LACW Margaret Horton became the unexpected passenger sitting on the tailplane of a Spitfire

Most members of the Society know the story of Leading Aircraftswoman Margaret Horton who, whilst serving at RAF Hibaldstow, near Brigg, became the unexpected passenger on a Spitfire on the 14th of February 1945. She was sitting on the tailplane to hold it down in strong crosswinds as it was being taxied around the airfield. The pilot from 53 OTU was unaware of her and receiving the green light from the airfield controller, he started his take off. He soon had great difficulty trying to move the elevators to gain height because of her grip on them, combined with her weight on the aircraft’s balance but he eventually managed to reach 800ft. Then it was noticed from the ground that all was not well and he was told to land immediately but not given the reason in case he panicked. The pilot finally struggled to complete a circuit and land the aircraft. Margaret was naturally very shaken but fortunately uninjured and went on to lead a long life. The Spitfire Mk Vb, AB910 is of course now part of the BBMF at Coningsby. But what of the pilot? Who was he and was this his only claim to fame?

A recent newspaper obituary identified the pilot as Flight Lieutenant Neill Cox, and far from being a trainee pilot he was a veteran, winning two DFCs for flying operations in the Mediterranean. He was born in Weybridge, Surrey in 1923 and enlisted in the RAF in March 1941, later flying Blenheims with 614 Squadron flying patrols off North Africa before joining 39 Squadron with Beaufighters. Flying from Tunisia in September 1943, he intercepted five Ju 52s near Corsica and LACWshot down two. The following day, his squadron intercepted fifteen Ju 52s and attacking them head on, he damaged one as well as one of their escorting fighters. However his own aircraft was badly hit and he had to ditch it, saving the life of his badly injured navigator by towing the dingy he was in to the shore. He was subsequently awarded an immediate DFC. Later flying from Sardinia on night anti-shipping ops, he attacked a merchant ship with rockets, scoring direct hits but his aircraft was damaged by flying debris. He managed to land safely despite there being a large hole in aircrafts floor just behind his cockpit. He was awarded a Bar to his DFC. After retraining on single seat fighters at Hibaldstow he joined 56 Squadron flying Tempests on ground attack duties until the war ended. He also flew captured German aircraft over to Farnborough for technical evaluation. All in all a very eventful flying career and well worth recording for reasons other than just for the Spitfire incident.

Flt. Lt. Cox was released from the RAF in 1946 and read Law at Oxford before becoming a Barrister; later in life he gave this up and went into farming. He was also an outstanding tennis player, representing the RAF, his college and later played at Wimbledon. Post war he maintained contact with his old comrades from 53 OTU but it is understood that he rarely talked about ‘the WAAF on the tail’ incident.

Margaret Horton was on ‘B’ Flight, 53 OTU which was based near the main Redbourne/Hibaldstow Road. She later said that the incident was due to the ‘slap happy way’ the unit was run, due to the pressure of work rather than any negligence on the part of their NCOs who worked all hours. The pilot should have been briefed to stop before starting his take off run.

Interviewed in the Daily Telegraph in 1968 Miss Horton said that when they reached the end of the runway, they were supposed to waggle the elevator to let the pilot know that they were climbing down. On this particular occasion, the pilot made a little signal with his hand and so she thought that he wanted her to stay on but instead the aircraft gathered speed and took off. On the ground another WAAF mechanic had seen the aircraft go but stammered so much when she was telling her Flight Sergeant that he thought that she was joking at first; but then he went to the tower and reported what was happening.

Once the Spitfire was back on the runway, LACW Horton got down and the pilot revved up and roared away. The ambulance arrived to take her to sick quarters but she said that she was OK and didn’t want to go but she was taken anyway. She later made clear that she was only obeying orders. It is reported that she was fined for losing her gloves during the flight and one irate Air Commodore sent her a letter stating that if he had been the Officer Commanding the Station she would have been severely punished – for obeying orders!

After the flight, everyone involved was warned by senior officers not to mention the incident to the press but it must have leaked out because reporters from the Daily Mirror and Daily Sketch were at the airfield the next day. (It was suggested that some-one rang the paper and got paid for the story; the obvious question was – did they go through the station switchboard?)

Post war, Miss Horton joined the Royal Observer Corps and she seemed to enjoy her moment of fame as she gave interviews to the media and there are at least two different photographs of her sat on the tail of Spitfire AB910 in her ROC uniform. Many thanks to Mike French for sending this in; additional information came from Pat Horton (Hibaldstow/Kirton in Lindsey archivist - no relation) and the Editor’s files.


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[29sep12 01:10]