Air Crash at Heathrow 1967

1967, 4 November: a passenger jet bound for Heathrow airport crashed into the southern slopes of Blackdown Hill, near to Fernhurst village, resulting in the tragic death of all 37 persons on board. The police report from 1967 gives a harrowing account of the event:

"About 10.02 pm on Saturday, 4th November, 1967, a Caravelle Airliner No EC-BDD, owned by Iberia Airlines of Spain, crashed at Black Down Hill, Sussex (map reference 919289). This Hill at its highest point is 902 ft. above sea level. The aircraft was on a scheduled flight from Malaga, Spain, to Heathrow Airport, and was piloted by Captain Harnando Maura (Pieres), 37 years, an experienced Pilot. It left Malaga at 7.30 pm GMT and the estimated time of arrival at Heathrow Airport was 10.10 pm GMT. The weather at the time was slightly misty with intermittent drizzle but there was reasonable visibility."

Steve Gilbert: PC Doug Brazier and I were in Lima 2 that evening. The weather was cold (of course!) and patches of fog. We were in the Hindhead area and got the call from HJ (Mount Browne Ops Room) that a loud explosion had been heard and was called in on 999 from the south of us near the border. I can't recall the exact location. On our way, we received further information from HJ that sheep were on fire in a field.

When we arrived we saw a terrible sight. An airliner had narrowly missed a house by just feet and the old couple were just retiring for the night and he opened the curtains of the French window to see the plane heading straight towards their home. I believe it has already 'bounced' on the side of the hill once (hence the fire with the sheep) and then flew just over his house and impacted into the side of the wooded hill.

The nose of the aircraft was still intact and had buried itself into soft earth. I clambered inside calling out - but it was 'dead' silent and I saw the bodies of the flight crew still strapped in their seats. The main fuselage aft of the flight deck was completely broken up and there were naked body parts, shoes, clothing all over the place, some body parts were impaled on trees. A sight I will never forget.

Doug and I worked the scene looking for survivors, calling out. Other cars, the fire brigade and ambulances arrived and the fire brigade erected powerful lighting and placed a large canvas sheet in a cleared area and put the remains of the passengers on the sheet. We were told that due to the high speed of the impact, the passenger's shoes and clothing were stripped from their bodies. There were no survivors.

We left the scene eventually at daylight as there was nothing else that could be done by us. We were on again next night shift and the remainder of our roster. No time was given off and 'counselling' for shock was not heard of in those days. My wife saw how I was shook up and found some hospital brandy, which helped.

I believe the aircraft was an Iberia Airlines Caravelle carrying returning holidaymakers home. The rumour was the pilot thought he was flying on approach to Heathrow at nine thousand feet. The black box indicated that the altimeter was showing nine thousand feet at impact, which suggested it was incorrectly set as the hill was around nine hundred and fifty feet. I stress that this was rumour and the true story will be inside the archives of the government investigation team's records.

Plan from the Internet via Robin Maddison.

Plan from the Internet via
Robin Maddison.17

Fernhurst Society: The plane, a Sud Aviation Caravelle SE210, named Jesus Gurudi after the Basque composer, was travelling in a north-easterly direction.

It initially struck trees in the grounds of "Blackdown House", then continued for hundreds of yards, "passing across a meadow where it killed sixty five grazing sheep and injured twenty three more which were subsequently destroyed". It then broke through a large hedge and parts of the aircraft fell off destroying a garage, and damaging parts of the roof of Upper Blackdown House as the aircraft disintegrated.

A Surrey Constabulary officer on his own was first on the scene and made his way across the fields through the slaughtered sheep until he found the crash. He then had to retrace his steps to alert the Control Room as to what he had found. Haslemere Fire Brigade was alerted within minutes of the crash, and later joined by firemen from Grayshott, Liphook and Guildford.

Aviation fuel had caused small fires to break out in the densely wooded hillside. It soon became clear however that all those on the flight had been killed on impact. "Debris from the aircraft was scattered over the whole of the three hundred and fifty five yards of its passage. There were no survivors from a total complement of thirty passengers and seven crew."

Fernhurst villagers provided essential support: the village hall was turned into a temporary mortuary and the Women's Royal Voluntary Service helped provide food and drink for the emergency services from the youth club behind the Spread Eagle public house.

The victims on the scheduled flight, Iberia 062, were the all-Spanish crew, and the passengers comprising twenty five British, mostly returning from holiday in Spain, two Americans, two Spaniards and two Australians. Among the passengers were: the British film and TV actress June Thorburn, who was five months pregnant; industrialist and Coventry City Football Club vice-president John Clarkson; and Donald Campbell of the Campbell Aircraft Company.

There is a memorial stone in Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey.

What caused the crash? The plane's Black Box flight recorder was recovered from the scene, although the cockpit and instruments were badly damaged, making the investigation into the cause of the crash difficult. The aircraft appeared to be flying along its correct path, but at a significantly lower altitude. It is possible that the type of altimeters then in use were misread by the crew.

John Thorn: I attended this incident with PC Doug Brazier. We were 3-11 pm out of Burpham. The plane crashed amongst a flock of sheep. Among the passengers killed was the actress June Thorburn. Apparently she was pregnant at the time and the body of her baby was found in trees.

John Bartlett: The air crash, just in Sussex, Blackdown Hill. Again I think with Colin Campbell on night duty we were sat watching traffic at the A3 Hindhead cross roads. The radio burst into life and started talking about the crash.

Control room quoted Blackdown, near Woking. After that, having been a beat PC at Woking, the messages did not add up. I said to Colin that the location sounded more like south of Haslemere. We told control room of our (my thoughts, in case it was wrong).

We found our way to the scene from the fire glow in the sky. I drove up a steep track to find that we were the first vehicle on scene. We advised control room of the location.

The aircraft had cut a wide cutting through the wood. I noticed what looked like large glow-worms running about in a field next to woods. I discovered that they were sheep which had been set on light by the aviation fuel. Short while later Sussex units arrived and set up the enquiry. The whole scene was too big to take in. The wings had been torn off as the fuselage slid further into the wood.

That night duty week we went back to the scene to speak to the local officers. They had put a young PC on patrol out of training school two weeks! We walked around the scene with him. He pointed out many features he had seen on his patrol. We came to an oak tree and he stopped. He said we were looking at the remains of the actress June Thorburn.

Colin Campbell: I recall attending this incident with John Bartlett, it was late in the evening and dark and we were called there from not too far away. I can't remember the exact location but it was on Blackdown Hill, Fernhurst, just over the Surrey border into Sussex.

My most clear recollection is of fires on the landscape (I think later we learned or saw that these were sheep which had been doused with aviation fuel as the plane came down) and seeing items of underclothing lodged in trees. There were many small fires burning, both on the ground and in trees.

The plane was a Caravelle. I am unable to clearly recall any further details but do remember John and I went back there in daylight some time later to look at the scene, to put it into perspective in our own minds.

Barry Siviers: I was the night turn car driver on Juliet 1 running out of Godalming. My companion on the night was a PC 1075 Higginson I believe, when we called from Control to what we were told was a loud explosion in the hills to the south of Haslemere and could we attend to check it out.

We were on the way from Godalming when we were told that a plane had failed to land at Gatwick and there was a possibility that the explosion was a plane hitting the ground. We eventually got to the scene which was some four miles south of Haslemere at Fernhurst.

We made our way up a narrow lane to the left of the main road and it was total devastation, there were the remains of the plane all over a large area. The area was completely destroyed and it was obvious there were no survivors to be found alive. In fact all we found was pieces of body lying all over the ground and in the trees. (June Thorburn was the female lead opposite Dickie Henderson in the comedy TV programme 'The Dickie Henderson Show' was among the fatalities.)

We had to secure the site along with other officers who had arrived from Surrey and Hampshire. I remember staying there the whole night and the following morning I remember a vast number of air cadets and such like attending and were told to assist in collecting the pieces of body that were in the area. The cadets were only in their early teens and were distraught to say the least, they were not able to conceal their feelings and indeed stomach contents.

From further enquiries made later it transpired that the pilot had misjudged the hill that was between him and Gatwick and collided with it. In fact had the pilot missed the hill by some one hundred yards either way, he would have caused even more carnage as on both sides of the hill were large estates, the hill he hit was a wooded area with no housing in the immediate area.

Tony May: I was a section sergeant at Haslemere. On Saturday night 4th November1967 a French Caravelle rear engine jet air liner owned by the Spanish airline Iberia crashed into Blackdown Hill between Haslemere and Fernhurst. The hill is the highest in West Sussex being just over seventy feet short of a thousand feet.

Flight number IB06 from Malaga was approx eight minutes from landing at Heathrow when it failed to clear the ridge of the hill. Witnesses said they heard the engines rev as if the pilot had sensed something was wrong and tried to gain height but it was too late and the plane scythed off the tops of trees close to Blackdown House and skimmed across a field full of sheep and disintegrated through the dense undergrowth for about a quarter of a mile killing all thirty seven people on board.

That night had seen the annual bonfire night celebrations in the UK and it was a very smoky, foggy and drizzly night. The first call was to the West Sussex Fire Brigade at 10.02 pm followed quickly afterward by the alerting of the Haslemere Fire Brigade.

Sergeant Roy Jenkins (my opposite colleague at Haslemere) was the sergeant on duty that night when HQ Control room contacted him with the information that "Air Traffic Control had lost contact with a jet somewhere in the Haslemere - Fernhurst area" and with minute details available from the Fire Brigade he took a gamble and went up Fernden Lane which he knew was the only way up to Blackdown.

This lane is at times less than eight feet wide at its narrowest point with many tight twists and turns. On reaching the scene he saw what looked like small bonfires all over the place, this turned out to be burning sheep, the lanolin in their fleeces burning for hours.

He quickly realised that with other large rescue vehicles about to come to the scene i.e. Ambulances, CAA and lifting equipment it would necessary to implement some sort of control at the entrance to the lane off the main A286 Haslemere to Fernhurst Road to prevent chaos and so he positioned himself at the entrance for the remainder of the night aborting many press and curious people from going up there with their vehicles.

Very early the next morning I relieved Roy there and several hours later a "Queen Mary" arrived (for those not conversant with the RAF it consists of a cab with a very long lattice work low load trailer on which the wings and fuselage can be transported). Having escorted this vehicle to the scene just as daylight was breaking this was the first time I had actually got to the scene and it was a very grim sight, with limbs and luggage hanging from every conceivable tree branch, the heavy smell of kerosene, burnt sheep, smoke, debris and metal everywhere and severe damage to Blackdown House and various outbuildings.

Although the crash site was officially in West Sussex Police area and they dealt with the paperwork and ensuing Coroner's Courts, etc, Haslemere Police did much of the field work (escort and traffic control) which went on for several days.

Tony Forward: the following is included with the permission of Mrs Cooper: PC William (Bill) Cooper was the village PC at Hascombe from 1964 to 1972. He lived in the village police house with his wife Anna and two daughters. He was issued with a lightweight motorcycle to cover the large rural area he was responsible for.

During his time there he was the first on the scene of an air liner crash which had a profound effect on him. When he left Hascombe, he moved into his own house in Godalming and was posted to Godalming section before being chosen to be part of a newly expanded Stolen Vehicle Squad.

He had an accident in a police van during this time followed by what was thought to be a nervous breakdown. He was off sick for a period and on his return was given the job of Crown Court officer at Guildford. Nobody associated his mental problems with the air crash. On early retirement, Bill moved with his wife to Spain, where he died in 2007.

I visited him at his Spanish home on a number of occasions. During one of these visits, Bill told me about the air crash. It was late on Saturday 4th November 1967. He was off duty at home. Fireworks had been going off all evening and the police had been kept busy.

He was telephoned by the Control Room at HQ to say that a very loud bang had been reported south of Haslemere and there was no unit available. Would he go on his motorcycle to investigate? He set off, expecting this to be a large firework. He made his way to the top of a hill at Fernhurst (less than a mile into Sussex) and parked his motorcycle.

He had no personal radio. The battery in his torch faded. He tripped over something that on feeling around found was a dead sheep. He then walked into something that turned out to be a large wheel. He had noticed a smell of what he described as paraffin.

He stood under a tree while he tried to work out in which direction he had left his motorcycle and found he was being dripped on. This turned out to be body fluids from bodies lodged in the tree. Bill went into a lot more detail but that is probably better left in the past.

An air liner had crashed on top of the hill, killing a number of sheep. There were no survivors among the passengers crew. Surrey and Sussex officers eventually attended. All the British subjects are buried in a mass grave in Brookwood Cemetery.

Nobody had recognised that this dreadful experience had taken its toll on Bill. He could not fly because the smell of aviation fuel gave him flash-backs. The crash and the breakdown were all probably attributable to what we now know as Traumatic Stress Disorder, the only genuine case I have encountered. As the crash scene was in Sussex, police from that force dealt with the reporting procedures.

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17 http://www.fernhurstsociety.org.uk/caravelle.html [25 May 2010].

 

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