Written by C. Rolé
"It came down and hit the ground like a thunderstorm! I get goose flesh by just remembering that episode! This is the way how many people of Żurrieq recall the incident that occurred on the 18th of February 1956. "We really had a big fright! I had never seen something like this before and surely I will never forget such a scene!" It was quarter to one o'clock in the afternoon, when an airplane on its way to England crash landed in Nigret (Camilleri, 2006)
The airplane was an Avro York G-ANSY and took off from Luqa airport with 50 people aboard, including 5 members of the crew. The passengers aboard were all members of the English military and naval service, that were going back home to England after carrying out their jobs in Egypt, precisely in the nearby regions of the Suez Canal. Their destination was Stansted Airport, but unfortunately they never managed to return to their loved ones (Camilleri, 2006).
As soon as all the necessary supplies were boarded, the Avro York airplane, operated by Scottish airlines, took off from Luqa airport. The time of departure was approximately 12:23 in the afternoon (Flight Safety Foundation, nd) It was during the acceleration phase on the airport runway, when black smoke was seen coming out of one of the engines of the left wing. Though the plane managed to take off and reach a height of 200 feet, as soon as the airplane was flying over 'Ta' Kandja' (limits of Imqabba), the engines eventually lost power and consequently the airoplane started precipitating. Even though the pilot, Frank Coker managed to take the plane at an altitude of 1000 feet from the ground, the Avro York starting turning to the right and precipitating to the ground. As soon as the airplane crash-landed at Wied iż-Żurrieq cliffs, it caught fire and until it screeched to a halt in the fields in the vicinity of Nigret, precisely between Wied iż-Żurrieq and 'il-ġibjun' (Camilleri, 2006).
In order to control the fire, firefighters of the Royal air Force in collaboration with the Maltese Police force immediately sworm the place. The Royal Navy helicopter, HMS Falcon was also utilised during this mission in order to transport the necessary personnel to the site of incident and also to provide the necessary supplies that were needed to control the fire. The supplies used included foam and 500 gallons of water and aboard the helicopter was also a doctor. A number of English personnel and US Navy members (at that time a US base was situated at Hal Far) immediately reached the site of incident with the aim of saving the people aboard from among the debris, but unfortunately all passengers died in impact, with some of the cadavers being so badly burnt that they could not even be identified. The retrieving of all the cadavers took 24 hours to complete due to the difficulty in reaching the site of incident. All retrieved corpses were then laid on the ground in a nearby field (Camilleri, 2006)
As a sign of respect, the highest authorities of Malta visited the site of the incident. These included Sir. T. Robert Loycock (who at that time acted as the Governor), the director of civil aviation G. Smith and the Prime Minister of Malta D. Mintoff. Some members of the Maltese Cabinet also reached the location. The Maltese Government also received condolences from the Queen of England, Elizabeth the Second (Camilleri, 2006).
Police investigations were conducted by the Magistrate J. Formosa. A few hours after the incident, a number of High British Officers came to Malta in order to lead the investigations and establish the cause of the crash landing. The investigators responsible of this incident were T.R. Nelson and J. Goulding who represented the investigative division of the MTCA (Flight Safety Foundation, nd).
This incident is still classified as the worst air tragedy involving an Avro York and is also classified as the second worst air tragedy on our islands. Many cadavers including the corpse of Captain Coker were buried at the British Military Cemetery of Imtarfa after a beautiful ceremony. The rest of the cadavers were transported to England to their respective families (Camilleri, 2006).
Camilleri, A. (2006.). Il-waqgħa ta' l-Ajruplan 'Avro York' fuq iż-Żurrieq. Madonna tal-Karmnu Zurrieq festa 2006. Għaqda mużikali Queen Victoria, Żurrieq.
Flight Safety Foundation (n.d.). Aviation Saftey Network. Available at http://aviationsafety.net/database/record.php?id=19560218-0, Accessed on 21st July, 2010.