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Matthew McCreary Recalls Ulster's Worst Ever Air Disaster 50 Years Ago This Week

How the crash was reported at the time. US02-741SP

How the crash was reported at the time. US02-741SP

 THE sinking of the Princess Victoria 50 years ago this month is one of the most widely remembered and documented incidents in the years prior to the troubles in Northern Ireland.

Yet few people recall, or have even heard of, Ulster's worst ever air disaster which happened in the same month.

It was shortly after 9.30pm on the evening of January 5, 1953 that a British European Airways aircraft banked towards Nutt's Corner Airport on a routine flight from London to Belfast.

On board, the 31 passengers and four crew settled into their seats for the expected landing.

Agnes McConville from Rathfriland was looking forward to the wedding of her brother a few days later in Loughbrickland.

Patricia Kavanagh was returning to her native Belfast with her 18-month-old son Francis to visit her sick mother. Apart from a little bumpiness on the approach, everything seemed as normal.

In the airport lounge, friends and relatives of the passengers relaxed as they heard the sound of the approaching engines.

Gathering their things together they rose to greet the arrival of the flight they heard a sudden crash and saw a flash of light.

"It was like a bomb which had exploded" said one eyewitness at the time. "Two hundred yards in front of us the ground seemed to open up in flames."

The aircraft had clipped a beacon light at the end of the runway as made its descent towards the airport. It then smashed into a concrete but on the runway, disintegrating on impact.

As the plane came apart one of its engines was hurled over 40 yards, coming to rest in a ditch while the enormous wheels were thrown 70 yards from the main wreckage.

Lisburn man Bill Eames, 79, worked as an Air Traffic Controller at the airport and was on duty that night.

He first knew something had gone wrong when all the telephones in the control room began frantically ringing.

"I think that's when the pilot must have struck the approach lighting," Bill recalled this week.

"Then my director, who was working with me, saw the flames at the beginning of the runway. We got out and went up to the scene of the accident as fast as we could to see what we could do."

Running onto the tarmac the rescuers were met with a scene of horror and devastation.

The burning remains of the plane lay strewn over a wide area as injured and dazed survivors of the crash crawled and stumbled to safety.

"It was a nasty sight," recalled Bill of the carnage he witnessed. "There were lots of bodies around."

Firemen fought valiantly to put out the flames, all the while dragging the injured and dead from the wreckage. Ambulances arrived from nearby Antrim to ferry the survivors to hospital.

Altogether 27 people from the plane were killed, among them Patricia Kavanagh and her young son. Agnes McConville also died that night as did four young medical students from Queen's University. The Public Inquiry which followed blamed pilot error for the accident, although the Captain, Herbert Hartley, was an experienced and accomplished flyer, having served previously with the Royal Air Force.

Emerging from the clouds, it was ruled he had misjudged the distance to the runway and descended too quickly from too steep an angle. That was when the crash happened.

As a result of the incident a number of safety measures were introduced to ensure there would be no repeat.

Buildings around runways, like the one into which the plane crashed, are now constructed from frangible materials which disintegrate on impact. Angle of approach lights were also introduced to help pilots judge their height and rate of descent with greater accuracy.

January 1953 was an appalling month for the Province - a total of 160 people died in the Nutt's Corner and Princess Victoria disasters.

While the Princess Victoria disaster is to be commemorated this month, however, the anniversary of the Nutt's Corner crash last Sunday passed by largely unnoticed.

It would seem the memories of that tragic night are a painful enough commemoration for those who were involved.

"Every January 5th it does come to mind," said Bill Eames.

"It was a dreadful thing to have happened, but it was a long time ago now - and so many things have happened since."

How the crash was reported at the time. US02-741SP