Sunday 16 September 2018

Last Flight: The Birdman of Speke

Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise
(Blackbird, by John Lennon and Paul McCartney)

Hopefully many of you are enjoying Paul McCartney’s new album ‘Egypt Station’ as much as I am.  He’s certainly put the time in on the publicity campaign for the album, starting back in June with the ‘Car Pool Karaoke’ appearance, his Q and A at the Liverpool School for Performing Arts and ‘secret’ gig at the Cavern during the summer and more recently the performance at New York’s Grand Central station.

We’ve also seen the recent release of the video for the song ‘Fuh You’ which was filmed around Garston, close to Paul’s old home in Liverpool.

Of course he’s also given a multitude of press interviews for newspapers and magazines, the best of which is the lengthy piece by Chris Heath in the October edition of GQ magazine.

Introducing the piece Heath admits that ‘It is not so difficult to get Paul McCartney to talk about the past, and this can be a problem. Anyone who has read more than a few interviews with him knows that he has a series of anecdotes, mostly Beatles-related, primed and ready to roll out in situations like these. Pretty good stories, some of them, too. But my goal is to guide McCartney to some less manicured memories—in part because I hope they'll be fascinating in themselves, but also because I hope that if I can lure him off the most well-beaten tracks, that might prod him to genuinely think about, and reflect upon, his life’.

Full credit to Heath for achieving his goal, it’s a terrific interview. A link to the full interview can be found at the bottom of this blog.

One of the ‘untold’ stories has received sensational coverage in the US tabloids, a story first revealed by Pete Shotton in his book ‘John Lennon in My Life’. It doesn’t need a helping hand from me to give it further exposure.

Instead I’d like to explore the background to a completely new anecdote, an incident which occurred in Speke with both Paul and George Harrison present. I can imagine Mike McCartney was there as well but he’s not mentioned in the piece. As Paul’s memory is of a specific public event we can even pinpoint the date, Whit Monday, 1956. Paul had moved into Forthlin Road the month before and was nearly 14, George had turned 13 that February.

Today Paul’s return trips to Liverpool usually start with him flying into Speke airport (now Liverpool John Lennon airport) and he admits that as soon as he lands, ‘from the word go, there, I'm getting memories of me and John cycling to that airport to look at planes, me and George going to the Liverpool Air Show where some guy, the birdman, flew out of an airplane and his parachute didn't open..."

This is the story of Léo Valentin, the ‘Birdman’ Paul and George watched on that fateful day.

Léo Valentin was born in 1919 in Épinal, France. As a child he had a keen interest in airplanes and read avidly about powered aircraft and gliders. Although initially dreaming of becoming a fighter pilot he opted to join a group of French paratroopers in Baraki, Algeria. After the fall of France, he became an instructor at a parachute school in Fez, Morocco. He then sailed to England for retraining, parachuted into Brittany as a saboteur and was wounded in the arm in a firefight at Loire.

After the war Valentin returned to work as a parachute instructor, spending his spare time trying to perfect his life-long ambition of flying like a bird. While still in the French Army he developed the jumping technique known as the "Valentin position", allowing him better control of his movements in the air.

In February 1948 he made a world-record delayed parachute drop without a respirator, free-falling 20,200 feet, and set a record for the longest night free fall (14,550 feet). Shortly thereafter he left the army after ten years of service to continue his experiments as a civilian.

His demonstrations of ‘birdman’ gliding begain in 1950 at Villacoublay airfield, not far from Paris, when Valentin attempted his first "wing jump" using wings made of canvas, but he failed to achieve any forward speed. He then tried rigid wings to prevent the wings from collapsing. On 13 May 1954, with the help of a set of rigid wooden wings, he finally managed some kind of stability with the initial spiral. Valentin later claimed that he managed to fly for three miles using his wooden wings.

His reputation grew, many viewing the Frenchman as a pioneer of a coming era promised in popular Saturday morning science fiction serials such as ‘Flash Gordon’ and within the pages of the futuristic Eagle comic (first published April 1950).

On 21 May 1956 Valentin, his name already a byword for courage and recklessness arrived in Liverpool for the Whit Monday air pageant at Speke airport. This was his first appearance in the UK and news of his visit had created a huge atmosphere of anticipation.

It was the sort of bank holiday everyone dreams about. Blazing sunshine, the gentlest of breezes and a vivid blue sky. 100,000 people had made their way to the airport for an exciting day out.

All Post-war baby boomers were fascinated with planes and parachutes but airshows were not just about aircraft. Also taking part were the daredevil flyers and stunt performers that took to the skies to enthral and inspire those who came to see the show.

Two hours earlier the Speke crowd had roared with excitement as Valentin made a delayed parachute drop, without his saffron coloured wooden wings in aid of the Soldiers’ Sailors and Airmen’s Families Association. They’d enjoyed fly-pasts by four Canberra T4s,  formation acrobatics by four Sea Hawks and four Meteor F8s and demonstration flights by a Blackburn Beverley, a B.E.A. Pionair and an Airwork Viking but now it was time for what promised to be the highlight of the afternoon: The ‘Birdman’.

It was Valentin’s intention, after jumping from the Starways Dakota at 9,000 feet to glide for several miles using his new pair of wooden wings fitted with ailerons, before parachuting down to the aerodrome.

The Dakota had its rear door removed so Valentin could exit safely. Valentin climbed aboard pausing to wave at the expectant crowd, and then fitted into his wings, the plane took off.

Philip Newton was just 16 when his father took him to the airshow: My dad and I had climbed on the roof of a low brick building near the Boulevard and saw the whole thing through binoculars. There was a blue sky, not much wind....

As the Dakota twice circled high above the Speke crowd the buzz of expectancy became a roar of excitement as they saw the small black shape fell from the plane. People with binoculars said they could see the ‘birdman’s’ wings flapping.

The stunt immediately went wrong......

A young reporter, Richard Whittington-Egan was on board the Dakota at the time and twenty years later wrote of the fateful moment: 4.21 (pm) He has gone. A buffet of wind seems to catch him and whip him out of the aircraft into the slipstream. Simultaneously I hear a terrible splintering noise above the roar of the engines. I see a tiny fragment of orange wood whisked away by the wind. His wings have hit the tail.

Is our  tail-plane damaged? If it will be the end of us all. Luckily it was not. But Valentin was in deadly trouble. 

Philip Newton: (Valentin) jumped outside the back of the plane - we saw him with his orange wings spread horizontally and feet down and he just hung there, stationary, in a sort of ‘Angel of the North’ position (like a kind of cross figure), just hovering. He was suspended. He didn’t move his wings.

Richard Whittington-Egan:  Craning out I catch a glimpse of him. He is spinning, clockwise, smashed orange wings glistening like blood in the sunlight, spiralling like an autumn leaf to earth. He has two chances – two parachutes....

When he was still several thousand feet below the aircraft but still some hundred feet from the ground Valentin pulled his parachute ripcord.

Richard Whittington-Egan: He was about 1,000 feet down when he pulled the ripcord but the parachute didn’t open. Then I knew he would never make it.

The sun glinted on an orange wing, and his gleaming white parachute ‘candled’ and trailed out behind.

Paul McCartney: (the)’birdman’ flew out of an airplane and his parachute didn't open. And we watched him drop and went, 'Uh-oh…I don't think that was right.…' We thought, 'Any second now his parachute's gonna open’, and it never did....

Peter Merce was also there and still remembers it vividly:  Kenneth Wolstenholme was doing the on field commentary and I recall him saying something like "And there he goes floating down safely with his parachute" No doubt he realised what was happening and was trying to keep everyone calm.

With his wings spinning continuously Valentin continued to hurtle vertically at 120 mph until he was lost to sight behind an airport hangar. On the photograph above Valentin's fall is circled. 

Richard Whittington-Egan: He (is) less that 1,000 feet from the ground when his second parachute opens, but it fails to develop. It lashes around his face and wraps itself about his body like a corpse cloth. I watch him struggling frantically to free himself.

Philip Newton: He fell and he fell. He took ages to fall. The backup parachute just wrapped around him, like a shroud. He disapeared over a line of trees about North –North West of the airport I guess. Everything stopped and there was a deathly hush.

Paul McCartney: We went, 'I don't think he survived that.' And he didn't.

A helicopter was later spotted flying in the direction of where Valentin fell but no mention of the accident was mentioned over the public-address system. As the fall had taken place some distance away, newspaper articles in the following days reported that many of the spectators were unaware of the tragedy on leaving at the end of the display.

Joe Barlow was one: I was there with my Dad. I was aged about 10. Whilst looking towards the river the plane came slowly from the right and as the ‘Birdman’ leapt from the plane one of his wings caught the plane and came off, spiraling towards the ground. I expect this caused the man himself to go into a spin and tangle his chutes. I remember him falling and disappearing behind trees to the left. Only later did we find out that he had died.

Some of the spectators perhaps, but not all.

Keith Baldock was six years old and remembers: It was (Valentin’s)  second jump of the day and I remember everyone being shocked and talking about it on the bus home to Woolton Village.

Peter Merce: The next morning there was an even sadder photo in the paper of a crumpled parachute in a field with only a pair of legs showing from beneath

Philip Newton: He landed in a field between Mackets Lane and Halewood. Next day an apprentice at work said he was in the cadets and part of the rescue team.

The Frenchman’s body, grotesque with splintered ‘wings’ still fastened to his steel corset was found two miles away in a field of young wheat near Halewood station*. The huge white nylon parachute which had failed to open, and thus killed him, was draped across his body.

The body of Léo Valentin arrived by plane at the airbase Luxeuil-St-Sauveur (BA 116), where military honours were rendered to him. Placed on a command car of the French Air Force and covered with flowers, the body arrived at the church of Saint-Sauveur, Haute-Saône on 3 June 1956.

On Friday 25 May 1956 a inquest was held in Widnes. The coroner said ‘This man lost his life like many pioneers in the world of aviation’. The jury returned a verdict of ‘Death by Misadventure.’


Viewing the show from a cornfield nearby was the famous horror writer Clive Barker, then three years old: There are no other events in my early life which carry quite the primal force of Leo Valentin’s fall (Clive Barker, 1999). Valentins’ fall often appears in Barker’s novels embodied in the familiar character of a winged man or birdman. It’s power to ‘insist itself upon’ the imagination seared the fall onto the ‘rock’ of Barker’s skull as he puts it – rendering a mould or a blueprint ‘from whlch all manner of other tales and pictures would in time be derived’.  Twelve years behind John Lennon, he was born in October 1952, attended Dovedale Road Primary School and Quarry Bank High School.

* The author presently lives on a housing development built on former fields near Halewood station.


You can read the fantastic GQ interview here:


  1. Thanks.Really interesting.

  2. As always, thanks for your comments Wizz :)

  3. I really liked this, very informative, thank you!