On This Day In 1947: Croydon Airport’s Douglas C-47 Crash

Today marks 75 years since the last major accident at London’s former Croydon Airport. On January 25th, 1947, a departing Douglas C-47 failed to get airborne in wintery weather conditions, resulting in it crashing into another aircraft of the same design. The crash destroyed both planes, causing 12 people to sadly lose their lives.

On This Day In 1947: Croydon Airport’s Douglas C-47 Crash
A view of Croydon Airport the year before the accident. Photo: Getty Images

The flight and aircraft involved

Edward ‘Ted’ Spencer was a pioneering interwar British aviator and entrepreneur. According to The Rhodesian Study Circle, he purchased his first aircraft while stationed with the British South Africa Police at Victoria Falls on the present-day Zambia-Zimbabwe border. This was the first of several planes owned by what eventually became known as Spencer’s Airways.

After the Second World War, the surplus of military aircraft was put to use commercially. Spencer’s Airways was a beneficiary of this transition, and, on January 25th, 1947, it was set to use an ex-USAF Douglas C-47. The C-47 was a military version of the famous DC-3, and known by British forces as the Dakota. Meanwhile, US forces called it the Skytrain.

The flight originated at Croydon Airport. This was London’s (and indeed the UK’s) primary interwar air hub, but lost significance after the war due to the growth of London Heathrow. After departing Croydon, the C-47 was set to make a stop in Rome, Italy. From there, it would continue to what is known as Harare, Zimbabwe (then known as Salisbury, Rhodesia).

SAS Douglas C-47
SAS was another airline to fly the C-47 after the war. Photo: Alexander Jonsson via Wikimedia Commons

What happened?

The flight left for Rome at 11:40 local time, under heavy skies amid falling snow. However, due to various factors, it reached just 100 feet before crashing back down to earth. The right wing dropped first, followed by the left wing as the pilot tried to correct the situation. Turning to the right, the bank angle was 40 degrees, with the plane just a few feet from the ground.

Despite leveling off, the aircraft crashed near the airport’s perimeter. Following this, it bounced along before striking another Douglas C-47 owned by ČSA Czech Airlines.

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The collision destroyed both the Czech C-47 (OK-WDB) and the briefly airborne Spencer’s Airways plane (YP-YFD). Sadly, 12 of the Spencer’s Airways C-47’s 23 occupants lost their lives, including Edward Spencer himself. Two engineers working on the Czech C-47 escaped with minimal injuries. Only two of the other 11 survivors were hospitalized.

Croydon Airport Getty
Croydon Airport closed 12 years after the accident. Photo: Getty Images

Investigation and parallels to a later tragedy

According to the Bureau of Aircraft Accidents Archives, the investigation into the crash found that it had several contributing factors. Among these were fatigue and ‘poor techniques’ on the crew’s part, including Captain Edward Spencer, who’d had minimal rest.

These led to poor judgment when the aircraft encountered difficulties. The BAAA also notes that the plane itself had no safety certificate, having only been delivered from the US the day before. Witnesses also reported that snow wasn’t removed from the C-47’s wings.

The crash bears some parallels to another notable tragedy in UK aviation, namely the Munich Air Disaster. This occurred in February 1958, when a BEA plane carrying Manchester United crashed in wintery conditions. Simple Flying took an in-depth look at the tragedy, which had the unlikely side effect of fostering postwar Anglo-German relations, last year.

Did you know about this accident? What are your memories of Croydon Airport? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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