Obituary: Davey Main, mountain rescue leader and helicoper engineer who inspired a cartoon character

Davey Main: A mountain rescue leader and helicopter engineer who inspired a cartoon character
Davey Main: A mountain rescue leader and helicopter engineer who inspired a cartoon character
Share this article
Have your say

Born: 8 March, 1938, in Aberdeen. Died: 13 May, 2012 in Elgin, aged 74

Had his father had his way, Davey Main would have ended up at sea. As the son of a first mate and a herring girl, it would perhaps have been a natural assumption that the youngster would follow in his father’s footsteps.

But such a move would have deprived him of a hugely fulfilling life that united his twin passions of a career in the air and a love of outdoors which led to the opportunity to help found one of Scotland’s most respected mountain rescue teams.

As a member of the RAF, he saw the world, survived the Malayan Emergency, witnessed the Christmas Island nuclear tests and took part in countless rescues with the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team.

In civilian life he became a helicopter engineer – the inspiration for British Airways Helicopter’s cartoon character, Super Spanner, who could fix anything – and a dedicated pioneer of the Aberdeen Mountain Rescue Team.

The youngest of six children and the only boy in the family, he was born in Aberdeen’s Torry and attended Walker Road Primary, and later Torry Intermediate School, where he displayed a talent for maths and being good with his hands.

His first job was as a projectionist at the city’s Queens Cinema but, at 18, when National Service beckoned, his father wanted him to join the Navy. However his son had other ideas and was keen to join the RAF. After a tussle with his father he got his way and became an airman.

He travelled the globe with the RAF and saw action in Malaya’s guerrilla war, fighting against the Malayan National Liberation Army. On one occasion, whilst on an operation with ground troops, he and his colleagues came under grenade attack by the rebels. He was one of only two who survived and bore the scars of wounds from bamboo splinters for the rest of his life.

Following Malaya, he was posted to Christmas Island where he witnessed Operation Grapple, the British nuclear weapons tests, in 1958.

He decided to stay on in the RAF after National Service and was posted to RAF Kinloss in 1959. Having been trained as an engine/airframe fitter he worked there on Shackletons, his favourite aircraft. It was there that his mountain rescue career began.

He would spend his leave with his sister Dorothy and her husband Alec, who were members of Aberdeen Post Office Hillwalking Club. Having been introduced by them to the great outdoors, he joined the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team, whose members were as much renowned for their anti-authority rebellious streak as their commitment to the cause.

By the mid-1960s he had left the RAF and was one of the original, founding members of the Aberdeen Mountain Rescue Team (AMRT), helping to train other volunteers up to the exacting standards required for the gruelling tasks they faced. “He was a breath of fresh air,” recalled friend and fellow team member Stevie Martin, “our morale went sky high.”

Training was rigorous and relentless, with most weekends spent in the hills, sometimes returning cold and wet only to be immediately called out for a real emergency. But one rescue, when they saved a youngster who had fallen through a cornice near Ben Macdui, summed up his attitude. Luckily the boy only suffered a cut arm, caused by his ice axe. However the operation had all the components of Main’s favourite kind of call out, which made the constant training and hours of searching in wet clothes and atrocious conditions truly worthwhile: climbers properly equipped; bad luck which could have resulted in a fatality; text book rescue and happy ending.

It was during one of the team’s hill weekends that he met his future wife, Betty, also a keen hillwalker. Though he was working as a helicopter engineer for BEA at London’s Heathrow Airport, they soon married and he transferred to Aberdeen to work on helicopters.

A brilliant engineer who could fix anything – a skill much appreciated when it came to repairing early mountain rescue vehicles – he sailed through his Civil Aviation Authority licence qualifications, quickly rising to shift supervisor and crew chief.

Always enthusiastic and great fun to be around, his crew enjoyed working with him and were proud to be part of his squad. He was the same on the hills: perennially alert, amusing and safety conscious, determined to do everything properly.

His time with the AMRT came to an end in the early 1970s with the advent of the oil industry. He moved to Shetland to become station engineer for British Airways Helicopters, looking after around a dozen Sikorsky choppers working out of Sumburgh Airport.

There he and his wife threw themselves into organising the social side of airport life, arranging events from firework displays to film nights, sledging competitions that utilised old helicopter life rafts, even winching Santa over Sumburgh beach to a children’s Christmas party in the hangar.

He well deserved the alter ego Super Spanner, the cartoon helicopter engineer who could turn his hand to anything and who featured in the British Airways Helicopters’ newsletter.

In 1983 he returned to Aberdeen to work on the Boeing Chinooks and the family moved to Keith. It was a demanding, high-pressure role and after the business was bought by Robert Maxwell, he realised the company was changing and took voluntary redundancy in 1986.

However he continued in the aviation industry, working on Dash 7s at Brymon Airways and then Maersk Air. Two of his sons, Neil and Duncan, also joined him at Aberdeen Airport.

Neil, his eldest son, shared his father’s love of the hills and was an accomplished ice climber who pioneered several new routes in Alaska, Canada and Scotland. Tragically, he was killed whilst climbing with a friend on Lochnagar in 1995.

His father retired a few years later, and became involved in a number of community ventures – when he wasn’t out on the hills. He volunteered to deliver meals-on-wheels, helped out at Balloch Enterprise Trust and joined Keith Ramblers, teaching its members, as well as Keith Girl Guides, how to use a map and compass.

An elder at Keith North Church, he was a former president of Keith Rotary Club, helping to raise almost £1 million for the Moray Scanner Appeal, a member of Probus and an annual attendee of Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team reunions. He was also an enthusiastic model boat builder, particularly passionate about tea clippers.

Superbly fit, he climbed Ben Rinnes on Boxing Day 2007, just after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and was still enjoying the hills until the following year. Widowed in 2009, he is survived by daughters Anne-Marie and Shona, sons Graeme and Duncan, his grandchildren, great-grandchildren and sisters Nellie, Dorothy, Gina and Patricia.