SATURDAY March 15 2014 was the 70th anniversary of the fatal crash of a flying boat which took off from the Gareloch off Rhu Hangars.
An expert on the design of hulls of flying boats was on board on a cold and frosty morning when the top-secret experimental aircraft took off from the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at what was then called RAF Helensburgh.
The aircraft crashed in the Clyde off Greenock, and the reason given for this flying accident at an official inquiry was that ice on the wings had affected handling.
“This verdict may now be in doubt,” retired Mersey newspaper editor Robin Bird said. “New evidence has now emerged through my research into MAEE during its time at Rhu in World War Two.”
Robin, whose late father Bob was the MAEE photographer, has written two books about the establishment and amassed a vast amount of knowledge about its personnel and its work.
He said that first-hand accounts from a passenger on the ill-fated Short Scion and a service mechanic responsible for servicing the aircraft throw new light on the accident.
The Short Scion Senior was a limited production light transport or passenger aircraft with two Pobjoy engines. Designed as a land based plane, it proved not to be a success commercially.
The Air Ministry acquired the last one made around the time that war was declared. It was given the serial number L9786 and assigned to the MAEE as a seaplane to test experimental hulls.
Robin said: “An interesting feature of L9786 was that experimental hulls could be fitted centrally while the aircraft retained twin floats. Flush fitting duralumin rivets were another feature.”
L9786 subsequently was used to develop the large Sunderland flying boats which played such an important role in the war, particularly during the Battle of the Atlantic.
Also at Rhu was the prototype Sunderland, serial number K4774, used for hull and step trials in conjunction with L9786.
These trials resulted in several official reports which then contributed to the design of Sunderlands up to the Mk IV. This was such an advance in design that it was renamed the Seaford.
The senior MAEE scientist at Rhu involved with the Scion, H.G.White, had a dynamometer fitted to the central hull to measure drag forces — a sophisticated experiment at the time.
In 1944 Mr White was aided in this research by university graduate James Hamilton, who went on to prove his worth as an understudy.
In later life James was knighted for his own pioneering research work on the Concorde supersonic passenger aircraft.
The Scion had further modifications made to the half-scale experimental hull for tests to be conducted on that fateful morning of March 15 1944.
The aircraft — said to be ‘covered in frost’ — crashed shortly after take-off. The pilot was unable to manoeuvre it properly.
However, Robin has evidence that L9786 was de-iced properly before take-off. There may have been another reason for the crash.
He said: “It certainly seems things were hushed up by the court of inquiry. The Scion trials and the activities of the MAEE were covered by the Official Secrets Act.
“Maybe, this does not matter 70 years later, but it is worth remembering that Mr White gave his life in the name of research and helping the war effort.”
There were two other men in L9786 at the time of the crash. Mr Hamilton survived with relatively minor injuries, but was shaken by the experience of being rescued from the Clyde.
He did, however, return to his duties and succeeded Mr White in the role of a senior scientist. The pilot was removed from the MAEE.
“Fortunately, I spoke with Sir James Hamilton just before he died a couple of years ago,” Robin said. “We discussed the Scion accident.
“I have now compared what Sir James said with a contemporary report by the fitter who serviced the Scion. This casts doubt on the ice theory.”
Robin will continue to investigate the crash, and plans to publish his findings at a later date.