men, Lt John Empson and his mechanic George Cudmore, had been members of No 2 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps – the corps, formed only two years earlier, was the forerunner of the Royal Air Force. The squadron’s ten BE2a two-seater biplanes had been on a training exercise flying in easy stages from Montrose, on the east coast of Scotland, to their base on Salisbury Plain. They were accompanied on the ground by 32 motor wagons and 115 men, and the exercise was to see how air and road worked together.

On May 14, 1914, they’d landed on Seaton Carew beach after a half-hour flight from Blyth. “Practically the entire population of the Hartlepools visited Seaton Carew” to see them come in, said the Echo. There were up to 60,000 people on the sands, with Lt Dawes coming down in graceful circles from a dizzying height of 6,000ft.

“Work was almost entirely suspended in the shipyards and other works,” said the Echo, “and many of the shops were closed for part of the day and the schools from 11am.”

On May 15, they’d taken off at ten minute intervals from 5.30am into a clear sky. Immediately there was trouble, Cpt Waldron suffering engine problems and in landing “violently struck against a sandbank” near the golf course at Seaton Snook.

The remaining nine crossed the Tees and hit the fogbank. Three seem to have managed to fly around it; the others followed their training and sought to land when they got the first clear sighting of the ground.

Capt Dawes in No 229 “came to grief temporarily near Bedale but was able later to resume his journey” when the fog lifted, and later that day made an “excellent landing” at the Knavesmire.

Lt Harvey-Kelly brought his plane down near a brickyard at Brompton, narrowly avoiding a tree, without sustaining a major injury although “the carriage of the biplane was smashed to matchwood”.

Lt Rodwell and First Class Air Mechanic William Lee crashed with an awful noise into a field belonging to Lazenby Hall Farm near Danby Wiske station, on the west of the East Coast Main Line. They were bloodied but alive. Their plane, No 332, was “a pitiable wreck with the wings knocked off, the propeller smashed and the undercarriage torn from it”.

Lt Martyn, in No 235, had spotted their plight through a break in the fog and landed safely beside them to assist.

The fatalities, though, were on the east of the main line, in a field belonging to Church Lane Farm between Hutton Bonville and Lovesome Hill. In bringing No 331 down, Lt Empson had flown straight into a hedge which had flipped the plane into a somersault across a field of sprouting corn.

“The aeroplane lay an almost indescribable mass of twisted iron, broken steel wires, splintered wood, and torn canvas,” said the Darlington & Stockton Times. “The engine lay bottom upwards, no vestige of the propellor was to be seen, the canvas-covered wings were completely smashed, and splinters of the wood portions of the machine lay around.”

It lay cloaked in fog for nearly two hours until milkseller Henry Peacock, of Lovesome Hill, alerted farmer William Neasham to the tragic crop in his field. Farmer Neasham stopped a cyclist on the Great North Road (now the A167) and sent him pedalling away for the police.

By 11am, there were enough hands to extricate the bodies from the wreckage. “Their injuries are of a terrible character,” said the Echo, which didn’t spare any detail. “Lt Empson’s head is terribly damaged, his features being quite unrecognisable and, in addition, his neck is dislocated and both legs fractured in two or three places.”

The remains were transported in Mr Neasham’s cart to the home of Lovesome Hill joiner, Harold Beck. The D&S said: “The parlour of Mr Beck’s residence with its pleasant outlook over a pastoral country was converted into a temporary mortuary and here the remains of the two aviators were laid side by side covered with a snow white sheet.”

The following day, a Saturday, the inquests were held in Mr Beck’s house. Lt Empson, 23, came from Howden in the East Riding and had been in the flying corps for four months. In his pockets was found a cheque book and a silver cigarette case.

Mr Cudmore, 21, was from Manchester and had been flying for 18 months. In his pockets was found a letter from “Gertie”. “It would appear to be from his sweetheart,” said the D&S.

“If there is one bright ray in the sadness, it is that we are perhaps fortunate that the death toll is as low as it is,” said coroner GJ Gardner. “When we see the way these planes came down, it is miraculous that there were not more killed than these unfortunate two.”

A verdict of accidental death was returned, and Lt Empson’s body was taken by motor hearse to his parents’ home for his funeral. His fate, said the Echo, was keenly felt in Darlington as only three weeks earlier, on his flight up to Montrose, he’d been greeted by a large crowd when he landed No 331 at Eastbourne.

Mechanic Cudmore’s remains had to be returned by train to Manchester for burial. At 5am the following day, a sombre procession carried his coffin from Mr Beck’s house in Lovesome Hill down the A167 into Northallerton, where the streets were lined by large crowds, including 50 members of the Royal Flying Corps – “these were hardy, sunburnt, stalwart soldiers in khaki”, said the D&S, showing how in awe people were of these pioneer fliers who tried to defy death in the months leading up to the outbreak of the Great War.

At 6.30am, the cortege reached the cattle dock at Northallerton station and the coffin left on the 6.57am train to Manchester.

“Never probably within living memory have there been so many people astir and assembled at so early an hour,” concluded the D&S. “The whole was a very touching and impressive tribute to one was a martyr to the advance of a dangerous science.”

BLOB Chris Lloyd is giving his illustrated talk entitled “A Year in Darlo” at Hutton Bonville Parish Hall in Lovesome Hill on Tuesday, and will add a little about the air disaster. It starts at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £6 and include supper, and proceeds go to parish hall funds. For further information, phone 01609-772311, or come along on the night. Does anyone have any more information or even memorabilia of the disaster? It is said that the propellor of No 331 was salvaged from the scene and for some years was in a garage in the Northallerton area?

MONTROSE was the first operational military airfield in the UK, and it was the home of No 2 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps from 1913.

Since 1993, a museum called the Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre has been run by volunteers in part of the airfield. It is now an extremely polished visitor attraction run by an independent charity. Its website is rafmontrose.org.uk

The centre has the diary of Lt Col CJ Burke, who was No 2 Squadron’s first commanding officer. He was convinced of the military potential of air power and was determined in those early days to make it work, despite the large number of crashes – he was not a good flier himself and was renowned for his unscheduled landings.

He was in charge of the exercise on May 15, 1914. He was the last to leave Seaton Carew, having inspected the damage to then plane which had crashlanded into the golf course. He arrived at York at 10.30am and made no mention of any fog in his diary.

Soon after landing, he received a message asking him to phone Lt Martyn on Great Smeaton 2. Lt Martyn broke the news of the disaster and he immediately motored up from York. His diary records all the arrangements for the inquest and funerals in military details, although he’s not so good on the place names. He says that the accident happened near “Hutton Barnhill” and that the inquest took place in “Lovesome Green Schoolhouse” – which is where Tuesday’s talk is taking place, although nowadays the old school beside the A167 is known as Hutton Bonville Parish Hall.

Despite his dedication to aviation, when his old army regiment ran short of officers, Lt Col Burke volunteered to go to the frontline. He was killed at Arras on April 9, 1917, leading his men over the top.