RAF Hastings WD498 Crash - 1961

Last Flight of Hastings C Mk.2 WD498
On the evening, of Tuesday 10th October 1961, a RAF Hastings aircraft of the Royal Air Force crashed at the El Adem Air Force base in Libya killing 17 soldiers of the Malta Fortress Squadron Royal Engineers, 15 of them were maltese and others were seriously injured.

A photo of the Hastings like the one involved in this tragedy.

Photo Copyright © Victor Mifsud, all rights reserved.
* Photo contribution by Victor Mifsud

A unique old photo taken by an RAF personnel few minutes later after the crash in the dark evening, appearing for the 1st time on internet!

The aircraft took off and crashed seconds later over the runway. Note the aircraft two engines in fire, also a fire-engine and a rescuer in the background.

Notwithstanding the fact that a Board of Inquiry has been set up by the RAF which attempted to unravel the mystery surrounding the case, most of the information that has surfaced so far has been inconclusive. Nobody really knows for certain what actually happened in the evening of the 10th October 1961! So far, evidence has been very sketchy and theories remain hypothetical.

The Royal Air Force Transport Command Handley Page Hastings C Mk.2 was a long range military transport aircraft powered by 4 Bristol Hercules 106 radial engines. It was used mostly to carry soldiers, armaments and mercancy. A modification in the back of the door was made so that the aircraft could have been capable to export a jeep for the soldiers. Although the Hastings was a slow aircraft it was rarely involved in crashes, giving 30 years of service in the RAF/RNZAF. The serviceability of the aircraft was generally good upon an afterflight inspection.

In the middle of September 1961, 210 soldiers of the Malta Fortress Squadron Royal Engineers that were stationed at San Gorg Barracks (today Pembroke) were sent to take part in an exercise by NATO known as 'Saturn', in Tobruk, Derna and El Michill, in Libya. Their work was to build airports and roads in the desert. It was a hard task as the maltese soldiers had to face the hot climate during the day and cold climate during the night over the desert in Libya. After a period of time the soldiers were informed that during the first week of October they were going to return to Malta.

During those days there were many arguments between the 'Construction Troop' and the 'Electrical and Mechanical Troop' as both of them wanted to go first. By right the 'Electrical and Mechanical Troop' were to go first as they arrived three weeks before the other troop. According the roster, the 39 maltese sappers under Capt. F.J. Boatwright were not able to take the first flight as they weren't the first squadron to come in Libya but their destiny helped them, when finally Lt. C. Daniels and Mj. J. Eastwood decided that the 'Construction Troop' will go first as they completed a hard task.

On Tuesday evening at 20:15, the aircraft took off and crashed seconds later over the runway. It caught fire immediately. Warrant Officer Harrison was heared saying 'Don't panic lads', those who were on the front died in fire but those that were on the back survived, as Albert McIntyre removed the door and everyone began to jump out. Two were seen getting out with fire all over their clothes, some tried to help them out but it was for nothing as they died the next day. Five maltese soldiers and two english were trapped in fire and died inside the aircraft. Some survivors say that the fire engine and ambulance personnel were at the cinema when the accident happened and took long to come over. Some Arabs who worked in the base came near the aircraft but they couldn't give any sort of help and few of them took photos of the aircraft in fire.

The English army never made there utmost to inform the relatives of the victims. There were many reasons, thus many questions remain unanswered. - Many survivors said that the pilots were drunk as they were allegedly seen drinking alcohol in the mess huts before flight. - During take-off the pilot's seat broke up and came in an inadequate position and the pilot couldn't control the aircraft in the proper way. - One of the pilots said that during the take-off one of the engines stopped causing the aircraft to lose height and to stall.

According to information provided by The Royal Air Force as seen by John 'Gary' Cooper, a total of 152 Hastings built (inc RNZAF) the C-1 type with a TG prefix 23 of the 102 built were written off (22.55%) whilst the mark C-2 with a prefix of WD (WD100-WD999) or WJ lost 10 of the 46 built (21.74%) and of the RNZAF NZ5801-5804 lost one of its four aircraft (25%).

The below information was provided to me by Mike Mulhern
Mike Mulhern served in El Adem at that time and was a ground wireless mechanic, part of his duties was to service the Air Traffic Controllers radio equipment that, at that time, was a mobile hut parked on the airfield.

''As I recall on that evening the controller was an ex-Polish airman probably a warrant officer or lower commissioned rank and the hut from which they controlled take off and landing was of very poor visibility - I.e. tiny little windows. If the controller needed to see what was happening on the airfield he had to walk to the open door-way and look from there. That is one reason why there were poor eye-witness accounts of the crash as the Air Traffic Controller didn't see it either!''

''It isn't true that the Firemen were at the cinema as they always had crew on duty. However, I was at the cinema that night and can tell you exactly what happened. The cinema was pretty primitive with no tannoy system so the only way of getting messages across to the audience was for a transparency to be placed in front of the projector with a hand-written message scrawled on it. It wasn't unusual for one such message to be posted during the course of a film, e.g for the duty officer or some such.''

''On that evening the first message was for off-duty fire crew to report for duty. This was followed a few minutes later by all medics to report. Throughout the next 30 mins or so regular messages were flashed up as more and more key personnel were called back to duty. It was clear to everyone there that something was amiss and the common theory was a fire in somewhere like the NAAFI. No one ever dreamed it would be an aircraft as no sound of a crash or explosion was heard within the cinema. It was only when the cinema emptied that we were told outside what had happened that evening.''

''Incidentally, at that time of night there would have been no arabs on the airfield as they were either off the camp or confined to a row of huts within the camp. It is highly improbable that any Libyans were involved in the rescue attempts however futile they may have been and as for taking photographs? - impossible!''

El Adem Royal Air Force Base (Libya)
Sand, sand and more sand are the only memories of El Adem which was the Royal Air Force Base where several Hastings accidents happened. It was a small airport having two huts and a small hospital. Muammar al-Qadhafi assumed control of Libya in September 1969; earlier, in 1967, Britain and the United States had been asked to vacate their air bases at El Adem and Wheelus Field respectively. In 1971 links with the Soviet Union were forged, and in 1972 British oil interests were nationalised. The cause of the hostilities between Egypt and Libya was never clearly established, although the attacks were probably initiated by Egypt as punishment for Libyan interference and a warning against the Soviet-backed arms buildup. After border violations alleged by both sides, fighting escalated on July 19, 1977, with an artillery duel, and, two days later, a drive along the coast by Egyptian armor and infantry during which the Libyan army was engaged. Egypt claimed successful surprise air strikes against the Libyan air base at Al Adem (Gamal Abdul Nasser Air Base) just south of Tobruk, destroying aircraft on the ground; surface-to-air missile batteries and radar stations were also knocked out.

Malta Fortress Squadron, Royal Engineers Memorial (View Photo)
Pembroke Military Cemetery is close to the coast road from St. Julianís to St. Paulís Bay. Their bodies were flown back to Malta for burial, and the funeral took place on Friday the 13th at the cemetery for the following:
- Captain Francis Joseph Boatwright
- Sergeant Emmanuel Falzon of Naxxar
- Lance-Corporal Nazzareno Portelli of Hamrun
- Lance-Corporal Emanuel Fsadni
- Sapper Francis Galia of Sliema
- Sapper Raphael Avallone of Sliema
- Sapper Salvatore Lia of Qormi
- Sapper Paul Cilia of Hamrun
- Sapper Carmelo Tabone of Birkirkara

At the request of their families four men were buried in other cemeteries on the island. Two men, Warrant Officer II Edwin H. Harrison of Sliema, and Sapper Joseph Psaila of Hamrun died of their injuries during the night of 11th/12th October.

Three severely injured men were flown via Cyprus, to the Royal Air Force Hospital at Halton in the United Kingdom, Sapper Nazzareno Busuttil of Hamrun who died of his injuries on 15th October, Sapper Duca of Ghaxaq, and Corporal Nazzareno Sammut of Qrendi, who died of his injuries on 31st October.

Crash Theory
The ill-fated Hastings WD498 had apparently crashed on the runway after take-off and caught on fire. Some survivors of the crash say that during take-off the aircraft remained at same height, hit the runway and then it went up again, then it hit the runway for the second time causing the back door to open. After the third hit the aircraft started to climb again but suddenly it stalled and lost height causing itself to fall in a fatal dive were one of the wings hit the runway. This is a dramatic update to a story from so long ago after 41 years but the cause of the crash remains a mystery.

- Sadly 17 died in this tragic accident, thought to be caused by elevator failure, incorrect tail trim or due to one engine failure.

Although that 41 years passed since this tradegy at El Adem, the memories of those who survived still remember their mates getting off from the aircraft burning alive. The mystery surrounding the lack of information regarding the WD498 crash at Libya raises doubts on what or who was to blame for this accident.

Aircraft Accident Brief Description
Date: 10-Oct-1961
Time: 20:15PM
Type: Handley Page Hastings C Mk.2
Operator: RAF Transport Command
Serial: WD498
C/n: ?
Year built: WWII
Engines: 4 Bristol Hercules 106 (radial)
Crew: 0 fatalities / 2 on board
Passengers: 17 fatalities / 39 on board
Total: 17 fatalities / 41 on board
Ground casualties: No
Phase: Take-off (Climb)
Nature: Non Scheduled Passenger
Flight: The RAF Hastings WD498 had apparently crashed after take-off on the runway. (written off)

- The Royal Air Force as seen by John 'Gary' Cooper


Last Updated: Saturday, September 18, 2004 - 14:15 PM
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