David D'Arcy Greig's Lucky Escape.

On the 22nd April, 1927, David D’Arcy Greig DFC, an experienced pilot on the staff of Headquarters Fighting Area, had a close shave which nearly cost him his life, whilst carrying out a spin test on a Gloster Gamecock.

At the time, the Gamecock was the fastest fighter flown by the RAF and 23 Squadron were very proud of their aircraft. However, it was beginning to become apparent that some pilots were finding it practically impossible to recover from spins using conventional methods.

In February, 1927, Air Vice-Marshal Hugh Dowding (then Director of Training), had visited the RAF’s Central Flying School to question the instructors there about their experiences flying the Gamecock,  but they insisted that it was a pleasure to fly. However, all present failed to note the fact that their one and only Gamecock was not equipped with guns – a vital factor in comparing its handling qualities with those of the fighter squadrons. 

Arthur McDonald, then a Flight Commander with 23 Squadron, at Kenley, decided to try a spin-recovery practice, but found that it was practically impossible to induce the Gamecock to go into auto-rotation, concluding that the aircraft was ‘unspinnable.’

Some weeks later, Flying Officer Harold Campbell Gambier Dauncey did succeed in spinning the Gamecock and returned to Kenley “considerably shaken” having come close to baling out when he found that it was indeed, almost impossible to recover from the spin.

MacDonald decided to report the phenomenon, and David D’Arcy Greig, who had recently been appointed Area Examining Officer for Fighting Area, was sent to investigate. Although Greig considered Dauncey’s  report to be “well put together,” he suspected that the alarming account might be an exaggeration.

Greig didn’t have to wait long to put his suspicions to the test – on 20th April, the Commander in Chief of Air Defence of Great Britain was due to inspect Kenley and Greig was asked to fly him there. This gave him the opportunity to test Dauncey’s Gamecock  (J7899). Parachutes had only been introduced by the RAF for about a year, and the Communications Flight hadn’t been equipped with them at this point. However, Greig was able to borrow Dauncey’s when he arrived at Kenley.

Greig planned his test flight carefully, aiming to do three spins to the left followed by three to the right. The repetition of the test was intended to see if the adjustment of the tail-plane had any bearing on the recovery from a spin. After climbing to 15,000ft, Greig carried out his spins to the left, experiencing no difficulty in recovering. However, problems began to become apparent when the tests were repeated to the right – when the tail-plane adjustment was neutral the attitude of the aeroplane changed after about six turns, with the nose rising towards the horizon and the spin becoming very smooth. Forward stick movement and reverse rudder had no effect. The spin was eventually stopped, after a couple more rotations, when Greig opened up the engine. Needless to say, he didn’t even attempt a right-hand spin with tail-plane adjustment fully back.

Back at Uxbridge, Grieg reported his findings to Group Captain Maund, (Chief Technical Officer), and alterations were made to the rigging of J7899, which Greig tested again on 27th April, finding no improvement. After lunch in the Kenley Mess, he decided to carry out a comparative test on one of the Gamecocks from the Battle Flight (J8039). In addition to the normal equipment, this aircraft was also carrying 1000 rounds of live ammunition, changing the loading of the aircraft.

Greig followed the pattern of his earlier test flights, but encountered problems on his first right-hand spin with the tail adjustment fully forward. After a dozen rotations the spin became very flat and the aircraft failed to respond to any of Greig’s efforts to recover from it. After 28 revolutions and a height loss of 6000ft, Greig had no option but to take to his parachute, but had to struggle against the centrifugal force of the spin. He was flung clear as the aircraft bucked over onto its back, and fell for several hundred feet before regaining his wits enough to pull the ripcord. The wind caused him to drift for about two miles before landing safely. The Gamecock, on the other hand, was loaded with more than fifty gallons of fuel. Moments after Greig had left the aircraft, he spotted the Gamecock descending in a “very wild and flat inverted spiral” over Caterham High Street and Whyteleafe. As the spectators at Kenley watched in horror, the strong wind caught the Gamecock and it mercifully cleared Caterham. Greig saw it erupt in a sheet of flame at Riddlesdown, as he descended on his ‘chute.

Mr. W. D. Moors proprietor of the Rose and Crown Hotel, Riddlesdown, witnessed Grieg’s decent:

I could see the figure of a man hanging to the body of the plane, but as it rushed to earth with a cloud of black smoke in the sky behind it in the sky, the man seemed to throw himself free and I saw that he was equipped with a parachute, which soon opened. The smoking plane came hurtling down almost directly almost directly above me and I felt for a second that it might hit the hotel. It fell wide, however, and as it crashed it burst into a roaring mass of flames and was but mere wreckage within a minute.

(Daily Herald 23/4/1927)

Miraculously, Greig was uninjured, picked up his parachute and set off to try and find a telephone. The first person he encountered was a little girl called Betty Knight, whose Mother ran the Hare and Hounds pub in Chelsham. She was quite taken aback by the appearance of this strange man who she later described as “wearing women’s clothes, carrying sheets.” He asked her where he could use a telephone and she directed him towards ‘Fairchilds.’ Leaving his parachute on the threshold, he entered the house through a French door and found two white-haired ladies enjoying a cup of tea. Once he had explained what had happened and called Kenley, there was time for a whiskey and soda, before a car arrived to take him back to the airfield. It was only when he thanked the ladies and enquired their names, that he realised that he was being entertained by the sisters of Colonel Arthur Stewart Daniell, Chairman of the Oxted Court, who he had encountered the previous December, when he had been fined for speeding twice in his Austin 7!

The following day, Greig was interviewed by Sir John Salmond about the Gamecock and was asked to continue his spinning investigations. However, much to his relief, the job was passed to the test pilots at Farnborough. His courage and skill in carrying out the Gamecock spin tests was mentioned in the citation for Greig’s award of the Air Force Cross, gazetted 19th May, 1928.

David D’Arcy Alexander Greig was born in Scotland on the 1st of February 1900. He was given a private education, first at Weston House School, Elgin and then at Elgin Academy. The 1911 Census of England and Wales, shows that in 1911, he was a boarder at Shrewsbury House.

David joined the new RAF in 1918 and saw service with No. 83 Squadron in France in the last year of the war. On the 13th of September, the FE 2B biplane he was flying was shot down behind German lines. He avoided capture and walked 13 miles through enemy territory and the German front line to reach his unit. Post-war, Grieg spent three years with No.6 Squadron in Iraq, before returning home to England for a long period of leave, before being posted to No.24 Squadron at Kenley. Greig recalled that:

The work of 24 Squadron was varied and interesting, ranging from communication flying to ab initio instruction. It also provided ‘Hacks’ for officers working at the Air Ministry. The aircraft were a mixed bag of Bristol Fighters, DH9a, and Avro 504K, plus three machines of a new type for trial and report, cumbersome contraptions called Fairey Fawns, a two-seat day bomber.

Whilst an Instructor at the Central Flying School in 1924, he carried out aerobatic displays with John Boothman, where they did a mirrored falling leaf, with Boothman being inverted. During one of these displays, Greig misjudged the manoeuvre and crashed, but fortunately he walked away from the wreckage uninjured.

He also led the CFS aerobatic team of five Genet Moths in 1927.
Selected as a member of the High Speed Flight, he later (1928) raised the World Air Speed Record to 319.57 mph in the Supermarine S5 and participated in the Schneider trophy in 1929.

David D’Arcy Greig retired from the R.A.F. in 1946 with the rank of Air Commodore.

Sources:
‘My Golden Flying Years’ by Air Commodore D’Arcy Greig DFC AFC, edited by Norman Franks and Simon Muggleton
Gloster Gamecock advertisement from ‘Aeroplane’ magazine, 15th December, 1926.

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