Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Vulcan Over Wingate (NZ403372)


On 7th January 1971, in broad daylight, an Avro Vulcan XM610 Bomber soared across the skies of the North-East before crashing into a field near Wingate in Co.Durham.  There was no loss of life, but the incident has entered local folklore – being especially vivid in the memories of those children of the local junior school who were staring up at the roaring aircraft as it fell to earth yards from their playground.

It all started as a routine practise sortie across the North Sea and the rural reaches of the Borders, until metal fatigue in one of the engines sent the warplane and its five-man crew into panic stations.  As Captain Bob Alcock ordered his crew to eject one by one, he wrestled with the controls with ever-increasing desperation – but all to no avail, the Vulcan giving up the ghost as it careered across Northumberland and East Durham.

Alcock directed the aircraft sea-ward and ejected.  Unfortunately, the Vulcan had other ideas and dipped downwards, smashing deep into a farmer’s field between Wingate and Station Town – 100 yards from the aforementioned school.  For their attempts to save the plane, and their efforts to steer it clear of settlements, the crew all received awards – Alcock gaining the Air Force Cross.

More detail can be found at www.neam.co.uk/wingate.html, with some interesting comment at www.seaham.org.uk/forum/showthread.php?t=232 .  Eye-witness accounts seem to vary slightly, and doubts have been cast upon the pilot’s alleged attempts to steer the plane to a ‘safe’ crash.

An interesting piece of recent history.


29 comments:

  1. Having spoke about the crash only the other night to a work colleage whos farther lives in Wingate,she will be asking her farther if he can recall the Vulcan coming down. My self and a couple of school mates were walking across the farmers fields before the Oakerside estate was built when we first heard the noise of the Vulcan.As it flew directly overhead we looked up to see the Vulcan wing on fire From the highest point we watched the plane going out to sea and the over the Horden viaduct, the Vulcan banked and came back in passing over the Castle Eden Golf course and then the huge impact as it came down in the farmers field. The plane glided but did not appear to spiral with the wing on fire. We could not believe what we had seen, I will never forget that moment, we should have been at school but Castle Eden Dene was a much better place to be.
    Hope my mates read this Phil and Graham

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    1. Thanks, Anonymous, for this brilliant eye-witness account. Must have been quite dramatic!

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    2. At the time there was a lot going on seeing the Vulcan on fire, the parachutes and then the plane coming back in. It was the huge impact when the plane hit the ground and then there was silence. From the field we could see the old brewery as the Vulcan came down in the field. To be honest we where shocked I remember watching the news reports on the North East news. The three of us will never forget this.

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  2. I was an apprentice at murton northern bus depot at the time and was steam cleaning the underside of a bus on the outside lift when i came out from underneath took of my mask and looked up i saw the plane on fire and men bailing out! Iran into the workshop to tell workmates they didnt believe me till we all went out to the sight of a big pluume of smoke rising into the air.i was saventeen at the time

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    1. Another great eye-witness account - thanks Anonymous.

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  3. Not sure the plane could have taken the route described as it definitely flew over Shotton Colliery (which is where both the pilot and co pilot landed in their parachutes) before travelling south into Wingate.

    I was also a bit shocked to see the pilot got a bravery award. Given he landed in Shotton Colliery he had clearly bailed out well before the plane hit the ground, and it seemed more luck than anything else that it didn't hit buildings.

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    1. Thanks Anonymous. Don't understand the bravery award either!

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  4. i remember playing in Howlitch lane junior school Peterlee when we saw the plane above towards Shotton . Smoke and fire was coming from it as it was decending and i though papers were drifting down but i may be wrong. It was a shock at the time to learn that it had crashed only miles away and that the pilots had jumped so early.

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    1. Thanks, Anonymous, for another interesting eye-witness account.

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  5. I remember standing in Belmont Jnr School playground and watching the bomber flying over with its wing on fire and then watching the crews parachutes opening.
    I also remember the news broadcasts a few days later asking the souviner hunters to take the bits of bomber back for the investigation!

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    1. Thanks Barney. Can't imagine for one minute that any bits were returned to the authorities!

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  6. I lived at Station Town about 1/2mile from where it crashed.I was only 8 at the time and was off school from Wingate Juniors ,nearer still to where it came down.All I can remember is my mother doing the washing and her run to the kitchen as the plane crashed as she thought her washing machine had exploded!We went out the front of the house to see plumes of smoke.It was a really nice day and it must have been about midday.I can remember other kids going to yry and get pieces of aircraft. Overhead im sure I remember lots of small aircraft circling after the ccrash.I could never quite understand but it was only really the locals that new about it-it almost seemed like it was being hushed up..perhaps due to Cold War era etc

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    1. Thanks, Geoff. Well, lots of people seem to know about it now!

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  7. I saw it go over Bowburn Junior school heading in the direction of Thornley over Quarrington Hill. Never forget that sight

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  8. I was in the junior school the day the vulcan bomber crashed the techer Mr Josh tried to make us crouch behind a wall 2 seconds latter a plum of smoke rose from glasses farm when I looked to the sky a parachute was dropping to words peterlee area and a large plume of smoke to the south seemed to rise into the sky

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  9. Was at school at Peterlee Grammar when the burning Vulcan flew over. We were in a class when someone looked out of the window and said that a burning plane had flown overhead. We all stood (including the teacher) and went to the windows and saw this massive black triangle billowing smoke as it headed to Shotton Colliery. Then, excitement over, back to work....but we all watched the news THAT night.

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  10. A relative of mine witnesed the event and claims that at no point was the craft pointed towards the sea, the crew and captain had simply bailed out without consideration for the safety of anyone on land.
    Many children were almost killed in this incident, the captain clearly had no capacity to handle a crisis situation, all was required was to point the Plane out towards sea. What is worse is that the captain was too cowardly to land it safely.

    The establishment has clearly put its own spin on it and makes the captain a hero, what a joke....please wake up people!

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    1. Thanks, Anonymous. Another very interesting take on this dramatic incident.

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  11. I lived at Station Town when this happened and our house was one of the last the plane flew over before it crashed.I was at A.J Dawson grammar school at the time and my class were having quite time in the library so when the noise of the engines started growing louder and louder we all started looking at each other in silence. It didn't sound good! then there was an almighty thud and everyone just sat there motionless and you could here a pin drop!The shock of realising that a plane had just crashed was too much for everyone to process instantly -so I'll never forget that shared experience of being 'frozen in time'for just an moment while we were all allowing our brains to catch up with the reality of what was happening! When I got home after school my mother who had been home all day said she was forwarned that something dreadful was going to happen because our dog Sheba had been running around the house howling and hiding under the table for half an hour beforehand. When the plane did finally fly over the house it was so near the roof that it cast a shadow over the whole kitchen and my mother was plunged into total blackness and convinced her end had come. After the plane had passed she found herself hiding under the table with the dog. As for the pilots it's difficult to know what they did,I suppose any machine which is malfunctioning and on fire may not stick to any flight path the pilot programmed it to do.

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  12. The plane crashed half a mile from the aforementioned school. 50 yards from terraced houses

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  13. I remember the Vulcan crash pretty well, as I was a pupil in Wellfield Grammar that day. We were in a classroom on the south side of the school having a Tech Drawing lesson, when the sound of the Vulcan, approaching from the north, was heard. Low flying aircraft were pretty common at that time, on most days a pair of USAF RF4Cs would fly over at around 500 feet on training missions. This day the noise became loader than the usual Phantoms, in fact it grew to ear splitting roar. At this point we rushed out of the building just in time to see the Vulcan pass directly over our heads at less than 50 feet. I've read people say the bomb doors were open - can't remember that, I was more concerned with the flames that enveloped the tail! We watched it pass over the houses in the adjacent street and it disappeared from view. At this point it was flying south, parallel to Wingate's North Road, about 50 yards to the east. As we waited for the inevitable crash, the aircraft suddenly reared up, back into our view, in a near vertical climb. It then stalled and fell to the left, diving into the ground with a huge explosion, the fireball rising high into the sky.

    Speaking to other pupils and teachers, they saw the aircraft approaching the school from the north and it looked to be heading directly for the school. Harry Lamb, our great PE teacher, was teaching the 3rd year rugby in the field in front of the school and shouted them (in no uncertain terms) to "RUN" down the field to the east away from the school. My mother saw the burning aircraft from Shotton Village and presumed we were back at war!

    After the crash, the USAF Phantoms appeared for a flyover - possibly under instruction to recce the site? Then all sort of sundry ambulances, fire engines and police vehicles started arriving, plus an American jeep for some reason.

    Seriously, I do believe that it was a miracle that it didn't kill me and a few hundred other schoolkids, or other citizens of Wingate. Its track between me and the crash site was directly over hundreds of houses, Wingate Secondary Modern and Wingate Junior school. It found one of the few safe places to come down within the borders of Wingate and Station Town. I have read the official account where the pilot, apparently, pointed the aircraft at the sea over Easington then ejected. How did it manage to navigate its way into a course, directly north to south, over Wingate? It was flying straight and level when it passed over me, certainly not "spiralling down". The pilot was rewarded with a medal for his actions,- would he have still got it if he had flattened Wellfield Grammar School?

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    1. Some great detail! Thanks Anonymous.

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  14. I was working at a Building Company in Hetton- Le-Hole : we had offices on both side of the road and as I was crossing I heard the planes engines. Smoke and then flames came from one wing, port wing I think. The plane was flying very slowly; then more flame appeared suddenly behind the wing and spread to the fuselage. Parachutes started to appear at intervals. We then lost sight of the aircraft because of the buildings. I didn’t hear the impact, but it was quite some distance away in Wingate. However a family member worked for DLI (Durham Light Industries) in Wingate and he, that evening, gave us a vivid account of the aircraft passing low over the factory yard where they were welding, crashing into the field at the back of the factory. One guy who had been in the war apparently threw himself onto the ground in panic. The aircraft was so seriously damaged when I saw it that, personally, I cannot rush to judgement about the degree to which the Pilot was able to control the aircraft at that point and afterwards. To do so would be pure speculation.

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    1. Thanks for your input, Chris. Very interesting!

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