Relatives recall horror of the BEA Vanguard crash

The wreckage of a BEA Vanguard after the crash. Picture: Getty
The wreckage of a BEA Vanguard after the crash. Picture: Getty
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iN the early hours of an autumn morning Jane Ross was fast asleep, dreaming the dreams of a carefree six-year-old girl.

Her father had left the night before – October 27, 1965 – to fly from Turnhouse to London on business. Fast asleep in the safety of her Edinburgh bedroom, surely nothing could hurt her there.

Jane Ross, whose father John Ross died in the disaste.

Jane Ross, whose father John Ross died in the disaste.

As Jane slept, her father’s flight, BEA Vanguard flight G-APEE, call sign, “Echo Echo” with 30 passengers and six crew on board, was making its descent.

Captain Norman Shackleton was proceeding with caution. Thick fog shrouded London’s Heathrow airport forcing him to overshoot his landing twice. It was precisely not what any pilot at the end of a particularly long shift needed.

Nearly 50 years later, Jane read about the grim details of Cpt Shackleton’s ill-fated third attempt to land his plane and the carnage that ensued on that October night as she slept.

Poor visibility, disorientated and fatigued crew, mechanical issues and contradictory instructions, according to page after page of paperwork, were a lethal combination which combined would rob her of her beloved father in Heathrow’s worst plane crash, an aviation disaster that wiped out 36 people: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, friends and family plus one babe in arms.

It would also become the tragedy that time seems to have forgotten – next October will mark 50 years since the horrific events of that October night, yet no memorial stands in tribute to the dead who boarded the plane at Edinburgh’s Turnhouse Airport and were destined to perish just yards away from Heathrow’s terminal building.

Now – of particular poignance given the horrific events which have unfolded in Ukraine over the past few days – Jane has decided to embark on a remarkable and emotionally charged search to piece together the lives of the passengers and their shattered families, people like her whose destinies were shaped by events on that tragic night.

Her plan is to use her late father’s camera – one of his, and now her, best-loved possessions – to document the loss of flight G-APEE in a series of images which will help mark half a century of heartache and loss for all ­concerned.

“I feel compelled to do something now because of the anniversary,” says Jane, who was inspired to dig deeply into the background of the accident after stumbling across two Edinburgh Evening News stories online which recalled the accident and the impact it had on the life of one local victim’s daughter.

Finding herself reading about a tragedy which she’d been raised not to discuss, touched a raw nerve.

“I started to think about the accident,” she recalls. “No-one talked about it in my family. In the Sixties, people didn’t talk about things like this. That sounds amazing now when people are encouraged to talk.

“People think you will get over it or time heals – all that kind of stuff. But it’s there your whole life. People lost children and parents.

“The effect lingers for years and years for everyone ­involved.”

It is what lies ahead for the families of passengers on board Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, still stunned by their devastating loss.

Jane’s father, John, was 38 years old when he took the flight. He was marketing manager with the Scottish Grocers Federation and was making one of his many business trips south, this time to attend the Scottish Food Exhibition in London.

He said goodbye to his wife, to Jane and her younger brother David, and set off for Turnhouse, of course not for a second suspecting he would never see them again.

As his family slept, the plane he was on prepared to land. The BEA Vickers Vanguard 951 – widely regarded as one of the safest planes of its age – had cruised south in the hands of a crew who had been called upon at the last minute to take on the trip after the original team was held up by bad weather.

London was engulfed in thick fog. Capt Shackleton, 43, one of BEA’s most experienced pilots found himself flying “blind”.

Two attempts were made to land but the plane overshot and was sent to circle above Watford at 5000ft for 40 minutes before another attempt, with air traffic control “talking down”t the flight’s passage to the ground.

At the last second, the decision was taken in the cockpit to overshoot once more. As the plane started to climb, its tail hit the ground, fracturing the fuel tanks and creating a ball of fire.

The plane skidded along the runway leaving a trail of damage and wreckage in its wake before erupting in flames so intense they would melt the tarmac and leave firefighters helpless to attempt any kind of rescue.

All those on board died. Among them was 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, and Isabella Clairmount, from Newhaven, heading south with her daughter Catherine Rye, 26, and baby grandson Simon, for a holiday at their Kent home. Their deaths were witnessed by the boy’s horrified father as he waited at Heathrow to meet them.

Jane remembers being told about the crash the next day at the family home in Craigcrook Road.

She says: “I was six years old and I remember my mother telling me it had ­happened.

“It was devastating at that age – as it is at any age. You can’t grasp the fact that you’re not going to see someone ever again.

“But strangely enough you go about your business as a six-year-old does, aware of adults stopping what they are saying when you walk into a room and people crying. It was obviously something that shouldn’t be talked about and you learned to tip-toe around it. It was awful.”

Jane remembers her mother quickly finding work to support her family, first as a nursery teacher and then a school social worker.

Later, as she read through papers related to the incident, she found out how some grieving relatives had attempted to sue BEA, in particular the widow of the first officer on board who, in painful detail, listed her family expenses down to the last penny.

“You grow up feeling quite resilient in some ways and vulnerable in others,” adds Jane, who insists that although she has no fear of flying, she thinks of the tragedy every time she steps on board a plane. “I had a mother who worked and seemed to be very independent. She seemed a very strong mother and I never saw her cry, but of course it affected her terribly.

“I’ve been aware my whole life that any mention of it will make her deeply sad. That generation is very much ‘get on with it, don’t dwell on horrible things’. It was rarely – or never – spoken about, for fear of sharpening the pain. Lives had to continue. Still, the sense of loss lingers.”

Now, in a bid to articulate that ongoing sense of grief and altered lives, Jane, who is based in London as head of multimedia production for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, is using her skills as a photojournalist and documentary photographer for a project which aims to commemorate the loss of G-APEE in time for the 50th anniversary next year.

She says: “This project is personal but it is also of historic importance to Turnhouse and Edinburgh. Many of the victims were from the city. It’s important to document and ­remember.

“I’m calling the project ECHO, ECHO, the flight call of the doomed plane.”

She hopes to create a website bringing together archive images, news clippings, oral history, photography and video.

A lot of the contemporary images will be taken using her father’s camera.

Jane adds: “I am interested in how we attach importance to objects, how we tend to form a connection to the past and lost loved ones through a photo, toy, article of clothing or jewellery. One of the most precious objects I own is my father’s camera. It was last used by him in 1965, the year he was killed. He was an avid photographer so this object has a particular resonance.

“It connects me to the father I’ve spent my life yearning for and wanting to know.”

n Were you directly affected by the Vanguard accident in October 1965? If you want to share your memories and be part of Jane Ross’s project, contact her at