After a wee wander in the high hills it is so grand to get back down and get changed, showered and sorted out. Old habits die hard and I usually get the wet kit out and sorted; change the glove with the split thumb and get ready for tomorrows wander. The next day Joss Gosling and myself were giving a chat on the Beinn Eighe Tragedy before the Re -union dinner. Joss was one of the Mountain Rescue Team who was in the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue team in 1951 who was on the famous callout for the Lancaster that hit the great Triple Buttress of Beinn Eighe killing all the 8 of a crew. I have been very privileged to meet and interview some incredible people in my time but this was a night to remember. Joss and Willie have that incredible humility that is lacking by many in today’s society and what a joy it was to hear another aspect of this story. Joss is 83 years young and along with Willie Stuart is one of the few survivors of the Rescue team in these days. What a story they have to tell, much was written about this crash at the time and huge changes in Rescue Training and equipment followed the enquiry after this crash. The RAF team was made up of National Servicemen and few had mountaineering equipment or the knowledge of its use. Scotland had a very small mountaineering community and information about climbing and mountaineering is nothing like these days of Blogs, internet and up to date weather and climbing conditions. Only a few and the very experienced ventured into the far North West.
The Kinloss Team had just returned from the recovery of a climber in the far Corries of Ben A Bhuird in the Cairngorms where they had a hard call – out in 11 March 1951. The carry off was long and hard and the drive back on the roads that were single track an adventure. The weather was very poor with tons of snow. Joss said it was a hard callout and the snow was feet deep it had been a hard winter in 1951. It was a tired team that arrived back at RAF Kinloss on the 14 March 1951 to find that one of its planes was missing a Lancaster with 9 crew on board. It was last heard of by radio heading for home from a navigational exercise off the Faroes and Rockall .
In the evening of the 13th of March 1951 this Lancaster set out from RAF Kinloss for a training flight a Navigational Exercise. The aircraft was on the final leg of a night-time navigation exercise between the Faroes and Rockall and was heading home when it collided with the mountain, Beinn Eighe, at around 02.00hrs on the 14th of March. It was only thirty minutes from landing back at base.
The nav-ex had been flown in horrendous weather conditions, when they took off from Kinloss seven hours prior to the crash, a deep low pressure was developing further south, this effect caused a strong north-easterly airflow north of this depression which the crew would have been battling with prior to the crash and which almost certainly caused them to have flown too far south of their intended course.
The last radio message picked up reported the aircraft to be “sixty miles north of Cape Wrath”. Nothing more was heard. The aircraft was later found to have crashed and had struck just fifteen feet from the summit of that part of the mountain range and at the top of a very inaccessible gully known at Far West Gully at the western side of Triple Buttress, above Loch Coire Mhic Fhearchair in the Beinn Eighe group.
The crew would have been flying in pitch darkness, poor visibility and freezing conditions, it was thought the crew presumed they were descending over the relatively flat area of Caithness towards their let-down over the Moray Firth. They actually crashed over the Torridon Mountains, which are above 3000 feet. All eight airmen were almost certainly killed in the impact with the solid rock.
For 3 days nothing was heard or seen of the aircraft and then a local boy from Torridon thought he had seen a flash on the mountain of Beinn Eighe the night the Lancaster went missing. This was eventually passed to the Police and RAF Kinloss informed. Kinloss sent an Oxford aircraft up and located the crash near the summit Of Beinn Eighe. This was now three days after the crash occurred and arrived at Kinlochewe after an epic journey in bad roads and weather. One of the first things Joss said as we prepared for our chat was that a lot of the team knew the crew as many worked on the Lancaster’s at RAF Kinloss and were so upset at not being able to go straight away. No one had a clue where the aircraft might be. It was to be a very personal callout for many of the team. When I asked Joss about the team knowledge of the area he was very definite that no one had been there before, the maps were poor (though they thought there were great at the time)and they took the local Policeman’s advice on the way in the Beinn Eighe. This involved a long walk in via Bridge of Grudie where there is no path for the final few miles round the ridge of Ruadh Stac Mor a long way in! This seems strange to us with our knowledge of the hill and the information now available. Joss remembers it well and his first view of the huge Triple buttress will live with him forever. Joss says “it was like entering a Cathedral” he still gets very emotional when he sees the photo below. When he spoke to me it was just like being there at the time
Joss was the only one who took his camera with him and took photos throughout the incident which are incredible value for us all and show us what conditions were like in 1951.
When they reached the bottom of the Corrie they located lots of wreckage but no bodies and tried to climb up to the summit and the main crash site but with no success. Conditions, equipment and experience were against them.
They returned to Kinlochewe where they camped in the Hotel car park – There was no mountain Rescue teams about in Scotland at this time,limited local knowledge, life was going to be hard for the recovery of the crew and to gain access to this huge mountain and the main crash site 15 metres from the summit ridge. (To be continued……..)