Orcadians survive 1930s burning plane crash thanks to the prompt action of rescuers
Feature by Wick Journalist Noel Donaldson who came across this story in his father’s files freelance journalist, John Donaldson.
John Donaldson covered the dramatic story for the national press in 1937.
THE plane, named Silver Ghost, had taken off from the airfield at Stitley, near Thurso, on July 3, 1937, on a routine service flight to Aberdeen.
The de Havilland Dragon had barely cleared the ground when, according to the official version, the undercarriage clipped a dyke and plunged to the ground.
The aircraft careered through three flagstone fences into a turnip field. One of the two engines caught fire which quickly spread to the fuselage and eventually enveloped the pilot Flight Lieutenant G. Hinckley’s cockpit.
He tried to subdue the flames but had to abandon his valiant efforts because of the intense heat. Not surprisingly, given the speed and nature of the accident, recollections of the rescue varied. However, there was no doubt about who was first on the scene.
Sam Green and his son John, who had been hoeing turnips in a field , were forced to run clear when they observed the burning plane coming straight at them.
Mr Green, senior, wrenched open the cabin door while his son and his daughter, who had also responded to the emergency, smashed the cockpit door with their hoes.
John Green then climbed onto the top of the plane and burst open the emergency exit to release several of the passengers. Meanwhile his father, along with another of the airline’s pilots, Mr W. Bailley pulled other passengers from the cabin door. Other rescuers, were William MacKay who stopped his bus and a James Mercer.
Mr Green said:
“One engine was on fire and the other kept roaring away. The flames had already spread to the wings and the cabin before we could get the door open. We could not do more than reach into the cabin, it was so hot. As I pulled out a young woman I could hear another woman inside cry for help and I saw the flames licking the walls of the cabin. We dragged the last woman out with her skirt burned away. By that time, it was pretty hot and we could only get her out by dragging her by the hair and neck. Her body jammed at the last moment and we only got her clear by sheer, brute strength. It was a terrible sight. I shall never forget it.”.
Soon afterwards, one of the petrol tanks exploded and the plane was quickly reduced to a skeleton.
Miraculously, all eight passengers and the pilot escaped and remarkably, none of them suffered burns.
They were as follows: Mr and Mrs J.W. Towers, Union Bank House Stromness, Miss E.R. Stocks, Stromness Academy. Mrs Minnie Sinclair, and Mrs Andrew Banks, both of Smiddybanks, South Ronaldsay, Mrs Peter Murray, Murray Arms Hotel St Margaret’s Hope, wife of the proprietor, Miss E. R Stocks, Stromness and Mrs Annie Hughson, Mossbank, Shetland and the pilot Flight Lieutenant Hinckley, from Yorkshire.
Mrs Sinclair, who was home from Ontario, visiting relatives in St Margaret’s Hope said:
“It was terrifying”. She said she was thrown onto the floor of the aircraft after it hit the ground.
“Flames started to shoot up through the floor. I tried to force the door open but I couldn’t get it to move. I was so frustrated that I hammered on the door with my knees. Still it wouldn’t move. I looked around for some other means of escape and saw an opening on the roof. I managed to pull myself through it and found myself near one of the wings. I ran along it and jumped to the ground.”
Mrs Sinclair, a sister to Mrs Banks, went on:
“By this time, the plane was well ablaze. Several others got out before I did but Mrs Murray was still lying inside the plane. A terrible heat came off the burning plane.”
Mrs Sinclair believed she was extricated by Mr MacKay and said he remained at the door and began pulling her.
” He lost his grip on me while I was halfway out of the plane but took a firmer grasp and succeeded in dragging me clear, my skirt on fire.”
Only Mrs Towers and Mrs Banks required treatment at Dunbar Hospital, Thurso, for minor injuries but were detained overnight as a precaution.
First news of the crash reach various districts of Orkney between 5 pm and 6 pm. Early, alarming, rumours subsequently proved to be unfounded.
In a statement issued by the fledgling Allied Airways (Gandar Dower Ltd) which operated the Silver Ghost on the Aberdeen to Thurso, South Ronaldsay, Kirkwall, Stromness, Sumburgh route, stated:
“The plane taxied out in very calm weather, without even a slight breeze to help make the airliner airborne in the usual distance. It failed to take off properly. The undercarriage rising, struck the aerodrome dyke and this affected the flight of the plane which came down with a bump in a turnip field nearby.”
Allied Airlines was formed in January 1934, initially as Aberdeen Airways, with its first service launched in the same year from Glasgow – Aberdeen. It later operated from Aberdeen to Orkney and Shetland using the twin-engine De Haviland Dragon. In April of 1947, the company merged with British European Airways later to become British Airways.
A De Havilland Dragon similar to the one which crashed in 1937