Stay at home
Scotland is under national lockdown. People are asked to stay at home except for essential purposes.
Click for details
Wallace and Meteor
by BlackPanther » Fri Oct 30, 2020 7:17 pm
Route description: Bennachie: Oxen Craig and Mither Tap
Sub 2000' hills included on this walk: Bennachie (Oxen Craig)
Date walked: 18/10/2020
Time taken: 5 hours
Distance: 14.3 km
Ascent: 689m5 people think this report is great. Register or Login free to be able to rate and comment on reports (as well as access 1:25000 mapping).
We had been planning a re-visit to Bennachie since last year. In 2017, we walked the complete circuit of all tops, including Millstone Hill and Watch Crag, so technically we had seen everything, been everywhere on this hill. Well, not exactly. Only recently, when searching for easily accessible plane crash sites, I noticed there are two on Bennachie, both in reasonable spots. Yes, getting to them will require some tuft-hopping and heather-bashing, but we were ready for tough going (or so we though). I spent Saturday researching different blogs and books, reading descriptions of how to get to the two sites. It all looked pretty straightforward and on top of that, we had grid references for both wrecks from our "Aircrash bible". So in theory, we were ready.
In practice, we ended up wandering over pathless terrain, scratching our heads and swearing in several languages as the map below illustrates
We started from the Back o'Bennachie car park (usually charged but at the time of our visit the paying machines are switched off, worth noting that toilets are closed, too) and decided to climb Oxen Crag first. The location of the two crash sites determined our route, as the remains of the first of them, Gloster Meteor, are situated close to the summit of Oxen Crag and above the tree line, so we assumed they would be easy to find.
The short climb from Back o'Bennachie to the main plateau is a very pleasant walk, first through the forest:
...later on a well-made stony path:
It was a relatively quiet day with low cloud lingering about, but we hoped that weather should improve later on, which it did. But even the misty morning looked refreshing from higher up:
Rural Aberdeenshire from above:
We took a short detour to the small quarry at Little Oxen Crag, since we had missed this feature on our previous visit:
The granite quarry opened in the mid-1800s and operated for about 40 years. The granite was excavated manually, with mallets and chisels, and even now, over 100 years after the quarry closed, we can still see the evidence of the past work, in the shape of carved lintels and drilling holes:
Interestingly, the quarry was abandoned because the access road to it was washed away and there was no way to take the granite down the slopes.
View north from the top of the quarry:
On a dry day, one could practice scrambling on the walls of the quarry, but today, the rocks were wet and quite slippery, so we just took some photos and continued to the summit of Oxen Crag. It was still misty but the clag was slowly lifting:
On the summit of Oxen Crag:
The first of our two targets was a crash site of a Gloster Meteor from 1952. It is located on the flat, heathery southern shoulder of Oxen Crag, which would be the outline on the horizon in the photo below (looking south from the summit):
Getting down from the top required hopping over some large boulders, but so far nothing surprising for Panther...
We knew that the Meteor crash site was marked by a small memorial cairn and had a grid reference for it, but even without the GPS, this site is the easier one to locate, as the cairn can be seen from the distance.
Panther pointing at a cairn in the mist:
Weather was slowly improving and the clag thinned, revealing the shape of Mither Tap in the distance. We intended to visit this top as the final part of today's explorations.
The plaque on the memorial cairn commemorates both Bennachie crashes: an RAF Gloster Meteor jet fighter on 12 February 1952 and an RAF Westland Wallace biplane on 3 September 1939. More about the biplane later, now let's concentrate on the Meteor jet.
On the 12 of February, 1952, a Gloster Meteor jet no. WA882 from 222 Squadron, was on a low-level day cross-country training flight from RAF Leuchars in Fife. Approximately 20 minutes after departing from the airbase, the single-seater jet was flying in overcast conditions, in a snowstorm, when it crashed on the snow-covered side of Oxen Craig. The plane exploded on impact, scattering wreckage across a wide area. Sadly the pilot, Officer Brian Lightfoot, 22, from Yorkshire, died on impact.
The official cause of the accident was described as “poor definition of snow covered mountains in the prevailing conditions”.
Two weeks later, a team of seven airmen from no.44 Maintenance Unit, RAF Edzell, was sent to the crash site to bury the wreckage. They spent nine days in cold and wintry conditions, looking for the remains of the plane, but still didn't find all of it. Several pieces are still resting on the slopes of Oxen Crag today, though not many visitors actually see them as they are hidden in the lush heather.
One of the aircraft's cannons was retrieved later by souvernir hunters and kept in a barn at Oyne before being rediscovered in 1980-ties. it is now displayed in the Bennachie Centre.
A small part of the jet plane found by the memorial cairn, constructed in 2012 by The Bailies of Bennachie, a voluntary conservation society taking care of Bennachie.
The Meteors supposedly had a bad reputation. Quoting "The Little History of Aberdeenshire" by Duncan Harley:
"The RAF's fleet of Gloster Meteors had what can only be described as a horrendous safety record and records indicate that there were 436 fatal accidents between between 1944 and 1986. Some 890 of these aeroplanes were lost during that period over the entire UK, including one piloted by the son of the headmaster of Oyne Primary School. Local writer James Mackay records in a 2012 article in Leopard Magazine that 'In the the early 1950s fifty Meteor pilots died when their planes dived inexplicably into the ground' and that in 1952 'a Meteor was written off ever two days on average and a meteor pilot was killed every four hours.'"
After a minute of silence by the memorial cairn, we set off in southern direction, looking for the remains of the Meteor. Kevin found a small piece of fuselage under a large rock, just a few metres from the cairn:
About 100m further south and lower on the slopes, we located several large pieces of wreckage, including an armour plate:
...and a frame from one of the jet engines:
I knew from my earlier research that there was a large chunk of a wing lying here somewhere, so we continued to zig-zag up and down the slope to find it and eventually Kevin came across it:
He called me and I hopped over the bumpy ground, nearly catching my feet in the vegetation
This wasn't the last piece of the Meteor we found, but definitely the biggest one:
Having photographed the wing, we had a look around but couldn't see any more wreckage, so we decided to head down to join Gordon Way. I had grid ref for another piece of wreckage lower down in the trees, but first we had to fight the wet, scratchy heather to reach the path. Kevin was far from happy! He put on his cheap walking trousers and they proved far from waterproof
He is seriously p***d off! It's the wrong trousers, Gromit!
With Kevin throwing a tantrum, it was hard to cooperate with him so no wonder things got out of hand in the following minutes. We followed Gordon Way for a short distance and soon located the last portion of meteor wreckage, just below the path, next to a forest plantation:
Kevin said, still sulking, that his GPS was showing we were "just past" the second crash site, so we decided to investigate the nearby firebreak for more wreckage of whichever plane:
The firebreak proved to be a wet, overgrown hell and the only thing we found was a small plantation of... fly agaric. At least if it was something edible (like birch boletes or chanterelles) we could have a dinner out of it, but every child knows that fly agaric are poisonous. Not a single piece of metal in sight.
Wallace, Wallace, where art thou?...
We returned to Gordon Way even more p***d off, now Kevin's trousers in a sad state and my leggins wet, too (at least, mine were black so it didn't show). Kevin checked his GPS and noticed it was still showing the same grid reference as 15 minutes earlier. Of course, it wasn't our fault in the end - GPS was playing up!
Thankfully, we had a mobile phone with Viewranger on it, so compared both and got the confirmation - the two devices were displaying different grids! One must have been wrong and it was Kevin's Garmin. So in the end, the marital row had ended with the blame put on a faulty electronic device
Using the Viewranger, we discovered that the second crash site was actually about 600m away from us, on Bruntwood Tap, which is a little ridge with a boggy path in the middle:
Kevin now desperate to find the second plane, after all the tree and heather bashing we went through it would be a shame to miss the target!
We were now close to Millstone Hill and with improving weather, views were better, too:
The Westland Wallace crash site is hidden amongst the trees just below the crest of Bruntwood Tap. We had to go off piste to find it and the terrain was... well, far from friendly.
We had to come down this:
Kevin desperately looking for the biplane, Cairn William in the background:
As we descended the bumpy slope, something caught the corner of my eye to the left of us. A bit of metal, possibly? I went to investigate it and bingo! I found the Wallace - or what was left of it...
We didn't expect to find a huge amount of wreckage here, but there was enough to keep us busy photographing for some time. It is all gathered together in one spot, surrounded by a few pines but still above the main tree line:
The biplane was a Westland Wallace MK II K6028, piloted by a Canadian pilot, Officer Ellard Cummings with Leading Aircraftman Ronald Stewart as gunner. It was the 3rd September of 1939, the day when war had been declared. The biplane, which was equipped to operate as an air-target tug on a ferry flight from the Air Observers School at RAF Wigton to an airfield in Evanton. They were on the correct route but flying too low to clear Bennachie which was shrouded in thick mist, at 3pm in the afternoon. Did the pilot misjudge his height? Probably.
Both crewmen died instantly in the crash. Their bodies were found still strapped into the cockpit which may suggest that the pilot stalled the plane while trying to pull up at the very last moment. The tail section was broken off indicating that the rear of the Wallace had probably struck the ground first. Cummings and Stewart are officially recognized as the first military casualties of World War II.
I was intrigued by this particular piece of wreckage, Kevin suggested a silencer?
Kevin consulting both his GPS and Viewranger app. By the time we found the Wallace, Garmin has sorted itself and they were now both showing the same coordinates.
by BlackPanther » Fri Oct 30, 2020 7:48 pm
Looking back to the area of the Wallace crash, with Carn William in the background:
On the path again, we were glad that the off-piste experience was over. We could now relax and continue our casual stroll to Mither Tap:
Rural Aberdeenshire again:
Approaching Mither Tap:
Admiring the crags of Mither Tap from below:
View north from the summit:
When looking for the plane crash sites, we saw hardly anyone, but now we entered the busy area. The summit of Mither Tap was definitely not a good place to be if you wanted to social distance yourself!
We were relieved to escape the crowds...
...and headed back to Back o'Bennachie past Craigshannoch. Weather was holding nicely and not a drop of rain fell from the sky.
The circuit of Bennachie, even without taking detours to investigate crash sites, is a very entertaining walk. Despite the sulky GPS which caused a small war between us, we really enjoyed the experience, well, maybe not the wet trousers I was surprised that such a popular hill still guards its secrets from the past and as in case of every war memorial, discovering them was a privilege.
List of databases and articles with information about the two crash sites:
by gld73 » Sat Oct 31, 2020 11:53 am
by Huff_n_Puff » Sun Nov 01, 2020 7:39 pm
by NeepNeep » Mon Nov 02, 2020 5:34 pm
I've also explored the tops of Bennachie whilst escaping the in-laws at Christmas time though I have never come across these. I know what I will be doing next time we visit.....though it might not be this Christmas.
As for Kevin - you can even see the disdain he gives his trousers in the photographs... ...they do look wet, heavy and annoying. I totally emphasis though - I am also angry at myself for miscalculating the conditions and wearing inappropriate clothing. For me it's normally boots / trainers or shorts / trousers.
Walkhighlands community forum is advert free
Can you help support Walkhighlands and the online community by donating by direct debit?