Library Reference Number: 128
Cairngorm Disaster 1971
Sunday 21st November 1971 is a date etched in my memory. I had been duty navigator at the Search and Rescue Helicopter Flight at RAF Leuchars since 9am with pilot, FIt Lt John Kennedy, only 6 months into his first flying tour, and winchman, Sgt Norman Pringle. Early in the evening it began to snow, very unusual for this low-lying part of east Fife in November. Then at 9.3Opm Northern Rescue Co-ordination Centre at RAF Pitreavie Castle rang to say that we might have a job in the morning. A party of eight, including six teenagers, were overdue after a two-day trek In the Cairngorms. Badenoch Police and Cairngorm Mountain Rescue experts were mounting an overnight search of all bothies close to the party's intended route and we were asked to prepare for a first light take-off should this search prove negative.
There had been a cold northwesterly airstream over Scotland for a week, the usual high- level Grampian roads were already blocked and the roads people were having a difficult time over wide areas of the Highlands trying to keep the major routes open.
The three of us set about planning for the day ahead. We had a long discussion with Fred Harper, Principal of the Scottish Sports Council's outdoor training centre at Glenmore Lodge, who had been delegated co-ordinator of the search operation by Highland Constabulary. He explained that a party from the mountaineering club of Ainslie Park School in Edinburgh had gone to Lagganlia, Kincraig (Edinburgh Education Authority's outdoor training centre) for a weekend course in the Cairngorms from 19-21 November, including an overnight bivouac. The party was led by Ben Beattie (23), chief permanent instructor in outdoor education at the school, assisted by his girlfriend Cathy Davidson (20), a student at Dunfermline College of Education. Beattie had divided the party into 2 groups, Beattie taking eight of the pupils in the stronger group, while Cathy Davidson took the other six plus a temporary member of the Lagganlia staff, eighteen year-old Sheelagh Sunderland.
Both groups aimed to leave around midday on Saturday from the top Cairn Gorm car park to go via Cairn Gorm, Lochan Buidhe, Ben Macdhui and Tailor's Burn to Corrour Bothy where they were to bivouac. On Sunday the stronger group was to go via Cairn Toul, Braeriach and Coire Gorm to the Sinclair Hut in the Lairig Ghru. The second and weaker group was to return on the Sunday direct via the Lairig Ghru to the Rothiemurchus Bailey bridge where both groups were to rendezvous with transport at 4pm.
The bad weather alternative for both was to cut out the ascent of Ben Macdhui on the Saturday, bivouac at the Curran Bothy at Lochan Buidhe instead of Corrour and on the Sunday descend to the Lairig Ghru via the March Burn and return from there.
From the snow-covered car park the party went to the Ptarmigan restaurant near the summit. After eating their packed lunches, Beattie's group had left first, followed shortly afterwards by Cathy Davidson's, which was seen on the summit of Cairngorm at 1.l5pm. It was seen shortly afterwards heading in the direction of Cairn Lochan in deteriorating weather.
As the staff of Glenmore Lodge were finishing their Sunday evening meal, Ben Beattie together with John Paisley, Warden of Lagganlia, had arrived to report that Cathy Davidson's group had failed to make the 4pm rendezvous at Rothiemurchus bridge. Beattie reported that his group had gone little more than a mile from Cairn Gorm before the increasing wind and deteriorating visibility had caused him to implement the alternative plan to head for the Curran Bothy which they had reached at around 3.3Opm, having had to dig out the door to get in. Beattie had not been concerned that Davidson did not arrive as he imagined that she had taken her party to one of the other bothies near their route. Beattie's group stayed the night in the Curran but in the morning the weather was much worse with a blizzard blowing and they had to dig their way out. With some considerable difficulty they had succeeded in descending the March Burn into the Lairig Ghru. It was 5.30pm before Beattie's group reached the rendezvous to be informed that Cathy Davidson and her group had not returned.
Fred Harper had sent three two-man parties out into the blizzard to check the many bothies in the area, one party going up Strath Nethy to the Saddle aiming to check Ryvoan, Nethy and Fords of Avon bothies, while the others were sent over the Cairngorm plateau to check St Valery, perched above Loch Avon, and the Shelter Stone in Loch Avon. We agreed with Fred Harper that we would route via Glenshee and approach the Lairig Ghru from Braemer, check the bothies at Corrour and Garbh Coire and arrive at Glenmore Lodge for a briefing at 8.30am.
We spent the next few hours poring over maps and the depressing forecast from our Met Officer and negotiated a high priority from the station snow clearance team. We got our heads down for about four hours then rang the Rescue Co-ordination Centre at 5.3Oam. The party of eight were still missing.
We took off at 7.05 and entered the mountains north of Blairgowrie at daybreak but as we climbed Glenshee the headwind and turbulence increased till we were forced to reduce airspeed from our normal 90 knots to 70 to keep the engine rpm fluctuations within limits. We got past the Devil's Elbow at no more than walking speed. Just short of Braemar we turned west into the valley of the River Dee and entered a wilderness of deep snow where most navigation features were obliterated. We entered the south end of the Lairig Ghru and found nothing at the 2 bothies but our progress northwards soon came to a grinding halt. As we passed the Pools of Dee and the March Burn and approached the high point of the pass John had to reduce speed to 60 knots because of severe turbulence and we came to the hover. We tried several heights but were unable to get through. We were forced to take a 30-mile detour to the west via Glen Feshie and eventually arrived at Glenmore Lodge at 9.05 with about an hour's fuel remaining.
John kept the rotors running while I went in to speak with Fred Harper. I explained the reason for our late arrival and asked whether he would like us to refuel immediately at our Aviemore fuel dump or use what fuel remained for a quick search. He wanted us to do a quick search and, with a lick of his indelible pencil, quickly drew a search route on a special Lodge map (which I still have). He tasked us with checking Ryvoan, Nethy, Fords of Avon, St Valery and Curran bothies followed by a check of bothies or huts on possible escape routes down Coire Etchechan and the northern corries. We were airborne again at 9.20 with one of the Lodge staff, Brian Hall, arid found nothing at the first three bothies. St Valery was in cloud and Coire Etchechan was directly downwind, full of cloud and blowing snow and impossible for us to fly into. Finally we went on to the plateau at the top of the cliffs west of Loch Avon. This was just a featureless expanse of powdered snow being blown like a conveyor belt at about 40-50 knots in the west to northwest wind. The outside air temperature guage was indicating -10°C. Curran bothy was in the cloud which extended to the west and north of the plateau and as there was nothing to be seen we turned away to the east to return to Glenmore Lodge. Almost immediately there was a shout from Norman, "Contact 10 o'clock!".
John hauled the aircraft round in a tight right turn into wind and we sighted what we all thought was a small red tent. There appeared to be nothing to prevent us flying straight in to land and investigate. However, on flying closer the 'tent suddenly sprouted arms and began to wave. It was a girl and the back of her jacket, as she knelt in the snow, head and hands on her knees, had been the 'tent'. With no other outside references to judge height and distance by we were suddenly much closer than our eyes had made us believe and very quickly our downwash tucked under the blowing snow and raised a 'whiteout'. John rapidly pulled the power in, overshot and came round again to try another approach. Three times we tried with the same result, noticing that the cloud was slowly rolling downhill towards us.
Norman and Brian Hall were offloaded on a small, relatively snow-free, knoll about 70 yards from the survivor and struggled uphill to her through the knee-to-waist-deep snow, aiming to carry her back to the aircraft. By now, however, she wa in a state of total collapse, legs locked in the kneeling position, and the two men, after trying to drag her through the snow for several yards, found it an impossible task. John then attempted to air-taxi the aircraft towards the group but each time power was applied the rotor downwash stirred up clouds of snow which were then sucked down through the rotor and a curtain of snow obliterated forward vision. We were at a loss as to what to do next when I remembered reading of a winchman leading a helicopter to a snowbound village in North Devon during the great freeze of 1962-63.
I got out carrying the winch wire to give me an idea of how well John was following me. With John formating on me I followed the tracks towards the group. Norman recalls seeing the helicopter bouncing and girating with John forced to stop/start as I stumbled my way forward. I was occasionally lost to Norman's view as I broke through into what I now know was the Feith Buidhe burn under the snow. When I reached the group, because of the slope, John held the aircraft in the hover with the front wheels just touching the snow. The cabin floor was at shoulder height which caused us some problems in getting the survivor and ourselves back aboard.
I was last on the ground and tucked in close to the aircraft which again left John with no outside references. He was forced to fly out on instruments as cloud enveloped the aircraft. I ducked between the main wheels as they passed then threw myself face down in the snow as I saw (and heard) the tail rotor approach. There was a great buzzing and thrashing over my head as it passed and I got up to hear the aircraft disappear towards Loch Avon. I thought for a moment I was going to be left on the mountain but was very glad to see the helicopter return to the knoll we had started from. Before making my way back to it, I had a quick scan of the immediate area but visibility was only a few yards and I saw nothing of the other members of the missing group. We dropped Brian Hall at Glenmore Lodge and at 1035 landed at Aviemore to refuel and transfer the casualty to an ambulance.
The survivor was the leader of the missing group, Cathy Davidson, in the advanced stages of hypothermia and with frozen solid, severely frostbitten, hands. Although mentally confused she was just able to tell us that the rest of the group were buried in the snow near where she had been found.
Aviemore vifiagers helped us move the 45-gallon fuel drums through the knee-deep snow and took turns at manually pumping the fuel. We returned to the area in an attempt to locate the remainder of the group, but the casualty site was now well above the cloud base. The best that could be done was to lift mountain rescue personnel, dogs and special equipment to the nearest available spot, northeast of St.Valery bothy. On one approach the aircraft was suddenly bucked by turbulence and reared into the air. John turned away to escape and we found ourselves in a steep turn being blown towards the slabs south of Loch Avon. We were also in downdrafting air, descending at 1500 feet a minute despite John pulling full power, and lost around 800 feet Fortunately we quickly flew out of the downdraft. The comments of the mountain rescue team leader on board are unprintable and he looked relieved to be jumping out into 50 knot winds and knee deep snow. He wasn't altogether pleased when his day-bag was whipped away by the wind and disappeared over the cliff behind.
On our return down the steep-sided snow-filled Strath Nethy we winched aboard two of the Glenmore staff who had been on the hill for over 15 hours and were making very slow homeward progress in waist-deep snow. These men, Chris Norris and Reg Popham, looked completely exhausted, hair and goggles iced up, and, like the others out overnight, had, without a doubt, put their necks on the line.
The second Leuchars helicopter, with Flt Lt Mike Ramshaw, Flt Lt Mike Luscombe and Flt Sgt Dinty More, joined in the operation at 1220 and a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter from 819 Squadron at Prestwick arrived shortly afterwards. We were refuelling for the second time at around 1pm and I was collecting food from the Red MacGregor Hotel in Aviemore when a journalist told me all seven persons had been found close to where we had picked up Cathy Davidson. There was elation in the hotel at the news but within minutes he brought the devastating news that all seven were dead. That was a gut-wrenching moment for all concerned. Phone lines in the area had been jammed due to the media interest and it was some time before we discovered that one of the seven was in fact just alive and all efforts of the helicopters were then concentrated in finding a route into the casualty site.
While our other Whirlwind and the Sea King were trying east of the site we made an attempt up the March Burn but cloud thwarted us. We got caught in the wind funnelling down the Lairig Ghru and once again set off on the Glen Feshie detour. We were flying along quite smoothly past the 3300 foot pinnacle called The Devil's Point when without warning the helicopter bunted and yawed violently to the left I found myself hanging in my straps looking out at the snowfield below through John's windscreen. Within a second the aircraft flicked back to its original attitude and again we were flying along quite smoothly. John and I swapped astonished glances, "1 didn't touch the controls" he said, "the engine just ran down to Flight Idle and back up again!". We then realised that all was quiet in the cabin. Norman had been map reading at the open cabin door and it was an anxious few seconds before there was a click and some expletives as he came back on intercom. He had been thrown through the air and hit the cabin roof at the rear bulkhead and as the aircraft righted itself he had dropped to the floor. We surmised that we had been hit by downdrafting air bouncing up off the snow giving us a serious burst of unwanted lift for which the fuel computer had compensated. We had been saved by a fairly recent engine modification which introduced a Flight Idle Stop to prevent the engine from running down completely.
By the time we got back to the north around 3pm the Royal Navy Sea King, carrying the leader of Kinloss MRT, Flt Sgt George Bruce, was attempting an approach using a similar technique to our morning effort. George was offloaded close to the top of the cliffs west of Loch Avon and, walking ahead firing flares as he climbed into cloud, enabled the helicopter captain to formate on him till they linked up with the MRT and the survivor. Raymond Leslie (15) was then flown to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness.
On departure from the area we were only a few minutes behind the other Whirlwind but got caught in heavy snow arid were forced to divert to RAF Kinloss. That evening we were tasked with the recovery of the bodies from the mountaintop the following day. Not so early as the day before we set off to Braemar to pick up Sgt John Duff who was co-ordinating the recovery operation. The weather problem that day was fog and we were forced further and further east until, groping our way along the Aberdeen road just past Alford, we ran into heavy snow. Puzzled for a few seconds, we then saw the yellow flashing light on the cab of the council snow-blower. Time to divert to Dyce Airport, Aberdeen for fuel and to think again.
Kinloss MRT were reporting good conditions on scene and we set out again but on arrival an isolated patch of cloud was hanging over the casualty site. We made several stabs at getting in from the Lairig Ghru side until briefly, around 1.3Opm, a channel appeared and we could see the MRTs' bright pot flare. John set up a very cautious descent down this 'tunnel' towards a single man standing near the flare. We next witnessed a near disaster. A Bell Jet Ranger shot out of a bank of cloud on our left. Its pilot flared to reduce speed and kicked up a cloud of snow. He landed heavily on the rear of his skids and bounced forward, landing on the front of the skids with the rotor blades coming perilously close to the ground. The MRT guy stood transfixed and I would be exaggerating if I said he was 2 yards outside the Jet Ranger's rotor disk. The Jet Ranger had been contracted by the BBC and assistance had been offered to the police. It picked up 3 of the bodies and flew off to Braemar from where the bodies were to be driven by the police to Aberdeen. We eventually got into the site from the Loch Avon side following a line of pot flares.
Body recovery for helicopter crews is usually quite an impersonal procedure as the MRTs have normally already bagged the bodies. Norman got out to guide the MRTs with the bodies to the aircraft. I was kneeling on the cabin floor ready to receive the first and turn it towards the cabin rear. The body was brought to the aircraft head first and I noticed the bag had a clear-view panel over the face. As the body was placed on the floor I reached across to turn it and found myself staring into the open eyes of a young girl.
A week later we met the parents of the dead teenagers at a memorial service at lnsch Church near Lagganlia. Norman was approached by the father of one of the girls who, with both hands, grasped Norman's and said "Sorry you couldn't save my wee lassie". Incongruously, the snow had gone completely, not only from the churchyard but from the mountains in the background.
Had these enthusiastic kids ever been in the wrong place at the wrong time? What a waste of young lives.
(In April 1972 Fit Lt John Kennedy BA was awarded the Queens Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air for his flying on this incident. John retired from the RAF in 2002 as an Air Commodore.
Master Air Loadmaster (MALM) Norman Pringle in 2006 is the senior Warrant Officer in the UK Armed Forces. He has completed 461/2 years' service and has just been extended in post as an instructor at the RAF SAR Sea King simulator till 2008.)