Lieutenant Desmond Arthur (1884–1913) was an Irish aviator in No. 2 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps. Following his death in Scotland’s first fatal aircraft accident; a government inquiry was launched to investigate the circumstances surrounding the crash. The first inquiry found him responsible, but a later investigation exonerated Arthur. His name is most famously connected to sightings of a ghost believed to haunt the airfield at RAF Montrose in Montrose, Angus, Scotland. It is considered one of the most well-known ghost stories of the First World War. Desmond Arthur was the first Irishman to be killed in an aircraft accident.
Lieutenant Desmond Lucius Studdert P. P. Arthur was born on 31 March 1884 at O’Brien’s Bridge in County Clare, Ireland. The son of Thomas F. Arthur and Helen Studdert, he came from a prominent Clare family and had a sister, and a brother: Captain Charles William Augustus Arthur. Arthur was educated at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen. He was an enthusiastic sportsman and won a number of prizes in motoring speed trials, before becoming Lieutenant in the Army Motor Reserve in 1908. Arthur attended the first Irish Aviation Meeting at Leopardstown Racecourse on 29 August 1910. It was there that he was introduced to Cecil Grace, which reinforced his desire to become a pilot. Arthur joined the 5th Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers (Special Reserve) and was promoted to Lieutenant on 27 May 1911. He was known for his adventurous nature, as well as his “unassuming manner and unfailing good spirit”.
On 18 June 1912 Arthur gained his Royal Aero Club certificate No.233 after completing his trials flying a Bristol Prier monoplane at Brooklands. He joined No. 2 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps on 17 April 1913, based at Montrose. In 1913, Montrose Airfield was built as an operational base for the training of pilots for the Royal Flying Corps, the first of its kind in Britain. The flying training school, like many others, experienced frequent crashes as it built up a force of skilled pilots through the First and Second World Wars. At around 7:30am on Tuesday 27 May 1913 Arthur’s B.E.2 biplane No.205 collapsed without warning while flying over Montrose during a routine training flight from Upper Dysart to Lunan Bay. Arthur had begun to descend when, at 2500 feet, the right wing of the aircraft snapped off and it plunged to the ground. Arthur was thrown from the aircraft and died instantly. He was found 160 yards away from his machine. Arthur’s death in an accident was one of the first to occur in the Royal Flying Corps, and the first at Montrose. He was buried in Sleepyhillock Cemetery, Montrose.
Contemporaries were surprised by the crash of an experienced pilot. A report issued by the Accidents and Investigation Committee of the Royal Aero Club on 21 June 1913 found that the accident had occurred because of the incompetent repair of a broken spar by an unknown mechanic. It was believed that the damage to the aircraft had been accidental, and shoddily repaired to prevent detection prior to the aircraft being transferred from Farnborough to Montrose. A government inquiry opened on 11 July 1913. In 1914 M.P. William Joynson-Hicks complained of a “whitewash” and that the Secretary of State for War Colonel Seely would not admit to the faulty repair. In the Spring of 1916 Noel Pemberton Billing called for a judicial enquiry into the military and naval air service, as “certain officers had been murdered rather than killed by the carelessness, incompetence or ignorance of their senior officers or of the technical side of those two services”. An official investigation by a government committee set up on 3 August 1916 concluded that the pilot was at fault, and the crash a result of dangerous flying.
On 1 January 1914, the squadron moved from Upper Dysart to Broomfield Farm. Shortly after the government report was published in Autumn 1916, Major Cyril Foggin saw a ghostly figure enter the officers’ mess but did not report it, fearing he would lose his post. There were further sightings by other officers and flight instructors, all occurring in what was the old mess of the No. 2 Flying Squadron. As sightings spread more widely in the facility the ghost became known as the ‘Irish Apparition’ or the ‘Montrose Ghost’. Fear of the ghost caused guards to desert their posts and pilots to request transfer from Montrose. The ghost was named as Desmond Arthur by the editor of British flying magazine The Aeroplane, C. G. Grey. Grey, who was a personal friend of Desmond Arthur, believed that the appearance of his ghost was linked with the official investigation into the crash. A later investigative report, published at the end of 1916, reinstated the reputation of Arthur, finding that the crash was due to a damaged wing. The ghost finally appeared on 17 January 1917 and disappeared again until 1940.
In 1940 a Hurricane pilot was distracted by a “mysterious biplane” whilst searching for a Heinkel bomber. In 1942, a flight lieutenant (whose name is unknown) stationed at Montrose, crashed into the runway not long after takeoff, and was killed instantly. A week before the crash, he had quarreled with the mechanic working on his plane. The mechanic became subject to an Inquiry but after little evidence of tampering, the charges were dropped. Shortly after the crash, there were reports of a ghost appearing at the airfield wearing a flying suit and goggles. The ghost was known to be encountered along the flight line, emerging from the fog. In 1949, Montrose had become a permanent training station, by which time new cadets were briefed on the ghost. Dozens of sightings occurred of an officer in a white flight suit and a hat until the airfield closed in the 1950s.
On 27 May 1963, Sir Peter Masefield was flying his Chipmunk monoplane close to Montrose while en route from Dalcross to Shoreham, when he saw what he believed was a 70-horsepower B.E.2 biplane; the pilot was wearing a leather flying helmet, goggles and a flying scarf. Masefield landed when he believed he had seen it crashing, but on reaching the ground discovered that there was no plane or crash site.