On 1st July, 1928, the RAF lost one of it’s brightest stars in a freak accident at Clifton, Bedfordshire.
Flight Lieutenant Harold Charles Calvey of 23 squadron, Kenley was killed along with his companion Flight Sergeant William Charles Hollier when their Avro 504N (H2534) dived into the ground not far from RAF Henlow, where 23 squadron had been stationed almost a year and a half previously.
In fact, the local hotelier who pulled the men from the wreckage was shocked to recognise Calvey, despite his injuries – he often stayed at his hotel and was a popular officer and a personal friend, who often returned to visit, performing stunts over the hotel to announce his arrival to his fellow RAF officers.
Calvey (31) was a fine aerobatic pilot and had held the world record for flying upside down. He was married with a four year old son. Hollier (35) was also married.
Here is a report on the crash from the Bedfordshire Times; Friday 6th July 1928, p5:
“THE CLIFTON AIR SMASH / WELL KNOWN PILOT KILLED / EYE WITNESS ACCOUNTS.”
“The fatal aeroplane accident at Clifton on Sunday evening caused deep concern in the village, for the pilot, Flight-Lieutenant H C Calvey, was very well known there and at Henlow Camp. Before being transferred to Kenley about 18 months ago he was stationed at Henlow and lived at Clifton Lodge, a residential hotel only a short distance from where he met his death. He had paid frequent visits here since his departure, and would announce his arrival to brother-officers at the hotel by circling three times overhead, sometimes flying upside-down, and doing other “stunts” before going off to land at Henlow, where his companions would meet him. It is thought that Flight-Lieutenant Calvey was about to follow his usual practice when the accident happened, but as Clifton is on the direct line from London to Sutton Bridge, where he was proceeding for ground firing practice, it may be merely coincidence that the accident occurred at this spot. At all events, the cause of the disaster remains a matter of conjecture. All that is known is that the machine was seen flying at about 1000 feet and approaching the lodge from over the church when without warning it went in to a spiral nose-dive and crashed to the ground. It fell near a corner of Church Close, an open hay field, and the crash was heard several miles away. When the first people from the village reached the spot they found the dead bodies of the pilot and his passenger, Flight-Sergeant W C Hollier, in the middle of the wreckage. The Henlow Aerodrome fire brigade and an ambulance were sent for, and PC Jackson, assisted by members of the RAF and other helpers, extracted the bodies. The machine was an Avro-Lynx two seater.
Mr F Humphreys, the proprietor of Clifton Lodge Hotel, told our representative on Sunday night that he was in the house when about 6.45, he heard a terrific noise. “I ran out with several officers who were staying at the house” he said, “and saw the smashed aeroplane just across the field. At first it was impossible to recognise the occupants, so badly were they injured, and when it was discovered that one of them was Lieut. Calvey we had an awful shock, as he had often stayed with us and was a personal friend.”
Mrs Humphreys stated that all her husband and two officers were able to do was to send for the ambulance and assist in removing the bodies.
The accident was actually seen by Mr G W Secker, who said that the machine fell at something over a hundred miles an hour with the engines (sic) running apparently full out until it hit the ground. There was nothing to indicate that anything was wrong until the nose-dive began. Another witness, Mrs Rodwell, who saw the smash from her house about 400 yards away, said that as the machine fell one of the airmen appeared to be waving. She added, “The whole village will mourn for Lieut. Calvey, for everyone here knew him, and there has never been a more popular officer in the village. It is like loosing one of our community, and his death happening at a spot that was so familiar to him makes the tragedy seem all the worse.”
People in the church heard the roar of the Avro’s engines during the reading of the Lesson, but no one seems to have attached any undue importance to the noise of the crash that happened a few moments later, and the service proceeded without interruption. However the Rector’s wife, Mrs La Porte Payne, who was not at the service, called Mr C Revitt, the lay reader, from the church and informed him of the occurrence and the Rector later announced the sad news to the congregation and offered special prayers on behalf of the bereaved relatives.
Flight-Lieutenant Calvey was about 30 years of age, and leaves a widow and a little boy aged four. On Saturday he took part in the Air Pageant at Hendon, afterwards dining with friends in London. Flight-Sergeant Hollier was also married.”
Another snippet from “Airways” magazine, from a contributor who called himself “Observer.” It must have been wonderful to see daring pilots like Calvey practicing in the skies over Kenley….
“On a recent visit to Kenly Aerodrome, I was fortunate enough to arrive just in time to see Flight-Lieutenant Calvey accomplish that extraordinarily difficult aerobatic, the inverted loop. In the manoeuvre, the machine in this case a Hawker ‘Hawfinch’, is first flown upside down, and then dived to attain sufficient speed for the loop, from which the machine emerges still flying upside down. The feat is not easy of achievement because when upside-down the wings are less efficient and the machine tends to stall more readily than when the right way up. Incidentally, Flight-Lieutenant Calvey, in my opinion, is one of the finest aerobatic pilots in the Royal Air Force, and at one time was holder of the world’s record for upside-down flying.”