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On  Saturday 20th September 1958 it was “Battle of Britain” Day. And like many other R.A.F. stations throughout the country R.A.F. Syerston was staged an open day. And as the Second World War was still fresh in the minds if many people, there was always a huge crowd of visitors wandering around the static displays, and watching the various fly-pasts of well-known aircraft. All week the station had been subjected to a “spit and polish” and we were all ordered to wear “best blue” uniforms on the day. The medical team were to be on duty with a crash ambulance by the runway throughout the day, and so it was that I was on duty for the first shift from 1pm. with the ambulance driver S.A.C. Keith Wheelhouse. The fly past was due to begin at 2pm. and so Keith and I who always had a reputation as a pair of rebels, slid open the roof of the ambulance and sat enjoying warm sunny day out of sight of the sergeant.

At about 1.45pm. it was announced over the tannoy that an extra item had been arranged. A Vulcan Bomber stationed at Hucknall and fitted with the new Rolls Royce Conway engines would be doing a low fly-past at five to two. Keith and I sat on the roof of the crash ambulance watching the Vulcan as it flew passed when suddenly, the wing began to disintegrate. It looked like confetti falling from the wing, then with a huge roar it crashed at the end of the runway.We looked at each other in horror, then Keith said “Lets go” so we dropped into the seats and set off down the runway into what looked like a wall of smoke and flames. (Later we learned that it fell on the air traffic caravan in which were two sergeant air traffic controllers, Sgt. Edmond Simpson and Sgt. Hanson. Both are buried side by side in Newark cemetery). A jeep with two firemen in it was hit by one of the wings. Keith and I were first on the scene and to our amazement an airman came staggering out of the flames; he was S.A.C. Turnbull, one of the firemen, who we took back to the sick-quarters. From there he was taken to hospital attended by my collegue Mick Starr with a fractured skull, but survived.The crew of four, the two sergeants, and the other fireman were all killed instantly.When we returned to scene a few minutes later I was handed a fire extinguisher by the sergeant and ordered, “Go and put him out” The body of one of the aircrew had smashed through the perimeter fence and was burning in the field.  I had never seen a dead body in my life before and here I was spraying a burning body with a fire extinguisher!

We spent the whole day as the show continued collecting parts of the dead and taking them into the mortuary. It was a gruesome task on an awful day; which ended with seven burned and dismembered bodies in the mortuary. One incident stands out in my mind. On one of our trips back to the mortuary, looking filthy dishevelled and tired, I was pulled up by an officer and put on a charge for not wearing a tie! Naturally I heard no more about it.

Later that evening, I was on duty in the sick quarters on my own when Mrs. Hanson from the married quarters came to ask to see her husband, Sergeant Hanson. I misunderstood and said we had no patients in that night, she explained that her husband was one of the sergeants in the air traffic caravan and was now in the mortuary. I spent an hour persuading her not to go in to see him because he was unrecognisable. Eventually she agreed if I would put the bunch of flowers she had brought along with her beside his body. As I did so, the body parts and scraps of humanity we had been collecting all day suddenly became real people, and I was overcome by grief.

On Monday morning, the 22nd. We took all the bodies to a mortuary in Nottingham, but for several days after the area was searched by teams of experts looking for clues of the cause of the disaster.

An official report of the accident with photographs is as follows (note the position of the ambulance in the plan)

On the 20th September 1958, at 13.55, Vulcan VX770 crashed at RAF Syerston while taking part in their Battle of Britain display. The following has been taken from the file in the National Archives at Kew. For anyone interested the file is BT 233/403

VX770 was the first prototype Vulcan, and on this flight it was flown by a Rolls Royce crew, which included one RAF member, the navigator. The flight was a test flight for Conway engines, but with a request to do a fly past at Syerston if their timing would permit.  The crew for the flight was;

Captain; Mr. K.R. Sturt

2nd Pilot; Mr. R.W. Ford  

Navigator; Flt. Lt. R.M. Parrott

Flight Engineer; Mr. W.E. Howkins

All four crewmembers were killed as were three ground crew; Sgt. E.D. Simpson, Sgt. C. Hanson and S.A.C. Tonks.  There was one ground crew who survived bad injuries; S.A.C. Turnbull. The ground crew were associated with a ground caravan near the crash point; they were runway controllers.The map below shows the location of the crash on the airfield.

This was the second flight the aircraft made that day, taking off at about 11.20 from Hucknall, his ETA for Syerston was 13.55 after completing the trials part of the sortie.  At about 13.46 the pilot called Hucknall for clearance to do a low pass on runway 09, which was approved, and he then turned for Syerston with his ETA still 13.55. The Captain, Sturt, had been flying since 1951 and was assessed as ‘above average’; he had just over 1,644 hours, with 91 hours and 40 minutes of these on VX770.  Sturt was judged to be a ‘capable and careful pilot’. 

The following is from the ‘Brief description of the Accident’, which was in the file.  I have not included the Appendixes.

Mr. K. Sturt, a Rolls-Royce test pilot, was authorised to fly the Conway Vulcan VX 770 from Hucknall on Saturday 20th September 1958.  The flight was primarily for the Conway engine test programme but at the conclusion of the flight, and if the timing was suitable, the aircraft was to carry out a flypast at Royal Air Force Syerston as part of Syerston’s Battle of Britain At Home programme; after the flypast the aircraft was to return to Hucknall, an adjacent airfield.  Mr. Sturt was briefed for this flypast by Mr. Heyworth, Rolls-Royce Chief Test Pilot. It was to be two runs over Syerston at 200 to 300 feet and between 250 and 300 knots at 70% to 80% engine revolutions, making the same manoeuvre that Mr. Sturt had done at Farnborough Air Display on 7th September 1958.  At 1235Z Vulcan VX 770 called Syerston tower giving an ETA at Syerston of 1255Z. At 1250Z the Vulcan called Syerston Tower saying it was approaching from the West, height 250 feet for a fast run followed by a slow run.  Syerston Tower acknowledged this message and told the Vulcan that the airfield was clear until 1300Z. At 1257Z the Vulcan approached Syerston from the West and commenced a run up the main 25/07 runway at an approximate height of 80 feet (Appendix 5(iii)) and an estimated speed of 350 knots (1st witness).  A film taken at the time shows that when the aircraft was passing the Control Tower it started a roll to starboard and a slight climb; within 3/4 second a kink appeared in the starboard main plane leading edge approximately 9 feet outboard from the starboard engine intakes.  This was followed by a general stripping of the leading edge, the breaking off of the starboard wing tip and a general collapse of the main spar and wing structure between the spars.  At this stage the wing was enveloped in a cloud of fuel vapour. The aircraft was now level, with the starboard wing broken off up to the undercarriage wheel well. The Vulcan then went into a slight dive commencing a roll to port, which, at 45o of bank, increased sharply at the same time shedding the tail fin.  The remainder of the starboard wing was now on fire and the aircraft continued to roll to port with the nose lifting until the nose was vertical.  The port wing leading edge began to crumble and fire broke out in the port wing. The aircraft was now standing on its tail, travelling in plan form relative to the line of flight with the topside leading. The aircraft was then lost from view in an intense fire, reappearing with the nose pointing almost vertically downwards, having apparently continued its roll cum cartwheel.  It continued in this attitude losing height until the topside of the nose struck the ground. The port wing destroyed the fire/rescue Land Rover and runway controller’s caravan, killing all three of the occupants and injuring a fourth. All four members of the Vulcan crew were killed. From the first indication of structural failure to the time of the crash was approximately 6 seconds. The wreckage trail extended over 1400 yards.

The Board finds that:-

(a) The flight was properly authorised.

(b) The briefing of the pilot was adequate.

(c) The pilot was competent to carry out the briefed flight.

(d) The aircraft was serviceable for the flight.

(e) The weather was suitable for the flight.

Diagnosis of the Cause or Causes including all Contributory Factors

The primary cause of the accident was a structural failure of the starboard main plane. This is confirmed by inspection of the wreckage, cine films and photographs taken at the time of the accident together with statements by A.I.B. and the Chief Designer of A.V. Roe Ltd.  Although the strip examination has not been made preliminary evidence indicates that there was no failure of the engines.

The reason for the failure of the starboard mainplane has not been determined by the Board but the airframe wreckage has been sent to the Structures Department, R.A.E. Farnborough where a full investigation is being made. Additionally film analysis by R.A.E. is expected to reveal more accurate details of speed height and manoeuvre at the time of the accident.  This information was not available in time for use by the Board but in view of its obvious importance the Board considered that opinions as to the cause of the accident without this information would be of little value.

I did not see any later conclusions added to the file to show why the crash was deemed to have happened. In his book, Vulcan Test Pilot, Tony Blackman says that the pilot was blamed for flying at 400 kts, and Blackman takes issue with this. he also outlines some problems with the leading edge that were known in the RAF. Worth a read if you want to follow up. 

 

 Photo from the file; right wing exploding.


Photo from the file; crash point



Photo from file; just before impact


Photo from file; debris trail

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