Flying by the seat of his pants

Roddy Lloyd from Rowley’s auctions which is selling a watch connected with an incredible episode in WWI

A relic from one of the most daring and astonishing acts of heroism in the skies during World War One has emerged for sale.

In 1917, pilot Eric Waters was flying over Belgium when he was shot and killed – leaving his gunner-observer sitting in front of him with no parachute, heading for the ground.

Sergeant Fred Slingsby, however, wasn’t going to submit to gravity.

He climbed from his seat then scrambled over the fuselage to where Waters was slumped at the controls.

He then climbed in, sat on his dead colleague’s knee and safely took the plane back to British lines where he managed to land it.

For his act of aeronautical derring-do he was awarded the Military Medal.

The item for sale is the pocket watch that pilot Lieutenant Eric Gordon Waters had with him on the doomed mission.

Eric Waters, 1917

It was taken from his body after the landing and along with his RFC cap and lapel badges was returned to his family.

Relatives engraved the watch with ‘2LT E G WATERS 6 SQN KIA JAN 24TH 1917’ – as a permanent reminder of the action in which he died aged 30.

The items are to go under the hammer at Rowley’s auction house in Ely, Cambs, with an estimate of £400-600.

Roddy Lloyd from the saleroom said: “This watch has little value in itself, but its connection with the death of its owner and the successful landing of the plane lends it value, both in terms of money and historic interest.

“Waters was part of No. 6 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, and on 24 January 2017 was flying over Poperinge, West Flanders, Belgium.

“According to the Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s entry Waters was flying his BE2g 7175 whilst escorting a photographic patrol.

“His plane was attacked and during the dog fight he was shot in the back and head and killed.

“Fred Slingsby was sitting in front of him and did not have a parachute because at that time the high command considered it would be an easy option for airmen to jump to safety rather than stay and fight.

“So he climbed from his cockpit over the plane to where Waters was and proceeded to fly the plane back to safety, sitting on the dead pilot’s lap.

“It was an extraordinary bit of flying skill and clearly winning the Military Medal meant his commanding officers were impressed.

“The watch and badges were put together in a case – presumably by his mourning family – and that is what we are selling.

“It will of course interest collectors of militaria and early aviation.”

The watch and RFC badges that belonged to doomed WWI pilot Eric Waters, which are being sold at Rowley’s auction house in Ely, Cambs

The watch that belonged to doomed WWI pilot Eric Waters, which are being sold at Rowley’s auction house in Ely, Cambs

The watch that belonged to doomed WWI pilot Eric Waters, which are being sold at Rowley’s auction house in Ely, Cambs

Waters is buried at Lijssenthoek Military Cementery, Belgium, and there is also a gravestone at Forest Row, Sussex, where he was from.

David Barnes, chief executive officer of the Farnborough Aerospace Consortium (FAC) – a voice for the aerospace industry, said: “This heroism is indicative of the calibre of people we took into the RFC in those early days, and then into the RAF which was founded on April 1 1918.”

“They were outstanding people pushing new technology to its limits and were all aware of the risks, but still carried on.

“And of course Fred Slingsby after the war founded Slingsby Sailplanes and then Slingsby Aviation – and is famous for the Slingsby gliders.”

Slingsby died in 1973 aged 78.

Slingsby, kneeling, with Amy Johnson

The sale is being held on December 7.


For more information contact Ed Baker at Deep South Media on 01202 534487 or 07788392965