Not many people are lucky enough to have a Hero and a Father rolled into one…
I haven’t written much about the greatest man I ever knew – simply because if I start I fear that I would not be able to stop. As such I hand over to the tribute from The Times.
This report, a montage of information published by the broadsheets upon his passing. This is from The Times, and a few other additions.
In a career of 50 years at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, during which he became an expert in wreckage analysis, Fred Jones was involved in some of the most important accident investigations of the early years of jet-powered flight. Among his most telling assignments was the leading role he played in the intensive investigation that followed the — at first seemingly mysterious — series of Comet disasters of the early 1950s, events which gave the death blow to Britain’s hopes of leading the world in civil aviation.
Before that, Jones had studied the fragmented remnants of the swept-wing, twin-boom DH110 prototype, and his findings enabled the aircraft to be modified in such a way that it was subsequently able to enter service as the Sea Vixen naval fighter.
During the 1952 Farnborough Air Show. When he saw the aircraft pitch violently upwards, he already had some idea of what might have happened to it, even before getting among the wreckage. His investigation confirmed that the skin of the leading edge of the wing had separated from it, causing the plane to rear upwards with such violence that the engines broke from their mountings, ripping their way out of the fuselage and ploughing into the crowd. It was a catastrophe that claimed the lives of 28 spectators, as well as those of the pilot, John Derry, and his navigator, Tony Richards.
Fred Jones was born in 1920 in Cove, Hampshire, within earshot of the roar of engines from nearby Farnborough. Educated locally, he left school at 14 to join the Royal Aircraft Establishment as an apprentice.
In 1941, at the end of his apprenticeship, he became a member of the newly founded accidents section at RAE, thereafter working as a “disaster detective” on cases occurring both in Britain and abroad. At RAE his habitual place of work was the “Aeroplanes’ Graveyard”, three sombre black hangars to which the mortal remains of crashed aircraft were brought from all over the world for reconstruction and examination.
The war provided a flood of work for the new section. Jones’s first assignment was to investigate the reasons for the crash of a Stirling bomber. But the age of high-speed and hypersonic flight was just around the corner. The jet age brought stresses to aircraft skins and airframes that could scarcely have been envisaged in the era of the piston engine. In early 1944 Jones worked on the first Gloster Meteor (Britain’s only operational wartime jet fighter, though it never saw combat) to crash. Later, the remnants of the V1 flying bomb, and the V2 ballistic missile, came under the scrutiny of the section, as Air Defence of Great Britain — as Fighter Command had been renamed in June 1944 — sought solutions to these terrifying new weapons.
In the early 1950s, with Jones now in a senior position in accident investigation at Farnborough, his department was soon to be confronted by RAE’s most serious challenge. No problem to hit British aviation was to prove more damaging than that which dogged the Comet, the world’s first jet airliner, in 1953 and 1954. On May 2, 1952, BOAC had inaugurated the world’s first passenger jet service, with flights from London to Johannesburg. Travellers who experienced the smooth, swift and and silent ride at 40,000ft declared that they would never return to lurching through storm clouds at half that height in noisy piston-engined aircraft, which took twice as long to reach their destination.
The British aircraft industry seemed to have stolen a march on America and to be on the way to complete domination of the civil aviation market. Then, on May 2, 1953, a year to the day after its introduction into airline service, a Comet broke up in the air during a thunderstorm over Calcutta. On that occasion the storm was blamed for the aircraft’s structural failure. On January 10, 1954, a second Comet apparently disintegrated in mid-air and disappeared into the Mediterranean Sea off the isle of Elba, 20 minutes after taking off from Rome.
Yet after this second crash, the type was put back into service after modifications. The decision was a source of deep unease to Jones, who found it incredible that service could be resumed after two such serious accidents whose cause was simply not known. “But mine was a lone voice in the wildrness among all the experts,” he was subsequently to say.
It was to take a third crash, on April 8, 1954, this time of a Comet flying from Cairo to Rome, before civil flights were suspended indefinitely and RAE’s accident investigation team was ordered to swing into action. While one of its teams took an entire Comet fuselage and subjected it to fatigue tests in a huge water tank, Jones headed another team examining every single piece of the wreckage that had been retrieved from the bed of the Tyrrhenian Sea, north of Sicily.
This operation eventually established that the pressurised fuselages of the Comets had simply burst as they climbed to cruising height, weakened by repeated pressurisation and depressurisation. After examining the fragments, Jones’s team noted that the fuselage had started to crack at the corner of one of the automatic direction-finder aerial cutouts. Meanwhile, the fuselage testing team found that cracks developed at the corner of one window and rapidly spread throughout the already dangerously fatigued structure.
Such fundamental discoveries meant that the Comet had to undergo radical redesign of many of its features, a process that enabled Boeing to overtake De Havilland in design and production. By the time the new Comet 4 went into service on the transatlantic route in October 1958 the technically superior Boeing 707 was ready to capture the world market, as it did from its introduction only a month later.
Among Jones’s other aircraft investigations was that of a Handley Page Victor bomber, which mysterious disappeared on a test flight over the Irish Sea in August 1959. On that occasion it was impossible to be certain about the precise reason for the aircraft’s destruction. Evidence pointed to the failure of a pitot tube, resulting in the involuntary extension of a Mach trim strut, causing a dive at more than Mach1 into the sea.
Jones also investigated a number of non-aircraft structural disasters. Notable among these was the collapse of a box- girder bridge, while under construction, at Milford Haven in 1970. Jones’s findings led to a rigorous reappraisal of the structure of such bridges, both in this country and abroad.
Jones was appointed OBE for his work in 1980. He retired as a principal scientific officer in the airworthiness division of the structures department at RAE in 1985.
Jones had always been a keen shot, and was a member of the National Small-Bore Rifle Association. He often shot at Bisley. Among his many prizes was the Hampshire Small Bore Rifle and Pistol Association trophy for 200 yards, which he won in 1976.
His book Air Crash: The Clues In The Wreckage, was published in Hardback by HALE, and softback by COMET.
Fred Jones, OBE, aircraft accident investigator, was born on September 4, 1920. He died on August 22, 2003, aged 82
The name: I changed my name due to family politics (due to an evil mother – Trust me on that one).
My Dad always knew that I was a Jones in my blood, and that the name didn’t change that. My son, Alex is Alex Henry in respect for my Father and his Father.
After the family politics issue I did think of changing back to my original name (Fred Jones Jnr), but I have the family now, so putting them through that name change hassle is not something I want to do – It was hard enough just for me.
I am still a Jones in all but name.