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Last flight of WF791 - 21 years on

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I lived in the suburb of Ernesford Grange in Coventry as a kid, about three miles from Coventry Airport (better known then as Baginton Airport).

Twenty one years ago today, my dad and I were watching the annual Warwickshire Air Pageant from our back garden. It was, like today, hot and sunny and our proximity to the airfield meant we had a good free view of all manner of wonderful aircraft flying over our house as they took off from Baginton and turned around to be back on the return flight path.

Previous years had seen the likes of the Red Arrows performing spectacular fly-bys, however they had pulled out of the 1988 pageant after Birmingham air traffic controllers said they 'could not perform in safety'*

Nevertheless, the 1988 show promised some highlights such as an RAF Falcons parachute display and US Air Force F1-11's which were the first American planes to take part in the Warwickshire Air Pageant.*

Also taking part was 38 year old Flight Lieutenant Peter Stacey in a Gloster Meteor T7, registration WF791, a plane built by the company of local man and father of the jet engine Sir Frank Whittle.


Me and my dad stood in the sunshine of the back garden and watched that Meteor streak across the blue sky from left to right with the sunshine bouncing off its frame. Then it turned towards us and lowered altitude. It didn't register with me at the time and, in fact, it wasn't until I heard my dad telling the crash investigators later, that when it was just a couple of hundred metres above ground level and just a couple of hundred metres away, it was silent. The roar of it's engines had stopped and it was losing altitude and heading directly for our housing estate....

 

Some people say the Meteor had fallen below stall speed by then, but I know what I saw. Flt. Lt. Stacey knew if he hit the houses there would be massive loss of life and he took the split second decision to nose dive the stricken Meteor into a patch of open ground between the Willenhall and Ernesford Grange housing estates. I saw the Meteor in a controlled descent until that sudden nose dive. Sadly, the fuel laden plane exploded on impact into a massive fireball which bathed us in heat and left us knowing there was no hope of Flt. Lt. Stacey surviving.

Map of crash site
The crash site (red) and my approximate position at the time (green)


My father and I both ran out of the front of the house and around to the end of the road. The air was thick with smoke and the smell of aircraft fuel. A police car which happened to have been travelling down Lang Bank Avenue was already parked up with two stunned looking Police officers radioing for help and telling the residents to keep back. A WM Travel bus had swerved to a stop on Langbank Avenue ahead of the Police car and according to the Coventry Evening Telegraph the driver had feared the plane was going to his his double decker.*

There's no doubt in my mind that Flt. Lt. Stacey, in his final seconds, saw that bus, the police car and the people in their gardens enjoying the bank holiday sunshine. Maybe he even saw me. Whatever he saw in those final moments, he bravely scarified his own life to avoid a major disaster.

Twenty one years on, there are those of us who still remember.

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Flight Leiutenant Stacey's memorial at the crash site. Photographed 23/05/09

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The crash site in May 2009 as taken from the entrance to the housing estate. The plane hit the edge of the group of trees in the foreground at the centre of this picture. The single tree was badly burned at the time but eventually recovered. At the time, the police car was stopped here and nothing could be seen of the grassed area because of the thick smoke.


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The housing estate as seen from the crash site in 2009. Debris from the crash rained down on the houses in the foreground.


*CET 31/05/88

Aircraft WF791 is shown incorrectly on some websites as being destroyed in a mid air collision at Mildenhall. The Mildenhall crash involved Meteor T7 aircraft registration WA669. The official MOD accident report (linked below) confirms WF791 as the aircraft destroyed at Coventry.


External Links:


Pictures of WF791:
http://www.abpic.co.uk/photo/1049524/

http://www.airport-data.com/aircraft/photo/292806.html
http://cdn-www.airliners.net/aviation-photos/photos/0/5/3/1191350.jpg
http://www.airsceneuk.org.uk/wattisham/parttwo/meteor.jpg

MOD accident report, 14/12/88:
http://www.mod.uk/NR/rdonlyres/762C7D7E-7966-423F-8364-752A81751527/0/maas88_11_meteor_t7_wf791_30may88.pdf

Forum discussion (includes discussion on Mildenhall mix-up):
http://forum.keypublishing.co.uk/archive/index.php?t-24630.html

Article of interest from 2012:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-coventry-warwickshire-17526814



The story was well covered by the Coventry Evening Telegraph and a trip to the Herbert Art Gallery History Centre in Jordan Well found numerous articles from the time...

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CET, Final edition, 31/05/88



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Evening Telegraph, Rugby edition, 31/05/88

 

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CET, Lunch edition, 08/06/88


Other articles of interest (not shown here) can be found in the Herbert Art Gallery History Centre Coventry Evening Telegraph archives,  31/05/88 page 3, 01/06/88 page 1 & page 9 and on numerours readers letters pages over the first two weeks of June where people wrote to express their concern over ageing planes flying over their houses as part of the annual air pageant and praising Flt. Lt. Stacey for his courage.


Before I closed the Comments section of this blog I received the following messages:

A great piece of info, i saw the plane go down and all the smoke when i was a kid. Its haunted me ever since. The only nightmares i have are plane crashes, im sure this has had a big impact on me. Im glad i found this post, ive looked for information on it before but never found anything. :)
Rob Noon


I was Peter Stacey's girlfriend at the time he died and this is the first time I have been able to bring myself to read anything about the crash or look at any pictures. Losing him was a massive shock I was 25 at the time. I think about him every day - even now and mark the anniversary of his death every year.
Sam