AVIATION

By Don Foreman

The only airfield in the Parish of Capel was the WW2 'dummy', described in Capel Explored Two, and it might be assumed that there is little to say about aviation in the parish, but that is not the case.

Hot air balloons are today a peaceful feature of our summer skies, and it may come as a surprise to learn that one landed in a meadow near Moat Farm as long ago as 1902.

Unexpected visitor - 1911
Unexpected visitor - 1911

The first powered, manned, flight was made by Orville Wright in December 1903, and six years later Louis Bleriot famously flew his flimsy machine across the English Channel. In 1911 a similar aeroplane made an unexpected landing in Five Oak Green. Picture postcards show a strange contraption of struts, wires and canvas grounded in a field shrouded in mist and surrounded by curious locals, most of whom can have seen nothing like it before. The pilot, Lieutenant Samson, was one of the most experienced of his day, and was obliged to make his unplanned descent on a Capel field by bad weather.

During the 1920s and 30s lighter than air ships were developed, and the most famous of the British airships was the R101. In October 1930 this 777 foot long monster of the skies flew over Capel en route for India, watched by 3 year-old Frank Thirkell, then living in Alders Road, who remembers it to this day. Passing over the coast near Hastings, it tragically crashed near Beauvais in France, bursting into flames. 48 of the 54 passengers and crew lost their lives as a result, and Britain's flirtation with airships came to an end.

By 1931 Capel's inhabitants must have become used to seeing Imperial Airways passenger aircraft in the skies overhead because the parish lay under the flight path between London's airport at Croydon and Le Bourget, Paris. One of Imperial's fleet was named Hannibal, which on the morning of 8thAugust 1931 was seen flying low over Tonbridge en route for Paris. It appears that a piece of metal broke away from the port lower engine, flying debris struck the propeller of the port upper engine, and the pilot was forced to land in the large field close to 'Oakdene House', then the Vicarage, at the junction of Alders Road and Five Oak Green Road. Fortunately there were no injuries among the passengers and crew. Hundreds of people came from miles around to watch as the damaged plane was dismantled by Five Oak Green garage proprietor Alf Bishop and transported back to Croydon on specially constructed trailers.

The Flying Flea was the name given to a self-build aeroplane of the 1930s. It was meant to be a safe aeroplane which could be built by anyone with basic woodwork and metalwork skills at a cost of around £70, and was described rather optimistically as "the aerial motorcycle of the future." Unfortunately it proved to be unreliable and many Fleas crashed with tragic results, leading to it being banned by the Air Ministry. A Flea was built in Bishop's Garage in Five Oak Green, powered by an Austin 7 engine. Attempts were made to launch it from the Recreation Ground, but they failed, which is perhaps just as well given its safety record. The wingless fuselage hung for some years from the rafters of the garage.

Many brave pilots flew in the skies over Capel during World War Two, as recorded in Capel Explored Two. One such pilot, Group Captain Henry Ramsbottom-Isherwood, was killed in April 1950 when his Gloster Meteor jet fighter crashed in a field on Moat Farm, Five Oak Green. Witnesses saw, or heard, the explosion as the plane hit the ground, leaving a hole about eight feet deep and several feet long. The only recognisable part of the plane was a crumpled wing tip bearing the R.A.F. roundel. Such was the completeness of the destruction police officials were initially unable to determine the type of aircraft or its squadron location. The crash site was excavated in 2003, when examination of recovered parts confirmed the Coroner's conclusion that extreme ice accretion during a heavy snow storm would have caused loss of control, resulting in the inevitable crash.

Albert Simmons
Albert Simmons

Another famous and well-loved aeroplane was seen in the skies over All Saints' Church, Tudeley, on the afternoon of May 28th2009 for the funeral of Albert Simmons, who died aged 93. The Spitfire, originally from the Squadron in which Albert served, flew over the churchyard for several minutes, concluding with a Victory Roll - a fitting and unforgettable tribute to a son of Capel.