I was very lucky to have a long chat with the incredible man that is Hamish MacInnes, one of Scotland’s most famous mountaineers and rescue experts. As a man he is unique and unashamedly one of my heroes. I asked him what his most memorable callout was? I was expecting some epic in his beloved Glencoe but it was tragedy in Skye on New Year 1963 many years ago when 3 climbers were killed on the Dubhs Ridge on the remote Coruisk side of the ridge. It was a two day epic in winter which is so well described in Hamish book “Call Out”. I also wrote about it on my blog on 16 July 2012. He asked me what my mine was. Unbelievably it was about 1 mile from this incident, on the Isle of Skye and this is the story:
In was December the 7 th 1982 I was stationed at RAF Kinloss in the Morayshire Coast in Scotland. The Falklands war had just finished but RAF Kinloss where I worked was still working 12 hour shifts. I had done the early shift from 0600 -1800 in In Flight rationing the Nimrod planes; it had been a busy day. I went back to the Mountain Rescue Section where I was a part-time member and was sorting my equipment of for a weekend’s winter training with the Mountain Rescue team. As I finished the phone rang it was the Rescue Centre at RAF Pitreavie saying that an American F111 Fighter aircraft from RAF Lakenheath with two crew had crashed in the Isle of Skye it was on the main ridge and another aircraft in the two man formation was flying over the area.
Skye in Scotland is a mountaineer’s and climber’s paradise, in winter it becomes Alpine with ascents of the easiest peaks not for the inexperienced. The time was just before 2000 hours it was a wild winter night, pitch dark and with snow at sea level. I was told to get a fast party together in 15 minutes and get to the aircraft pan as a Sea King helicopter was on its way to take us to Skye. There were 6 of us me Allan Tait. Joe Mitchell, Keith Powell (RIP) Chris Langley, Paul Whittaker and my dog Teallach were the fast party. There was little time to get kit sorted and I took as much climbing gear and rope as we could carry. The Skye ridge in a December night was not the place to be but this was payback time for us this is what we trained for. The forecast as I said was awful and there was a good chance of the aircraft not getting us to the crash position due to the weather. It would be a long hard night ahead. The position we were given at first was right on the main ridge between Sgurr Greta and Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh a nightmare scenario in winter and at night.
This was 1982 before modern phones and communications and the kit we had was still basic, our bivouacs kit was still a big orange polythene bag, which was next to useless in wet weather. We carried hill radios that were efficient, line of sight but heavy and suffered in the cold and wet. The helicopter was at Kinloss a few minutes away flying with 15 minutes and in the darkened aircraft. I was told to go to the front for a brief and stayed there most of the trip out to Skye. The snow was falling very heavily and the crew would have to use all their cunning and experience to get to the incident. This was also in the days before night vision equipment and the modern GPS, It is hard to believe we flew low near the roads to get updates on our navigation. I do not enjoy flying at the best of times and this was a worrying trip. My 5 team companions were in the back oblivious to what was happening. When a military aircraft goes in all the efforts are made by all concerned and the rest of the team would follow by road a journey as bad for them in roads plastered with snow and ice and taking up to 6 hours! We would be on our own for at least 12 hours. My head was on fire with plans but we had to get there first and I was helping picking out snowy land marks on the way. At Achnasheen about half way there after about 35 minutes we had to land down as the weather was awful. We were soon off again and all the time getting updated on the situation and a new fix for the crash site. It was now near Loch Coruisk a remote part of the ridge with no road access. There was another aircraft an F111 over the site that was now covered by snow and cloud. The local Skye team were trying to get to Egol and help us with their local knowledge; this would be invaluable in these hills. As we neared Egol (This is a village on the shores of Loch Scavaig towards the end of the Strathaird peninsula in the Isle of Skye.) I moved to help the winchman by going on the harness near the aircraft door. The weather was still wild and snow was blowing everywhere as we were dropping down to pick up the Skye Mountain Rescue party. The winch man saw Hydro wires nearby and we had to rise steeply to miss them, we were very lucky. The aircraft pulled away and I was told we had one chance of a drop off as the aircraft had a problem now due to the power used. We flew out to sea and I had a quick look at the map, winching was not possible so picked a spot I knew well Camasunary Mountain Bothy near a hill called Sgurr na Stri. This was where the aircraft last known position was it the place to start our search. We could not wait to get out of the helicopter and my party inside had a good idea how near we had been to a disaster.
A few months previously we had been to another F111 that crashed in Strathcarron we had been involved and the crew were okay they had ejected in the capsule that was unique to this aircraft and both were taken to hospital in nearby Inverness. We were sure that the crew of two would be waiting for our arrival somewhere on the mountain. We were on our own as the helicopter flew off, leaving us alone in the dark, with the smell of fire and aviation fuel about. Out of the bothy door came three figures ——- to be continued.