Eyewitness to Oxmoor crash tells how aircraft “suddenly fell out of the sky and disappeared”

A memorial service is being held to mark the 40th anniversary of the plane crash

A memorial service is being held to mark the 40th anniversary of the plane crash - Credit: Archant

At just after midday on May 3, 1977, people living in the Oxmoor area of Huntingdon were going about their daily business unaware of the tragedy about to unfold.

What they could not have known was that a Canberra PR9 aircraft, returning to its base at RAF Wyton after a routine training flight, was in trouble. The aircraft, from 39 Squadron, was just two miles from the runway when it suddenly dropped from the sky and nose-dived towards the ground, ending up in a vertical position in a row of houses in Norfolk Road.

Three children, who were later named as sisters Tracey and Kelly Middleton, aged four and two, who were playing in the bathroom of the house at number 63 and six-month-old Adrian Thompson, who lived at number 69, were killed outright. The pilot, Flt/Lt John Armitage and navigator Flt/Lt Lawrence Andrew Davies also died and another six people were injured.

According to some reports neither crew member used an ejector seat and some eye witness accounts support the view that the pilot attempted to steer the aircraft away from the nearby Sapley Road Primary School.

An RAF report into the incident concluded that the crash happened after a “loss of control during a practice asymmetric approach to RAF Wyton, with one engine at flight idle”.

As all of this was playing out in the skies above Huntingdon that May morning - down on the ground - the dinner bell at the school rang and some children were outside, including seven-year-old Shaun Collins, whose family lived in Nene Road. Mr Collins, now aged 47 and living in Brampton, was with a group of friends on the edge of the playing field.

“We were patting the horses and playing football when I suddenly became aware of a ‘whooshing’ sound. I looked up and saw this huge grey plane above me, it was about the level of the top of a house, so obviously far too low. It all happened in slow motion really, but I don’t remember hearing a bang or even seeing flames, just lots of black smoke. The sound was more like hearing a jet engine in reverse, or the sound when a plane is taking off,” he explained.

Most Read

Shaun and his friends, sensing no danger and eager to explore, then jumped over the school fence to discover what had happened.

“The first thing we saw was lots of little fires rather than one big fire and although it sounds terrible now, we were young boys back then and we just started jumping over the fires. Then a man came to talk to us, he could have been a fireman, and he told us to go back to school. We went back to school, but nothing was really said and our mums came to pick us up at the usual time that day.”

Shaun remembers hearing talk of finding the black box recorder and says he was too young to realise the significance of this or the severity of the events that day and he and his friends played in the wreckage in the days following the tragedy hoping they would find the black box.

Alan Bulter, who lives in Hartford, was a teacher at Huntingdon Junior School and had just finished morning lessons. He was leaving one of the class blocks when he became aware of the aircraft.

“I saw the plane coming low over the school. Although not an aviation expert, I had lived near Heathrow Airport for several years and my first thought was ‘that plane is in trouble’ - sadly later that proved correct.”

Pauline Brown was a teacher at Sapley Primary School, but pupils would have known her as Miss Strangward. She remembers that day with great sadness.

“At midday I had sent one lad home for his lunch, Dean Middleton, and had taken my class into the hall for lunch. We heard the worrying sound of the plane just above us and then the school cook screamed out that the plane had crashed. Headteacher, John Richardson, and the deputy head, Vernon Turner, ran to try and help while the rest of the staff kept the children calm and indoors. It was later realise that Dean’s house was one of the houses that had been hit. The school hall became the incident room for the emergency services. Dean returned to school on May 24 in time to join in with activities about the up-and-coming Queen’s Silver Jubilee.”

In reports of the incident in that week’s Hunts Post, headteacher of the school, John Richardson, recalled hearing a “sickening thud”.

“The plane made a u-turn and then appeared to be getting onto the flight path. He was exceptionally low and then he just rolled over and dived into the ground. There was a sickening thud, a fireball and masses of smoke. My teachers were there within seconds, along with workmen from the building site and we all made frantic attempts to get people out but were unsuccessful because of the smoke.”

The Hunts Post reported that six residents were taken to hospital but only two, who were suffering from burns and shock, were detained. A police officer and a firefighter also received treatment.

Mum-of-two Mary Feilding, who was aged 28 in May, 1977, was driving from her home in Bury to drop her daughters off at her mother’s home in The Waddens when she became aware of the aircraft.

“My mum said she would watch the girls while I went to the dentist. I was at King’s Ripton and just as I reached the brow of the hill I saw this plane and I thought it was going to do a loop-the-loop as it seemed too low. I kept thinking it was going to right itself and then it suddenly fell out of the sky and disappeared. I was really shocked. I heard later that it had crashed, but when I got to mum’s house, I can’t remember hearing sirens or seeing anything.”

Mandy Rizzo, who was living in Kent Road, was a 17-year-old factory worker at Quads, in St Peter’s Road, and remembers hearing the news in the firm’s canteen.

“We were all sitting there having our lunch when someone came running in screaming and saying a plane had crashed in Norfolk Road and some people were dead.

My friend had family who lived in Norfolk Road so we literally ran down St Peter’s Road and through the estate until we got there.”

The scene that greeted Mandy and her friend was one of utter devastation.

“There were ambulance and fire trucks there and people wandering around trying to find family members. We were then told that three children had died. We so shocked and stunned to see this plane sticking out of the middle of a house. People were saying the pilot swerved to miss the school so I suppose there was nowhere else for him to go. In some ways though this was expected, we lived under the flight path and we were so used to the planes flying low overhead- maybe it was only a matter of time.”

The tragedy left several families homeless because their properties had been damaged. The WRVS volunteers were out in force just hours after the crash, collecting food and clothes for the homeless. Huntingdon Town Council called an emergency meeting that evening and launched an appeal to raise money to the help the families who had lost their homes and possessions.

In December 1977, the RAF produced a report and although it did not make the findings public, RAF under secretary, James Wellbeloved MP, made a speech to House of Commons in which he revealed some of the information.

“On this occasion, the pilot started the manoeuvre normally,” he told the House.

“He approached the runway at Wyton with a right-hand turn from a height of 1,000 feet, descending to 600 feet with the right-hand engine throttled back. It was expected at the point where the aircraft would have ended its turn into line with the runway, its wings would have been levelled. This did not happen, but instead the aircraft’s angle of bank to the right increased, leading rapidly into a downward spiral. It crashed nearly vertically into the ground. The investigation revealed no evidence of pre-impact damage or technical malfunction in the aircraft, nor from the evidence could any cause be established with absolute certainty.”