Night the sky turned to flames

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CAPTAIN Norman H Shackell and his immaculately groomed flight crew strolled through the doors of the impressive mahogany wooden exterior of Edinburgh Airport's main terminal building, splendid in their crisp BEA uniforms, ready for another routine night flight.

It was late October 1965, they had just 13 hours' rest after flying sunseekers home from Palma to Heathrow when news came through that they would be needed 400 miles north. The original crew for the 11.17pm BEA Vanguard Flight G-APEE from Turnhouse to Heathrow was, as fate had it, delayed by atrocious weather.

And it fell to Captain Shackell and his five crew members to catch the 8pm flight from Heathrow to Edinburgh north to take their place - with tragic consequences.

Incredibly, the 40th anniversary of that fateful flight has just slipped by without the slightest pause for ceremony. Nowhere within Edinburgh Airport's gleaming, modern terminal building is there any obvious tribute to the 36 souls who perished when the Vickers Vanguard they boarded at Turnhouse crashed on a fog-bound Heathrow runway at 1.23am on October 27, 1965.

Among them were city Councillor John F Stewart, 59, proprietor of the popular Stewart's Ballroom in Abbeyhill, flying south on council business to inspect a sports centre - a late meeting meant he opted to fly while the rest of his party travelled by train.

He perished alongside a Newhaven grandmother on her first ever flight with her daughter and 18-month-old grandson.

With them as the Vanguard plunged at breakneck speed on to the concrete of Heathrow's number one runway were John Ross, who kissed his wife and two children, Jane and David, goodbye when he left their Craigcrook Road home that night to head for London on business for the Scottish Grocers Federation - and grandmother Ann Plummer, 49, of Great Junction Street, Leith, travelling south to visit one of her two daughters.

Ironically, both had probably considered themselves lucky to arrive inside the Turnhouse airport's terminal building, with its fashionable French beech panelling and teak interior, to snap up last-minute stand-by seats on the 136 capacity plane - named Euryalus after the Trojan warrior.

"It was a terrible tragedy - many of the passengers were from Edinburgh, and most of the others were Scots," recalls aviation historian Keith McCloskey who has spent four years researching Edinburgh Airport's history for a book.

"It was also the first crash involving a Vickers Vanguard - a plane with a good safety record - and the first major incident involving Edinburgh's Turnhouse Airport. It made headlines around the world."

Most of the blame was laid at the door of Captain Shackell, 43, one of BEA's most skilled and experienced pilots. Perhaps simply exhausted or maybe disoriented by the shroud of fog that blanketed Heathrow airport that chilly October morning, he had already twice overshot the runway before his final, third attempt ended in disaster.

"As the Vanguard touched the runway it slewed off and crashed, bursting into flames," explains Keith. "Sadly everyone on board was killed - 30 passengers and six crew."

The burning plane skidded along the runway leaving a scorched pathway stretching nearly three quarters of a mile before smashing into bits just 150 yards from the airport's administration offices.

The heat from the blaze was so intense, it melted the tar in the runway's concrete slabs. The plane's tail fin was, according to reports at the time, "snapped off like a child's toy".

What caused the Vickers Vanguard 951 to crash sparked furious debate in the Houses of Parliament, while accident investigators at Heathrow picked over the charred rubble on the runway. And in Edinburgh, shattered families struggled to comprehend their losses.

Such as the loved ones of Isabella Clairmount, from Newhaven, heading south with her daughter Catherine Rye, 26, and baby grandson Simon, for a holiday at their Kent home.

"It was my mother's first flight," her son John said later. "I persuaded her to go with Catherine for a short holiday. She had never been in an aeroplane."

The crash was actually witnessed by Catherine's horrified husband Douglas. "I was waiting to pick up my wife, our only child and my mother-in-law. The fog was very thick, it seemed to be there one minute and gone the next," he said later. "It was horrifying."

There was heartache too for the families for Stella Millar, just 24, who had been enjoying Swinging London working as a shorthand typist. She boarded flight G-APEE that fateful night after visiting her parents at Colinton Mains Road.

Grieving too were the devastated family of Edmund G. Muir, only 20 and an only son. He had just said his farewells to his parents at their Darnell Road home before returning to his job at the Inland Revenue.

The five young children of Post Office Engineering Union executive James McKain, 46, of Carrick Knowe Road, woke that morning to discover their father had been killed, as did the three children of Alastair McDonald, of Craiglockhart Terrace, the boss of a self-service laundry in Leith.

Widow Isabella Gray, 60, of New Liston Road, Kirkliston and 24-year-old Alec Henderson of Oak Crescent, Mayfield, also perished, along with the two air hostesses, one from Garelochhead and the other the daughter of an Italian Count, a male steward and three flying crew. As their families came to terms with the tragedy, the cause of the accident prompted frantic speculation.

Fog had already blanketed Heathrow as Captain Shackell began his descent. Visibility may have been poor, but it was not regarded as unsafe for flying. The captain - whose Palma flight had touched down at the same airport at 5.30am the previous morning - had already made two failed attempts to land, when he began his third approach.

"I was just saying we can relax," London air traffic controller Eric Percival told the subsequent inquiry into the crash. "Then there was an explosion and the whole observation tower was bathed in a red light."

The plane had again overshot the runway, began climbing then suddenly plunged towards the runway at a steep angle.

"I heard a loud explosion followed by a roaring noise like a train.

"At first we couldn't tell where the crash was because of fog. But soon the whole area was lit up," said Geoffrey Green, the airport's fire officer in charge. "We attempted to recover two persons but it was obvious they were past any help."

Investigators found the "black box". It helped confirm the tragic sequence of events.

"It was eventually decided that the crash came largely down to pilot error - probably a combination of fatigued crew and bad weather," says Keith.

Official records suggested the crew were tired and disoriented by the conditions. They appeared to lack experience of overshooting in fog and had relied too much on instruments which may have failed to provide accurate information.

• Were you affected by the events on October 27, 1965? Contact Edinburgh Evening News features on 0131 620 8670 or email


OCTOBER 27, 1975 remains the blackest day in Edinburgh Airport's history, yet the Vanguard's horrific crash did not deter the city's air travellers.

The airport had started life as a Flight Station of the Aeroplane Barrage Line in 1915, becoming part of the defence against German airships the following year.

Soon various sites around Edinburgh would be used for civil flying - including a site at Maybury.

Flight historian Keith McCloskey, right, says the authorities debated at length about whether Edinburgh needed a civil airport, who should pay for it and where it should be.

Gilmerton, Silverknowes, Macmerry and Gosford were all considered - Midlothian sites were ruled out amid fears that mines below the surface would make the runways unstable- until one of the key RAF stations during the Battle of Britain - Turnhouse - became the obvious choice.

It officially opened as a civil airport on April 1, 1949. By 1955, it was handling 55,312 passengers a year - a figure that ballooned to 454,196 in 1964.

It also saw many famous faces - including The Beatles and Marlene Dietrich.

• Edinburgh Airport: A History by Keith McCloskey is due for publication in March next year by Tempus Publishing (