Limerick Chronicle files: City’s big aerial display ends in tragedy

Sharon Slater, Limerick Chronicle Historian


Sharon Slater, Limerick Chronicle Historian

Limerick Flying Club members’ planes pictured at Coonagh Airfield in October 1971

Limerick Flying Club members’ planes pictured at Coonagh Airfield in October 1971

ON July 7, 1933, Sir Alan Conham’s air squadron arrived in Limerick from Cork on a two-day visit to Ballycummin Castle.

Although this air show was highly anticipated and widely appreciated in the Limerick area, it was marred with tragedy as a young Limerick man was one of two men accidentally killed as the day neared a close.

From 11.30 o’clock in the morning, the aeroplanes circled the city. They were an unusual sight in those days, and were watched with keen interest by the citizens. When Sir Alan landed his plane at Ballycummin, he was met by the Mayor, Councillor P.F. Quinlan; Mr E.C. Stevenson, President of the Chamber of Commerce; Mr A. E. Goodwin, Vice-President, and Mr J. O. Power, Secretary.

At Ballycummin, a great number of people had gathered. The squadron comprised 12 machines, including the Clive & Handley Page 1,000-h.p. machines, one of which was capable of carrying 22 passengers and the other 17. Also on display was a Tiger Moth Fox and a Gipsy Moth. The Gipsy Moth had previously flown from Australia to England.

The air display included a grand formation flight, a premier display of advanced aerobatics, pylon racing, wing walking and parachute decent, all of which demonstrated to the public the rapid developments of aviation.

Though it was Sir Alan Cobham’s first visit to Limerick, his name was a household word in the field of aviation. At the time, he was giving air displays in various parts of the country, with the co-operation of the Irish Aero Club, in an effort to get aerodromes established and develop a public interest in flying. Sir Alan Cobham had given 860 air displays throughout the world, accident free.

William Ower jnr., a young man living at South Quay, Newcastle West was at the show with his father and brother. The twenty-eight year old Ower, worked as a motor mechanic so it was presumably a thrill for him to join the pilot W.R.Elliott on board the Gipsy Moth, owned by the Irish Aero Club.

His father, William Ower, snr., was at the airfield waiting for the Gipsy Moth to return as he was to be the next passenger. While his younger son had already taken a journey on one of the planes. The Ower family were originally from Scotland, having relocated to Newcastle West a few years earlier.

The Fox Moth, piloted by Geoffrey Thyson, owned by Sir Alan Cobham, took off with two passengers on board. At about 4.40 o’clock the two planes met in the sky above the Dooradoyle road, a few miles from the aerodrome. Although the Tiger Fox Moth made a successful landing, the Gipsy Moth crashed to earth.

An eyewitness, Mr. John St George, 41 Parnell Street, Limerick, said he saw the aeroplane fall at the other side of a slump of trees.

He ran across the fields to the wreckage and saw Ower, who was partly out of the machine and lying on his back on the ground. He appeared to be dead. He saw the hand of the other man coming out from under the machine and he immediately removed the wreckage on the chance that he could be alive. He saw the pilot’s face and saw an eyelid flicker. With the aid of another man who came on the scene, he got him out and laid him on the grass.

The pilot was practically dead at the time and was strapped into the machine. Almost immediately afterwards he died.

The pilots of both machines were careful and experienced airmen. W.E. Elliott served in the Royal Air Force and had many thousands of miles flying experience. Aged about 35, he was born in England and was appointed chief instructor to the Irish Aero Club in 1931.

When asked by the Chronicle just after the crash why he thought the accident took place Sir Alan responded, “I don’t know. I think it was quite possible that the Gipsy Moth was facing the sun at the time and came underneath the Fox Moth. The machines were travelling in opposite directions, and the collision was a head-on one.”

A few days later, the funerals of both Elliott and Ower took place. Elliot’s remains were removed to his home in Shrewton, England. The funeral of William Ower took place in Newcastle West and he was interred in Rathronan Cemetry, Ardagh.