The Shackelton Crash – 25 years on “Lest We forget”

1971RAF MR Badge

Shackelton AEW MK2 WR965. 30th April 1990 Grid reference NF 996914


The RAF Mountain Rescue was formed during the Second World War to rescue aircrew from crashed aircraft in the mountains of the UK. To this day the 4 RAF Teams that still survive are still called to carry out some difficult recoveries of aircraft both Service and civilian in the mountains.


This is the sad story of this incident and the part played by the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team.


30 April 1990 Isle of Harris

1990 Shackelton Crash Hercules aircraft

It was a beautiful day at RAF Kinloss which is situated on the North East coast of Scotland. Unusually a lot of the Mountain Rescue Team had gathered in the crew room. It was lunch time when I was told on the phone by the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC) and there was a Shackelton aircraft missing from RAF Lossiemouth. It had been on a Training sortie from Lossiemouth and was last seen near Benbeculla, near the Isle of Harris on the West Coast of Scotland. I was told a helicopter from Lossiemouth a Sea King would be at Kinloss in 10 minutes and would take 10 of my team to the area. This is called a “fast party” a quick fast response to any incident.


In these circumstances 10 minutes is not long to prepare and the teams have a long established protocols to ensure we have the correct equipment to carry out any rescue. We managed to get to the aircraft pan ready for the Seaking Helicopter which landed rotors running and we were off!  In an aircraft crash information is coming in all the time, from the ARCC.  As The Team Leader I was getting constant updates from the aircrew and passing the information on to the team members in the back of the noisy helicopter not easy.


In any incident the helicopter flies flat out on a Rescue especially, when it is an aircraft from their station at Lossiemouth, nothing was spared. I was up with the pilots and getting all the updates on my earpiece. There are so many things going on in your head as the Team Leader and you are very busy. The flight to Harris was about 60 minutes and as we neared the last known position we were picking up the aircraft beacons in the helicopter which meant the aircraft in trouble and had crashed. Due to the remoteness of the area I spoke to my control the ARCC and asked for the rest of the RAF Kinloss team to be sent immediately to assist.


As we neared the crash site the noise from the beacons was intense and we feared the worst. The crash had occurred near the village of Northton on a small hill called Modal about 800 Feet above the sea. The only cloud in the whole of Scotland was over the crash site and the helicopter dropped us as near as they could to the incident. It was like the scene from a battlefield, a tangled mess of a once proud aircraft and the casualties, all fatal scattered around, memories that still haunt me to this day.  At times like these even in the middle of such carnage the Mountain Rescue Team has a job to do and we are all as professional, most of us had seen these sights before. A few shocked locals had managed to get to the crash and were relieved to see us and leave the horror of such a place. There was very little chance of any survivors.


Our first task is to ensure that all the casualties are accounted for and then to secure the crash site. All the fatalities have to be left in place as there will be a Crash Investigation Team on scene as soon as possible. Our next task is to secure the site which was still on fire and ensure there were no classified materials about.


It was grim work but most of my team on the helicopter were veterans of such scenes, I had been heavily involved with the Lockerbie Disaster, we did what we had to do. Once things were organised at the scene I walked back down to the road about half a mile from the scene. It was surreal already the locals had put a small caravan in a lay-by and the ladies had a welcome cup of tea for us. They were wonderful people with typical Highland hospitality and care, which my team would need later on. They were wonderful to my team and helped in the difficult days that we had ahead.


The cloud had cleared and this was one of the most sad but beautiful places in Scotland.  The local Police were on scene along with the Coastguards and the site was secured awaiting the Board of Enquiry, no casualties could be moved until the Police and the Procurator Fiscal arrived. My team guarded the scene and took photos and mapped the site out, standard procedures for an aircraft incident. The aircraft was guarded through the night and all night the local people were so helpful to us all.


The majority of the team who were still at Kinloss were flown to Stornoway by a Jetstream aircraft and by Hercules aircraft complete with our Mountain Rescue vehicles, they were all on scene by 1600, an amazing piece of organisation.  In the end I had 27 Team members, the 4 Tonner vehicles’ arrived by Ferry the same day!


Once the site had been visited later on by the Board of Enquiry the team receives permission to removed all the casualties from the scene, a hard and difficult task. After 3 days on scene we handed over the crash site to RAF Lossiemouth crash guard who were there for several weeks working with the investigation board.


Most of the team and vehicles’ flew out that day from Harris in a Hercules aircraft ahead of all the casualties who were in another aircraft. We flew into Lossiemouth and drove through the camp for the short journey to Kinloss. The whole camp at Lossiemouth lined up as we drove through a very moving experience, waiting for their fallen comrades.     The RAF Kinloss Team is now gone and the Team has moved RAF   Lossiemouth  (April 2015) few will know that the team exists for  and what a hard job we have to do at times.


A few years later I revisited the crash site in Harris. The drive down was in driving rain but as we got nearer to Tarbet the weather cleared to bright sunshine and the hills had a smattering of snow. As we got nearer to the site the sun, blue seas, surf and clear sandy beaches made this a sad but beautiful place to be. Though the hill is only small by mountaineering standards, it’s fairly steep as it starts from sea-level. Memories came flashing back of the accident and even the superb beauty of this special place made it a difficult wee walk. Nature has as usual sorted things out and the scars on the hill are covered by heather and peat, occasional bits of wire and small pieces of metal remain of a fairly large aircraft. The memorial on the top commemorates the crew of the Shackelton “Dylan” and details of the aircraft with the words”We Will Never Forget” inscribed on a memorial on the summit. It faces West the inscription is getting the worse of the weather and may need replaced within the next few years.  On the summit the views were immense, unsurpassed with unique Island scenery of mountains and the sea and the fresh snow enhancing everything.  After spending some time on the top, with the wind it was fairly cold, we left that beautiful, though sad place, with a wee prayer for the crew and wondering how many people know of this place.

Harrris Crash Memorial

I will never forget what happened that day and how tragic the crash site was even to hardened mountain rescue men. The RAF Mountain Rescue Team carries out a complex job at times but I am proud of what my team did over these few days. I will never forget the wonderful help we received from the Police, Coastguards and these magnificent people from North Harris who treated us so well over a terribly difficult 3 days. My team were incredible on this and many others days we had to deal with such tragedies but that was the job we did.

Thanks to all, from all of us.

1991 Harris Crash Shackelton main wreckage



It should be noted that the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team has been at least two other Shackelton Crashes in their role in RAF Mountain Rescue. The first was on the 21 December 1967 when a Shackelton crashed at Locailort near Fortwilliam killing all 13 of the crew. The team were involved in the recovery all over the Festive period until the 8 January. I met the son of the navigator of this aircraft who came to visit RAF Kinloss in 2007, 40 years after his father died, a very moving day for me. I took him and his wife around the Rescue Centre the ARCC where I was on shift. From here we went to the Mountain Rescue Section at Kinloss and tried to answer all his questions, which he wanted answers for many years. In addition the team were also involved in the Shackelton Crash at the south end of the Mull of Kintyre killing all 11 of the crew on the 19 April 1968, the RAF Kinloss team were there till the 23 April. All these terrible incidents make a huge impression on the RAF Mountain Rescue Teams and the team members and are never forgotten by those who were involved.




“Lest We Forget”


David Heavy Whalley MBE BEM

On Monday the 30.4.90 the usually sleepy village of Northton, Isle of Harris was covered in a deep mist. Not much of the area was visible to the naked eye, certainly not the hillside opposite (Moadal). Most people were inside their homes as it was near lunchtime when the familiar sound of the Avro Shackleton flying overhead was heard.

Within seconds the whole village of Northton was shaken fiercely with a loud explosion nearby. Sadly the aircraft had clipped the top of Moadal and instantly exploded. The power of the explosion shook houses even up at the other end of the village. Indeed several people thought that part of their building had collapsed.

Dr. Naylor was the recently appointed G.P. for the area and this was one of his first emergency call outs. Everyone worked together to race to the scene but sadly the 10 aircraft men were dead almost instantly and nothing could be done to save them.
Although the aircraft could be considered old (first flown in 1954) it had been well serviced throughout it’s history (the Shackleton was based in Lossiemouth prior to the crash). The flightpath was a familiar one so the only contributing factor would have been the bad weather but it is not known what caused the aircraft to crash into the hillside – the aircraft did not carry a “black box” flight recorder.

About heavywhalley.MBE

After dinner speaker Lecturer and Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 36 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 4 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer and loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Aircraft incidents, Friends, Mountain rescue, SAR. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Shackelton Crash – 25 years on “Lest We forget”

  1. Tim Mepham says:

    Hello Walley,

    Read with interest your report on the coverage of the tragic Shackelton crash on Harris.

    I have a very loose connection with that aircraft. As a schoolboy attending Salford Junior Technical College and to give us some experience in making our career choices we visited several factories to help with our plans. One was to Avro’s factory in Chadderton where could observe at close range the assembly line for the Shackleton..Must have been 1953 or 54.

    Following with concern your recovery from your op and eventual return to a full range of activies. It’s patience man !
    Best wishes from Tim Mepham
    (friend of Dick Dorling and user of a flat cap reinforced by nylon carpet in the Dolomites).


  2. David Waters says:

    I knew about this accident from the news (when it happened) and it features briefly on a DVD I have about the Shackleton. I always felt a need to visit the site and was given the chance in October this year. I hadn’t visited an aircraft crash site before and this one was (for me) poignant as I worked at Kinloss in 2011 ( as a civvy, but none the less). It was a perfectly clear day, dry, a tad windy, but clear as a bell. Park at the “Seallam” Visitor Centre car park and look up. If it’s a clear day you’ll see the memorial on the top The hike to the top is a steep one and there’s no discernable path, but after about 30 minutes I arrived at the memorial. It looks in good order up there, the stainless plaque is a little oxidised but easily readable and the granite stone containing the names of the unfortunate airmen are clear. It’s a very lonely yet beautiful place and I couldn’t help but think to myself, “just half a mile further North and a few feet higher and this place would be insignificant. But it’s not to be. Have a walk up there, enjoy the views and take a few minutes for quiet reflection. You won’t regret it. RIP.

    Liked by 1 person

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