Looking back on the 30 Anniversary of Lockerbie the Cycle to Syracuse “Look Back

Looking back on the 30 Anniversary of Lockerbie the Cycle to Syracuse Lockerbie

“Look Back

Act Forward”

These are my thoughts after my Cycle to Syracuse University in the USA 30 years after the Lockerbie tragedy.

This cycle was in memory of the 35 students from Syracuse University who died in the plane. I was honoured to be one of a 5 Man team that would cycle from Washington in the USA to Syracuse University over 650 miles in a week in late October 2018. This was planned to arrive in time for the Annual Memorial Service that happens at Syracuse University.


The idea was that of Colin Dorrance who was the youngest Policeman at Lockerbie in 1988 Colin was 18 he wanted to commemorate the 30 th Anniversary and loss of all who died. It was his tribute to those who died and to help build a future understanding of how Lockerbie has moved on. The Cycle team were all Lockerbie based apart from me: Paul Rae a local fireman, Dave Walpole a paramedic, Brian Asher the rector of Lockerbie Academy.


Lockerbie Academy and Syracuse University have a huge bond as every year Syracuse give 2 pupils from Lockerbie Academy a scholarship at the University. Over the years 58 students covering 29 years have enjoyed the benefits of this bond.



During the Lockerbie tragedy in 1988 I was the RAF Mountain Rescue Team Leader at RAF Leuchars in Fife Scotland. We were alerted very quickly as aircraft crashes were our primary responsibility to assist in the recovery and investigations in a mountain or rural area. When the plane crash happened this was a life changing event for me and my family and most of the Rescue teams, Search Dogs and other Agencies.

Few understood the work of the Mountain Rescue Teams,SARDA and many others during this period. It was a time when I was in my prime as a young leader a job that I had dreamt off. I had 16 years of Mountain Rescue experience all over UK dealing with so many incidents, sadly a lot of fatalities and most years an aircraft crash. Yet Lockerbie was way above anything that had been seen or dealt with before.


I was surrounded by a great young team and was very lucky looking back there were no egos just hoping as we all did all that we could have done. I was only at Lockerbie for 3 days with the Four RAF teams.   Many others were there for weeks some over months. What they saw and did is incredible.


At the end of our 3 days I never knew that taking on my team mates problems after the event how this would affect me so badly. I had a hard battle with the military authorities to get some assistance for us all but this was 1988 and not an easy task.

PTSD was unheard of then. Especially in the military and even in Mountain Rescue Teams it is so different now thankfully. Over the last few years I had a serious bowel problem with 4 operations but I was getting over it. I had lost nearly two stones in weight. I felt ready for a huge journey after lots of hard work. I never recovered from the soaking I got cycling the 70 miles to Edinburgh from Lockerbie 2 weeks before we left. This was to Edinburgh Castle to a reception in the Great Hall a huge honour for us all. I managed to get one of the SARDA handlers who was with me as my guest. It was in that awful storm “Calumn “that hit the UK in October and then with Ted’s Atkins funeral in Arran I was pretty run down when I started the Cycle in the USA.


My team mates and support crew were great to me and looked after me during the week on the road and all the meetings with the relatives.  Every day we met more and more families it was a huge emotional journey. We had a great support with Miles our mechanic: safety man from the USA who supplied the bikes and mechanical expertise. He did the whole trip for us and never took a penny for his endeavours. This was so typical of the support we had. He even bought our bikes for us. We cycled through Washington ,New York and Philadelphia in heavy traffic exciting and terrifying in awful weather mostly. Our support crew worked hard all the way looking after us and we met so many good folk. Many planned many unplanned and we stopped and heard their incredible stories.

These were the relatives of the Lockerbie Tragedy who we met on the road and even stayed we stayed with at night and listened to their stories.


I was amazed by their love and kindness and that through Colin our team leader whose idea to do this trip. To the families many said we had brought their loved ones home at last.We live in a different world now but one that needs reminded it’s good to talk no matter who you are.

The journey was incredible part also involved were the local Lockerbie school kids and local area before we went. This ended up with over 1500 kids getting on their bikes and cycling after our talks.

They were told the story of what happened and how their families coped and how many looked after the Rescue Agencies and relatives despite their own losses in the town.


The kids learned not to bottle up their feelings but speak about things that worry them. They were incredible and on the day that I spoke to three schools it was overwhelming. Many already knew the stories-from their families.

The highlights were when I met Josephine from Lockerbie one of the ladies who looked after my troops and the relatives during the tragedy. She was a guest of honour and came over to the USA to meet the families. She is one of the “Lockerbie Angels “They were Lockerbie ladies, normal good kind folk who give you a warmth when you meet them. They cooked for us in the school that became our base in Lockerbie Academy and gave us food and comfort after every search.  Their kindness was on a scale of which I and many others will never forget.

All of us the Dog handlers and teams coming in after locating body after body for a break and for some normality that these ladies gave us. Somehow we find the strength to go out again and again. The same ladies also washed the clothes of so many of those who had perished and an army of local Ladies made sure when families collected their possessions of their loved when they arrived in UK that they were clean and tidy.  Over the years many relatives have returned to Lockerbie and been so well looked after by these kind warm folk. We did a lot of media work in the USA I found those I did sadly those I did were not easy but full of emotion for me. That is the way I am but this was a journey I had to complete.

I got a bit of time on my own at the end at Syracuse University. This was after we walked up to the ceremony at the end of the cycle to the background of the pipes and a massive crowd. It was humbling. I got away from everything at this point and spent some time at the memorial at Syracuse alone. All the names all those who died are on it most of the families were there and a service that tore at the heart. They even had the seats on the grass outside signifying where the students had sat on during the flight. It was so powerful.

I looked round after a few minutes and several families had followed me up. I got so many hugs, cuddles and kind words. They were all looking after me. I was representing so many good folk on this trip. It was not a cycle but a huge part of meeting the families and relatives was a thing that I will never forget.


In my 40 years I have met so many relatives taken yearly relatives to tragic Mountain accidents where their loved ones died. It is a part of the job we rarely speak about. For many it takes years to come to terms with loved ones passing especially a tragedy.

This trip was on a huge scale so many relatives wanting to know what we all did.  I tried to explain many of the teams SARDA  were full of young folk as well who were involved. Many covered the casualties with their own clothes to give some dignity and no one could comprehend the huge loss of life.  To find over 160 fatalities in a morning is unbelievable and also map their locations and then map the wreckage and locate the Black box, It all seems a dream now.

The relatives could not understand that the most of the volunteers were unpaid and did what they did for their fellow man or women.Since the event I have done lots of media about the tragedy few put in what I say about the teams and SARDA how hard it was and how huge effect it had. Was it worth all the effort and heart break to me? I met an 80 year old mother who lost her daughter she had visited Lockerbie most years. Now she is too old to travel.

She said “thank you all you have brought my daughter home at last, I can die happy now “Another was a young lady just born after the crash with her Dad. Her Mum, Grandfather Grandmother and unborn sister were killed in the crash. She told us her story of how thankful the surviving family were of our visit. Try cycling after that? I admit it tore at my heart for several hours.What can you say to these folk.

I hope anyone who was at Lockerbie and part of the teams and those involved can find like me an comfort in this journey.Things like this hopefully will never happen again on a scale like this and the many lessons learned will never be forgotten. Yet Memories are short and many who were affected still are. There are now things in place no matter what you see or do to help nowadays. Use them and keep your eye on each other.

Three weeks after Lockerbie there was another aircraft crash at Kegworth this time lives were saved how many know the story of this?  Two of the RAF Teams were involved who were at Lockerbie!

Thank you all for your support and kindness. I am collating a lot of the thanks from my blog from so many of you to the Ladies of Lockerbie. They like many of the Mountain Rescue Teams and Search and Rescue Dogs from all over the UK, SAR aircraft, Army and Air Investigation, Crash and Smash Team, Raynet and many more who were involved they are the forgotten people who did so much. If you were there I am collating a few letters that have been sent and would like to drop me a line please do I will pass on your thoughts.

There was also the huge effect on so many of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Many of us suffered in silence and we in the end raised this and it is now accepted as an illness. Much has still to be done to help and highlight this illness.

Tomorrow is the 30 th Anniversary of the tragedy. I was asked to go down to Lockerbie but I feel I have done enough.  I am exhausted mentally and physically, this week especially has been hard. The media interest has been huge a lot was centred on the night, the horror and the tragedy. A few have spoken about the other side the work of all the Agencies and the local folk.

The trip to the USA and meeting so many   relative’s on the way their kindness, thanks and love will remain with me forever. I was able to tell many of the work of the teams and Search Dogs.

Yesterday I got a cake through the mail from a family in the USA a lovely thought.

Thirty years on much has happened since that night and I feel a lot better after this incredible journey.

Today I will go on the hill and clear my thoughts on the mountains and think of all those who died and the huge efforts of so many. What happened will remain with me till I die but much of the pain is gone and we have learned so much and how to cope. Hard earned lessons passed on to future generations.

“Look Back

Act Forward”

David Whalley ex RAF Mountain Rescue Team Leader 21 December 2018.

In memory of all those who died in the Lockerbie Disaster and all those involved in the Rescue and Recovery of the casualties and wreckage.  And of course the incredible people of Lockerbie who despite losing 11 of their own still looked after us all and the grieving relatives and still do.

About heavywhalley.MBE

Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 37 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 3 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer when body slows, loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Aircraft incidents, Articles, Cycle to Syracuse Training, Cycling, Friends, Lockerbie, PTSD, SAR, Views Political?. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Looking back on the 30 Anniversary of Lockerbie the Cycle to Syracuse “Look Back

  1. ptsd17 says:

    Stay safe Dave! Thinking of you and the team today.

    Liked by 1 person

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