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‘Killy’ Kilpatrick and DN510

By Anthony Knight – Typhoon Entente Cordiale Trust Secretary and Killy Kilpatrick’s nephew

The Irvine Airchute Company introduced the Caterpillar Club for persons whose lives had been saved by their parachutes. Very many pilots during the Second World War and after owed their lives to their parachutes but few could claim that they had nothing to do with the parachute’s operation. ‘Killy’ Kilpatrick, of 193 Squadron RAF had an unusually exciting and harrowing story to accompany his Caterpillar badge.

 

Amelia Earhart with her Lockheed Vega 5B NR-7952 at Derry and which Killy saw

Amelia Earhart with her Lockheed Vega 5B NR-7952 at Derry and which Killy saw (Photo: Independent Newspapers)

Known as ‘Will’ within his family and ‘Killy’ in the Air Force, Alfred William Kilpatrick was born near Londonderry (now just called Derry). His father was a local teacher and Sunday School Superintendent. Killy did not enjoy school as he disliked what he experienced as unfair treatment and discipline from one of his teachers. His first aviation experience was on the morning of May 21st, 1932. Killy was outside his home at Ballyarnett (Londonderry) when he saw a bright red aircraft circling and preparing to land. He ran down the road, arriving in Farmer McGilligan’s pasture soon after Amelia Earhart, in her Lockheed Vega aircraft had landed from her solo flight, the first by a woman, across the Atlantic.

Killy volunteered for the RAF when he was working in Dublin, having been impressed by a photograph in Picture Post of a Hurricane. There was no conscription in Ireland so Killy was a volunteer. The RAF were not recruiting pilots at that time, so Killy was offered training as an Air Gunner, which he declined, saying it was pilot or nothing. He joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve and was eventually called up for initial training in England, then went to Canada for advanced training on Harvards during the winter of 1941/42. On his return to England Killy’s training continued first to Ternhill, flying Miles Masters, then to an OTU at Tealing near Dundee to fly Hurricanes. His first squadron posting came in January 1943 to the newly formed 193 Squadron on Hawker Typhoons. With some misgivings, because the Typhoon already had a bad reputation for structural and engine failures, he drove to Devon, in an Alvis Speed 20 roadster borrowed from my father, to join 193 Squadron at Harrowbeer. On the way he had to leave the car in a garage in Tavistock because a faulty gudgeon pin had damaged a cylinder bore; more of that later.

Accident at Harrowbeer, Feb 4th 1943

Typhoon JP919 193 Squadron RAF Harrowbeer

Typhoon JP919 and 193 Squadron at RAF Harrowbeer (Photo: World War Photos)

The new 193 Squadron was formed in December 1942 at Harrowbeer (Yelverton, North of Plymouth on the edge of Dartmoor) and had only recently received its new Typhoons. The weather at Harrowbeer during January 1943 had been very bad, so very little flying was possible. Several of the pilots, including Killy, were straight from training units where they had flown Hurricanes but had never flown a Typhoon before, so much time was spent just sitting in cockpits, sometimes blindfolded, to learn the layout of the controls. At first, there were no Typhoons, only elderly Hurricanes. There was great excitement when the first Typhoon was delivered by the ATA and the Squadron Leader was able to demonstrate its abilities. The Typhoon had only been in service with the RAF for a short time and already had a bad reputation. The monster 2,400hp Napier Sabre engine was then unreliable, difficult to start and then prone to stop suddenly in the air. Sydney Camm, the Hawker Chief Designer, had argued that the Typhoon would be so fast that the pilots would not need to look behind, so the cockpit had little visibility to the rear.

The original cockpit had two car-type doors, with wind-down windows and the top of the canopy could be released for emergency exit. However, to do this, first both door latches had to be released, then the pilot had to cross his arms, grasping levers on both sides of the cockpit and pulling vigorously. This operation was not easy, as will be clear later.

Close up of the Typhoon's car door

Close up of the Typhoon’s car door

The Typhoon also suffered from a mystery fault – the tail could fall off! Several pilots had already been killed when their aircraft suddenly broke up in the air, giving them no chance of escape. Experts were trying to find the cause and a solution to it but, it would be two more years before the problem was solved, and then only partially. The Sabre engines also leaked Carbon Monoxide fumes into the cockpit, so pilots had to breathe Oxygen at all times in the aircraft.  Despite all this, the Typhoon was the biggest, fastest and most powerful fighter at the time and so new pilots looked forward to trying out their new aircraft.

Thursday, February 4th 1943 dawned an unusually fine day, with a cool breeze from the South-West and Cumulus clouds at about 5-6000ft. Flying at Harrowbeer started early, with several pilots getting their first experience of flying the 7-ton monster. Eventually, it was Killy’s turn to take DN510 (no Squadron letters yet assigned – the Squadron was not yet operational) for a test flight. He was told to “see what it could do”.  The aircraft was almost new, with only 6 hours of flying time, including the test and delivery flights. With some trepidation, Killy climbed up the steps behind the starboard wing and entered the “car-door” or, as the pilots described it, the “coffin job” cockpit. Once inside, sitting on his dinghy and parachute pack which also served as a seat-cushion, he was strapped in by a mechanic who then closed the cockpit roof and doors. Killy closed both door latches.  

A mechanic stood in front of the aircraft’s huge air intake, under the propeller, with a fire extinguisher (the engine was likely to catch fire, because of excess fuel collecting in the air intake, if not started quickly). Killy pumped the engine primers, set the throttle, then pressed the ignition boost and starter buttons. A loud bang from the Coffman cartridge starter was followed by a wheezing and coughing sound as the 24-cylinder engine turned over, then a roar as it came to life. Immediately Killy was aware of the severe vibration caused by the engine being mounted directly to the wing-spars and cockpit framework.

After running up the engine and testing the ignition, Killy waved away the ground crew and began, gingerly, to taxi towards the runway. Forward visibility was severely limited by the engine cowling and the huge 16ft diameter propeller, so it was necessary to swing the aircraft from side to side. Later, mechanics would often ride on the wings of the aircraft as they taxied, guiding pilots with hand signals.

Killy lined up at the end of the runway and awaited the signal from the control tower. Then he opened the throttle carefully (the engine was so powerful that a too sudden application of power could turn the aircraft over) and, with almost full left rudder to counteract the enormous torque from the engine and propeller took off and began to climb over Dartmoor. As he gained height the view became spectacular, and he could see from the Isle of Wight down to the Lizard. Eventually, to get a better view, he put his harness on half release and raised the seat. Killy was a tall man, and so his head was now very close to the Perspex canopy. After some time, the aircraft reached 30,000ft, a very unusually high altitude for a Typhoon. Killy later reported that the aircraft was nearly uncontrollable because of lack of engine power and ineffective controls at that height. Now he was now North of Dartmoor, towards Exeter.  Over the radio, he heard Exeter Control announce the approach of a suspected raider aircraft, possibly an Fw190. Killy, being enthusiastic and in a fully-armed Typhoon, immediately replied reporting his position and requesting action!

Hawker Typhoon MkIb in flight 16/4/43 (Photo: IWM)

Hawker Typhoon MkIb in flight 16/4/43 (Photo: IWM)

Control responded, telling him that he was not yet operational and instructing him to ‘pancake’ (land) at Harrowbeer. Killy, an Irishman, did not take kindly to this rejection. In frustration, he turned his aircraft towards Harrowbeer, which he could see in the distance below the patchy clouds, and dived toward the airfield. The Typhoon fell through 3,000ft, gaining speed rapidly (the Typhoon could reach over 500mph in a dive). An Ack-Ack battery below spotted the aircraft “performing turns” (either then or a little later).  Killy saw the altimeter registering 27,000ft, then began to throttle back, entering a diving turn to the right.

Now the Typhoon’s mystery structural failure mechanism operated. This was probably due to flutter-induced fatigue in the elevator mass-balance bracket, which suddenly broke.

There was a loud bang, actually heard on the ground, as the elevator went to full deflection, immediately snapping the tail off at the rear transport joint. The aircraft pitched violently forward, smashing Killy’s head through the Perspex canopy. Because he was half- harnessed, his head and shoulders were exposed. His flying helmet acted as a small parachute, tearing off, but taking with it the Oxygen tube and radio wires, which at that time were brought out at the front of the helmet (after debriefing following the accident, changed to exit at the rear). At 400mph, these began to strangle Killy and together with the slipstream, high altitude and freezing cold, quickly rendered him first blind, then unconscious.

Killy had made an attempt to free himself, but could not reach those two cockpit release handles, nor would the harness release work because of the tension on the straps. Killy became resigned to his fate. As aircraft fell to around 6,000ft Killy remembered briefly regaining consciousness and feeling dampness on his face, possibly as he passed through cloud. At this point, as the aircraft settled into a flat spin, the tension on the harness relaxed. Killy’s parachute had evidently come free of the seat and possibly snagged on the radio aerial behind the cockpit, the parachute deployed itself, dragging Killy out of the aircraft through the broken canopy. He descended, blind and partly conscious, to land in a small field above Meavy. DN510 crashed into a field on the other side of the village, its broken tail falling some distance away on the other side of the road. The aircraft landed almost flat, but was almost completely destroyed, except for the radio transmitting valve which was somehow miraculously preserved! There was a brief fire, during which much of the 20mm ammunition exploded. (Many live cannon shells were retrieved from the wreckage and were played with and traded by local boys until they were collected up by adults and dumped in Burrator reservoir – are they still there?).

At Harrowbeer the accident had been heard and possibly seen. The C/O took off in a Hurricane to try to locate the crash site. Meanwhile, a local road-mender had found Killy on the ground, where he had lain perfectly still, fearing that he might be in danger because of the rough terrain on Dartmoor. He had been reassured by the presence of curious cattle who had come to investigate this stranger. One of the boys from the village also attended to Killy – and this later gave us confirmation of the story. When Killy met that ‘boy’, in the Royal Oak at Meavy in 1993, there was some debate about which of two parachutists in the area had been Killy.  “You had a dagger in your boot”, said the rescuer. Indeed, Killy had such a dagger, carried by pilots mainly to deflate the rubber dinghy should it accidentally inflate inside the aircraft. Remarkably his rescuer revealed that at the time of the crash he had been working part-time at a relative’s garage in Tavistock and had recently rebored the engine of an Alvis Speed 20 car! Harrowbeer had now been informed of Killy’s location and ‘Doc’ Chapman, in the station ambulance, raced to the site. Killy remembers hearing Doc’s Geordie voice calling out “Ye’ll be alreet now Killy!”

Killy was taken to hospital in Plymouth, seriously injured in the face and eyes. He remained there for nearly 3 months, almost dying for the second time when his Oxygen supply failed.

Killy (Left), with the man who found him in the field, after the presentation of a model of DN510 by the Dartmoor Aircraft Research and Recovery team. The location is the dispersal pen at Harrowbeer from which Killy departed on Feb 4th 1943. (Photo - Anthony Knight TECT)

Killy (Left), with the man who found him in the field, after the presentation of a model of DN510 by the Dartmoor Aircraft Research and Recovery team. The location is the dispersal pen at Harrowbeer from which Killy departed on February 4th 1943. (Photo – Anthony Knight TECT)

Close up of the model of DN510 by the Dartmoor Aircraft Research and Recovery team presented to Killy. (Photo - Anthony Knight TECT)

Close up of the model of DN510 by the Dartmoor Aircraft Research and Recovery team presented to Killy. (Photo – Anthony Knight TECT)

The accident was briefly investigated by Hawkers and by experts from Farnborough. There had been several such failures, and the cause was a mystery. Killy was, we believe, the only pilot ever to have survived such an accident at such height and speed. There was one other pilot who survived a ‘structural failure’, but we have no details of the event or of that person. On his release from the hospital, Killy was invited to London to meet Hawker test pilots and to describe his experiences. This explains why, some weeks later, the Hawker test-flight records show Roly Beamont (famous test pilot – eventually flew the TSR2) performing throttle-back and diving-turn manoeuvres in Typhoons, as Hawkers tried to replicate the circumstances of Killy’s accident.

Closeup of Mod 286 on Hawker Typhoon MN235

Closeup of Mod 286 on Hawker Typhoon MN235 (Photo: HTPG)

When Killy returned to 193 Squadron, all of the Typhoons had been modified with ‘Mod 286’, the riveting of small metal plates around the rear transport joint. This was supposed to strengthen the tails but no-one told the pilots that this would not cure the problem! When Killy found out, in conversation with aviation author Chris Thomas, that the problem remained unsolved throughout the war he exclaimed: “if I had known that, I would never have got back into the aircraft!”

Apparently reassured, Killy rejoined his squadron, now fully operational, to be part of the build-up to D-Day and the Battle of Normandy.

 

Anthony Knight is Killy’s nephew and the Secretary of the Typhoon Entente Cordiale Trust. TECT’s aims include:

  1. Developing and maintaining links between yesterday’s Hawker Typhoon veterans, their families and friends, and the Eurofighter Typhoon squadrons of today.
  2. Preserving the memory of those who served with Typhoons during World War 2 and the traditions of the 2nd Tactical Air Force, especially during the Battle of Normandy in 1944.
  3. Cooperating with our companion organisation, ASAVN, in Normandy in the creation, dedication and preservation of memorials to Typhoon pilots who were lost during the Battle of Normandy.

To learn more about the work TECT undertakes, please visit their website at www.tect.org.uk

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