Astounding survival tale finally told

Pic of James Towill from Greenlaw,who has written a book on a plane crash near Largs.
Pic of James Towill from Greenlaw,who has written a book on a plane crash near Largs.

An astounding tale of survival has been told in full for the first time by a Berwickshire man and his co-author.

The fascinating story of the passengers who miraculously escaped a horror plane crash in 1948 is documented in ‘Viking Down! The Dramatic Night An Airliner Crashed In The Scottish Hills’, by James Towill of Greenlaw, and Dougie Martin.

Wreckage from the Viking G-AIVE airliner that crashed in 1948 still lies on moorland at Irish Law near Largs. The site was so remote that several rescue parties were unable to locate the survivors.

Wreckage from the Viking G-AIVE airliner that crashed in 1948 still lies on moorland at Irish Law near Largs. The site was so remote that several rescue parties were unable to locate the survivors.

All of the 16 passengers and four crew aboard walked away from the dramatic smash after the Vickers Viking 1B they were on (named ‘Vestal’) crashed onto boggy moorland near Largs 62 years ago.

But the traumatic fall from the sky was only the beginning of their ordeal...

And now, six decades later, the remarkable events of that night have finally been told in the book, which is the culmination of four years of intensive work by James and Dougie.

James, a science teacher at Earlston High, explained: “We have discovered some remarkable information about Vestal’s passengers and crew.

“The atrocious conditions they faced that evening 60 years ago and the subsequent life stories of the protagonists makes for absorbing reading!”

Just before 9pm on April 21, 1948, expectant friends, family and colleagues awaited the arrival of flight S200P at Renfrew.

Onboard the Vickers Viking BEA airliner were a crew of four (a pilot, first officer, radio officer and a steward) and 16 passengers, amongst them a honeymooning Norwegian couple and several business executives.

Noting the drone of the machine’s twin engines overhead, those on the ground were confused when the airliner flew off westward, disappearing from view and out of earshot. Communications were lost with the aircraft some minutes later.

Meanwhile the machine crashed at around 150mph in desolate, windswept and sodden moorland on Irish Law near Largs, Ayrshire.

As soon as the plane hit the hill, fire broke out around the engines, and when the aircraft bounced to a halt, the dazed passengers leapt out from a gap torn at the rear of the fuselage.

Remarkably, all 20 occupants escaped with only burned hands and other minor injuries.

They watched as a raging inferno consumed the fuselage of the aircraft, where they had been enjoying refreshments just minutes earlier.

With visibility of only two yards, and weather worsening, the survivors - including five women dressed only in frocks - constructed a small shelter made from the wreckage of the plane.

The 28 year-old pilot and a passenger stumbled across the moors to raise the alarm, eventually reaching Largs three hours later.

The pilot led a search party from Muirshiel, but he was unsure where the airliner had come to grief.

Back at the wreck on Irish Law daybreak came, and the radio officer and three passengers decided to make their own bid for help with the use of a compass in a charm bracelet. Three hours later they arrived at Ladyland House between Lochwinnoch and Kilbirnie.

By 9am the remaining survivors were suffering from exposure and shock.

Several search parties had been unable to find them, because of the terrible conditions on the boggy moorland.

They decided they must make their own way to safety. One of the women had broken her ankle when the plane crashed and had to be carried all the way. Some walked barefoot.

They followed a stream downhill to Largs, and, eventually, their ordeal was over.

Scotland woke to some remarkable headlines. The front page of the Evening Times declared ‘Barefooted Viking Passengers Saved After All-Night Ordeal’.

To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the incident in 2008, James and Dougie gave a talk in nearby Lochwinnoch, which was attended by many interested members of the public. The fruits of their research, which went as far as the US and Canada, are laid down in the book.

“Viking Down!’ is not simply a book for aviation or local history enthusiasts – it is a book for anyone interested in an astonishing tale of survival,” James said.

“The Scottish Borders has a rich aviation history – from the RAF airfields at Charterhall and Winfield to the numerous crashes on the Cheviots, Lammermuirs and Moorfoots, many of which remain to this day.

“As one can imagine, the 1940s were very different to the current day aviation scene in Scotland and ‘Viking Down!’ not only gives the reader an insight into post-war aviation, but also the lives of those who were privileged enough to use this mode of transport at the time.”

Dougie Martindale, a computer tutor who lives in Kilbarchan, Renfrewshire, added: “Viking Down! is a human interest story, of how men and women coped successfully with such dreadful adversity.

“The passengers and crew made a desperate escape from their burning airliner, only to watch on from a distance as a raging inferno consumed the fuselage. Throughout the night they braved the winds which swept mercilessly over the hillside.

“At dawn they were forced to make a bid for survival, trekking out over desolate moorland to safety.”

To celebrate the publication of ‘Viking Down!’, a book launch meet-and-greet will be held at Lochwinnoch RSPB Visitor Centre, Renfrewshire on Saturday, March 26 between 1pm and 3pm, and James and Dougie will be on hand to answer questions and sign copies of the book.

For further details, please contact Lochwinnoch RSPB Nature Reserve on (01505) 842663 or email lochwinnoch@rspb.org.uk

Viking Down! (published by AMP Books), retails at £14 and will be available online at http://books.rokket.biz/