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 3 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 where I was the Team Leader on the 30 th April 1990.
This article is in memory of the crew of the Shackleton.
Wing Commander Stephen Roncoroni
Wing Cdr Chas Wrighton
Flying Officer Colin Burns
Squadron Leader Jerry Lane
Flight Lieutenant Al Campbell
Flight Lieutenant Keith Forbes
Master Air Electronics Operator Roger Scutt
Flight Sergeant Rick Ricketts
Sergeant Graham Miller
Corporal Stuart Bolton
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 Shackleton 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.
“10 Minute’s is not long to get ready for a pick up by helicopter and to collect your thoughts”
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 Sea king 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.
“I was up front with the crew on headphones the radio full of information”
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 from the helicopter 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, sadly 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. All 10 were dead. 10 Families lives wrecked, 10 folk not coming home that day.
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 Investigation Team on scene as soon as possible. The Police were there but due to the remoteness this would be an easy site to control and we needed to ensure that is was secure and this was done with great tact and diplomacy. Our next task is to secure the site which was still on fire in places 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 so kind 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, firemen 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 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 HS 125 jet aircraft and by Hercules aircraft complete with our Mountain Rescue vehicles, they were all on scene by 1600, an amazing piece of organisation.
“I never found out who was on in the ARCC at Pitreavie in Fife who organised this out when I asked for help”.
In the end I had 27 Team members, the 4 Tonner vehicles’ arrived by Ferry the same day! In the end all were needed to move the 10 casualties form the hill. Within 24 hours the Board of Enquiry have to be briefed and taken up the hill along with the Police and not an easy task. Once the site had been visited later on by the Board of Enquiry the team then receives permission to remove all the casualties from the scene, a hard and difficult task.
“Few will understand but this is our job and we did it with great respect for the crew as we could”
It’s hard to believe that I fought with the authorities for a while to ensure the team stayed in a Hotel at Tarbet during the grim task. We had to guard the site and after moving the casualties we needed to get simple things like showers and cleaned up. We needed that and it gave those who were not on shift a break away from the hill and the trauma.
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 RAF Lossiemouth lined up as we drove through a very moving experience, waiting for their fallen comrades. It was then back to normal, most of the team straight back to work we had been away for 4 days.”
“Sadly some Bosses were annoyed that the part time team member’s had been away from work for so long how little they knew what my team had done”.
I went back to my home and my partner and the kids as did most of the team, few would understand what we did but we did our job as always and rarely spoke about it in these days.
“It was a moving experience for us all and one I will never forget” I had a great team seasoned after years of Rescues all over Scotland yet this was an event few will forget, These were the early days before PTSD was acknowledged. After Lockerbie is was a reminder to me and I had a lot more knowledge hard won to look after my team who as always were superb.
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. I think this has been done.
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.
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. Thanks to all, from all of us”.
Footnote; It should be noted that the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team has been at least two other Shackleton Crashes in their role in RAF Mountain Rescue. The first was on the 21 December 1967 when a Shackleton crashed at Lochailort 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 Shackleton 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. Sadly this was our job.”
“Lest We Forget”
David Heavy Whalley MBE BEM. 30 April 2019
Lost to the Isles 1945 -1990 gives a good account of this and other aircraft crashes.
This is the final book
in the series as the Second World War enters its final stages in 1945. Though sadly not before further losses occurred around the Scottish Islands. In this Fourth volume there are 35 accounts of accidents and incidents.17 occurring prior to VJ Day, with a further 18 post war taking us from WW2 turboprops to the Cold War Gas Turbines of the supersonic jet age.
The work is dedicated to all those who lost their lives and to those who survived against incredible odds.