The crash of RAF Shackleton XF702 near Lochailort
remembered by George Watt

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I am an ex-patriate Scot from Aberdeenshire who has been living in New Zealand for the past 32 years. In my younger days, from 1958 until 1972, I served in the RAF prior to emigrating here with my wife, Barbara, and two children in June 1974.

I happened to be on the internet two nights ago checking out certain articles on Shackleton aircraft when I discovered your website. I felt extremely moved and catapulted back in time when I read the short article on the crash of XF702 on Creag Bhan, Lochailort, on 21 December 1967 plus the relatively recent photos of the scar on the hillside and the cairn which marks the site of the tragedy. It brought back very sad and vivid memories for me as I was serving at RAF Kinloss at the time and was detailed for the unfortunate duty of NCO in charge of the Crash Guard at the accident site.

Barbara Watt places a stone on the cairn in 1969:
many more have been added since

I was employed as a Corporal in flight stores at Aircraft Servicing Flight at that time and, for several weeks prior to the accident, 'Shack' XF702 of 206 Squadron, call sign 'Bravo', was undergoing its major overhaul in the hangar where I worked. It was stripped right down with all parts being thoroughly overhauled and replaced where necessary. About 3 days before its final tragic flight, it was completed and prepared for its air test before being returned to normal squadron service and we all stood outside to watch it take off. Unfortunately there was a gremlin and take-off was aborted twice but the problem was found and rectified before completion of a successful test flight and return to normal operational service the following day.

On the 21st December, the day after its test flight, the aeroplane took off on a routine operational patrol with Squadron Leader McCallum as captain plus a full crew of ten and two passengers who were bound for Northern Ireland and Christmas with their familes. The first we knew that something was terribly wrong was when we heard the tannoy broadcast requesting the Officer in Charge of 206 Squadron to report to Flying Wing HQ, a sure indication that one of his squadron's aircraft had been lost. We subsequently learned that 'Bravo' had crashed somewhere west of Fort William as a result of encountering a freak storm with severe turbulence and icing conditions. At that stage I was about to head home to Aberdeen with my wife, Barbara, an ex WRAF whom I'd met at Kinloss and had married only 3 months earlier. We were to spend our first Christmas together with my parents and were looking forward to it. However, as I was going off duty, Flight Sergeant Murray intercepted me and told me that my name had been pulled out of the hat for Crash Guard duty and that I was to leave for the site after breakfast the following morning. I took Barbara home by train as planned and caught the 3.45am train back to Forres the following morning arriving at camp in plenty time for breakfast before leaving for the crash site by RAF truck.

On arrival at Lochailort, we deposited our gear at Inverailort Castle where we were billeted, thanks to the kindness of the Cameron family who also invited us to their table on Christmas Day to share dinner with them. I then accompanied my team of 5 to the crash site but was totally unprepared for the sight that greeted us when we got there. We had expected to find something which resembled at least part of a large aircraft but instead there was literally nothing except for numerous small fragments of wreckage scattered over a very large and wide area. The largest piece was 6 feet long and could be easily lifted by two men but, apart from that, there was only a massive deep scar on the hillside where the aeroplane had obviously made a very violent and explosive impact. The crash recovery team were quietly working in the area locating the wreckage plus the remains of the crew and both I and the others were immediately overcome by a feeling of intense sadness.  It was also a very eerie feeling as the silence was overwhelming and not a bird or any other living creature could be seen or heard anywhere in the vicinity.

Down below on the main Mallaig road, people were coming for a look, some of whom were relatives or friends of the crew, but all were turned away by civilian police who were on duty there. We had to guard the site continuously day and night for nearly a week in shifts, 2 men per shift, until the weather cleared sufficiently to enable the Wessex helicopter to fly in and retrieve the wreckage which it then ferried from the site to Inverailort Castle in a large underslung net, making several trips in the process. We assisted with loading it onto trucks which removed all the parts to Kinloss for further examination. For most of the week, with it being December, the weather was very cold and overcast but, apart from the weather, our guard duty during the day wasn't too bad as we were close to the other staff working at the site but during the night it was a different matter. British Railways had made the platelayers' hut by the lineside at the bottom of the hill available to us as shelter during the hours of darkness. With a few blankets, we were actually able to grab a bit of sleep if we could but, with the crash site on the ridge immediately above us, it was a strange eerie experience and quite scary. It was a relief when the chopper finally reached us after nearly a week and removed the wreckage then we were finally able to go home to our families.

A few months later I was posted overseas to Bahrain for a year and returned home from there in June 1969 when I also enjoyed a lengthy period of leave. I got acquainted with my daughter, by then aged 8 months, then Barbara and I decided to have a holiday touring the North and West of Scotland from John o' Groats to Oban, most of which I'd never visited before. We stayed at Fort William for 2 days with my Aunt and Uncle and drove to Mallaig for a day, stopping at Lochailort on the way as I wanted to re-visit the crash site and show Barbara where 'Bravo' had come down. A small cairn comprising some rather large stones was already in situ and we both experienced a feeling of peace. We each placed a stone on top of the cairn.

To this day my memory of that event is still pretty vivid, apart from a few minor details, and, although it was a terrible tragedy surrounded by sadness and grief, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be involved in it. I still think of those poor men who lost their lives and the families they left behind who suffered their loss and, should I ever return to the UK, I hope to re-visit the site.

George F Watt
New Zealand
11 September 2006

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