Manchester

Stockport air disaster: The holiday flight that ended in catastrophe

Stockport air disaster Image copyright Gordon Austin Griffin
Image caption The aircraft crashed in open land on the edge of Stockport town centre

Fifty years ago a plane returning from Majorca plunged to the ground in Stockport, Greater Manchester, killing 72 people. Here survivors and eyewitnesses recall what remains one of Britain's worst, but lesser-known, air disasters.

The British Midland flight was full of returning holidaymakers bound for Manchester Airport when, on the morning of 4 June 1967, it suddenly lost power and began to fall.

Terrified residents watched the aircraft hurtling across rooftops, so low they could see people inside, banging on the windows.

Moments later it crashed on a small patch of open ground at Hopes Carr, on the edge of the town centre, striking a garage building and lighting up in a ball of fire.

Of its 84 passengers and crew, 72 died and the remaining 12 were seriously injured. They included a stewardess and the captain.

"We were met with a scene of sheer horror," said retired Stockport firefighter Mike Phillips, who was 21 at the time.

Image copyright Gordon Austin Griffin
Image caption The cause of the crash was found to be a problem with the aircraft's fuel lines

"There were bodies all over the place, and body parts. Members of the public were just screaming for us to do something."

The aircraft had narrowly avoided hitting rows of nearby houses, averting an even greater disaster. Incredibly, no-one on the ground was hurt.

"There was this thick black smoke," Mr Phillips said. "Hundreds of people arrived. I always say the real heroes are the civilians who got stuck in and were a real help to us.

"I saw the body of a young boy, and he just looked like there was nothing wrong with him. That stayed with me."

An air accident investigation found the cause of the crash to be "fuel starvation" due to a fault in the fuel lines and the Canadair C-4 Argonaut propeller aircraft's poor warning system.

It is still considered one of the worst air disasters in British aviation history, alongside Lockerbie in 1988 and Staines 16 years earlier.

Image copyright Pathe
Image caption There is evidence to suggest the pilot made efforts to steer the aircraft away from homes

Captain Harry Marlow was not blamed, and there were strong indications he made concerted efforts to steer the aircraft away from people's homes.

The former RAF display pilot suffered amnesia and never flew again. He died in 2009.

Survivor Harold Wood was 15 at the time of the crash.

Remembering the flight's final moments, he said: "We were banking quite steeply and I could see a gentleman coming out of a shop and getting into his little Anglia van and looking up at the aircraft. We were that low that I could really at that time tell you the registration.

"I thought to myself at this point 'we aren't going to make this'.

"And at this point this is where I can't remember a thing about the actual flight other than actually waking up in the aircraft itself, surrounded by flames and my brother next to me.

"I saw a hole in the side of the aircraft so I thought, right, let's get out of here."

Mr Wood's brother, Bill, also survived but his father did not.

Image caption A plaque was placed at the scene of the crash in memory of the victims

Vivienne Thornber, who was 19 and travelling with friend, Susan Howarth, remembers the plane plunging "as low as the bedroom windows".

The pair later escaped the smouldering wreckage with the help of policemen.

She said: "There was no mention of 'fasten your seatbelts' or anything like that. We were not informed that there was anything wrong and we hadn't realised until we knew that we were too low to go anywhere.

"I woke up after the impact and saw the cabin door swinging backwards and forwards.

"There were flames and I thought 'come on Vivienne, do something or else you are going to get burned alive here."

Image copyright Pathe
Image caption Emergency services were helped by many members of the public during the rescue effort

Charles Hunt, now aged 95, was a police inspector placed in charge of a makeshift mortuary. He had the upsetting task of dealing with the dead.

"Casualties had been brought in," he said. "They were all dead of course. There were 32 in there.

"The only two that could be identified were a little girl of about six, with hardly a mark on her body, and the co-pilot had a head injury. The rest were all burned beyond recognition.

"It was upsetting to see all the passengers' belongings. They had just been on holiday, and this was the end of it."

Image copyright Pathe
Image caption Another view of the wreckage shows just how close the crash came to buildings in the town

A service will be held on Sunday at the site of the crash, where two memorials stand in tribute to the victims and the rescuers.

An hour-long documentary has also been made to mark 50 years since the disaster. Six Miles from Home will be shown shown at the Stockport Plaza on 10 June, from 19:30 BST.

Aviation expert Ian Barrie, who produced the film with Roger Boden, said: "I was four years old at the time, and Roger was a boy who cycled to the scene on his bike.

"While we all grew up knowing about the plane crash, it seems to often be forgotten.

"What emerged very quickly was what a human story it was. People were sitting in their kitchens making a slice of toast, there was a huge boom, they looked outside and it was an air liner.

"It's just hard to comprehend."

Image copyright Argonaut Productions
Image caption An hour-long documentary has been made to mark the anniversary of the disaster

Though the flight ended in such horror, some survivors said one thing that impressed them was the response from the people of Stockport.

Ms Thornber said the messages she received while battling severe injuries were "wonderful and very, very moving".

"When I was in hospital there were a lot of letters written to me most of whom I have to say I've no idea who they were, just normal people wishing me all the best.

"The kind people at Stockport Infirmary forwarded more letters. It was just marvellous that people would even think of doing that for somebody they'd never even met."

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