Winter Hill plane crash

On the subject of things ta de, when ya nae cyclin', other things soon fill the gaps. The New Year snowfall in Lancashire made it unsafe to cycle for almost two weeks, but you could still just about walk, and the private road that runs to the top of Winter Hill from near where I live was kept clear by snow ploughs, gritters, and tractors so the staff who work at the TV transmitter at the top could get to work. So I walked up there several times instead of cycling, and in between went to the local Heritage Centre to find out more about this place whose history I know is interesting but of which I know very little.

Winter Hill masts from Rivington Pike

Storm clouds gathering over the Winter Hill masts, seen from Rivington Pike

It's hard to imagine now, but Winter Hill, 1500 feet high, was once covered with forest. In ancient times, that is. More recently in the 1800s and early 1900s it was extensively mined for coal and is littered with old shafts and collapsed tunnels. Because of its height, and the fact that it's exposed on the South West fringe of the West Pennine Moors, over the years several aircraft have crashed into Winter Hill. The most disastrous was in 1958. 35 people from the Isle of Man were killed when a Manx Airlines (Silver City) passenger plane flying in cloud at 1500 feet crashed at the top – the country's eleventh worst loss of life from a non-military air accident since 1950 (the statistics).

I remember the 1958 crash but never thought about where it actually happened, even though I've walked and cycled up Winter Hill hundreds of times. There's a memorial plaque on the building near the TV transmitter and a Rotary Club plaque on a stone gatepost nearer to the scene of the accident but nothing to mark the exact spot. Why is that, I wonder?

No-one at the local Heritage Centre seemed to know where the plane actually crashed, nor how to find out, but they played me a 40-minute video about the disaster. The only hint was a still of a newspaper photograph taken at the time, from the air, which vaguely shows the crash site and pieces of wreckage. So I recovered the photo online from the newspaper's archive and decided the next time I cycle to the top of Winter Hill I'll make a point of going to the scene of the accident. That was yesterday, beginning my first decent cycle ride of 2010.

Winter Hill plane crash

A 1958 aerial press photograph of the Winter Hill crash site

When it hit the ground the Bristol 170 (a freighter converted to carry passengers) didn't disintegrate completely. The Manchester Evening News caption to the 1958 photograph above is: "Wreckage was spread over the area," but the tail section remained fairly intact. Seven people survived, including the pilot and a few others who were mostly sitting at the back of the plane. The foreground of the picture above appears to show the tail section pointing right, and in front of it, pieces of debris strewn over the hillside. Or does it? I'm not sure.

Bristol 170

A Bristol 170 similar to G-AICS that crashed on Winter Hill

The Aviation Safety Network's web page states that the aircraft crashed on the "northeast slope of Winter Hill, at a height of approximately 1460 ft," which tallies with statements that it would not have crashed had it been flying just "ten feet higher," and the fact that the staff at the TV transmitter station no more than a couple of hundred yards away heard nothing of the impact.

Comparing the 1958 newspaper photograph with the terrain on Google Earth I fixed some geographical co-ordinates and rode up on my bike. At a bend in the road I lifted the bike over a style and humped it across the boggy moor until my GPS indicated I was at the spot.

Winter Hill plane crash

The place where I reckon the plane hit Winter Hill

Winter Hill plane crash

Looking in the other direction over the North East slopes of Winter Hill

The masts in my photos are not the same as the one shown in the older photo, which was replaced in the 1960s with the huge one that is there now. And there's no sign of the crash to be seen on the ground 52 years later. The metal detector brigade will by now have recovered every fragment, but I might go there again in the Spring and take a closer look. For now, it's back to cycling.

After taking my photos I rode back down and met up with a friend. Then we cycled about thirty miles. What strikes me about all this is how we're oblivious to the history of landscapes we cycle through. It's just a landscape, often beautiful, always a pleasure, but mostly unknown to the past. It makes me think I should not take it so much for granted.

15 comments on “Winter Hill plane crash”

  1. Mary wrote:

    What a fabulous story Patrick. Well, not really, if you get my drift, the loss of life is never something to say is fabulous, but I really enjoyed reading this bit of history. This aircraft crash is still spoken about on the island, but I did not realise it was so near. The photographs are stunning, and show what a bleak place in winter, even the most scenic landscapes look when they are devoid of warmth, birdlife and greenery.

    Really pleased you are up and about on your bike once more. You will have missed your wheels turnin'

  2. Interesting post, thanks a lot. I too have wondered about the aircrash, bought a book via Ebay "The Devil Casts His Net", the complete story of the crash. My own idea of where the crash took place, or t least the final resting place of the aircraft is at the side of the northern fence corner by the rocket shaped mast. There is a map in the book that seems to indicate this. There is nothing left on the ground now, but it was said that the vegetation is sligtly stunted in that are due to the fuel that has contaminated the ground.

  3. Ian wrote:

    Hi,

    Bit of a late reply, you may be well aware of this detail by now? G-AICS crashed at ref 662 149 at the height you state.

    There were half a dozen plane crashes on Winter Hill, but nothing as disasterous as this one.

    Ian

  4. Mike wrote:

    Driving my HGV up and down the M6, and especially along the M58 as I did tonight, have done many times, whenever I see the red lights on the mast I think about the air crash and decided this evening to do some Googling. I would be 11 at the time and the incident has always stuck in my mind. I'd had it in my head that it was a Viscount and in the 60's but reading this brought the newspaper reports back to me. Very well written, thank you. And guess what? I've some old Meccano Magazines from around that period and I'm sure one shows a photo of a similar plane. I'll dig 'em out and maybe get back to you!

    Mike from near Windermere.

  5. Patrick wrote:

    Yes, please do! I loved Meccano as a child and still have my set in the loft.

    I wrote a longer one about the disaster a while ago: The Winter Hill Air Disaster. Strangely enough I haven't cycled much up there this year. At one time I'd make it the start of every outing.

  6. Delia wrote:

    My grandfather was an ambulance man who attended the 1958 air disaster. My mum still has the letters sent to him from the ambulance chief, thanking him for his service at this event. The weather conditions were terrible even for the emergency services.

  7. mick ( from radcliffe ) wrote:

    A freind said the other day he went for a walk over winter hill.which ive done myself many times ( im a keen radio fan so winter hill is my favorite place for making contact to far away.he told me that a plaque had been arrected and told me about the crash.i had never heard the story even going up there many time.so i just had to check it out.thankyou for the info posted on this page. ( MICK...BURY ROAD.RADCLIFFE )

  8. Tony Young wrote:

    Thank you for this fascinating and well-written article about the Winter Hill disaster. At the time my family lived on Whalley Ave (which was – and still is – just about the most northerly street in Bolton: walking north-west from there would eventually take you across Colliers Row Rd and on up to the TV mast), but I was only 6 years old then, so don't remember much about the disaster; but I do have a vague memory of there being a bit of a 'kerfuffle' (as thay say) about a plane crashing on the hill.

    Coincidentally it turns out that the view from the front bedroom of my current house (which I think was being built at the time of the crash) looks directly at the spot on the hill where the crash occurred.

    Regarding your uncertainty about whether that aerial photo does show the tail section facing towards the right: I've seen a clearer version of that same photo, and I'm certain that the tail is indeed pointing that way. That's the opposite direction from the plane's direction of flight, which suggests that the plane pirouetted clockwise half a turn after impact, throwing the tail section further on down the flight path than the front section.

    Comparing that aerial pic with the OS map, I reckon that the tail section was located at 663 148, which ties in closely with the coordinates given in Ian's 28/7/10 posting.

  9. Moff wrote:

    Patrick,
    I live in Kent and have close connections to the Chorley area, and back in 2004 I went to the Public Record Office (now National Archives) in Kew, London, and found the entire crash investigation file on the plane crash. It is very detailed (including some graphic photos), and if I remember correctly, puts the issue of blame on members of the flight crew for following the wrong radio beacon. It details the individual fatalities, and I believe they were mostly car mechanics on their way to England for a meeting of some sort. I will have to look it up.
    If you wish, I can get back there in the near future and copy the entire file, and send you it and maybe we can build a case for a memorial at the exact spot.

  10. Patrick wrote:

    Thanks Moff. The Public Records Office sent me a copy of the official report in 2009. I then wrote a more detailed article on my personal website (as it didn't relate to cycling). Nick Cutler, a cyclist who used to blog on here, also helped a bit with it. He is a pilot. There is a memorial on Winter Hill but I've not seen it for a while.

  11. alan banks wrote:

    i was 16 years old when the plane crashed, and i remember going to the spot were it came down with my friends, it wasnt far from the mast, i also remember picking up a bottom set of false teeth, which i put back on the floor, never thought no more about it. we also found pieces of perspect glass which we took home and filed it down to make rings for our fingers, sounds crazy now, but its true.

  12. Brian Corr wrote:

    Brian now aged 74 was a 20 year old P.C. at the time of the crash and was on site soon after, during the recovery of persons. He confirms that the stewardess was alive and in shock he thought she had a broken arm. He went into the cockpit and discovered the passenger list which he passed on to the Chief Constable Col. Eric St. Johnstone later that morning when he reported to him and Mr. Palfrey Asst. C. Constable at the bottom of Winter Hill. He insists that there was a small fire from the fuel which he put out with snow. He and two auxilliary fire men used a ladder to access the tail section, using it again to carry the survivors on the ladder to the I.T.V Station.

  13. chris brookes wrote:

    hi, great story and very informative. i moved to bolton about 4 years ago now, i'm originally from brownhills in the west midlands. i live on the tattersall av, so not that far from winter hill. last sunday i decided to walk up to the mast with my daughters and dog, as it was a nice day and i've often wondered what its like up there. anyway we finally made it up there after a few wrong turns lol, and what an amazing view it is from up there.... it beautiful and so peacful. thats when i saw the memorial plaques...i had no idea there had been such a tragedy in such a baron yet lovely place. this fascinated me no end, and upon returning home i asked my fiancee if she knew about it (as she is bolton born and bred) but she had never heard about it, as it was before she was born. so thats when i decided to google it, and thats when i came across this story. i've just got home from there again now, been walking my dog again (he loves it up there) i walked to the place described as the crash site, and like you say its hard to tell that so many souls were lost there. i also saw a memorial plaque about the traveller "george henderson" who was murdered on rivington moor. gonna try and google that now...although it was 1838 when he was killed, so prob nothing on there, but who knows.... i just find things like this interesting...especially when its so local. thanks again for a great read folks :)

  14. Denis Carthy wrote:

    I was 12 or 13 then & went up on my own probably the weekend after, I knew the moor well then. It was an eiry sight, I don't remember much wind, the middle fuselage section was shattered & the fabric & other flexible stuff was just flapping about a bit...........I went up a couple more times after that but it was the quiet of the first visit, the hostile landscape & weather & knowing that it had carried humans to that spot which was striking.

    There was one cop there as I remember to try & stop souveniers being taken, I got a bit of metal & what seem be part of a pair of mens pants, I nearly got a wooden stake through my heart when I took into the house. Nice photos thanks.

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