When dawn broke on Sunday 18th October, 1992, it was just another day in the career of model aeroplane flying ace Stafford Screen, a name that may already be familiar with Bugle readers.
On that date, just over twenty years ago, he was at the Sierra Eagles Flying Field, Rancho Cordova, Sacramento in California, competing in the Sierra Cup, a Free Flight event sanctioned by the Association of Model Aeronautics, and hoping to make an impression as a worthy winner. However, the day would end with Stafford making more of an impression on American soil than he could ever have imagined.
But before the tale is told, here is a CV of Stafford's exploits in the world of model aeronautics.
As a World Championship- Class competition modeller, he has competed all over the world, and since 1977 has represented the UK 33 times. Flying F1C class power models he has been a member of five gold medal winning teams and won three individual silver medals.
When he was a young boy he watched his dad build rubber-powered model aircraft in his spare time, a hobby that would eventually encourage Stafford to build one of his own. Just after the war every town had a model shop and Stafford's local was attached to the Odeon cinema at Quinton, run by a Mr Partridge, and it was here where Stafford's enthusiasm for the sport was fine tuned, and where he and his mates planned their Sunday expeditions to Highgate Common, a twentyfour mile round trip, to fly rubber-powered models and gliders.
In 1949, with help from his dad, Stafford decided he wanted to fly power driven models, and his first model aeroplane was a Keil Kraft Scorpion.
Then, a combination of work, college at least once a week, and National Service in the RAF, plus a commitment to playing football and cricket for local teams, made it very difficult for him to devote enough time to model aircraft construction, although he did maintain an interest by buying the monthly magazine Aeromodeller.
But in 1973 fate dealt a card that would change Stafford's life forever. An ankle injury kept him out of the cricket team and instead of becoming a spectator he went with his family to RAF Little Rissington to watch the Free Flight Nationals, an annual event for aeronautical modellers, and his enthusiasm for building and flying powered model aeroplanes began to take off once again.
By 1992 Stafford was a successful and seasoned campaigner, and a well known face on the competition circuit, being described by Sierra Cup organiser Don Hughes of Sacramento, as "The Famed English Flyer".
The Sierra Cup competition took place over the weekend of October 17/18, and at the start the weather was good for flying. On the Saturday it was described as mild with light and variable winds, but as the sun rose on the Sunday it was evident things had changed.
A stiff breeze delayed the start by nearly two hours, but finally the second day of the Sierra Cup began. Here are a few accounts of what happened next, the first from fellow competitor Walt Ghio.
"Because of the strong wind and long chases, I had not been able to time any of the FIC models until the seventh round (By now it was about 3.30 in the afternoon), when I offered to time Stafford Screen's model. If I only knew that this flight would put a stop to the 1992 Sierra Cup. Stafford's model made a very good climb and made the three minute flight with no problem.
“After recording the time I prepared my model to fly and then noticed a fire down wind.
I flew anyway and landed short of the flames. Stafford's model had collided with power lines and the aluminium skin on the model had shorted out with the resulting sparks starting a grass fire. Several of those close by tried to put the flames out but were unable to stop it spreading. The fire department was called and they fought the fire 'till dark."
In another written account by W.H. "Bill" Lynch, who referred to the Black Countryman as Stafford "Smoke" Screen, Lynch said, "Before we knew it the field downwind was ablaze in sheets of bright orange flame, and thirtyeight fire engines converged from all points of the compass."
In his defence Stafford said later, "During the late afternoon I flew my seventh round from the allotted pole position under the scrutiny of an official timekeeper. The flight allowed a normal pattern, and after 3 minutes the model de-thermalised and descended from a great height. During the descent I observed through binoculars the model strike some low level power lines, burst into flames and ignite a dry grass fire. I am an international competitor of some years and I have been a member of the British Free Flight team for seventeen consecutive years. I do not consider that I was negligent in any way because I did exactly what I was told and asked by the organisation."
The blaze, fuelled by a strong breeze, caused the cancellation of the Sierra Cup and destroyed an estimated 1000 acres of grassland. The model plane striking the overhead cable and starting a fire had been an accident and was described by Stafford as "No person to blame, it was pure chance."
But the Americans had other ideas, and in March 1994 a knock came at Stafford's door at his home in Wollescote. He described the person who handed him an envelope as "a sheriff who could have been holding a Colt 45 to my head", such was the serious nature of its contents.
It was a summons to answer the charge of negligently operating his plane, and to pay $45,252 in compensation for losses incurred in connection with the fire.
There may have been a brief moment of shock, but Stafford is a cool customer, used to the tension and stress of fierce competition, and knowing full well he was covered by insurance (through the auspices of the AMA) for any eventuality whilst flying his model aeroplanes, he and his wife were immediately able to breathe a sigh of relief. Phew!