Lancashire's worst civilian air crash

It is 60 years since 35 people were killed in the worst aviation accident in Lancashire since the Second World War. Mike Hill reports

Tuesday, 27th February 2018, 4:10 pm
Updated Tuesday, 27th February 2018, 5:15 pm
Wreckage from Winter Hill air crash of 1958

Through the howling winds and driving snow the noise was barely audible.

Just a faint whooshing sound was all the six strong team of engineers working on Winter Hill’s television mast heard.

A short time later there was an agitated knock on the door.

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They barely had time to register the banging when a man dressed in a pilot’s uniform stumbled in, his face caked with blood.

“Can you help?” said First Officer Bill Howarth. “There’s been a crash.”

The Winter Hill air crash was in many ways overshadowed by the Munich air disaster three weeks earlier which claimed the lives of some of the country’s most gifted footballers.

Outside the close knit communities of Douglas and Ramsey on the Isle of Man, it is likely few people knew those on board the Bristol Wayfarer plane which smashed into snow and ice on Winter Hill.

But 60 years on, in this corner of Lancashire, the memories of those who lost their lives in the crash will be remembered.

In the early hours of February 27, 1958 a group of 35 motor industry workers from the Isle of Man boarded a Silver City Airlines plane at the island’s Douglas Airport to tour the Exide Battery factory at Clifton Junction, Manchester.

Take-off was delayed for repair work to the navigational equipment but once the plane was airborne flying conditions were fine until the aircraft crossed the Irish Sea.

As flight Charlie Sierra passed over the Lancashire coastline, the weather deteriorated rapidly with visibility reduced to almost nil.

The hold-up leaving the island meant the aircraft was now also in a queue for a landing slot and was required to fly at 1,500ft - 2,000ft below its normal height as it made its way inland.

It was also miles off course.

Accident investigators later revealed that First Officer Bill Howarth had set a navigational receiver to the wrong frequency which meant the aircraft was following the wrong directional beacon and heading towards Winter Hill.

Without the benefit of modern day navigation, the crew were flying blind.

According to reports at the time, the aircraft cartwheeled for several hundred yards after it flew straight into the hillside.

As the plane disintegrated, passengers were flung from the wreckage. It eventually came to rest in snow several feet deep in parts.

The workers on the television transmitter discovered a scene of devastation with body parts strewn across the hillside and the perfect white snow stained with blood.

Thirty-five people lost their lives – 27 wives lost husbands and 33 children, some yet unborn, lost a father.

At one point a snow cat vehicle had to be diverted from the A6 to cut a path for emergency vehicles although a track had been cleared by people using spades by the time it arrived

Captain Mike Squires survived, initially thinking he was blind but then finding that his vision was obscured by a flap of skin torn from his head and hanging down in front of his eyes.

He pushed the skin back in place and held it in position by putting on his captain’s hat.

He also suffered terrible leg and internal injuries which affected him for the rest of his life.

The seven survivors all had physical injuries but it was the mental scars which would last.

Aviation history expert Steve Morrin wrote a history of the Winter Hill disaster in 2005 after spending five years researching the crash and its aftermath. The Devil Casts His Net was published that year.

The title was a reference to a comment made by one of the passengers as they boarded the doomed plane.

No-one seems to know who said it but crash survivor Fred Kennish is sure he heard someone say: “If the Devil casts his net today he’ll fill it.”

As Morrin says in his book: “Luck sometimes plays a part in aviation and it can make the difference between life and death. Everything that could go wrong on that flight did.

“Fate, it seems, was the hunter that day.”

A public inquiry into the disaster focused on the navigational error made by First Officer Howarth but also criticised air traffic controllers and the design of the aircraft’s cockpit which made it difficult for the crew to see navigation read-outs as the equipment was placed above and slightly behind the crew.

Years after the crash Fred Kennish returned to the scene and wanted to plant bulbs but found that even grass was not growing on the hillside because it was still soaked with aviation fuel.

When author Morrin was researching his book many years later he found bits of the aircraft embedded in the earth and Winter Hill still shows evidence of the crash.And as scores of

grieving relatives make their annual pilgrimage to Lancashire this week the emotional scars are just as raw.