THE Teesside Airshow returns this weekend after a break of five years, and it opens a new chapter in its history which dates back nearly 75 years to when Middleton St George was a military airfield and to when were killed as a demonstration went tragically wrong.

The first airshow was held in 1948 when it was billed as an “RAF At Home” day – it was an invitation, in those days immediately after the Second World War, for local people to drop in on their neighbourhood airbase. It was held on or around Battle of Britain Day on September 15, which commemorated the day in 1940 when the heroic “Few” repelled a massive Luftwaffe aerial invasion and turned the tide. An element of that commemoration is in today’s programme with a fly-past by the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

The Northern Echo: HUGE CROWD: Battle of Britain Day in September 1959 was marked by a well attended airshow at RAF Middleton St George

The RAF At Home at Middleton St George in 1959

The following year, 82 RAF stations across the country were open to the public and attracted 764,000 visitors. The star aircraft would fly from station to station during the day to give the public at each venue the best possible display.

The 7,000 at RAF Middleton St George witnessed the most terrible tragedy in the day’s finale when a squadron of tanks engaged the airfield control tower in a mock invasion. The tanks received aerial support from six Wellington bombers, which flew over at 300ft and dropped 30 dummy parachutists to simulate an aerial landing.

The Northern Echo:

The RAF control tower, which the tanks tried to attack in 1949 when the dummy parachutes caused the disaster

Unfortunately, the dummy parachutists had been held in place in the planes’ bomb bays by light cord. On Wellington NC430, when a cord was cut to release the dummies, it got tangled in the elevators on the tail’s plane. The elevators are the main means of controlling the position of the nose of the plane, and so it plunged to earth.

The Northern Echo reported: “The Wellington appeared to dive into the ground while it was banking and slithered for a short distance.”

It immediately caught fire. “Fire tenders, ambulances and rescue squads were on the scene in a few seconds, but the plane soon burned out and there was no hope for the men trapped inside,” said the Echo.

The Northern Echo: The Echo's report of the tragedy at the second Teesside airshow in 1949

The Echo's front page report of the terrible crash, although the main story that day was about the pound being devalued

Six crew members perished, including the pilot, Flight Officer John Macpherson, 24, of The Caravan, Officers’ Married Quarters Site, Middleton St George. Two others came from Redcar, and one came from Seaham Harbour, and two of their wives had been among the crowds watching the display.

“Many of the spectators thought that the crash was ‘part of the show’,” said the paper. “An eyewitness told The Northern Echo that he thought at first that the plane was an old glider which had been allowed to crash to give a touch of realism to the scene and it was not until ambulances and fire tenders went to the spot that he realised that it was a real crash.”

A day later, the Stockton coroner said: “It is a melancholy fact that what should have been, and was hoped to be, an occasion of public rejoicing in recollection of the victory of the Battle of Britain should have ended in this unhappy accident. It is a very great loss of six young lives.”

At a court martial held at Middleton St George a few months later, the way in which the dummies had been secured to the bomb bay was described as “unorthodox with an element of danger”, and Squadron Leader Christopher Read was reprimanded.

The Northern Echo: From the Archive: Teesside airport c1966.

The new airport crowded for the 1966 airshow

Happily, air shows since have passed off without such drama. In 1964, when the RAF station became a civilian airport, the date of the shows moved from September into August in search of better weather.

In the 1970s, the shows drew huge crowds and were sponsored by ICI which used them to promote its new brand of ICI petrol.

The Northern Echo: A Vulcan amazes the crowd at Middleton St George with its display of agility during the At Home day on September 19, 1959. Picture courtesy of Geoff Hill

An amazing view of a Vulcan bomber on display at Middleton St George, probably in the late 1950s when the nuclear-equipped bombers were stationed there. Picture courtesy of Geoff Hill

The Northern Echo: Young Martin Sanderson of Guisborough enjoys flicking through the programme for the 1982 air show that was held at "Tees-side Airport"

Young Martin Sanderson of Guisborough enjoys flicking through the programme for the 1982 air show that was held at "Tees-side Airport"

The Northern Echo: At the 1988 airshow

At the 1988 airshow at Teesside Airport

On August 23, 1986, the airport hired in Concorde as the show’s star attraction for £35,000. It was the second of the supersonic plane’s three visits to the airport, and about 100 people were able to experience a rapid flight out to the Arctic and back.

The Northern Echo:

A commemorative postcard of Concorde's three visits to Teesside Airport in the 1980s

However, the airshow’s crowds were diminishing, and having the skies full of old planes on an August Saturday was hampering the airport’s growing tourist traffic so the last airshow was held in 1990.

It was revived in 2015 but it did not attract enough of the big names of the skies to satisfy aviation enthusiasts, and so the 2018 show was cancelled. Five years and a pandemic later, even the Red Arrows are appearing and tickets are sold out, so the crowds will be just as large as they were in the old days…

The Northern Echo: The sun doesn't always smile on the Teesside airshow as this picture of spectators huddling under the wings during a downpour shows

The sun doesn't always smile on the Teesside airshow as this picture of spectators huddling under the wings during a downpour in 2017 shows