Words: Andrew McCloy
Photography: Mike Smith
I stare open-mouthed at the scene before me. Here, on this wild and remote moorland high on the roof of the Peak District, is the shattered body of a huge aircraft. Landing gear, engines, wing sections and twisted pieces of silver-grey fuselage lie strewn around, randomly poking out of the bare peat and heather. A radiator and gun turret here, giant rubber tyre there, testimony to an aeroplane literally broken apart. But where had it come from, why did it end up here and what happened to the crew?
There’s a rough beauty to the Dark Peak, the belt of wild and largely inhospitable gritstone moors across the north of the Peak District that for a hillwalker like myself offers adventure and escape. But the empty expanses of Kinder Scout and Bleaklow hold a darker secret that I knew little about. During the last century over 150 aircraft have crashed in the Peak District, most coming to grief on these high, unforgiving slopes and rocky edges. The evidence is still there, if you know where to look, and with each one there’s a story that is as intriguing as it can be heart-wrenching.
"After half an hour’s puffing, we strike off for a narrow path towards the rounded summit of Higher Shelf Stones…"
To help me locate three of the most prominent crash sites I enlist the services of Don Walker, an experienced hiker and amateur military historian. We park at the A57 Snake summit lay-by and head north on the Pennine Way towards Bleaklow Head. Why, I ask, have so many planes crashed on these moors in the first place? “It’s partly to do with our general location,” explains Don. “Although there’s more mountainous ground further north, here we’re surrounded by accessible and populated areas which during the Second World War contained lots of airfields. There were regular flights across the Peak District as well as plenty of aerial training, too, but inexperienced pilots, faulty equipment and bad weather took its toll.”
The first of the Peak District aircraft wrecks: The B-29 Superfortress on Bleaklow
After half an hour’s puffing we strike off for a narrow path towards the rounded summit of Higher Shelf Stones, weaving our way through the dense heather and shallow peat valleys known as groughs. All of a sudden we emerge on to a bare strip of land and a scene of devastation where, on 3rd November 1948, a B-29 Superfortress of the USAF 16th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron crashed in thick cloud.
I’m immediately struck by the sheer amount of wreckage. Undercarriage legs and wheel struts stick out at jarring angles, while shiny riveted sections of steel glint in the weak sunshine. I’m also a little surprised that it’s all still here in the first place, so real, as if it had only happened last month. But this tragedy was played out 70 years ago when, on a routine 25-minute flight between RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire and USAF Burtonwood near Liverpool, a plane nicknamed ‘Over Exposed’ that had been used to photograph Pacific atomic tests and was a veteran of the Berlin airlift flew straight into the side of Bleaklow. The crew of 13 had already completed their period of service and were due to fly home to the States in just three days time. There were no survivors.
Looking out from the hilltop position on this blustery yet clear Spring morning, surrounded by endless moorland slopes, I wonder what it must have been like to fly low over this terrain at 220mph in the patchy mist. “Frightening,” suggests Don, “especially as the pilot wouldn’t have been familiar with the topography but had elected to fly by keeping visual contact with the ground. Even if he saw the land suddenly rise ahead he wouldn’t have time to avoid it.” As I listen to Don I notice a passenger jet high overhead, sophisticated radar no doubt helping to guide its safe descent to Manchester airport, and the irony is not lost on me.
The B-29 is just one of a number of aircraft that met their end on Bleaklow. Three years earlier a Lancaster bomber became disorientated in the dark above Glossop and flew into the hillside near Shelf Moor, killing all six airmen; then just a couple of months later a C-47 Skytrain Dakota crashed close by, with seven fatalities. There are other similar sites dotted all over these moors, some still with visible debris but others having been removed or simply swallowed up by the peat.
The B-24 Liberator on Kinder Scout
We retrace our steps to Snake summit, disturbing a few indignant red grouse on the way. Across the road, we now aim for the dark outline of Kinder Scout to the south, picking up a good pace along the Pennine Way’s winding flagstones. As the steep escarpment of Mill Hill draws closer, so too does the mist and rain showers. We turn round and notice that distant Bleaklow is now enveloped in a thick blanket of cloud, which was probably one of the last things that 33-year-old Captain Landon P. Tanner, piloting the B-29, ever saw. He left behind a wife and two young daughters, one of whom came over with a party of fellow Americans to visit the site a few years ago (there’s an annual commemorative service held at the crash scene each November).
"I scour the bumpy hillside, looking for the tell-tale glint of steel or some other unnatural-looking object…"
Mind you, there were some lucky escapes, as well. At a junction of paths we head west a short distance to locate the wreck of a B-24 Liberator. On 11th October 1944, this brand new American bomber was being flown to a base in East Anglia in readiness for combat action. It was a routine ‘ferry flight’ carried out by just a single pilot and a flight engineer, except that in the cloudy and gusty conditions they misjudged their position and when they glimpsed the 2,000ft mountain ahead, through a gap in the cloud, it was too late. The plane smashed into the hillside, but remarkably it didn’t catch fire; and more remarkably still both men were able to scramble clear of the wreckage with relatively minor injuries and walk down to Hayfield to find help.
I scour the bumpy hillside, looking for the tell-tale glint of steel or some other unnatural-looking object, and very soon I know I have the right place. Even seven decades later, the ground is gouged and bare where the Liberator hit the hillside at great force; but also because the authorities tried to burn much of what was left at this spot. Nevertheless, an engine and pieces of fuselage remain, including a long and surprisingly intact section of wing which tapers off literally into the ground. It’s as if the earth is slowly subsuming the sad remains.
On to the F86 Sabre fighters on Kinder’s north face
We walk back up to the main path in the gathering rain, then head east on a track beside the infant River Ashop. After a few minutes Don veers off across the rough ground and up towards the dark crags of Kinder Scout’s northern face, aiming for a deep gully. Spread out on the open slope at its foot is more aviation wreckage. “These are in fact the remains of two planes that crashed in July 1954,” explains Don. “They’re a pair of F86 Sabre fighters belonging to the RAF’s 66 Squadron who were on training manoeuvres and returning to base at Linton-on-Ouse in North Yorkshire.” In driving rain and swirling cloud, the planes flew fast up the valley from the west, creating a noise like thunder according to the Kinder Reservoir Keeper interviewed after the event. He described how they appeared to drop through a hole in the cloud, but flew so low he couldn’t see how they would clear the high moorland rim in time. It’s unclear if one or both clipped the hillside, or whether they may have even collided with each other. I’d read that these jets had a cruising speed of 500mph; and such was the impact that debris was spread over a trail half a mile long and stretched across Kinder’s summit then down the hillside beyond. Because of the atrocious weather it wasn’t until three days later that a rambler first discovered the wreckage.
"How can a place of such wild beauty hold such dark secrets?"
There are as many as 11 crash sites on Kinder Scout, including a Wellington bomber which came to grief above Edale in January 1943, injuring six crewmen; and a Halifax that crashed nearby later that year, with two survivors. The pilots of the Sabres were not so lucky and we pause in respect by a family memorial to one of the airmen, Flying Officer James Horne, who was just 21 years old when his life ended on this remote Derbyshire hillside. Nearby is a large piece of wing, a wheel and one of the jet engines, silent reminders of yet another tragic episode deep in the heart of our oldest national park. How can a place of such wild beauty hold such dark secrets?
Back to Outside in Hathersage
We head back to Snake summit in quiet reflection, both of us looking forward to a warming cuppa at the cafe at Outside in Hathersage to take stock of the day. After years of walking, scrambling and running across these windswept moors I thought I had their measure, but in fact the most remarkable stories of daring and disaster are still waiting to be discovered.
All military aircraft crash sites are controlled by the Protection of Military Remains Act, 1986. The Act made it an offence to tamper with, damage, move, remove or unearth any items at such sites without a licence from the Ministry of Defence. This is regardless of any loss of life which may or may not have occurred at the site.
Crash site grid references:
B-29 Superfortress SK 090949
B-24 Liberator SK 058906
F86 Sabres SK 075902
B29 Super F Fortress (point B on map)
B24 liberator (point D on map)
Sabres (point C on map)