The Aquila Airways Tragedy

THE CRASH THAT KILLED 45 PEOPLE AND MARKED THE END OF THE FLYING BOAT ERA.

By Peter Sedgley

At about nine o’clock on the evening of Friday 15th November, 1957, Captain William Eltis, aged 34. joined his crew assembling at the marine air terminal at 50 berth in Southampton docks. The crew were a hastily assembled team. Many had been swapped around, and even at the last minute one of the hostesses had been stood down so that a new girl could be trained. She was a local girl, aged 21, who had worked for the airline as a ground hostess, and yearned to fulfill her ambition to fly. The hostess who had suddenly been ‘bumped’ was joined by the man who was later to be her husband. He had come down to the dock to see her off, and himself was a flight engineer. He too had been rostered, but swapped his duty at the request of his best friend, who particularly wanted to do the rip for personal reasons.

Outside in the horseshoe pontoon lay Short Solent Mk 3 G-AKNU, with the name of the city of Sydney painted beneath its cockpit. With its tanks filled it gently it bobbed in the tide, whilst final checks were made, stores loaded and the gangway secured for its passengers. Painted on the fuselage was the name “Aquila Airways”. and tonight it was bound for Lisbon, Madeira and Las Palmas.

Short Solent (G-AKNU City of Sydney) Before the fateful crash.

Back in the summer of 1948, a massive airlift of life’s essentials started flying into the German capital, Berlin. The Russians had blocked the West’s land access to the besieged city, so everything had to go by air. The famous “Berlin Airlift”, which lasted nearly a year, was the springboard for many British aviation entrepreneurs to launch their own airlines, and win lucrative contracts hauling freight into Berlin. One of these was a former wing commander called Barry Aikman, who purchased two converted Sunderland flying boats, and started operating them from the Elbe to the Havelsee lake in Berlin. Aquila Airways was born. By December the Havelsee had frozen over, so Barry searched around for other work for his growing fleet of flying boats.

Sunderland Mk 3 G-AGKY
Short Sunderland Mk3 (Hythe Class) Originally with BOAC and then later with Aquilla Airways.

The Sunderlands, cheaply acquired from BOAC, where they were known as the “Hythe” class, were quick and crude conversions from their wartime anti submarine role. A much better prospect was the new Short Solent, the ultimate Sunderland development, which was both bigger and faster than its sibling. Built for the RAF as the ‘Seaford’, once converted’ by Shorts at Belfast, they took on the mantle of a proper post war airliner. Of the seventeen Solents that took to the skies, most went briefly to BOAC for their African services, with a few going to the Antipodes. In 1948 BOAC opened their new marine air terminal at 50 berth at Southampton, but within two years their last flying boat had finally taken off and their fleet was retired. Most of these proud and beautiful aircraft suffered the ignominy of being being left as rotting hulks in backwaters for years, until eventually suffering the breaker’s torch. However “Southampton” and “Sydney” survived and remained at 50 berth in the livery of Aquila Airways.

 

Altogether five Solents slowly arrived in Aquila’s fleet, but business was slow in arriving. The fleet traveled the world seeking any kind of work, but it wasn’t until a licence to operate a regular passenger service to Lisbon and Madeira that the airline ‘took off’. The geography of mountainous Madeira was a favored destination for many English tourists. The gentile life, beautiful scenery and flora, was enhanced by the world famous Reid’s Hotel. This was the place to stay and be seen having tea on the terrace, whilst admiring the view of Funchal below Seen moored in the harbour would probably be a silver Aquila aircraft, the island’s only lifeline with the world by air. It wasn’t until an engineering feat of 1964 that a hard runway could be laid upon Madeira’s rocky soil. Because of the constraints within Funchal’s breakwater, all operations were outside the harbour, and therefore at the mercy of the Atlantic swell. Flights could be delayed for days on end, however this did not deter Aquila’s most distinguished flyer, Sir Winston Churchill, who had come to the island to paint.

Returning to Southampton, the excitement of the evening’s departure was interrupted by clanking, wheezing and the familiar whiff of steam. Noisily a railway carriage was shunted along the quay to the terminal. This coach had been detached from a Waterloo express and had been reserved for the flying boat passengers. Among the alighting passengers were a bride and groom, hastened from their celebrations and still in their wedding attire. With passengers aboard the gangway was shipped and the cabin door clunked shut with a resounding finality. Whirling, coughing and spluttering the four 1,600 hp Bristol Hercules were fired up, with the whisps of their exhausts blowing over the mooring crew. Spinning props curved surreal silver discs in the dark sky, and the powerful landing lights turned the deserted Town Quay into a ghostly landscape. With one simple tug of a lever in the cockpit, the Solent was released from its pontoon, and the great silver machine slipped into the night.

Shorts Solent Departs Southampton
Shorts Solent G_AHIO at Berth 50, Southampton Docks. The berth was originally used by BOAC.

Following the wake of the control launch, the Solent started a long taxi down Southampton Water. Passenger on the port side would point out to their partners sleeping liners, ablaze with lights, and out in the cold quay,unseen fishermen would pause in their vigel to glance up at the passing plane. But for some passengers, the long taxi would be very unpleasant. Beneath their cabin lay a shallow ‘vee’ hull, designed for high speed planing, or skimming, across the water. At low speed the tender hull would pitch and roll with every wave and ship’s wake.. For those already contemplating ‘mal de mer’, the night had become worse and they would be reconsidering the wisdom of going on such a trip. Courting couples  interrupted their embraces briefly upon hearing the deep droned of the aircraft’s engines. For a fleeting moment they might have wished they were aboard, being whisked away to somewhere warm and exotic.It was now gone past half past ten and the pubs had shouted “Time Please”. The aircraft headed for Netley, near the Aquila engineering base at Hamble, where a temporary runway had been laid with floating flares.

Shorts Solent G-AKNU (city of Sydney) undergoing maintenance at berth 50.

Without the luxury of an underwater rudder, the cumbersome machine had to be coaxed to line up with the runway by using asymmetric engine power. The first officer, a former fighter pilot, went through the final take off checks with his captain. In the semi darkness behind him the navigator, radio operator and flight engineer ran through their own checks. All the faces in the ghostly glow were friends. This small band of aircrew had spent half a lifetime together in foreign hotels. An old Aquila skipper used to quip that a flying boat was, “the only place on earth where you could be airsick, seasick and homesick at the same time.”

Back in the cabin the chief steward and the two stewardesses, one of whom was about to fulfill her dream, settled in the fifty passengers, who were spread over two decks. For many it would be their first flight and they would be full of trepidation, For others, a former wing commander, it was ‘old hat’, and for others it was the start of their honeymoon and the rest of their life together.

It was going to be a long night. For the passengers sleep would arrive only fitfully. Despite comfortable seats, the cabin would be noisy. Unpressurised and lacking modern aids, the flying boat would blindly plough through thick clouds and turbulence. Before dawn they would alight on the River Tagus at Lisbon to refuel. The passengers would be stirred from their cosy cabin and ferried ashore to be offered refreshments at an unearthly hour. Meanwhile a fueling barge would refill the tanks. Fuel was needed because if a landing at Madeira was considered unsafe, they would have to return to Lisbon or divert to Gibraltar. With dawn about to break the Solent would lift off from the Tagus for a 600 mile journey to Madeira.

As the throttles were slowly advanced, the outboard engines first, the Solent would start a long take off run down Southampton Water. Those passengers in the lower deck would hear spray drumming against their windows, then suddenly stop as the flying boat rose onto the plane. The ride would be now be much smoother, until eventually the pilot eased back on the controls and November Echo took to the night sky. Slowly climbing over the Isle of Wight , the aircraft came onto a south westerly heading and coasted out near the Needles. Then the outboard starboard engine failed.

Turning to port with the Number four engine feathered ,the Solent radioed its return. Very shortly afterwards the starboard inboard engine failed, due to fuel starvation. Crossing the west Wight with two engines out, the aircraft could not maintain height and clipped the top of a ridge at Chessel, on Shalcombe Down, and disintegrated into a fire ball. The flying boat impacted a forest at forty five degrees bank to starboard, and the tail section fell unto a disused quarry. Fifteen miles away at Weston Shore a distant flash lit up the sky.

Nearby was Golden Hill Fort, a ‘Palmerston fort’, which was then the home to a training unit of the Royal Army Service Corp. On that night a map reading exercise was planned, and the young soldiers were in a convoy going down Military Road, which runs along the back of the island. Suddenly a great aircraft came out of the night and swooped low over a lorry, and crashed into the adjacent field, and the night turned into day.

Running bravely into the field, now resembling Dante’s Inferno, the soldiers began to save lives. One trooper recalled a man, dressed in his wedding suite, emerge from out of the inferno in a daze, and walk purposefully into the night. That night two subalterns and a senior NCO gained medals for their gallantry. A lieutenant had to be physically restrained from re entering the blazing wreck to recover people, since any more attempts would have certainly led to his death.

The island’s fire brigade, accustomed to dealing with type of fire associated with a sleepy holiday island, were suddenly confronted with the ‘shout’ from hell. Their colleagues in the island constabulary also rallied to a man. Burley constables were shoehorned into their tiny Ford Populars, and headed for the crash site. One constable, unaware of the gravity of the crash, took along his teenage son, and a young police cadet was about to the get the worse possible baptism of fire.

The Crash Site
The crash site and all that remained of G-AKNU the following morning.

Slowly the island’s emergency services gallantly succeeded in getting the disaster under control. Forty three bodies, including all the crew members, were laid out in a makeshift mortuary in the fort’s indoor rifle range, whist the police carried out the grim task of trying to identify their possessions. Two victims more were to die in hospital. The oldest victim was a man aged 63 and the youngest a girl of only 8 years old. In the cold light of day the remains of the charred Aquila aircraft lay scattered over the scorched hillside for all to see, and the smell of burnt aviation fuel permeated the clothes of the rescuers. A grim souvenir of the night’s work. Of the thirteen who survived, many suffered disfigurement and years of pain and treatment. Yet these were not the only victims of the night. The trauma that they witnessed that night remained to haunt many of the rescuers for the rest of their lives.

Without evidence from ‘black boxes’ or living crew members, nobody will ever know what really happened during the last few moments of the flight. and it will be a mystery for ever. Within a year Aquila was no more, its final commercial flight being at the end of September 1958. The crash probably accelerated its demise, but the writing was already on the wall. Although Madeira still relied upon flying boats, and a Lisbon to Madeira shuttle was proposed, using the remaining Solents, the rest of the world was being covered in concrete runways, and flying boats were rapidly becoming dinosaurs.

It was a little over two decades since the radical arrival of the Imperial Airways Short C -class “Empire” flying boats in Southampton Water. With the final departure in September, the wheel had turned the full circle and the roar of radial engines was heard no more.

Muriel Hanning Lee was a good looking girl from Quebec. She had come to Britain in the war with the Canadian Red Cross, and had stayed on to become one of the pioneer post war air hostesses. Life in a small charter airline was hard. Its rewards were hardly financial, but it offered the opportunity to travel the world and to occasionally give the chance to meet celebrities. The downside was that it was run on a very tight shoestring, and the job involved being versatile..

Work as air hostess started at the typewriter, tapping out crew rosters, ‘ship’s documents and anything else administrative. Then the load sheet had to be calculated, the load loaded and the passengers boarded, watered and fed. Once in the air, the Vickers Viking’s main spar, protruding the aisle, and had to be constantly negotiated with bruised shin bones. Problems were solved by the ‘play it by ear’ policy. Escaped snakes and attempted suicides were part of this tune. The Vikings were noisy and slow, hot and cold and were prone to breaking down. The breaking down usually meant diverting to some remote and unheard of air strip. Once there the repair could stretch for days, and in blistering heat the only accommodation available, if lucky, would be a one star hotel.

In 1954 Muriel joined Aquila Airways and her life looked up. Whilst on a flight to the idyllic Italian resort of Santa Margherita in 1956, she was ashore when a violent storm broke. Horrified she watched her Solent break free from its mooring and be driven ashore and written off on the beach. At this time she was concluding the autobiography of her life as an air hostes. The witnessing of the destruction of ‘Alpha Jjuliet’, featured in her final chapter in her book, ominously titled “The Death of an Aeroplane”.

The following year, on the 15 November, Muriel caught a train from her home in Highgate, London, to join the rest of the crew on her flight to Madeira. Besides exchanging gossip with fellow crew members. there was a young trainee to take under her wing. She was a young girl, who like Muriel, had a burning desire to see the world and fly. Nearby the passengers were gathering in the terminal’s lounge; strangers who were about to embark on an adventure together, but no knowing that they would be drawn together for eternity.

A year later in 1958, her book “Head in the Clouds”, was published.