Did Schneider Trophy legend Richard “Batchy” Atcherley really fly under Cross Keys bridge?
Local mythology certainly has it so, even though no official report has been found to corroborate the story.
This bizarre tale first surfaced when a former airman who, between 1929 and 1931, served at RAF Sutton Bridge just a stone’s throw from the landmark Cross Keys road/rail swing bridge, when describing an aeroplane accident suggested the unfortunate pilot involved “....might be the same fellow who flew under the bridge”.
One of twins serving in the RAF, Flight Lieutenant Richard Atcherley - known throughout the service as ‘Batchy’ was already revered by many of his contemporaries as an outstanding aerobatic pilot. His name arose, as a candidate for the dubious honour of flying beneath the bridge, during conversations with former Aircraftman (later Flt Lt) Jack Flint, stationed at Sutton Bridge Camp during the period in question and one of the best known former residents in the village having retired there from the RAF. Jack, while admitting he did not witness the incident personally, was most emphatic in his claim that:
“Richard Atcherley of 23 Squadron flew under the Bridge in 1930. Atcherley was returning from the Gunnery Range at Holbeach Marsh and later claimed he wanted to pull up (he would have to be flying well below the bank top) but had got too close to do so.
He was not court-martialled but I remember hearing that he was hauled before the Station Commander and given a right rocket for it.”
No official report - probably for the sake of maintaining discipline - of this escapade has yet come to light but the writer received letters from several Sutton Bridge residents who claim to have witnessed it while playing as children on the river bank near the bridge.
One official sequel, however, does seem to lend a little weight to the story.
It seems odd, to say the least, that the foremost single-seat fighter pilot of his day, a known aerobatic “wizard” and a pilot to whom speed and daring were the spice of life should, within three months of the alleged “offence” find himself posted to RAF Amman as a flight commander of No.14 (Bomber) Squadron flying the two-seat reconnaissance Fairey IIIF aeroplane in the stifling heat of the Trans-Jordan desert!
The incident at Sutton Bridge may have been hushed up but was this a “punishment posting” to put the brake on a wild spirit?