My Mother Pauline, née Banks, had a fear of flying which made exotic holidays out of the question for my parents. She always attributed this to a disaster that occurred when she was a WREN in the Royal Navy during the second world war. At the time of the incident she was an aircraft mechanic at HMS Kestrel, which was a Fleet Air Arm base at Worthy Down, near Winchester in Hampshire. She had joined the WRENS in 1943, aged just short of eighteen, and had then received about six months initial training somewhere in the Midlands, presumably in aircraft maintenance, and was posted to HMS Kestrel as her first posting in early 1944 1 .
Her responsibilities included aircraft maintenance in the hangar, and later, attached to “Station Flight” the despatching of aircraft and receiving them back. Station Flight duties included checking aircraft including their instruments, starting engines, strapping pilots in etc., and then signalling with handheld paddles where they should manoeuvre on the ground before and after flights.
As she always told the story groundcrew could be taken on “joyride” flights, which were allowed, as she described it, as "it was after D Day so planes had to be kept flying". One early July day she had been asked by one of the young pilots, Sub Lieutenant Geoff Pickles from Halifax in Yorkshire, whether she would like to fly with him and she agreed. She enjoyed these flights and perhaps he had taken a fancy to her. Two of Pauline’s friends also intended to fly on the chosen day, 7th July 1944; Jean Coultas, with whom Pauline shared a “cabin”, and Betty Meynell, both girls from the north of England, and the three of them went to join the queue for flights 2 .
Wrens accomodation, Worthy Down - 1944
Pauline Banks with Betty Meynell
(Betty in front of shed) with aircraft behind
Pauline always told the story like this: whilst they were waiting, as seems to be the way with ladies one of them said she wanted “to spend a penny” and the other two said yes, they did too. They headed towards the lavatories, but Pauline then realised that actually she didn’t want to go so resumed her place, sitting in the waiting area. In telling the story she said that almost immediately the C.O., or whoever was organising the flights, asked her if she was waiting to fly and when she said yes he pointed to a ‘plane and told her to get on it, much to her annoyance, also wondering how she would explain this to her friends when she saw them later on. Nonetheless she went off for a flight, as she wasn’t in a position to argue, but she recently described it as “scary” as the pilot kept turning the engine off!
There was a dance that night, either on the base or nearby which they were all due to attend. Pauline went, but her friends were not there, nor did they ever arrive. In later tellings of this story she said that she “thought everyone was being especially nice to her”. It was only when she returned to her accommodation that someone said "I'm sorry to have to tell you that your friends were killed this afternoon."
The accident is listed on a website that lists aircraft accidents in Hampshire 3 and details the aircraft as being a Proctor 1A.755, Reg. No. P6019, and that it crashed 11 miles S of Overton, near Micheldever. The reason for the crash is not known, but Pauline has said that she was always thankful that it wasn’t her that had serviced the aircraft.
The Percival Proctor was a British radio trainer and communications aircraft of the Second World War, a single-engined, low-wing monoplane with seating for three or four, depending on the model. The first flight for this type was in October 1939, and some 1100 or more were built. Pauline’s husband-to-be Douglas, also a pilot and who had been posted to Worthy Down only a few days before the accident, flew these aircraft too, and his logbook shows that he had had his first flight there in Proctor P6053 on June 14th, flying different Proctors exclusively for the remainder of that month - but he never piloted P6019.
Pauline said many times that she used to enjoy these flights but, not surprisingly, this accident and her providential narrow escape gave her a fear of flying for the rest of her life. And shortly after she went to another dance where a young Douglas Copeland happened to sit next to her on the arm of her chair. They married three years later and were together until Douglas died, 70 years after they first met.