On this date there was the terrible tragedy of the loss of 5 crew, and 1 civilian, and Avro Vulcan XM645 over the town of Zabbar. There is an exhibit area dedicated to this sad occasion at the Zabbar Sanctuary Museum and is well worth a visit if you are in Malta.
The aircraft left Waddington carrying the normal crew of 5 plus two ground crew in the jump seats behind the 'back office' crew. The co-pilot, Flying Officer Alexander, had replaced the crews normal co-pilot as his wife was due to give birth. Approaching Luqa P.O. Alexander was given the task of landing the aircraft but he had not been briefed about landing at Luqa, on runway 24, and the fact that there is quite a slope to it. It is thought there may have been a crosswind at the time and the aircraft was approaching with a high sink rate, which was not arrested before the attempted landing. There followed a heavy landing with the port wingtip touching the ground which resulted in the port undercarriage being ripped off and puncturing a fuel tank.
A quote from my friend Godfrey Mangion of the Malta Aviation Society was reported in the Times of Malta “I noticed that the Vulcan was landing quite low but didn’t quite register there was a problem until I heard this deafening iron scraping sound. I realised the aircraft had hit the undershoot and sheared off the undercarriage. It bounced back into the air some 20 feet or so and it then hit the runway again some 600 feet after the impact,” “instead of staying put and waiting for the fire engines to extinguish any possible fire, the captain decided – it must have been a split second decision – to climb away again and attempt to do a circuit and crash land”.
The Captain of XM645, Flt Lt Alcock, took control and put the 4 olympus engines to full power and took off again to make a visual inspection of any damage, the AEO has a periscope capable of looking above and below the aircraft plus the Air Traffic could advise the captain of visible damage.
Banking over the town of Zabbar, preparing to make an emergency crash landing on a foamed runway (24, now numbered 23) The fuel from the punctured tank, already ignited shortly after the landing, eventually caused the aircraft to blow up in a ball of fire. Wreckage rained down on the town and surrounding fields.
Amazingly, there was only one death on the ground. A young woman, who at the time was with friends of mine, Grace and her sister Rose Sicluana. She was worried about her mother as wreckage had landed on top of her house. Grace urged her not to cross the road but she ran off and was hit by an electrical cable that had been severed by wreckage.
The two pilots ejected with minor injuries associated with using ejection seats but the 5 crew in the back perished. 20 other civilians were injured and 15 houses were damaged. Photograph showing the missing undercarriage is reproduced with kind permission of Joe Ciliberti President of the Malta Aviation Society and the two others of the landing Vulcan and another of the explosion and falling wreckage taken by Godfrey Mangion, society events photographer and librarian. Other photographs were taken by me at the Zabbar museum.
Mark Farrugia sent me some information as he was an eye witness to the crash; "I was still at school on my lunch break at that time. I used to attend the Technical Institute in Paola. I can clearly remember the aircraft flying overhead to land on runway 24 ( now 23 ). Didn't notice anything strange about it. Five minutes later I saw it again in the air heading towards the sea and leaving a trail of black smoke in the process. I realized that something was terribly wrong with it and in no time it exploded in mid air. I could see 2 pilots ejecting to safety and landing in a nearby field. A Wessex helicopter from a visiting HMS aircraft carrier could be seen picking up the survivors and taken to the Royal Naval hospital. " Mark also informed me of the photographer that took the photograph of the explosion and said; "He (Godfrey Mangion) was the person who managed to capture the mid air explosion with a large telephoto lens while sitting by the airport fence perimeter from the threshold of runway 24 waiting to capture various RAF aircraft landing movements. His photos were first published in the Maltese language newspaper " L-Orizzont" on the following day of the crash."
Terry Crane recollected the incident. Terry was with 203 Maritime Squadron, operating Nimrods. "Watching that incident from the very beginning was one of the worst times of my whole career.Having just parked the ‘crew issue for taceval’ 3 tonner prior to briefing for a sortie, I was stood on the pan to the left of the (then) 203Sqn building, less then 100 yards from the end of the runway, square on to it. Closing my eyes even now, I can still see the oleo punch through the top of the wing before the aircraft seemed to bounce. Running forward I saw the aircraft touch down again and as power was applied, the flash of fire through the hole where the oleo had been. As the aircraft started climbing, the whole starboard undercarriage fell clear and bounced off down the runway.I recall running to the rear of the Squadron building and bashing unsuccessfully on the locked (for taceval) doors. After a short while and getting no response, I retraced steps around to the front of the building, saw the Vulcan on the downwind leg, flames clearly visible over the top of the wing and fuselage. I eventually managed to get to a phone, dial 5222 but all lines were tied up. I then went on to ops, found the all of the ops staff on phones and squawk boxes but my crew uninformed as to what was happening. I wasn’t aware at that time that the aircraft had crashed.Just for reference, we went on to fly later that evening (XV246, Flt Lt Withers)."
RIP Stanley Lambert Flt Lt Tony Pullman Flt Lt David. W. Beeden Sqdn Ldr Gordon Barrow Ch Tech Peter. J. Atkins Sgt Vincenza Zammit, the only civilian death.
Surviving Pilots; Fight Lieutenant G.R. Alcock Flying Officer E.C. Alexander (N.B. There was nothing the pilots could have done to save the other crew members such was the suddenness and severity of the explosion).
Four of the crew are buried at All Saints Church, Nettleham, Lincolnshire.
Photographs reproduced by kind permission of Helen Mitchell who took these when visiting the graveyard in August 2014.
(Click on a photograph for an enlarged view)
XM645 in happier days landing at RAF Luqa, 1973.
Photograph courtesy of Joe Ciliberti and reproduced with his kind permission.