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Giles Blundell (1939-2000) of Slievenamon (Fethard)

Giles Blundell taking a sip of Guinness, alongside Christopher Horsman, in Peter Curling’s painting of McCarthy’s Hotel, Fethard. Prints of this painting were sold in aid of a fund organised by Mouse Morris to restore the walls of Fethard.

Born on 20 January 1939, Giles Blundlell was one of my father’s best friends. He was a mechanical engineer who became a test pilot for the Royal Navy. He was originally from Kenya although his parents eventually retired to Myrtleville in County Cork. My father met him when he was at Dartmouth.

In the mid-1960s, Giles joined my late godfather Paddy Meiklejohn at Morangie Towers [was this at Lossiemouth?]. Lossiemouth is located by the Moray Firth in Scotland, where the North Atlantic Drift from the Gulf Stream makes for excellent flying conditions. In 1966, he was made godfather to my older brother, William.

Among their fun-loving comrades here was Lieutenant Commander Jonathan ‘Jon’ Hew Dalrymple-Smith, MBE, RN, another distinguished Buccaneer pilot, serving variously with 809, 736 and 800 Squadrons in Eagle and at Lossie. A friend of Jon named Peter King described him as ‘a noted bon viveur and raconteur and wonderful company – he competed in BBC’s Mastermind and I think won his round (special subject Poets of the First World War). He was given a gallantry award for his selfless acts of bravery during a rescue at Sumburgh after a passenger aircraft went off the runway and ditched off the island. I believe he witnessed the incident from the cockpit of his Peregrine aircraft and was one of the first into the water.’ Another friend recalled Jon as ‘one of the great old school English eccentrics,’ who could recite Winnie the Pooh in Latin, while another recounted how he preferred snuff to smoking and was known as Snuff-Smith or Dan Simple-Smith. While at Morangie Towers, he flew a Sea Princess on the morning sortie and ‘usually finished the Times crossword by the second turning point.’ He later took up civil flying with Peregrine Air Services in Inverness, becoming Peregrine’s man in Orkney. He never married and lived his last decades at La Ciotat in the South of France with his brother Butch and a boat. He died on 20 June 2018 aged 78. [i]

Lou Kemp, an RAF ‘crab’ (observer) with the Royal Navy recalled spending time with Giles at Lossiemouth:

‘My first Buccaneer flight was a familiarisation with experienced staff pilot Giles Blundell. There you are, for the first time ever in the back of a fast jet with a wonderful view from the cockpit. Giles showed me around Scotland at low to medium level. Being a sporting man, he pointed out various places good for salmon fishing, and checked out where stags might be for future reference. Not typical aircrew, more of a gentleman aviator. After waving at the postman he knew near the Kyle of Lochalsh ferry, we climbed to a suitable height, throttled back and entered a steep dive with full airbrake – just dangling downwards, like being on the end of a parachute – but a lot faster. I was hanging on my straps and felt I was pointing almost vertically down-wards. The mighty clamshell airbrakes of the Buccaneer suitably demonstrated!’ [ii]

In early 1972, Giles was punished for drinking and driving as per this report in the Aberdeen Press and Journal of 17 February 1972:

TEST PILOT: A Navy Lt.-Cdr., who is a test pilot at the RNAS Lossiemouth —Giles Richard Blundell, 2 Burgie Cottages, Forres —was fined £40 with a two year driving ban. He was found guilty after trial of driving a car on 1 Drainie Road, Lossiemouth with more than the permitted level of alcohol in his blood.

Eight months later, Lt Cdr Blundell was test-flying a Buccaneer from RNAY (Royal Navy Air Yard) Sydenham, Belfast, when it ran out of fuel downwind as a result of a fuel dump valve sticking open after a test over the Irish Sea. On a Professional Pilot blog, someone named Gerivator, who described himself as a friend of Giles, remarked in April 2023:

‘Buccaneers don’t glide very well … Giles had hopes of making it into the grassy areas of Orangefield Park half a mile beyond but when the nose pitched up observer Ricky Allen ejected, closely followed by Giles, finally the Bucc which performed a vertical landing atop the front wall of an office no more than 250m beyond. Fortunately no fuel = no fire and nobody was injured except Giles, whose elbow was shattered when his chute slid off a rooftop, and Ricky had serious back injuries.’

Belfast Telegraph, 6 October 1972.

Further details of this life-changing incident were published in the Belfast Telegraph of Friday 6 October 1972:

Plane ploughs into a Belfast office block

Eye-witnesses tell of drama before crash

Belfast Telegraph reporters

SIX PEOPLE, including the two-man crew, were rushed to hospital after a Royal Navy Buccaneer jet on a routine test flight crashed while coming in to land and plunged into an East Belfast office supply showroom.

Police said three girls were injured, one seriously, after the fighter-plane crashed into the rear of the C. and C. Office Supplies Co. building at Orby Road, narrowly missing hundreds of nearby houses.

The drama began after the pilot and co-pilot ejected from the plane as it was making its final approach to the naval airport at Sydenham. People in the area heard two loud bangs as the crew baled out and the doomed plane started spiralling towards the ground. They watched as the aircraft screamed towards the office block in Orby Road and burst into flames. Emergency, services, including the city’s mobile ambulance control, normally reserved for use in bomb attacks with high casualty tolls, rushed to the area as fears of considerable casualties rose.

Dozens of people watched the last moments of the stricken plane and rushed to the crash scene.

Mrs. Marie Ewart (19), of Ravenhill Avenue, was at Orby Road soon after the crash.

“I couldn’t see the plane at all. It seemed to be at the back of the offices and I saw one girl being brought out and taken away in the ambulance. She seemed to be pretty badly hurt.”

A spokesman at the Royal Naval Air Yard, Sydenham said the Buccaneer jet was on a routine test flight from the airfield.

“Both men ejected successfully before the crash and one of them was slightly injured,” he said.

The spokesman said a full investigation into the cause of the crash would be held as soon as possible. At the scene, officers of the Fleet Air Arm began taking statements from eye-witnesses and security forces cordoned off the area to keep hundreds of sightseers away from the crash area. The pilot was named as Lieut. Cdr. Giles Blundell and the co-pilot as Lieut. Rich Allen, both of the Royal Navy.

An attendant at Castlereagh petrol station told how one of the airmen [Giles, and it was a BP station, all very ironic!] landed on the roof of the garage.

The attendant. Mr. Michael Rea, said: “There were two must have been the other man in the plane getting out. He parachuted onto the roof and must have hurt his ankle when he fell onto the forecourt.”

“He seemed to be shaking, but I do not think be but I do not think he was badly injured.”

Two employees of the C and C Office Supplies Co. were injured when the plane ploughed into the side of their building at Orby Road.

Managing director, Mr. Robert Calvert, told of the crash drama.

‘I was sitting in my office with my brother and some clients when I heard what sounded like a low-flying aircraft. It got closer and closer until it seemed that it would strike the building and then it did. By some miracle, only two people were slightly injured. We are very lucky to be alive.”

Mr. Raymond Grant was at the rear of the showrooms with three other men when someone shouted: “Get down, duck!”

“I heard a bang as the plane hit the railings surrounding the building, and a second bang as it crashed into the wall. The railings took a lot of the impact. If they hadn’t been there, most of us would probably have been killed,” he said.

Evangelist Mr Cecil Stewart, of Cregagh Park, was walking along Rocky Road when he first noticed the plane.

“It suddenly started to go round in circles and the engines closed right off, slowing it down. Then I saw two men bale out and, immediately after this, the plane just fell straight down towards the ground.’

Car-dealer Mr Matt Armstrong was looking out of the window at his showroom at Bell’s Bridge, Cregagh, when he heard the doomed plane screech overhead.

“I heard two loud explosions and looked up. I saw a jet flying low overhead. It didn’t strike me as unusual as they normally Passover here before making their final approach to Sydenham.”

“Then I saw what I thought were particles coming from the plane. I thought it was disintegrating but then I realised they were ejecting seats. Two men were floating down on yellow parachutes and the plane was diving on towards the shipyard,” he said.

Mr John Hunter, a Castlereagh Road office employee, who is interested in aircraft, described the last moments as they appeared to him:

“He was flying with his air-brakes on. He made a right bank to bring him back on an opposite path. The plane was more or less out of the bank when the tail suddenly flicked round. It was then that the two ejector seats came out. The plane roared on and hit the wall of the office suppliers almost sideways on. There was a loud “crump.”

Mr George Murray, sales representative with a firm on Orby Road, said the plane burst into flames after a fuel tank exploded but that the fire was quickly brought under control.

Another man was in a dentist’s surgery on Cregagh Road when he heard the plane coming down. He and the dentist watched as two parachutists floated towards the ground and the plane spun out of control.

Business at Newtownbreda Court was interrupted for a short time after the stricken airplane roared overhead. People stood outside the building to watch the sky drama.’

The following day, the Belfast Telegraph  of Saturday 7 October 1972 reported:

‘AFTER JET CRASH THE BIG PROBE BEGINS

AN OFFICIAL inquiry is to be held by the loyal Navy to find out why a Buccaneer aircraft cubed on a Belfast industrial estate while being light-tested yesterday. To-day men from the Royal Naval Aircraft yard from which the plane had taken off a short while before the crash—were still carrying out a detailed investigation at the scene, in Orby Road.

The aircraft will probably be removed by road later today and taken back to the Sydenham air station, where further investigations will be carried out. Four people including the pilot and the observer of the Buccaneer were still in the Royal Victoria Hospital today—but several people were released after being treated yesterday. The pilot. Lt. Commander Giles Blundell, who fractured his left arm was said to be satisfactory, and his observer. Lt. Richard Allen. who suffered a slight back injury, was said to be comfortable.

Mr. Erskine Calvert, one of the directors of the C & C I Office Supply Company, into whose premises the aircraft crashed, was still in the’ observation ward at the Royal Victoria Hospital today suffering from head injuries.

And Miss Yvonne Black, a receptionist with the company. was still detained in hospital with back injuries. Both Mr. Calvert and Miss Black were working in the building when the jet smashed into the side wall. People throughout the Castlereagh area saw the aircraft coming down and today it was revealed that almost the first people on the scene were a UDR patrol who saw the plane coming down and followed it in their Land Rover. One of the UDR men was admitted to hospital with lacerations to the lend after helping the injured – but he was later released. It is thought that the investigation into the crash is being carried out by a very senior Naval Aircraft Officer. Late yesterday afternoon, an investigation team flew into Sydenham from Lee-on-Solent.’

Dad and Giles Blundell with Shamus, Samson and another dog.

As my father concluded: ‘His back gave him a lot of trouble; he stayed in that aircraft much longer than he should have, brave fellow.’

After he was invalided out of the Navy with a steel left elbow, my father have him accommodation in the School House at Lisnavagh, which he described as his “genteel slum”, and where he kept a decent stock of his “local white wine’ from Scotland – Glenmorangie. He was there by January 1974.

from where he did much work constructing buildings and machines to upgrade the farm. He used his engineering skills to build a lambing shed in the old haggart. As my father recalls, ‘Giles was a huge help to me for many years modernising the farm and his legacy lives on. He had considerable difficulty with the swamp and had to bring in much stone and hardcore to support his uprights and concrete.  ‘ Giles’s parents came up from Cork to visit Lisnavagh several times.

During the early Hidden Ireland days, my parents engaged Giles and my mother’s cousin Melo to be substitute Lord and Lady Rathdonnells, whilst they themselves skived off to the Dublin Horse Show.

He once told my brother William – his godson – a strange story that Billy Bunbury actually survived the Boer War and moved  to Kenya.

After Giles went to Tipperary in 1977, John Colclough and Alex Gardiner rented the School House as a country escape from Ballsbridge.

Giles’s mother turned 80 in March 1984 and died that November, after which Giles’s father was transferred to a nursing home in Fethard (not far from McCarthy’s Bar).  Meanwhile, Giles met Alicia Hase, née Horsman, with whom he settled at Mountain Grove on the slopes of Slievenamon. Also present were Alicia’s three children Mark, Suzette and Wishy, and a Springer Spaniel named Polly. In later times, they had a three legged Spaniel named Beetle.

Giles was living at Piltown when he died on 3rd December 2000. William and I were among those who carried him to his grave at Holy Trinity Church of Ireland, Fethard.

His sister Caroline Goosen lives in the Lower Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, and her elder daughter Naomi was Giles’s goddaughter. His brother Roger was living in Wandsworth Common as of January 2024. They are both, as Caroline says, OBE – Over Bloody Eighty!!

And so, as Caroline also reminded me, to quote Giles: To your astonishing good health!

 

With thanks to Caroline and Naomi Goosen.

 

*****

Appendix – Giles Blundell: The Crash, by William Bunbury, 2000

 

Giles had been with the Fleet Air Arm for some years – his Royal Navy Log Book has its earliest entry as 1964.   He graduated to become a test pilot with them, mainly flying aircraft after they had been modified, or when they had just come off the factory floor, just to make sure that all the bells and whistles were working properly.   He loved it.   He had flown dozens of different jets – about 2-4 times a week, for about one and a half hours at a time for a proper test, for about 8 years.

He was flying a Buccaneer S.Mk2 over Belfast.   His Observer was a half Maori chap called Rick, I think.   They were, basically, flying along.   Then it started.  Giles noticed that the fuel gauge was showing “0”.   He tapped it.   Nothing.   He changed the fuse.   Nothing.   He changed the power source.   The fuel gauge still read “0”.   He said to his observer “Rick, I think we have a problem here”.

Rick saw what he was talking about, and helpfully replied, “You must be bloody joking!”  – The Board of Inquiry later felt (having listened to the “black box” recordings) that this was not a very professional comment in a moment of crisis!

Anyway, they pottered on, following the standard procedures for such an emergency, trying to direct the craft away safely.   (The fuel was pouring out of the rear of the aircraft, although they didn’t actually know why the fuel gauge was showing “0” at this stage).   When the engines gave in (there were two, but they both stopped at once), Giles gave Rick the order to hop it, and he ejected safely.   Giles stayed with the craft as long as he could, and ejected as well, but too low really.

He landed on a roof.  I think he said something about holding on to a flagpole?   There was someone walking on the pavement below.    He shouted to him.   The chap on the pavement looked about, couldn’t see anyone, and carried on.   Giles tried again, but same thing.   Anyway, for some reason that I did not establish, Giles left the roof and headed for the pavement, without the assistance of a parachute, and as quickly as gravity would allow him to.    Although this was largely a successful manoeuvre, he managed to land most of his body weight onto his left elbow, and this onto a concrete pavement.   I imagine the pain was excruciating.

He gathered himself as best he could, looked up and saw a man coming towards him.  Giles noted that he was now in the forecourt of a petrol station, and that the man approaching him had “Esso” badges on him.  There was a “Can I help you” demeanour about the approaching Esso man.   Giles could only laugh.   This was funny, if painful.

The chaos caused every car on Castlereagh Road to stop & gawk…, which meant the ambulance had to drive down the pavement to get to him.   It took him to the place where the jet had crashed. (Meanwhile, locals grabbed all the survival gear, including a raft, water, oxygen, flares, etc. that was ejected from the craft with him!)

The plane was nicely embedded into an office block.   The owner had apparently been on the phone to a friend at an airport at the time of the accident.  He saw Giles’ plane flying about and said “Ah.   It’s nice to see a plane flying around here for a change – you don’t often see that… Umm… Hang on!”.   He very quickly took refuge behind an armchair just before the “nice plane” paid a very personal visit to his nice office.   He suffered some minor cuts, but nothing more.   A girl downstairs (?) ended up with a broken wrist somehow.   A soldier who subsequently entered the building then managed to break a bone as well somehow!   Anyway, those three all hopped into the ambulance with Giles, and they made their merry way to Queen Victoria Hospital.   (I asked Giles about Rick the Maori Observer at this point.  Apparently he’d ejected safely and he was fine.)

It is quite astounding that no one was killed!

In the hospital, Giles (still in his pilot kit) was put onto a trolley and was waiting for something to happen, when a man in a suit, holding a briefcase came up to him and asked him if he was all right.   Giles replied modestly probably.  The man took a closer look and immediately called for nurses and assistance.  It later turned out that this man was the top bone surgeon in Northern Ireland.   He was in a suit because he was on his was to the airport to catch a flight to New York, which he cancelled on account of Giles injury.   During the operation, most of the bone in Giles arm, which had been utterly shattered, was thrown into the “waste paper basket”, as Giles put it.   The surgeon replaced most of this with a metal pin.   (It also turns out, by bizarre coincidence, that this surgeon was somehow connected with Alicia Hase!)

As for the rest of the story, well that’s a life story, and a sad one really.   I have no idea if the accident caused him to start drinking so much, or whether that’s the road he would have eventually gone down anyway.   He tells the story happily, and with humour.   He doesn’t, and shouldn’t, have any guilty conscience about that crash.  He showed me the photos of the plane embedded in the wall of the building.  That’s not something that a man with a guilty conscience would do, is it.   His life story is probably another story.   This is just an extra-ordinary moment within his life that wounded him badly, shook him horribly, and ended his serious career as a test pilot.  And he can still smile about it.

 

*****

End-Notes

 

[i] Obituary to Lieutenant Commander Jonathan ‘Jon’ Hew Dalrymple-Smith, News Sheet, Fleet Air Arm Officers’ Association, Sept 2018, Vol. 45, No 3, p. 42.

[ii] Steve Boyd, ‘Fleet Air Arm Boys: True Tales from Royal Navy Men and Women Air and Ground Crew’, Volume 2: Strike, Anti-Submarine, Early Warning and Support Aircraft since 1945 (Grub Street Publishing, 2021), p. 241.