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This Date in Aviation History: The death of David Purley

July 2, 1985 – David Purley isn’t exactly a household name in Formula 1. He made his F1 debut at Monaco in 1973, and participated in only 11 races over his brief career, scoring no points. While he never made the F1 record books, his actions during the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix made him a hero.

Eight laps into the race, fellow British driver Roger Williamson, in only his second F1 race, suffered a suspected puncture and crashed into the barrier. Williamson was not seriously hurt in the crash, but he remained trapped in his overturned car, which began to burn furiously. Purley witnessed the crash and stopped on the side of the course, abandoning his race, and ran across the active track to come to the aid of his fellow racer. Purley was unable to right the car while track marshals stood by helplessly, and emergency workers, who were not wearing fire resistant clothing nor equipped to deal with the fire, made no attempt to help. Hearing the screams of his trapped friend, Purley seized a fire extinguisher from one of the marshals and tried to douse the flames himself, but to no avail. Williamson died of asphyxiation in the eight minutes it took for rescue vehicles to arrive, while Purley looked on in anguish, waving his arms in frustration and futility. In spite of Williamson’s death, the race continued. For his courage in the face of danger and his selfless heroism, Purley was awarded the George Medal.

Purley at the controls of his Pitts Special

Purley’s racing career ended at the 1977 British Grand Prix when a throttle malfunction caused his car to hit the wall at over 100 mph. He suffered multiple fractures, retired from racing, and took over his family business. But Purley was still a thrill seeker at heart. He took up aerobatic flying to satisfy his need for speed, but he died when his Pitts Special (G-POKE) crashed into the sea after possible engine failure. Purley was 40 years old.

(Photo authors unknown; crash video via YouTube)

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