Sutton Wick air crash
The crash site of XH117 shortly after the accident. One of the four engines is still relatively intact. Police can be seen to the far right of the photograph, searching through the wreckage.
|Date||5 March 1957|
|Summary||Maintenance error leading to fuel starvation|
|Site||Sutton Wick, Drayton, Berkshire[notes 1] England
|Fatalities||18 (+2 on ground)[notes 2]|
|Aircraft type||Blackburn Beverley|
|Operator||Royal Air Force|
|Flight origin||RAF Abingdon, Abingdon, Berkshire[notes 1], England|
|Destination||RAF Akrotiri, Akrotiri, Cyprus|
The Sutton Wick air crash occurred on 5 March 1957 when a Blackburn Beverley C Mk 1 heavy transport aircraft, serial number XH117, of 53 Squadron Royal Air Force crashed in the village of Sutton Wick, Drayton, Berkshire[notes 1], England, following shut-down of one engine and partial loss of power on another. After take-off, No. 1 engine was shut down as a precautionary measure and whilst on final approach back to RAF Abingdon, No. 2 engine failed to respond to throttle inputs. The aeroplane struck cables and trees 18 minutes after lifting off.
Of the seventeen passengers and five crew on board, all but four died in the accident.[notes 2] Two people on the ground were also killed.
An investigation found that a non-return valve in the fuel system had been installed backwards, causing two of the engines to be starved of fuel. The technician found responsible for fitting the valve was charged under the Air Force Act. Following the accident, the non-return valve was re-designed so it could not be installed incorrectly.
Two RAF Officers who participated in the rescue efforts following the crash were highly praised for "refusing to give up while there was hope of finding survivors among the wreckage."
The Secretary of State for Air, George Ward, described the crash to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom. The Beverley departed RAF Abingdon in Abingdon, Oxfordshire bound for RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. The aeroplane was carrying freight, a relief crew and eight RAF policemen with their dogs. There was low overcast at 500 feet (150 m), visibility was less than 1,000 feet (300 m), and there was an easterly wind of 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph).
As the aircraft was climbing, No. 1 engine (on the port wing) developed a fuel leak. The flight crew responded by shutting down the engine and feathering its propeller. The flight crew declared an emergency and requested a blind approach to RAF Abingdon. The controller alerted emergency services on the ground. A short time later, cockpit instruments alerted the flight crew to a large loss of fuel from No. 2 fuel tank, the second of four such tanks in the port wing. In an effort to stop the leak, the crew de-activated the fuel cocks and boosters for the No. 2 tank, but left them on for the No. 1 tank. As the Beverley turned on to final approach for RAF Abingdon the crew attempted to increase power from the remaining three Bristol Centaurus engines but No. 2 engine—also on the port wing—failed to respond and the aeroplane began to lose speed and height.
Knowing he could not reach the airfield, the captain tried to land in an open field. However, the aircraft became uncontrollable and struck a number of high tension cables and some trees which tore the port wing from the fuselage. Upon impact with the ground, the aircraft destroyed a caravan and a prefabricated house before somersaulting and crashing upside down.
The plane came towards me flying low. One wing hit a tree. It dived to the ground immediately, crashed through an ordinary brick house and a pre-fabricated house, slid along the ground for about 100 yards and burst into flames. The flames were terrific. It was so hot we could not get near to help those inside.—Eyewitness
The aircraft crashed at 11:00 am, 18 minutes after take-off, near the village of Sutton Wick, 2 miles (3.2 km) south of Abingdon. The aircraft was carrying a large amount of fuel for the flight to Cyprus and instantly caught fire. The tail section of the aircraft crashed on a farm house near the main wreckage, trapping a woman in the kitchen of the building. She was later freed by emergency workers. A newspaper reported: "Wreckage was scattered over three quarters of a mile. The force of the explosion sent the main part of the giant plane's fuselage and tailplane tearing back over the field into the farmyard, carrying with it an inferno of blazing petrol and debris." Emergency workers worked for several hours to free survivors and bodies from the charred fuselage. Ultimately, two civilians in a prefabricated building on the ground, three crew, 15 passengers, and a number of RAF Police dogs were killed in the initial impact and the post-crash fire. However, two of the crew and two passengers survived. One RAF Police dog was also found alive in the wreckage.
Eight fire engines raced to the scene and firemen sprayed foam on to the wreckage. As soon as it was cool enough the firemen, assisted by policemen and RAF men from Abingdon, began the search. Within half an hour they had recovered 20 bodies.—20 feared dead as RAF plane crashes on homes, Evening Times, 5 March 1957
A Board of Inquiry investigated the crash and found it was caused by loss of power from No. 1 and No. 2 engines, both mounted on the port wing of the aircraft. George Ward told the House of Commons that "the four fuel tanks on the port side of the Beverley feed into a collector box from which the two port engines are fed. From the available evidence, including inspections of part of the aircraft's fuel system, it is clear that a non-return valve between No. 1 (port) tank and the collector box had been fitted in reverse and that the fuel supply from Nos. 3 and 4 (port) tanks were switched off throughout the flight." Ward continued, saying that the loss of power from No. 1 was caused by it being shut down as a precautionary measure, and the fuel starvation to No. 2 engine was caused by an incorrectly fitted non-return valve in the supply line from No. 1 fuel tank. No. 2 fuel tank had been isolated and two smaller fuel tanks in the port wing had not been selected during the flight.
The tradesman who had fitted the valve, and his supervisor, were prosecuted and charged, and the technician was court-martialled for negligence and punished with a reprimand. The Board also noted that some fuel was available from two smaller tanks but they were not used during the flight, and that the captain "must bear some responsibility" for not using those tanks. Ward said, however, that "owing to the nature of the flight the amount of fuel in the two smaller tanks was not large, and it can only be assumed that the captain had no reason to believe that both port engines would not operate satisfactorily off the two main port tanks individually." The captain lost his life in the accident and no charges were brought against him or any of the flight crew.
As a consequence of the disaster at Sutton Wick, the non-return valve was re-designed so such an error would be impossible. Aviation author Graham Perry wrote that, following the crash, "airworthiness design standards were changed so that the threads at either end of all such valves manufactured since are now made totally different from each other. Items like a non-return valve simply cannot now be assembled in the wrong sense." Nevertheless, Perry wrote, "[one] would be amazed how many people have still tried to do so in the forty-seven years since, most realising their mistake after looking in the manual and quietly and ruefully thanking those who had gone before them and made it impossible."
Reverend Stanley Harrison, the station padre at RAF Abingdon, was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and Flying Officer Charles Evans, the medical officer, a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for efforts in the rescue of the crew. An hour and a half after the crash they rescued an RAF Police dog, still alive. They continued their rescue efforts for three hours and removed fourteen bodies from the wreckage. The RAF praised the two men for displaying "courage and resourcefulness of a high order, refusing to give up while there was hope of finding survivors among the wreckage." An RAF document stated: "At one stage a Calor gas cylinder bottle exploded near these officers and the fire thereupon’ began to gain ground. Undeterred by this, they continued their search of the wreckage until it was clear that there could be no survivors." Also singled out for attention by the Board of Inquiry was Mrs Smith of Abingdon. The efforts of the Berkshire Constabulary were praised by investigators.
- Accident description at the Aviation Safety Network. Retrieved 17 July 2009.
- "Beverley Aircraft Accident, Abingdon (Report)". United Kingdom Parliament. 10 April 1957. Retrieved 17 July 2009.
- Perry 2004 p. 53
- "Ministrare Non Minstrai Padre Stanley William Harrison". Ministry of Defence. Retrieved 17 July 2009.
- Halley 2001 p. 39
- Gero 1999 pp. 66–68
- "Crash Of Giant Air Transport – 17 Lives Lost, Rescues From Wreck Of Houses (subscription required)" (News). The Times (London). Wednesday, 6 March 1957. (53782), col D, p. 8.
- "21 DIE IN BRITISH AIR CRASH". Spokane Daily Chronicle. 5 March 1957. Retrieved 4 December 2010.
- "20 feared dead as RAF plane crashes on homes". Evening Times. 5 March 1957. Retrieved 5 December 2010.
- The London Gazette: . 9 July 1957. Retrieved 17 July 2009.
- Gero, David (1999). Military Aviation Disasters. Patrick Stephens Ltd (Haynes Publishing). ISBN 1-85260-574-X.
- Perry, Graham (2004). Flying People: Bringing You Safe Flying, Every Day. Kea. ISBN 0-9518958-6-9.
- Halley, James J (2001). Royal Air Force Aircraft XA100 to XZ999. Air-Britain. ISBN 0-85130-311-0.