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Other Factors

These days an accident in the circumstances leading to the loss of G-AGZB is almost unthinkable…. almost.  With advanced navigation, communications, radar and fixed procedures, a decision to deviate from a flight plan, and come down to 1000 feet in thick cloud on a scheduled flight -  for what ever reason, would just not happen without extreme circumstances like engine failure or a massive technical problem.  However in the 1960's with local grass airstrips, basic navigation and a 'take off and fly' approach to aviation, passengers were sometimes dependent on the 'seat of the pants' flying skill of the crew and reliability of elderly piston engines and airframes.

The 'local' radar station at Thorney Island that could have provided vital navigational assistance for a standard approach to Portsmouth, although not the landing itself, did not operate on Sundays, the day of the accident, and Portsmouth Airfield had no radio communications.  Thus it was impossible to advise the crew of the current weather conditions - the airfield couldn't even pass on instructions for landing. Ironically, another aircraft on the same route, at almost the same time, landed safely having made a standard instrument approach. (You may wish to review weather reports and weather minima information concerning this landing.)

The Dakota was powered by two Pratt & Whitney 'Twin Wasp' engines.

Given the speed and nature of the impact, it was a miracle that there were any survivors at all.  The skill of the flight crew in those final moments enabled some passengers to escape although with serious injuries.

The accident enquiry could find nothing technically wrong with the aircraft or altimeter settings, although there was not much left to find as the aircraft was almost totally destroyed and then burned out. However there is clear photographic evidence showing at at least one of the main tyres was without tread and nearly worn out and there have been disturbing and persistent rumours that the plane was well overdue for a major overhaul although it had only recently joined the fleet after a major rebuild, so this seems unlikely - but then so would a worn out tyre !  

As the crew had requested a mid Channel descent to 1000 feet, their height and position appeared to have been intentional.  The crash investigators asked a number of questions  about the flight and the navigational information supplied by the airline as this appeared to be seriously out of date and incomplete,  giving potentially misleading information about the use of radar on the approach to Portsmouth and the workings of the radio beacon system.  

The fact that the radar was inoperative on Sundays - the day of the crash - wasn't even mentioned in the flight manual, yet  the aircraft was sent out from its base on an extra service with the specific intention of returning passengers to Portsmouth when conditions were worse than would be acceptable for landing even if the radar had been working.  However the ultimate destination, the Channel Islands, were clear of fog, and the plane could divert, which is what happened on the outward flight. There was nothing wrong in this, but it seems a huge waste of flying time and fuel when it must have been known by those who arranged the movement that a landing was likely to be abortive and that the passengers would be further inconvenienced by a long diversion and return trip by road - although they would at least be on the mainland.  

The weather forecast was said by the crash investigators to have been accurate - generally it was, although there was a weather station report from Hurn airfield at Christchurch indicating the potential for a serious local deterioration around the Island that seems to have gone unnoticed - and this deterioration, with a stronger onshore wind and cloud base of just 200 feet, although not extending over a great area,  was a major factor in events that followed.

At the time, forecast visibility was about 500 - 1000 yards while the actual visibility on land was reported to be about 100 feet with a blanket cloud base of 300 feet asl and possibly right down to the water in places.  The forecast suggested that  cloud would begin about 600 feet and be almost solid at 1000 feet but could occasionally be as low as 300 feet on exposed coasts. This was awful, and if it extended to Portsmouth would have made landing impossible without 'minima busting' which this crew had already shown they would not do.  However the forecast may have given the crew confidence to descend over the Channel as they advised London ATC, thinking they would have sufficient time to see the water, the shoreline  and the Isle of Wight.  It might explain why they were as low as they were in that area and provide a key to subsequent events.  Based on the expected weather conditions and having a weather forecast under an hour old, the crew's actions were entirely logical based on an attempt to reach a low lying airfield with no communications. They fully expected to see the water and coast at 1000 feet and when they didn't were turning away, presumably on dead reckoning.

There is no evidence that the Crew flew below the minimum permitted height over water, but if the wind was slightly stronger than expected, as has been postulated by a recent professional interpretation of the weather charts, this would have placed the plane nearer the island than expected if navigating on dead reckoning.  They had no external navigation aid and the NDB at Thorney Island could not give an accurate indication at low altitude as transmissions were masked by the Island.  Thus if they had come down to low level, believing they they would see the coast in good time, realised this was not so  and were turning out to sea having given up the attempt at a let down, everything is in place to explain the crash. ( This is discussed in more detail at a later point ).


There is also the matter of pressure from the airline management on crews to fly. This is unseen, unheard and can affect careers, promotions and safety… and it still happens today.  Many of the contacts we have had from professional readers have been about over tired crews and marginal weather.  Don’t always believe the PR talk from the airlines, big or small.   

Stranded and delayed passengers mean ill feeling,  hotel bills, meals and a subsequent backlog of flights as planes are out of position - that is lost money for the operator and Channel was a low budget airline.  While there is no evidence at all that any pressure was ever exerted by the Company, one must wonder about that heated argument in the crew room at Jersey and if an experienced crew would really have flown willingly in these conditions, with limited navigational aids to a fogbound airfield that they had tried unsuccessfully to reach earlier that morning.

Would an experienced Captain who had flown the route over 90 times in the last year and had been described as meticulous, really  have dropped to 1000 feet in an attempt to 'hedge hop' round the coast in a loaded airliner without a very good reason. What about the comments from passengers and yachtsmen in Portsmouth harbour about Channel planes making insanely low approaches in bad weather ?  We can never know but it could paint an alarming picture of all the dots did happen to join up.  

Perhaps the Captain just wanted to do his best for his passengers and get them home after a long delay. That was what the Stewardess told the passengers just before departure - 'the Captain will do his best to get you all to Portsmouth'.   He was after all on a standby flight to ferry delayed  holidaymakers to the mainland, but pressure on crews to operate to the limit of weather, flying time and technical faults are a well known problem in almost every airline and naturally if something untoward happens, the crew get the blame,  while those exerting the invisible force just  melt into the background.

In this case there is no evidence at all,  but there rarely is. It still happens today - even with the flag carrier airlines.  Crews mention it at their peril but privately it is a huge concern and one where the employer holds all the cards.

There had been official concern about the safety minima for bad weather operation used by the airline.  This had been 'under discussion' with the Ministry for some time before the crash, but the matter was not concluded as officials were taken up with the issue of the newly introduced Operator’s Licences and didn't get round to following it up. This seems quite incredible today, but is another example of the old boy network - everyone knew everyone else in the post war years and there wasn’t the level of accountability we see today although there is probably just as much back covering as always.

It might be argued that if the Airline's policy and operating limits had prevented the flight leaving Southend in the weather conditions known to prevail at the time, then the circumstances leading to the accident could not have arisen - but hindsight is a wonderful thing and as explained previously, we must not use modern day judgments on events from a different era.  As demonstrated on the way out, diversions were possible and there was no reason not to fly as a number of airfields were open and clear of fog.

G-AGNK - another of the ex BEA fleet.

Another Channel DC3  waiting for her passengers at the beginning of another day on the South Coast run. Note the different livery - this was the official Channel scheme, but to reduce costs the previous designs were sometimes left on Channel aircraft and just painted over in places !

The enquiry took a very long time to report - some say an unreasonable time - the accident happened at the start of May 1962 yet the report was published in August 1963.  The survivors have said that partly as a result of this delay, the 2 year time limit for claiming compensation was reached and together with the 'pilot error' finding, they were denied any substantial compensation despite horrific injuries. Indeed at least one of the survivors was told by ‘the authorities’ that the only way to gain further compensation would be to sue the Pilot’s estate for negligence, something that all the survivors regarded as abhorrent.  Eventually a small ex gratia payment - £3000 each - was made, plus a bunch of flowers. Can it really be said that conditions at Portsmouth played no part in the accident' - that is for the reader to decide.

The Co-pilot was specifically cleared of any blame by the  Air Ministry enquiry, but as often happens when there is no clear explanation, the Captain was held entirely responsible, although described as  meticulous'. Information regarding the disagreements at Jersey before take off never made it to the final report.

In other cases , the damning finding of ' pilot error' has been claimed as expedient because it may have implications for limiting claims by passengers and next of kin,  and without a very clear reason it is a catch all finding that can make further responsibility very hard to determine and compensation difficult - or impossible to claim.  (There is for instance the matter of the flight computers in the Isle of Mull Chinook accident which was repeatedly blamed on 'negligence' of the crew until eventually withdrawn after overwhelming evidence to the contrary).

The Pilot certainly had an excellent reputation, was fully qualified on instruments  and very experienced, both on the DC3 and other heavy twin engine aircraft, so if nothing else, maybe whatever went wrong on that day would have happened to any other aircraft - and Captain -  in those circumstances.

"Pilot error" is sometimes claimed to be an easy way out  - except for the Pilot and his family.  It is almost impossible to disprove if the facts are not fully known, so it seems doubly sad that airline staff openly criticised a former and well respected colleague's actions at the inquest when he was unable, at that time, to reply.

Perhaps it was just a ' pyramid of circumstances', one small factor leading to another, an unfortunate decision, a minor error, an unseen change, all building up until the flight crew were overwhelmed by circumstances.  

Although the Captain, as 'pilot in command' was ultimately responsible for the safety of the plane which descended below a safe height in low cloud and hit a hill, perhaps in the circumstances prevailing he had no choice but to do as he did and just perhaps he based what he believed to be a perfectly safe flight plan on incorrect information.

We can never know if pressure was applied to make him try what appeared at the time to be the only safe way to reach the fog bound airstrip, or if his colleagues and the authorities then closed ranks in a masterful act of damage and liability limitation.

You may think he had a raw deal.

Thus while the intended destination might be impossible, other perfectly safe airports were only a few minutes away, although in the wider scheme of things the decision to send the flight out seems bizarre.  Presumably train and coach fares on the mainland were cheaper than hotel bills in the Channel Isles and inconvenience to low budget passengers was not a major issue for airlines - then or now.

However the crew knew the route and Channel had been flying it for years without accident, even if a few yachts had their masts trimmed, so the decision to go was in some respects custom and practice. Weather like this around the Island is not uncommon and it would be no issue - other than aggravation for the passengers - if they had to divert.  Sadly to make sure there was sufficient fuel for a diversion, the fuel tanks were topped up, which did nothing to ameliorate the consequences when the crash came.

While not applying hindsight, you may ask why a plane full of holiday makers was ever sent out - or permitted to set out - to attempt an approach to a fogbound airfield. If the plane had remained in Jersey, even for a few hours, despite the expense and inconvenience to operator and passengers alike, this crash is unlikely to have happened.

Channel planes flew in weather that grounded the other airlines on the South Coast and as we have seen, the Air Ministry were already concerned about flying in such  poor visibility. There was a lot of correspondence and negotiation, but it would seem that the Airline was slow to improve safety margins further than appeared strictly necessary, and unfortunately although the authorities were prepared to write letters and make abortive phone calls, they didn't actually do anything until it was too late.   Interestingly, and in the light of these ongoing discussions' with the Air Ministry over weather minima,  the airline were later at great pains to claim that conditions at Portsmouth played no part  in the accident -  and the Air Ministry Investigator agreed!

The question that should have been asked was not 'why were Channel flying that day' - but 'why were they permitted to even contemplate an approach to Portsmouth airport in the prevailing conditions'. That was for the authorities to answer, not to blame the Captain and use him as a scapegoat.

If one considers that the Ministry was actively involved in the incident, both regarding flight operations, weather minima, operator and aircraft certification, and indirectly the Met Office,  it could be argued that they were investigating themselves!  Perhaps the conclusion was not altogether surprising - sadly some things never change.

Perhaps the most bizarre issue is that although much of the accident was blamed on the lack of radio at Portsmouth airfield, the flight time was not great and surely a phone call to ask someone to look out of the airport window would have prevented the whole issue…. Unless perhaps there were unseen forces determined to get the passengers to Portsmouth who regarded the bad weather as an inconvenience and reluctance on the part of the crew in the old RAF terms of ‘Lack of Moral Fibre’ .  Could caution and prudence of the new breed of crews have been regarded as cowardice by the men who had flown bombers in the last War ?  We can never know.