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V Bomber Crash at Barnack

Chris Hunt

HANDLEY PAGE VICTOR B.2 BOMBER No XM714

 

On the night of March 20th 1963 a Handley Page Victor B.2 Bomber No XM714 of 100 Squadron took off from Wittering on a training flight 

It crashed east north-east of Wittering in the Parish of Barnack and of the crew of six only one person ejected and survived. The plane was a write off.

The plane stalled after take off and spun into the ground. A fire warning was indicated for the No.2 engine, this occurred at about 800 feet. During the fire drill the airspeed was allowed to drop and the aircraft began to judder violently. It then flipped over, entered a spin at between 4,000 and 5,000 feet and crashed. The co-pilot ejected and survived with compression fractures but the rest of the crew were killed. The fire warning was found to be false. The co-pilot – Flight Lieutenant Brendan Jackson remained in the RAF and retired in 1993 with the rank of Air Chief Marshall.

There were two squadrons of Victor B.2 Bombers at Wittering during the 1960’s. 100 Squadron from May 1962 to September 1968 and 139 (Jamaica) Squadron from February 1962 to December 1968, they were both part of the Quick Reaction Alert force of the RAF. Two nuclear armed aircraft were permanently on 15 minutes readiness to take off. They were parked within 300 ft of the westerly runway threshold and in times of higher tension, four bombers could be stationed beside the runway. If the aircraft were manned they could all be airborne within 30 seconds, with an  incoming missile warning from RAF Fylingdales of only four minutes before impact this ensured if the country came under attack, the bombers would be scrambled and be able to retaliate.

Each plane carried an Avro Blue Steel Missile, this was a British air-launched, rocket-propelled thermonuclear stand-off missile and was the primary British nuclear deterrent weapon until the introduction of the Polaris missile armed nuclear submarine fleet. Basically the missile was a pilotless, winged aircraft. It was powered by a rocket engine, burning a combination of hydrogen peroxide and kerosene. Fuelling the missile before launch took nearly half an hour, and was quite hazardous. On launch the rocket engine's first chamber would power the missile along a predetermined course at around Mach 1.5 and then once close to the target, the second chamber of the engine would accelerate the missile to Mach 3. Over the target the engine would cut out and the missile would free-fall before detonating its 1.1 megaton warhead as an air burst weapon.

The crash occurred about 100 yards north of the Bainton Road reaching almost to the village cemetery. The area was soon cordoned off with RAF Police and crash teams from Wittering; civilian police were also on hand. Fire brigades from Stamford and Peterborough also attended the scene. It was reported in the press that the RAF armourers on hand were there to deal with Very lights. Trees were set on fire and for a time the whole village was covered in a black cloud as a result of the burning fuel. 

Local residents were interviewed by the Stamford Mercury reporters who spoke of debris from the crash as near as fifty yards to Station Farm. The cockpit canopy landed the far side of Pond Farm falling through the roof of a stone outbuilding and No 10 Bainton Road was in direct line with the crash. A Barnack villager reported that the sound the plane was different to normal and was gliding in when it hit the ground. To some there was a renewed fear of further accidents and the continuation of night flying did nothing to quell those fears.

At the inquest which was held in Peterborough on May 16th 1963 the sole surviving airman (Flight Lieutenant Brendan Jackson) informed the inquest jury that No 2 Engine Warning light came on at about 800 feet  and they commenced the normal fire drill. They could not see the engine in question so the only indication of the fire was the warning light. The Base was informed of the incident and the crew were warned to check their parachutes. At this stage the aircraft suffered severe buffeting, ‘an intense vibration caused by aero-dynamic reasons or by mechanical failure in the engine’. Shortly after this the nose of the plane reared up and it went into a spin. The Captain gave the order ‘Get Out, Get Out’ and the Flight Lieutenant ejected at about 2,000 feet, before leaving the plane he heard someone at the rear say I can’t move. The design of the plane meant that although the pilot and co-pilot had ejector seats the rest of the crew had to bail out. This was not an easy procedure due to the restrictive nature of the interior of the plane and the danger of being caught by an engine when bailing out. A witness on the ground stated that there was no fire on board the plane prior to the crash. Three of the deceased were buried with full military honours in Wittering Cemetery.

Flight Lieutenant Jackson’s stated at the inquest that:- “I think the captain very courageously stayed at the controls  when he could have used his ejector seat , because of the knowledge that the rest of the crew could not get out.”

The question of course is whether on the night of the accident the plane was carrying a Blue Steel Missile with a nuclear warhead attached? Considering the high status level at the time it was the norm for aircraft in the air to be carrying a weapon. The missile’s warhead was primed in-flight so although in a crash scenario nuclear material could be released into the environment; there was little or no likelihood of a nuclear explosion. Of course it could have really been a training exercise carrying a dummy missile on what was a relatively new plane.

The pilot - Flight Lieutenant Alexander Galbraith - heroically stayed with the plane making the ultimate sacrifice and saving numerous lives on the ground and the village of Barnack.