2 June 1994
From training Exercise to a real incident: The Chinook Crash Mull Of Kintyre
Twenty four years have passed and this story is still as vivid as it was when it happened.
It was an unreal day I was stationed at RAF Kinloss in Morayshire I had just stood down as the Full time RAF Mountain Rescue Team Leader and after a short break I was back on the Mountain Rescue team. It was good as I was again a Team member and not the leader a great deal of pressure was gone and I was back in my trade running an office what a change from a full –time Team leader. The station in these days had Exercise this was 1994 and old habits the Cold War meant that we trained for war and the RAF Station shut down for 3 days as we played war. It was a very busy time and as a Caterer (my real job) the station was on 12 hour shifts for 3-4 days. It was always and awful time as much was concerned with the station being attacked at the end and various awful scenarios that could occur. Most of us had to go into hardened shelters, practice using gas masks etc, generally an awful time for all. On this exercise we had we had practised an aircraft crash on the airfield and just finished it when we were told of real crash at the Mull Of Kintyre.
The weather was great it was early June and the whole team was available, the pagers and Tannoy blared out and I was at the MRT Section within a few minutes. The Team Leader Jim Smith said that it was a possible helicopter Crash on the Mull Of Kintyre and a Sea King helicopter was inbound in 5 minutes to pick up a “fast party” I did not expect to get on the helicopter and the 5 minutes is not long to sort out your world but I was told I was going. I was to be one of the “fast party “they were a very experienced group 6 team members plus the Team Leader that went on the aircraft. The rest of the team another 20 would follow by road a long journey 5- 6 hours away!
Jim Smith was the Team Leader and once you are in the back of a helicopter it is a different world. In the back it is noisy and even at midday dark and busy with the crew all working hard, it is incredible to watch. Add to that it was a possible military aircraft crash they crew do not hang about. The flight about an hour from Kinloss was so fast we hammered across the mountains. I remember flashing by Ben Alder and heading low and fast to the Mull. The information was scant and even though the incident had just happened more was coming all the time. In the back you feel out of it but then a scrap of paper appears and we were told it was a military helicopter a Chinook with a lot of passengers. There are a few people who ask you what do you think off as you are in the helicopter? My thought was a lot of casualties the Chinook is a big helicopter and there may be multi –casualties?
As we neared the Mull Of Kintyre the mist was down and the helicopter could only land at the lighthouse landing site in thick mist, it was too difficult to try to get us further up the hill. We could hear the emergency beacons going off in our aircraft just before we landed in a swirling mist right by the lighthouse. Information was very scant but the beacons were a bad sign and we had to get in quick. We were carrying large trauma/ first aid bags plus our kit and as soon as we landed we had a quick get together. We had the very basic P.P.I. gear with us masks and other paraphilia but as we had a trudge about half a kilometre up to the crash site we decided to move fast and not wear it.
As we left I was worried this was a big incident there were 29 on the aircraft I was praying some would have survived. As we got nearer the smell of fuel and smoke was everywhere as was wreckage and the fires were burning. This was to me Lockerbie again and I I said to Kim and Andy please keep an eye on me this is too like Lockerbie for me! I was dreading what I would see and how it would affect me.
We arrived at the scene the helicopter after running up a hill in the dense smoke, my mind was in turmoil. It was a hellish scene the aircraft was a crumpled mess fires and smoke made the place like out of a war scene. We split up to locate the crew a grim job, with the aircraft still burning and banging and crashing scene from a movie but this was real. This was hell. There were a few locals but they were shell shocked and were glad we had arrived. There was little we could do all the crew were dead and the crash site was very dangerous all we could do was secure the site and wait for the emergency services. The trauma and dangers about at such a place make it very dangerous, there were a few live weapons about and lots of personal belongings danger and trauma was everywhere. The aircraft had been carrying some of the cream of the military, police and civilian anti-terrorist experts to a Conference in Fort George in Inverness and the security implications were to be massive. It would be a difficult few days ahead?
When you arrive at such a scene of incredible destruction it is amazing how you cope. This was the job the RAF Mountain Rescue train for an unfortunately this is what were paid to do. Our job is to rescue and recover military aircraft and the 6 of us in the fast party that had arrived by helicopter had huge experience in crash sites. After the initial survey round the very dangerous crash site and with all the 29 on board dead we have to ensure that all the evidence at the crash site is not touched. This means that all the casualties stay in place and await the Police and Air Investigation Board arrive. (AIB) The local Police / Fire and Ambulance were already on scene and were glad of our experience. We explained how dangerous the crash site was with fire smoke and other items like sharp wreckage making it very easy to explain and keep the site safe and secure.
Jim the Team Leader was busy speaking to our powers that be by phone and we found out that the rest of the Team from RAF Leuchars and RAF Kinloss were coming by road a long 3- 4 hour journey for Leuchars and longer from Kinloss. We would be on our own for a while. By now after a couple of hours the top brass from the Police and Fire had arrived and set up Operation Controls etc. There were many lessons learned as the Agencies jostled for Control!
My task was to brief them and also keep the integrity of the Crash site. It is also as I can only remind people a place of death, destruction and danger and you in my experience need to keep those who see this horror at a minimum. I had a few heavy discussions on this point as there is “a must see what has happened” by some that many live to regret. In the end they were all advised and we did keep the site as safe as possible. The fire service was there for most of the night as the peat and smoke keep burning. It was surreal. It is amazing the things you remember and we needed a drink it was hard to get some as the area was contaminated by fuel. We were hot and tired by the time some of the team arrived to help us we were on our own for about 5 hours.
We showed them the crash site and had a break – then a local minster arrived and wanted to visit the site and say a few words. It was tricky as the casualties were still in place as the Police and AIB investigated. It was with a group of us that the minster said a few words and left he was visibly shaken by what he had seen. We covered the casualties when our kit arrived up and it was a long night. The site is fairly remote so access was controlled by the Police along the single track road. The WRVS arrived as they always do; we had some drinks and food. What great people they always help us at such times of tragedy. The weather had cleared and a few Military and other experts arrived but work on the site would not start till the next day.
Next day the AIB arrived and we left them to it after showing them around the scene. They have a difficult job to do but they have to do it. After they were finished the casualties were all removed a harrowing task done by RAF Leuchars MRT. This is a part that few realise is never easy but has to be done with reverence and great care. Every one of those poor souls killed is a tragic life, family lost and devastation for all concerned. Even next day smoke was still about, the air stank of aircraft fuel and burnt heather and of course all the wreckage was still in place. We left the Crash guard of military personnel to look after the site and headed for RAF Machrihanish for the night. We had a meal we were starving and then all managed to have a night together both teams and a few drinks to unwind. We were now a bit better prepared for such tragedy after Lockerbie and the Harris Crash and it was good for the teams to unwind together. These were early days in the effects of PDSD but we were learning how to cope.
Next day we drove back to our camps. It was a long drive in great weather through familiar scenery Glencoe and our familiar stomping grounds back to RAF Kinloss in Morayshire. It was a quite trip home for the teams and back to family and friends few who would have little idea of what we has seen and done on the Mull Of Kintyre.
I have written this piece just to tell a small piece of the work of the RAF Mountain Rescue Teams and other emergency services. Many forget that this was a terrible tragedy and 29 souls lost their lives. Families were and still are devastated by the loss and I will visit the site soon and pay my respects.
Last time I wrote this piece I got several emails from relatives which help dearly. As we say we did our best, we did our best.
I still have to visit the Mull again, I have never been back but will do some day they say time heals but this was an awful tragedy and still affects many of us to this day. We were a bit better prepared for this tragedy as PDST was now being accepted by the military and vital lessons were being learned from past events. What a great team of people to be with on such an event this was our job but how many have a clue what we did or saw?
I did a program for the National Geographic Channel on the disaster and gave my fee to Mountain Rescue It was called “Second’s to disaster” and show some of what we did it is maybe worth a look at the opening 5 minutes if you are part of a Emergency Service and what you may have to cope with?
When we got back to camp and home few had a clue what we had seen or been involved in many did not even know we were there. It was back to work next day as normal but for many it was not a normal day! Many ask what did you do in the RAF and why does the RAF need Mountain Rescue. This is why
Last year 2017 I revisited the Mull of Kintyre with one of my best pals Michael Carrol and his Mum and Dad. On the long journey and then from Campbeltown the road is narrow single track. My memory of this road was so vague.
“It was an incredible journey to the Mull. It is a small single track road that takes you into the Mull Of Kintyre a remote area. I had been staying with my mate Dan’s Mum and Dad and they came with us to the Mull to see the Memorial. We went and spent some time there and visited the new Memorial and then I left them and I went all the way down to the lighthouse where we were dropped off by helicopter. It was a long way down the road that I last ran up all those years ago, there was wreckage everywhere then and the mist and fires were frightening. I was with great folk, it was to like Lockerbie for me as we had to run into the fires and wreckage. There was no other way in and the rule book went out of the window. Sadly there were no lives to save just another horrific scene to deal with and we did.
As I met Dan and his family it had been a strange day and one of many memories. How many years had passed but on my travel up that road alone it was clear as day. By now the sun was out and this place looked stunning. There was no trace of any crash and apart from the memorial nothing, no wreckage at all?
Then it was a long drive back in the sun and have a meal and then head for Arran !
Mull of Kintyre
“Smiles in the sunshine and tears in the rain
Still take me back where my memories remain
Flickering embers go higher and higher
As they carry me back to the Mull of Kintyre
Mull of Kintyre, oh mist rolling in from the sea
My desire is always to be here
Oh Mull of Kintyre “
David “Heavy” Whalley BEM.MBE. June 2018