Delivery of gangster film to Scottish rural cinema brings down plane 85 years ago

On a hillside near Largs, the wreckage of the plane lay for decades, missing its compass that was torn from the cockpit as the pilot and the wirelessman tried to find their way home.

For some time at least, a reel of cinema film remained among the debris. Now the story of the stricken Spartan Mark III is being remembered 85 years after it crash landed trying to deliver a copy of of American gangster flick Bullets or Ballots to Campbeltown Picture House on January 14, 1938.

Such was demand for the film, which starred Humphrey Bogart, the distribution manager specially chartered the flight from Glasgow to get the movie rolling for the weekend. But as wind and rain swept in from the west, the flight came to its own unscripted ending.

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Pilot Frank McGevor and his wirelessman Fred Hughes turned back to the Renfrew Aerodrome after the low, bumpy cloud left them unable to land on the tiny airstrip on the Kintyre Peninsula. Around 25 miles from safe landing, they plunged onto the Hill of Stake after changes in air pressure were not properly detected by the altimeter.

The recovery of the Spartan from the hillside in 1973. Only the front fuselage remains with the rest of the plane, which was largely constructed from wood, rotting away over time. PIC :NMS Trustees.

For around three hours, the Spartan was lost from wireless contact, with lifeboats, fishing vessels, lighthouses and farmers helping in a search for the aircraft. Unknown to those on the ground, both men walked free uninjured from the wreckage, taking the compass with them to help find their way to Largs.

Ian Brown, assistant curator of the National Museum of Flight at East Fortune, said the aircraft had effectively “belly flopped onto a peat bog”. The wreckage of the Mark III, one of only three manufactured, is held by the museum and is the only known surviving part of the aircraft series that remains.

Mr Brown said: “The wreckage was on the hill until 1973, when we retrieved it. For a long time, hillwalkers used to visit the site and for at least 30 years the site was reasonably well known.

"The piece of fuselage we have here is a unique survivor. There are no other Spartan carriers left and there isn’t a complete one anywhere. This fuselage is important as it tells the story of the early phase of air services in Scotland. Other than the odd timetable or booklet, there is nothing really significant left.

The wreckage of the Spartan III on the Hill of Stake near Largs following the crash 85 years ago, on January 14 1938. PIC: NMS Trustees.

"Flying in those days was actually quite dangerous. The fact that the pilot actually had three crashes during his career is actually pretty good.”

The flight was chartered from Scottish Airways, which had recently taken over Northern and Scottish Airways, with the airline then typically used for wealthy passengers, such as landowners, provosts and newspaper editors travelling to and from the Western Isles.

Willie Arthur, Scottish branch manager for First National Pictures, an American motion picture production and distribution company, was among the airline’s clients. A clipping from Kinematograph Weekly, from January 1938, said: “Willie Arthur, in order to keep the faith with his customers and to ensure that the show should go on, chartered a special plane to fly his film ‘Bullets or Ballots’ for that evening, Friday and Saturday’s show in Campbeltown.”

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The article added Mr Arthur luckily had a spare, and it was dispatched – by boat – to the cinema on Saturday morning.

Ian Brown, assistant curator at the National Museum of Flight, East Fortune, with a model of the Spartan III and the remaining fuselage of the aircraft in the background. All images © Stewart Attwood Photography 2022. All other rights are reserved. Use in any other context is expressly prohibited without prior permission. No Syndication Permitted.

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