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Air crash near Christchurch 1958

A layer of thick fog covered a large part of Southern England that Christmas which was instrumental in the crash of a Britannia G-AVOD near Sopley. For Sub Officer Bill Lambert, officer in charge of the Christchurch Fire Station, it was a day etched in his memory, as he recalled the day to me a few years later.

Approximately midday on Christmas Eve 1958, the fire bell rang at Elkins boatyard, where Bill was employed as a Loft Foreman, and the air raid siren in the fire station yard screeched into life alerting all the part–time firemen to come to the station. On their arrival, the watchroom man informed Bill that Fire Control has received a report of a loud noise as if an aircraft had crashed in the Sopley – Bransgore area. The pump left the Pit Site Fire station with Bill in command. He requested an update to the rather vague location and was informed that Hurn airport believed an aircraft had crashed north of the airport but had no idea what type or how many persons were aboard.

Bill also requested the second appliance at the station be sent out and search around Sopley and towards Ringwood. Bill’s unit commenced their search at Winkton and after travelling a short distance along the Burley road came across overhead cables that were down across the road. The crew dismounted and commenced a foot search in the thick fog, following in the direction the cables had been dragged across a ploughed field. They soon discovered broken trees and aircraft debris and little further on a fire.

 

Bill sent a message to the Fire Control confirming it was a crashed aircraft and requested further appliances to rendezvous at the Lamb Inn at Winkton, thus finally giving all the emergency services a positive location for the incident. They were unable to contact the second appliance as it did not have a radio, but fortunately this appliance ran into other units proceeding to the incident whose personnel informed them of the location of the crash site. Bill and part of his crew continued the search leaving the remainder to get the 8-ton appliance, which did not have four-wheel drive, across a newly ploughed field to the centre of the incident. This was a herculean task, but they eventually succeeded.

Bill’s party eventually found the remains of the fuselage with the co–pilot injured and trapped inside. They proceeded to cut him free and as further Fire Police and Ambulance services arrived a co–ordinated search and rescue commenced, fanning out from the crash site. Fire Control endeavoured to confirm the type of aircraft and number of personnel aboard, and on receiving this information, the operation continued until all persons were accounted for and the fires extinguished.

There were some positives and many lessons learnt from this accident not just for the flying fraternity but also for the Fire Service. The most important for the former being that aircraft altimeters were fitted with a small chequered flag to indicate when it was indicating below 1500 feet. The old four handed altimeter that was in use at the time had been misread by the crew who believed they were descending from 11,500ft in heavy fog when actually they were at only 1500 ft when they commenced their descent and simply flew into the ground. This wasn’t the first incident where this was cited as the cause of a crash.

For the Fire Service henceforth all second appliances would be fitted with radios and when Land Rover appliances became available, Christchurch were one of the first stations to try them out. As a result Christchurch has had one of theses vehicle stationed there ever since. It was only withdrawn quite recently (~2006) but has now been replaced with a Mercedes 4x4 appliance. For his efforts on that day, and no doubt on previous occasions, Sub–Officer Bill Lambert was promoted to Station Officer.

As recounted by Bill Wootten (1929 – 2011).

Aftermath

As a direct result of the accident the Ministry of Transport issued a directive to replace all three–pointer altimeters in British registered aircraft operating at over 20,000 feet before September 1959. This action followed an investigation of problems in interpretating the display. An interim flight safety warning was issued, pending the altimeter replacement which concluded the misreading of this type of altimeters to be “most likely when the routine monitoring of the instrument panel has been interrupted. If this happened during climb or descent the height when the instruments are rescanned may be very different from the anticipated.”

Bill Wootten

Bill Wootten’s engineering expertise was developed at Cooper Racing Cars, and following National Service he joined the engineering ‘school’ at the de Havilland Aircraft Company, Christchurch in 1952 (the former Airspeed division of de Havilland). So accomplished was Bill that he was fast–tracked from there to the Experimental Flight Shed, which was doing work on the Ambassador airliner and military Vampire, Venom and Sea Vixen. He was a flight engineer for the test pilot, George Errington, on the Ambassador test programme and his often exasperated mechanic when he went motor racing. It seems George was not good at taking Bill’s advice about the best combinations of gearboxes, engines and such things on his cars, and invariably Bill was proved right.

After de Havilland closed in 1963 Bill had a very varied career working for companies as diverse as Flight Refuelling at Wimborne, the Military Engineering Experimental Establishment (MEXE) at Christchurch, Porton Down Test Facility and Marchwood Engineering, part of the CEGB. Among his many other interests he was also a retained fire–fighter for thirty years.

 

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