50 years since 'James Bond prince' died in Midlands air crash

As the Red Arrows flew over Halfpenny Green airfield, Prince William of Gloucester looked up at the camera as he polished the wing of his plane.

The Red Arrows do a display above Prince William of Gloucester, a member of the British Royal family before he crashed his plane a Piper Cherokee on August 28th 1972 at Wolverhampton Airport at Halfpenny Green, near Stourbridge, West Midlands, UK, The Prince and his co-pilot Vyrell Mitchell were both killed.  Pic. Ray Bradbury.
The Red Arrows do a display above Prince William of Gloucester, a member of the British Royal family before he crashed his plane a Piper Cherokee on August 28th 1972 at Wolverhampton Airport at Halfpenny Green, near Stourbridge, West Midlands, UK, The Prince and his co-pilot Vyrell Mitchell were both killed. Pic. Ray Bradbury.

Immaculately turned out, and wearing his trademark shades, the 'James Bond Prince' had a knack of making even the dullest of chores look effortlessly cool.

"I said to him 'Why are you polishing your wings?' and he said it could make the plane go faster, reducing the resistance at high speeds," recalls Ray Bradbury, who was taking pictures for the Express & Star.

A few minutes later the prince was dead.

It is 50 years this month since the Queen's dashing young cousin was killed in a ball of fire as his four-seater plane crashed within seconds of take-off.

The tall, handsome 30-year-old, known for his love of sharp suits, fast cars, and glamorous girlfriends, had recently added hot-air ballooning to his list of adventurous hobbies. But he was always happiest in the cockpit, gaining his pilot's licence while studying at Cambridge.

William, who was fourth in line to the throne at the time of his birth, was about to compete in the Goodyear Air Race. The 90-mile race was the showpiece event at the two-day Bobbington Air Show, in the village between Dudley and Bridgnorth, and the prince was unquestionably the star of the show.

As he prepared to take part, he admitted the competition would be "very keen".

"I think we will be unlikely to be among the winners, but you never can tell," he added, modestly.

Never one for the stuffy protocols, it was said his love of flying was an escape from the restrictions of royal duty.

"Being a member of the Royal Family is different, but not better," he once said. "I have led a pretty normal life. I want it to be as normal as possible."

Former Express & Star photographer Ray Bradbury

Ray recalls there being much ceremony surrounding the prince's arrival, where he was greeted by a welcoming committee before going to prepare his plane.

"I chatted to him, he seemed really nice," says Ray, who took what is thought to be the last photograph of the prince alive.

"There were a few of us there all taking the same pictures, but the last photograph showed him walking past while his co-pilot Vyrell Mitchell was polishing the plane," says Ray, now 79.

"All the other photographers had gone, I was the only one who stayed and got that shot."

By this time, a crowd of 30,000 people had assembled, and Ray took position at the airport's control tower to capture the take off.

Prince William of Gloucester, left, moments before his death. Picture: Ray Bradbury

Within seconds of leaving the runway, the Piper Cherokee banked abruptly to the left, before rapidly losing height. The wing clipped a tree and sheared off, causing the out-of-control plane to flip over and crash into an embankment, where it burst into flames.

"I photographed him taking off, and then there was this great big explosion," recalls Ray.

"He veered off to the left, suddenly went very low above the houses, and hit a tree."

First on the scene were 31-year-old Brian Bishop, from Kidderminster, and 18-year-old Derek Purton, from Chelmsley Wood, Solihull. They tried to break into the burning wreckage to save the prince and Mr Mitchell, but were beaten back by the heat.

"We rushed over, the tail plane was the only part not burning," said Mr Bishop.

How the Express & Star reported the fatal crash

"We tried to roll it down a ditch to break it in half, but the heat was too intense. It was impossible to do anything."

Richard Fowler, 17, who lived at Yew Tree House in the village, also joined the rescue attempt. He said the prince appeared to have been waving at something as he approached the houses.

Jean Bacon, who also lived near the aerodrome, was standing about 20 yards from the tree when the accident took place.

"The plane seemed to be flying low to avoid another aircraft," she said. "It was heading straight for some houses. It banked round to miss them, much lower than the other planes. It almost hit a telegraph wire before hitting the tree."

Seconds after the prince's take-off, he was followed by a Piper Commanche piloted by Terry Price, 29, from South Road, Stourbridge, with Allan Ashford, of Pedmore, as his navigator.

The aftermath of the Halfpenny Green air crash which claimed the life of Prince William of Gloucester and his co-pilot Vyrell Mitchell. Picture: Ray Bradbury

Mr Price described seeing a pall of smoke and looked out of the cockpit to see the prince's plane burning fiercely. He said the ordeal meant he would need to reconsider whether he would take part in another plane race. "It is so dangerous," he said.

Having seen the explosion, Ray scrambled down from the tower and jumped on the back of a fire tender that had been waiting below, taking him to the scene of the crash within minutes.

Firemen spent two hours bringing the blaze under control, and the bodies of the prince and his co-pilot were discovered in the wreckage. Mr Mitchell, 43, had accompanied the prince on a number of flights in the past.

William's father, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, was in poor health at the time, and his wife, Princess Alice decided not to tell him about the death of his son, although she later said he may well have learned from the television coverage.

The fatal take off, with the Prince's aircraft far left. Picture: Ray Bradbury

Ray, who was just 29 at the time, said it was only after the event that the enormity of what he had seen hit home.

"I was really upset when I thought about it an hour or so afterwards," he said. "I realised a few hours later what I had captured."

Two years earlier, William had become the first member of the Royal Family to take part in an air race. And while he was known an experienced and competent pilot, he also appeared to have more lives than a cat, having endured several brushes with death.

While training as a pilot at the height of the Nigerian Civil War, he spent half an hour practising his approaches to Lagos Airport.

When asked by air traffic control to give his position, he nonchalantly replied that he had been flying above the naval port – only to be told that the navy's gunners had spent the past 15 minutes trying to shoot him down.

"I didn't notice," he said. "They're not very good shots – luckily."

Prince William arrives for the race. Picture: Ray Bradbury

The year before his death, he escaped unhurt in a serious car accident in Malta, while visiting to take part in the island's air rally. Later, during an island-hopping holiday in western Scotland, he battled through dangerously bad weather to land safely.

On a flight to Tokyo, he had to struggle through 250 miles of raging monsoon storms. And on another occasion he escaped unhurt when his plane crashed and overturned at the family home in Northamptonshire.

It was reported at the time of his death that he was planning to marry former model Nicole Sieff, the ex-wife of Marks & Spencer heir Jonathan Sieff. Mrs Sieff flew into London on hearing the news, and her father was reported as saying the couple were "very much in love".

The scene of the crash at Halfpenny Green which claimed the life of Prince William of Gloucester and his co-pilot Vyrell Mitchell. Picture: Ray Bradbury

William had also been linked with Princess Margrethe of Denmark and Lord Comoys' grand-daughter, Harriet Stonor, but was probably best known for his relationship with Hungarian model Szuzui Starkloff, who he had been a family guest at the family home of Barnwell Manor.

But it seems that flying was the first love of his life, and before his death he spoke about the freedom he enjoyed compared to other members of the Royal Family.

"I certainly wouldn't have been able to do what what I have done if anyone had been sitting watching over my shoulder. I think the greatest kick I get out of flying is going to a new place – and finding it!"

And while the prince's life was tragically cut short, at least he died doing something he loved.

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