HS125 crashes on take-off 1975

1975, 20 November: Bob Bartlett: At 4 pm an HS125 taking off from Dunsfold Airfield struck a car on the A281 Guildford to Horsham Road, killing the woman and five girls travelling inside. On a dark late afternoon in 1975, at about 4 pm November 20, Sergeant Robert Bartlett, the Cranleigh Sergeant, was sent by Control to the A281 Guildford to Horsham Road at the end of the Dunsfold runway, where a plane was reported to have crashed.

Dunsfold was an airfield owned by British Aerospace and here they put together the Harrier fighter plane, and did the test flights. The Harriers had been known to crash and pilots had been killed in the past. He was very soon on the scene and as he parked the police car on the A281 at the end of the runway, alongside the cars of the public who had been using the road he could see an aircraft about two to three hundred yards to the east of the road, on its belly and in a field.

The sergeant booked arrival with HQ Control telling them that it was probably a Harrier involved in the crash and that he would check and call them back. As he walked across the field from the road in the gloom, he became conscious that he was walking through scattered quantities of metal distorted into all shapes and sizes strewn across the path the plane had taken. He thought that the metal had come from the plane following its impact with the ground.

It was getting quite dark, and the sergeant was confronted by a number of Chinese people walking towards the road. That was a little confusing as his mind set had it that at the most, this was a two seat aircraft and therefore the Chinese must have stopped on the road and come to help. As he got near to the aircraft it became obvious that it was very much larger than a Harrier, and it would turn out to be an HS125, which was a passenger carrying aircraft. Not an airliner but more a large executive jet. The pilot was very famous during the war, and was known as "Cats Eyes" Cunningham.

HS125 crashed at Dunsfold 1975

The smell of aviation fuel was overpowering. It is unmistakable and permeates everything, getting right inside your system. Sergeant Bartlett was soon by the aircraft and it was obvious that everyone was out and that no one was trapped. The Dunsfold aerodrome fire engine was on site by the time the police had arrived and there was some foam around the rear of the aircraft but no fire, although there had been a small blaze.

He returned to his car to give a radio update to Control by which time the metal debris was obviously that of a car. The plane had hit birds, lapwings, on take off and came down at the end of the runway. The speed was so fast that there was no time to brake and the plane shot through the perimeter fence across the road hitting a car.

Very soon there was a large-scale response to the incident, which included Inspector Derek Stratton from Godalming and ACC John Over. The Chief Constable Peter Mathews, was somewhere on the M1 when the call came in and so it took him a great deal of time to get to the scene. It was soon to discover that there had been five children and an adult in the car, all killed, as the vehicle was crushed and completely destroyed.

You can imagine the difficult and sensitive job of gathering the remains for removal to the mortuary, fortunately undertaken by the Fire Brigade.

The air traffic controller from the airfield came to the scene and the even greater tragedy was that it was his wife and children who were killed along with a couple of their school friends on their way home from school. The only significant and identifiable part of the car left was the number plate through which of course, the registered owner was soon found and the link made with Dunsfold and Hawker Sidley.

It was a difficult task that evening and all the next day as with great care we searched the site, and marked all the pieces of debris with metal stakes identified with an evidence label. Everything no matter how small or apparently insignificant was then plotted and recorded to be shown later on a very detailed scale plan of the site of the accident.

Working under the direction of the Air Accident Investigators police recovered small pieces of body and bone, which all had to be treated with the greatest of respect before being removed to the mortuary. Every piece of the aircraft and the vehicle were recovered, as it was not known what at this stage would become crucial in the enquiry. It was a detailed and methodical search to ensure that no evidence was missed.

No matter what we did at the scene it was not so difficult a job as that done by the Sussex village PC from Loxwood, who came to the scene and volunteered to make certain that the families of the deceased were all informed. The Chinese had come from the aircraft and were passengers on a top-secret mission to consider the purchase of Harrier jump jets. They were all taken to the hospital to get them away the site, where it is said they all gave as their names and addresses as the Chinese equivalent of John Smith, 1 High Street, London.

The investigation confirmed what was initially thought to be the cause of the incident. As the HS125 roared down the runway the plane hit a number of lapwings and they were ingested into the engines leading to a catastrophic loss of power. The aircraft immediately came down on the runway but was going too fast to stop. It tore through the perimeter fence across the A281 demolishing the car full of children. The whole thing was just down-right bad luck. A few months later emergency services personnel from the scene joined the family at Guildford cathedral for a memorial service.

Tony Forward: Superintendent David Stewart was the reporting officer. Five people (schoolgirls) were killed in the car. The aircraft had taken off from Dunsfold with Chinese visitors on board. It ingested birds into the engines and never gained height. It crossed the A281 Horsham Road, hitting the passing car. Nobody aboard the aircraft was injured. The gap in the hedge where the aircraft went through can be seen to this day.

John Thorne: I attended with Chief Constable as his driver. The HS125 piloted by John Cunningham known as Cats Eyes, took off and flew into a flock of birds - lapwings. The aircraft careered through a hedge and struck a passing car containing the wife and children of a test pilot from Dunsfold. All the occupants of the car were killed.

I do not know if the following contravenes the Official Secrets Act. The aircraft was being demonstrated to members of the Chinese delegation. A Chinese member was injured and taken to Royal Surrey County Hospital. During the night, a car arrived and whisked him away. He was never seen again. It was said the Chinese did not want any publicity.

Clive Stanbury: I was called back from temporary inspector duties at Guildford to conduct grid mark and document the crash site. The plane involved was a Lear jet type with I believe Chinese people on board who had been to Dunsfold looking at Harriers. I may not have this exactly right but I think the pilot of the crashed aircraft was a friend of a fellow pilot who was the father of two of the children who were killed being passengers in one the two cars the plane hit and took off the A281 road. The cause of the crash was a flock of birds taken into the engines.

Dave Spratt: I had some dealings with this. This was at the time of the height of the 'Cold War' and a delegation of Chinese people was taken up in the aircraft; I imagine they were intending to buy the plane. I cannot remember the name of the plane but it was an executive jet with two engines on the rear fuselage. It was being piloted by 'Cats Eyes' Cunningham, a well known bomber pilot from the Second World War.

At this time he was the Chief Test Pilot for de Havilland. He took off from Dunsfold but unfortunately hit a flock of plover which got sucked into the engines and stopped them and the plane clipped a top of a hedge at the end of the runway crossed the A281 taking the top off of a car killing I believe the five occupants. As I remember most of the dead were school children.

It was great piece of piloting by Cunningham as he did manage to land the plane and nobody aboard was killed or injured. As these were Chinese you can imagine there was lot of politics involved and Special Branch were all over the place (DI Brian Richardson was DI Special Branch). I obtained the statement from Mr Cunningham at the Royal Surrey County Hospital.

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