Winter fatal for MAEE aircrew

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MAEE-menuTHE ICY blast of winter is nothing new for Helensburgh and district which has endured many cold winters over the centuries — and during World War Two the consequences were fatal.

For the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment, based at Helensburgh and Rhu  between 1939 and 1945, ice, snow, sleet and fog served up a deadly cocktail of weather.

Flying experimental flying boats and seaplanes was hazardous enough in normal weather for test pilots and air crew.

But bad weather caused, or contributed to, flying accidents, and the winters of the war were among the coldest on record that century, retired newspaper editor Robin Bird, who has researched the story of MAEE Helensburgh, says.

Robin’s father, MAEE photographer Bob Bird, kept a wartime diary and it continually mentions how cold the place was.

“Despite a warm welcome from the residents of Helensburgh and Rhu, MAEE personnel found their new home a cold place during the winter months,” Robin said. “In the context of the cold winter weather these days, it is easy to appreciate what flying must have been like.”

Bob’s diary entry for January 31 1941 reads: “Flying in Catalina. 20,000 ft. God it was cold. F/t Pike and myself are over an open bomb hatch. Oxygen thin.

“I have frostbite in two fingers on each hand. Pyke’s eyes affected. 35 degrees below zero. We crash land at 1500 hours.”

Bob spent over a week in hospital recovering from frostbite, but other aircrew caught out by the cold were not so fortunate — sometimes when they thought winter was over.

The Short Scion was a four-engined nine passenger floatplane that never went into full production because of the war. One of these, Short Scion L9785, was taken over by the MAEE as a test bed aircraft.

Because of its good handling and relatively small size, it was ideal for experimenting with hull designs that would feature in future Sunderland flying boats.

On Wednesday morning March 15 1944, L9785 was prepared for flight. Everything was carefully checked by a technician before the pilot and crew arrived. He noted a light frost on metal surfaces despite it being mid-March. In fact, it was a very cold morning.

The pilot was advised that there would be a slight delay while the Scion was defrosted. It then took off from Rhu — and, shortly after, crashed.

Besides the pilot, there were two boffins aboard, Messrs Hamilton and White, and the latter unfortunately drowned. The court of inquiry blamed ice on the wings for what they called the flying accident.

maeeRobin, whose second book on MAEE Helensburgh is close to publication, said: “Most of the former MAEE personnel I have spoken to remembered those cold long winters during the war.

“Fish soup, it seems, was a popular winter warmer, there being a plentiful supply from the Gareloch.”

At Christmas the MAEE flying officers treated themselves to a festive feast. The menu on Christmas Eve 1944 even featured ‘Sole a la Gareloch’.

And there was no shortage of salt to grit the roads, it seems. One story recalled to Robin told of a convoy of lorries arriving at MAEE loaded with salt.

The drivers asked for it to be signed for and the bemused MAEE sergeant obliged, asking why so much salt had been delivered. “This is RAF Helensburgh?’ was the reply.

Someone somewhere had sent salt to RAF Helensburgh to clear the runways — not realising that Helensburgh was a seaplane base.