In June 1952, a detailed specification was drafted for a two-seater jet aircraft that the Royal Navy could use in response to threat posed by the expansion of the Soviet Union. The aircraft would need a top speed 550 knots (630 mph), with a combat radius of 460 miles at low altitude, and 920 miles at higher cruising altitudes. It also needed to be able to carry a weapons load of 8,000 pounds (3,600 kg).
Blackburn Aircraft Limited won the tender in July 1955 with a design produced by their employee Barry P. Laight. This piece of business would set in motion a sequence of events that would eventually lead to the tragic crash of the Blackburn Buccaneer NA-39 prototype (serial XK490) on October 12, 1959, at Busketts Lawn Enclosure in the New Forest, near Lyndhurst and Ashurst. The accident would result in the loss of two lives.
Initially called the Blackburn NA-39, the first prototype of the newly named Buccaneer flew in April 1958, and by the next year, twenty had been produced in a development batch, and seven were being flown and tested, including Buccaneer XK490.
Before its final flight and crash at Busketts Lawn near Lyndhurst, the Buccaneer prototype had already completed 110 flights, including being tested in warm weather conditions in Malta. After returning from Malta, Buccaneer XK490 was showcased at the 1959 Farnborough Air Show in September.
During this trial and testing period, the aircraft had functioned without any significant issues and was sent to Boscombe Down in mid-September for simulated deck landing operations with the Navy. It was also in September that it was announced that a substantial production contract was now in place, and Blackburn Aircraft Limited were authorised to seek American orders.
It was this American connection was the catalyst for the tragedy that occurred the following month.
The United States government was interested in the Blackburn Buccaneer as the Americans had nothing as advanced in its field. The US sponsored six flights of XK490 via an arrangement with the UK known as the Mutual Special Weapons Project (later MWDP). This was an Admiralty agreement relating to US financial aid that would fund research and development.
It was the third of these six scheduled flights that would result in the tragic air crash at Busketts Lawn.
The planned flight was to start with a “blow-on” take-off, followed by ascending to an altitude of 15,000 to 20,000 feet. After reaching that altitude, manoeuvres were to be performed.
William Lewis Alford, an experienced American test pilot with NASA was flying Buccaneer XK490. The second person in the aircraft was British flight observer John Godfrey Joyce. He was an ex-RAF pilot employed by Blackburn Aircraft Limited who had been working on the Buccaneer NA-39 project for 14 months.
Before take-off, the pilot Alford said he was going to test low-speed handling before landing back at Boscombe Down. He was well-respected and regarded as being “highly proficient, intellectually sharp, and affable”. He had logged around 7,000 hours of flying time.
The Aviation Safety website writes:
“38 minutes into the flight a radio message was received from XK490 reporting “10,000 ft. descending V.F.R.” Two minutes later a number of witnesses in the Lyndhurst/Ashurst area saw the jet dive steeply into the ground. Both occupants made belated ejections but, unfortunately, both were killed.”
It’s believed that control of the Blackburn Buccaneer NA-39 was lost at 10,000 feet when Alford exceeded his brief by investigating single-engine flight in a low-speed blown condition. This type of test had not yet been trialled by Blackburn Aircraft Limited. The aircraft stalled, spun, and impacted ground at an inverted angle.
Both men ejected too late whilst the aircraft was flying upside down and were killed.
Geoffrey Thomas, a forester from Lyndhurst told reporters how he saw a plane falling like a leaf and then heard a dull explosion. He was the first to reach the scene in Busketts Lawn, as he followed a pall of black smoke rising from the woods. The aircraft had hit the ground with a terrific impact, creating a twelve foot deep crater in the ground. He found burning wreckage and a terribly mutilated body. The wreckage was scattered over a wide area.
Fire engines from Eastleigh, Lyndhurst, and Totton were sent to the scene. A fireman found a second body in nearby undergrowth.
Today it’s still possible to still see the crater in the ground which has since become a pond. It has been fenced off, presumably by the Forestry Commission for safety reasons.
Memories of the Busketts Lawn crash
Several witnesses to the accident have since recalled the crash at Busketts Lawn. Below I have replicated those first-hand accounts that I found online.
“I was just walking out of Bartley School and heard the noise of this jet followed by an explosion, looking around behind the aircraft had black smoke trailing followed by vertical decent and second explosion as it descended below the horizon. I have visited the site numerous times. A Viscount flew around the crash site shortly afterwards, identifying the site location. By the time I got near the site had been secured. The site was close to a firebreak, gravel track in Bucketts forest close to Woodlands Road in Ashurst.”
“I was 10 at the time of this crash and saw the smoke rising from the forest from the top of the bus as we travelled home from school in Southampton. I don’t know how long after but probably a week or so, my friend and I trekked into the enclosure which we had explored a few times previously. We rode down the Lyndhurst to Ashurst road leaving our bikes not far from the cottage where they used to sell Christmas trees. We found the crash site and remember some men working around an area of devastation. We managed to keep hidden but scavenged around and found broken pieces of metal and (possibly) glass. It all seemed like a great adventure, and I even remember going back a few times to see if we could see more. A year or so later I took my dad there, but we couldn’t even find the site let alone the crater.”
“I remember seeing lots of air activity to the west one afternoon from the window of my English grammar lesson at Totton Grammar School. The Buccaneer actually crashed into Busketts Wood at Woodlands. A school classmate lived just down the road from the site and said that the area was cordoned off for many years after the cras.,”
“By chance I happened to see the last seconds of the Buccaneer as a 10 year old boy from the playground of Lyndhurst Primary school, five miles or so from the crash site. I remember noticing the plane fly overhead whilst I made my way into the school field for a football match. Then, for some reason I looked up again and saw the same plane in a vertical dive. It was all over in a few seconds as the plane went straight down and disappeared into the trees around Ashurst. I can’t remember hearing an explosion or seeing any parachutes but a few years later I did find the impact crater which I remember as being very large, conical in shape and maybe 30 feet or more deep.”
“On the way home from school one day saw a large pall of black smoke coming out of the enclosure between Ashurst and Lyndhurst on the right of the main road. We already knew the whole swathe of forest from the back of the golf course to Ashurst, looking for trout streams, tank traps and bomb craters so as soon as we could, we rode our bikes across the forest and up to the cottage where they later sold Xmas trees, then went looking for the “Russian Spy” plane that had been shot down nearby! Amazingly we found the crash site quite quickly and although there were some men working around the area we got right up to the crater where smoke was still rising through the damaged trees all around. Years on and I now know more of the truth.”
“On this day aged thirteen I was travelling by bus from my school at Brockenhurst to Ashurst where I would walk the one mile to my home in Hazel Grove, off Woodlands Road. We were approaching Ashurst when the bus was stopped for some time by police, and we observed vehicles, I cannot remember what type, entering the forest in front of us. Eventually the bus proceeded, and I made my way home. My mother had become aware of a “plane crash” in the New Forest so after tea I set off to find the site with a friend. It was not difficult to find but within about 50 metres of the site on one of the gravel “rides” that facilitate movement in the Forest we were stopped by a military man who said we could not go any further. He went on to say that a search was being conducted for a notepad that had come from the plane and if we were to find it, we had to hand it in without fail! Knowing the Forest well it was easy to outsmart those guarding the site and we were soon able to see the deep crater, still with smoke coming from it, and all the recovery work.”
Credits & references
- Daily News (London) – Tuesday 13 October 1959
- Birmingham Daily Post – Tuesday 13 October 1959
- Western Mail – Tuesday 13 October 1959