- RAFBF StoryLines

1945 - 1990

Cold War Years

VC10 Crash. Ethiopia 1972.

Posted by Robert Whittingham on

It was the morning of 20 April 1972.

After an uneventful night flight from Akrotiri, the last leg of an eleven day Tengah shuttle trip, I was in the squadron crew room, checking my mail. I was approached by a member of 10 Squadron Ops. He informed me that a VC10 belonging to East African Airways had crashed attempting to take off in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The squadron was sending an aeromed flight to pick up survivors and bring them back to the UK. Even though I was flying all night and now on my three day pass he asked me if I would volunteer to be part of the crew and fly out later that day, of course I volunteered; little did I know what lay ahead.

He informed me that Squadron Leader Lowery would be the Captain, I would be the only Air Steward on board and we would be stopping overnight in Addis Ababa. I got on the transport back to the accommodation block and prepared a clean KD uniform. Later that day the MT crew coach picked me up. After a quick briefing from the Air Loadmaster I was preparing the aircraft, the rear of the aircraft had about thirty seats the rest was made up of stretcher posts and stretchers. A large aeromed team boarded with all their equipment and we were soon airborne.

The flight time was seven hours and twenty five minutes direct to Addis Ababa. During the flight I felt really tired and realised that I had been up and on my feet for thirty hours as I didn't sleep prior to my Akrotiri - Brize Norton flight. I had another cup of coffee and looked forward to a good night's sleep in Addis Ababa. We eventually reached our destination and, as we slowed down at the end of the runway, I looked through the flight deck window and saw black skid marks, broken approach lights and the ominous sight of a VC10 tail sticking up with the rest of the aircraft hidden down a deep gully. It looked bad.

When we reached dispersal the Captain was informed that the majority of the survivors were children who had suffered severe burns in the crash. In fact the burns were so severe that Squadron Leader Lowery was asked if, instead of stopping overnight, we would load the patients quickly and get them to proper medical care in the UK. He approached each member of the crew and asked them individually if they would volunteer to carry on and not night stop. Of course we all volunteered.

It was hard work, it took over six hours to convey the patients from the hospital and load them onto the aircraft. There was a lot of activity around the aircraft and one of my many tasks was to stop individuals who were not involved with this flight, from coming on board and holding up our departure. This was difficult for me, as some of the people I stopped were relatives of the young patients, but our priority was to get back to the UK as quickly as possible. The passengers on board were not happy to be flying in the same type of aircraft that they had just survived a crash in a matter of hours ago.

I was checking the catering equipment for our return journey and noticed in-flight catering had East African meal trays for our passengers. I thought this was a bad idea and contacted in-flight to change the trays for another airline, this they did. They even wanted to put coffins of the deceased passengers on board, we said no, they weren't in a hurry to get home, we were, due to crew duty time and other restrictions. We were advised to fly direct to Akrotiri and a fresh crew would be there to carry on the journey to the UK.

As we taxied out for take-off,  Squadron Leader Lowery made an announcement to the passengers to try and calm their fears, he stated that this aircraft was used by Her Majesty the Queen and the crew was a hand picked VIP crew. I don't know if this did the trick as I noticed a lot of passengers praying and crying as the four conways were spooled up and we started our take-off run. I can only imagine what was going through their minds. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife.

After only seconds, though it seemed an eternity, we were airborne and you could hear the sound of relief emanating from the passengers. The children who were burnt were in a very bad way and the aero-medical team did a stalwart job in easing their pain. Sadly two of the young patients died during the flight. I thought to myself, I hope the people I stopped coming on board were not the parents of the poor children who died. I felt guilty.

Here is what happened that fateful day. East African Airways Flight EC-720 to London via Addis Ababa and Rome departed Nairobi at 06:55 hours. The flight was uneventful and the VC-10 landed there at 08:23. During the transit stop at Addis Ababa, some freight was off-loaded together with 40 passengers. Fifteen passengers joined the flight and the air-plane was refuelled. Start up clearance was given at 09:21 hours and the aircraft taxied out six minutes later via the eastern taxiway for take-off on runway 07. The tower advised the aircraft that the wind was 5 knots and variable in direction. At 0932 hours, as the aircraft was backtracking to the take-off point, the pilot reported a number of dead birds on the runway. He requested that these birds be removed before the aircraft took off. A fire truck was dispatched to take care of this. The aircraft continued to backtrack down the runway and turned in the pad at the end. It then lined up on the runway and stopped a short distance from the threshold. At 0938 hours, the tower cleared the aircraft for take-off. Shortly after the aircraft had passed the mid-point of the runway, at or just below the V1 speed, the nose wheel ran over a steel jacking pad. This jacking pad belonged to a Cessna 185 that had departed 4:40 earlier. The pad punctured the right hand nose wheel tire. A loud bang was heard and severe vibration was felt on the flight deck. Almost immediately after the nose wheel tire had burst, the nose of the aircraft rose momentarily and then come down. The flight crew decided to abort the take off. The engines were throttled back and reverse thrust was selected. The aircraft continued down the runway, veering slightly to the right. Then the no.1 rear main tire burst. Just before the aircraft reached the end of the runway, it veered slightly to the left and ran approximately parallel to the centre line.After crossing a storm drain located at the end of the runway at right angles to the centre line, the aircraft became momentarily airborne as it left the lip of the embankment on which the 60m stop-way was laid. As it did so, the left outer wing of the aircraft struck a steel lattice tower forming part of the approach lighting system to runway 25. This ruptured the number 1A fuel tank and the released fuel promptly ignited.  Sixty metres beyond the end of the runway the aircraft fell heavily onto the lower ground 10.6m below the runway level. It broke up immediately on impact and after sliding a short distance, came to rest and caught fire. PROBABLE CAUSE: “The accident was due to a partial loss of braking effort arising  incorrect re-assembly of part of the braking system, as a result of which the aircraft could not be stopped within the emergency distance remaining following a properly executed abandoned take-off procedure”.

The flight time to Akrotiri was four hours and ten minutes. I don't think I will ever forget those poor children and the sickening smell of burning flesh. We handed over to a fresh crew on arrival and the aircraft was soon on its way to the UK. I wished them all well. After we arrived at Akrotiri I remembered getting on the crew coach and the next thing I knew I was in bed in the crew hotel in down town Limasol. To this day I don't know how I got into bed and who took my clothes off. I had been awake for over forty seven hours. I never did hear what happened to the survivors of that horrific crash. I hope they are well. I would love to hear from any of the passengers or a way that I could contact  them. There were 107 on board with 43 fatalities.



Storylines is part of leading RAF welfare charity the RAF Benevolent Fund. By making a donation, you will be helping to provide wide-ranging and far-reaching support for RAF Family members in need. From financial assistance for struggling elderly veterans to counselling sessions for serving personnel in distress, your help could have a profound and direct impact on the welfare of thousands of people.

Together, we can repay the debt we owe to those who sacrificed so much for our country – and help them live secure, fulfilling lives well into the future.