The ‘Bat Man’ who made a sonic boom by MISTAKE: How RAF hero, 26, unwittingly became first Briton to break sound barrier in 1948… four years before his fireball death crash at Farnborough Air Show

  • On September 10, 1948, John Derry broke through the 767-miles-per-hour sound barrier in a de Havilland 108
  • The experimental bat-shaped plane reached the extreme speed after Derry put it into a steep 60-second dive
  • But he revealed to the Daily Mail soon afterwards that he had done so accidentally, saying ‘it just happened’ 
  • Pilot was killed in 1952 when the experimental plane he was flying – a de Havilland 110 jet fighter – broke apart
  • Onboard observer Anthony Richards and 28 spectators were also killed, with a further 60 people injured 

On this day in 1948, ex-RAF fighter pilot John Derry made history by becoming the first British man to fly faster than the speed of sound – before revealing that he had done so by mistake

On this day in 1948, news emerged of how an ex-RAF fighter pilot made history by becoming the first British man to fly faster than the speed of sound – before revealing that he had done so by mistake.

World War Two veteran John Derry, who was then aged just 26, had broken through the 767-miles-per-hour sound barrier on September 6, seven miles above the Home Counties in a bat-shaped de Havilland 108 ‘Swallow’.

It was the same type of plane in which fellow test pilot Geoffrey de Havilland – the son of the famous aviation pioneer – lost his life two years earlier.

But the news was quickly followed by Derry’s admission that the feat was accidental.

Speaking to the Daily Mail afterwards, the test pilot – who had won the Distinguished Flying Cross for his war service – said that ‘it just happened, as these things do in routine research flying’.

The ‘bat man’ pilot reached the extreme speed by deliberately putting the plane into a steep 60-second dive which saw him plummet 10,000 feet. And, instead of blacking out, Derry said he ‘suffered no discomfort’, bar a ‘strange feeling in my tummy’.

But tragically, the pilot was killed in a horrendous crash four years later at the famous Farnborough Air Show in Hampshire, when the experimental plane he was flying – a de Havilland 110 jet fighter – broke apart.

Onboard observer Anthony Richards and 28 spectators were also killed, with a further 60 people injured. The huge loss of life prompted the Queen to send a message of condolence to the victims’ families. 

The cause of the plane’s break-up was later determined to be a structural failure caused by a design flaw in the plane’s wing.

World War Two veteran John Derry, who was then aged just 26, broke through the 767-miles-per-hour sound barrier seven miles above the Home Counties in a bat-shaped de Havilland 108 (one pictured on September 7, 1948). The news was quickly followed by Derry’s admission that the feat was accidental. Speaking to the Daily Mail shortly afterwards, the test pilot – who had won the Distinguished Flying Cross for his war service – said that ‘it just happened, as these things do in routine research flying’

The ‘bat man’ pilot reached the extreme speed by deliberately putting the plane into a steep 60-second dive which saw him plummet 10,000 feet, the Daily Mail reported at the time. And, instead of blacking out, Derry said he ‘suffered no discomfort’, bar a ‘strange feeling in my tummy’

Whilst Derry hadn’t been the first person to break the sound barrier – that accolade rested with US Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager, who did so in 1947 – his feat was still incredible at the time.

Pilot John Derry was a WWII hero 

Derry’s military career began when he enlisted in the Royal Air Force as an air gunner and radio operator shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

After training as a pilot in Canada in 1943, he was involved in combat operations from 1944, where he flew Hawker Typhoons with the RAF’s 182 Squadron.

Following a brief stint in 181 Squadron, he then returned to 182 in March 1945 as the squadron’s commanding officer.

In June that same year, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for leading his squadron in an attack against ‘enemy gun positions’ – according to a London Gazette write-up.

It added that he had ‘at all times displayed the great determination and skill and his courage has been of the highest order’.

Shortly before that, he was awarded the Dutch Bronze Lion by the Queen of the Netherlands.

After the war, Derry had a brief stint as the commanding officer of an RAF flying school before he was employed by Vickers Supermarine and then de Havilland as a test pilot.

As recognition for his achievement, Derry was awarded the prestigious Gold Medal of the Royal Aeronautical Club.

The Royal Automobile Society also handed him the equally coveted Segrave Trophy, which was awarded to Britons who demonstrated ‘outstanding skill, courage and initiative on land, water and in the air’.

Earlier that year, Derry flew the same de Haviland 108 at 605.23 miles per hour whilst flying around a closed 62.5-mile circuit above Luton. In doing so, he smashed the world speed record set around the same circuit by 40mph, according to a Daily Mail report at the time.

Designed in 1945 to Air Ministry specifications, the 108 was built as an experimental plane.  

It boasted a tailless swept wing and single vertical stabiliser – similar to the WWII German Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet.

Three prototype planes were built with the purpose of investigating swept wing handling up to supersonic speeds.

After de Havilland Junior’s death in a second version of the plane in September 1946, the company produced a third variant. 

It was in this that Derry went on to exceed the speed of sound.

In 1949, the aircraft appeared at the Farnborough Air Show before crashing in February 1950 following a structural failure.

The tragedy claimed the life of its test pilot, Squadron Leader Stuart Muller-Rowland.

The final chapter of the 108’s story came when the first variant of the aircraft was lost in a crash on May 1, 1950. 

Squadron Leader Eric Genders was killed whilst attempting to abandon the aircraft.

However, more than 480 test flights were carried out in it and the plane was instrumental in the development of modern jet aircraft.  

Derry’s feat was made more incredible for the way in which it was achieved.

The pilot said at the time: ‘When I took off from Hatfield, Hertfordshire, I had no definite intention of having a crack at flying faster than sound.

‘It just happened, as things do in routine research flying. I was 40,000ft over Berkshire, between Farnborough and Reading, when I pushed the stick forward and put her nose down.

‘Although I was wearing only a pressure waistcoat and a pressure-fed oxygen mask, I did not black out and I suffered no discomfort. There were no bad bumps in my 60-second dive, which ended just below 30,000ft.’

Then, in what was an honest admission, he added: ‘There was a strange feeling in my tummy as I approached a speed of 700miles an hour in my 10,000ft dive. I cannot truthfully say I felt perfectly calm.’

Derry’s death came unexpectedly on September 6, 1952 at the Farnborough Air Show in Hampshire.

Just three days earlier, he had wowed spectators by becoming the first pilot to produce a sonic boom – the noise generated when the sound barrier is broken – to order. 

Tragically, the pilot was killed in a horrendous crash four years later at the famous Farnborough Air Show in Hampshire, when the experimental plane he was flying – a de Havilland 110 jet fighter – broke apart. Onboard observer Anthony Richards and 28 spectators were also killed, with a further 60 people injured. The huge loss of life prompted the Queen to send a message of condolence to the victims’ families

Derry lost his life when he was making an aerobatic manoeuvre in the 110 and it broke up. Debris then fell onto spectators and caused what the Daily Mail said was ‘one of the greatest air dramas ever known’. Above: Derry with observer Richards speaking next to the plane

Just three days earlier, he had wowed spectators by becoming the first pilot to produce a sonic boom – the noise generated when the sound barrier is broken – to order. Above: The de Havilland 110

How Chuck Yeager became first man to break the sound barrier – after superior British project was shut down 

US Air Force pilot and World War Two hero Chuck Yeager, who died last year aged 97, broke the sound barrier in the rocket-powered Bell X-1 in 1946 above California’s Mojave Desert.

He carried out the feat after being dropped from a modified B-29 bomber at 26,000 feet.

However, six days before Yaeger broke the record, a rival British project was trying to do the same using a similar-looking plane dropped from a modified de Havilland Mosquito.

This unmanned aircraft was flown 35,500 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, west of Land’s End in Cornwall.

Although it was theoretically capable of flying between 800-100mph, the A2 crashed after exploding in mid-air.

Although work continued on the project after the setback, the Government then cancelled it out of the blue – despite the £100,000 which had already been spent on it.

Insider Don Brown told how he was ‘fuming’ because the team were ’15 months ahead of the Americans’.

However, in 1945, de Havilland had been asked to look into creating another plane capable of breaking the sound barrier. This led to the creation of the DH108.

Its first pilot – Geoffrey de Havilland Junior – was the son of the owner and founder of the company.

The ace was killed in September 1946 when he was trying to break the then speed record over the Thames Estuary.

After another DH108 prototype was produced and flown successfully in 1947, Derry then became Britain’s first supersonic pilot.

Positioning himself more than eight miles above the crowd, he dived his de Havilland 110 thousands of feet, causing – as the Daily Mail described it – two ‘successive bomb-bursts’.

Derry lost his life when he was making an aerobatic manoeuvre in the 110 and it broke up. Debris then fell onto spectators and caused what the Daily Mail said was ‘one of the greatest air dramas ever known.’ 

Pieces of the aircraft were scattered over a three-mile area, but it was the large parts of the plane’s jet unit which caused many of the fatalities. Most of the victims had been sitting on a hill overlooking the runway.

A telegram sent on behalf of the Queen and Prince Philip read: ‘I and my husband are shocked to hear of the accident at Farnborough yesterday. Please convey our deepest sympathy to relatives of those who have lost their lives.’

Her Majesty’s grandmother, Queen Mary, also sent her condolences via telegram. Her message read: ‘Please convey expression of my heartfelt sympathy to families of test pilot and observer, and of spectators who lost their lives and were injured in this tragedy.’

The contemporary news report added that most of the injured survivors were taken to the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot. 

Just a day later, Squadron Leader Neville Duke paid tribute to his friend by breaking the sound barrier in front of 140,000 spectators.

In what described as ‘the greatest display ever seen at Farnborough’ and a sight that was ‘impossible to forget for its sheer skill, its courage and its grace’, he then dipped his wings as he flew over Derry’s crash site.

A week later, the RAF then made its own tribute to Derry by carrying out a fly-past over a memorial service which was held for the pilot and his observer at St Albans Abbey.

Sixteen twin-engine Meteor jets, which had just taken part in that year’s Battle of Britain anniversary event over London’s Whitehall, flew low over the church.

Just two days before the crash, Derry had written about the risk of trying to go faster than the speed of sound.

In an article for The Times, he said the dangers were ‘sudden changes in stability, loss of controllability, and oscillations of part or the whole of the aircraft’.

He added: ‘The actual risk is not, as is commonly believed, primarily one of structural failure, but of losing control over the aircraft or its moving surfaces.’

The pilot said this could cause structural failure but added that this took place in ‘only a very small percentage of accidents’.

Derry lost his life when, at the Farnborough Airshow in September 1952, he was making an aerobatic manoeuvre in the 110 and it broke up. Debris then fell onto spectators and caused what the Daily Mail said was ‘one of the greatest air dramas ever known

Derry’s military career began when he enlisted in the Royal Air Force as an air gunner and radio operator shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

What is a sonic boom? 

A sonic boom is a thunder-like noise a person on the ground hears when an aircraft or other type of aerospace vehicle flies faster than the speed of sound.

Air reacts like fluid to supersonic objects. As those objects travel through the air, molecules are pushed aside with great force and this forms a shock wave, much like a boat creates a wake in water. The bigger and heavier the aircraft, the more air it displaces.  

The shock wave forms a ‘cone’ of pressurized or built-up air molecules, which move outward and rearward in all directions and extend all the way to the ground. 

As this cone spreads across the landscape along the flight path, it creates a continu­ous sonic boom along the full width of the cone’s base. The sharp release of pressure, after the build-up by the shock wave, is heard as the sonic boom.

The change in air pressure associated with a sonic boom is only a few pounds per square foot – about the same pressure change experienced riding an elevator down two or three floors. 

It is the rate of change, the sudden changing of the pressure, which makes the sonic boom audible. 

Source: NASA 

After training as a pilot in Canada in 1943, he was involved in combat operations from 1944, where he flew Hawker Typhoons with the RAF’s 182 Squadron.

Following a brief stint in 181 Squadron, he then returned to 182 in March 1945 as the squadron’s commanding officer.

In June that same year, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for leading his squadron in an attack against ‘enemy gun positions’ – according to a London Gazette write-up.

It added that he had ‘at all times displayed the great determination and skill and his courage has been of the highest order’.

Shortly before that, he was awarded the Dutch Bronze Lion by the Queen of the Netherlands.

After the war, Derry had a brief stint as the commanding officer of an RAF flying school before he was employed by Vickers Supermarine and then de Havilland as a test pilot. 

World War Two hero Yeager, who died last year aged 97, broke the sound barrier in the rocket-powered Bell X-1 in 1946 above California’s Mojave Desert.

He carried out the feat after being dropped from a modified B-29 bomber at 26,000 feet.

However, six days before Yaeger broke the record, a rival British project was trying to do the same using a similar-looking plane dropped from a modified de Havilland Mosquito.

This unmanned aircraft was flown 35,500 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, west of Land’s End in Cornwall.

Although it was theoretically capable of flying between 800-100mph, the A2 crashed after exploding in mid-air.

Although work continued on the project after the setback, the Government then cancelled it out of the blue – despite the £100,000 which had already been spent on it.

A telegram sent on behalf of the Queen and Prince Philip read: ‘I and my husband are shocked to hear of the accident at Farnborough yesterday. Please convey our deepest sympathy to relatives of those who have lost their lives’. Above: Spectators tend to those wounded by the aircraft’s falling debris

Most of the injured survivors were taken to the Cambridge Military Hospital in Aldershot. Above: A photo showing survivors being carried into an ambulance

Spectators at Farnborough stand on the side of a hill where many of the victims were killed after being hit by pieces of Derry’s plane

Mr Derry’s wife Carol was later pictured outside her home with the family dog after the death of her husband

Derry is seen above (right) with his wife (second from right) meeting film director David Lean and actress Ann Todd at the Farnborough Air Show in 1952, the year Derry was killed there

Lean had directed the 1952 film Breaking The Sound Barrier, which was based on Derry’s 1948 record breaking-feat 

Insider Don Brown told how he was ‘fuming’ because the team were ’15 months ahead of the Americans’. 

In 1945, de Havilland had been asked to look into creating another plane capable of breaking the sound barrier. This led to the creation of the DH108 and the death of de Havilland Junior in the plane in September 1946.  

After another DH108 prototype was produced and flown successfully in 1947, Derry then became Britain’s first supersonic pilot.

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