Thirty-five years ago to date, a co-pilot of a Royal Air Force Vulcan bomber requested leave because of the imminent birth of his baby. Kristina Chetcuti discovers how his last-minute substitution led to a series of technical landing errors and, consequently, the tragic mid-air explosion of the bomber over Żabbar, leaving five of its seven crewmen and one civilian dead.
On October 14, 1975 Flying Officer E.G. Alexander was co-piloting the routine exercise flight of Vulcan XM645 from the RAF base in Waddington, UK to Malta. He was not normally part of the Vulcan’s crew, as the original co-pilot had asked to be replaced because his wife was about to give birth. This change in crew proved to be fatal.
The RAF’s official reports of the incident say the co-pilot was “imprudently” given leave by the captain, Flight Lieutenant G.R. Alcock, to do the first approach at Luqa. Fl. Off. Alexander was not adequately briefed on the problems of landing on a short runway, especially one with a slope.
Godfrey Mangion, 65, an aircraft and photo enthusiast, who was on the runway threshold and saw the drama unfold before his camera lens that day, recalls the moment.
“I noticed that the Vulcan was landing quite low but didn’t quite register there was a problem until I heard this deafening iron scraping sound. I realised the aircraft had hit the undershoot and sheared off the undercarriage. It bounced back into the air some 20 feet or so and it then hit the runway again some 600 feet after the impact,” he recalled.
By this time, the RAF reports say, the captain had taken over but, according to Mr Mangion, “instead of staying put and waiting for the fire engines to extinguish any possible fire, the captain decided – it must have been a split second decision – to climb away again and attempt to do a circuit and crash land”.
It was an ill-fated judgment and, for a few seconds later, fire broke out on one of the wings and the bomber exploded mid-air. The captain and co-pilot ejected at the last moment and descended by parachute.
“The curse of the Vulcans was that the rear crew members didn’t have ejector seats. They had to open the crew door, lower a ladder and bale out with their parachutes on. The five crew members, for unclear reasons, never managed this,” Mr Mangion added.
The deadly explosion occurred over Żabbar at lunchtime, claiming the life of Vinċenza Zammit, 48, who was walking in the town’s main road at the time. About 20 others were injured, some seriously.
The report of The Times of Malta the next day said: “It was part of the aircraft containing the fuel tanks and it exploded on impact with the ground, sending a searing wall of flame, two storeys high down the street away from the parish church. Over 100 houses and shops suffered considerable damage… The crash sent the people into a panic. Women, some weeping, other screaming left their houses and ran as fast as they could, away from the wreckage.”
Despite the sheer devastation in Żabbar, the casualties were so low many still consider it to be a miracle.
Charles Meilaq, 60, from Żabbar, who was then a reporter with The Times, heard the explosion and rushed to the roof of his house.
“It was a miracle. Our Lady saved us from what could have been a more terrible tragedy,” he said.
Mr Meilaq recalled how he rushed to the scene and came across a completely gutted Triumph in the middle of Sanctuary Street. “I feared for the life of the car owners but was told they had escaped. It was one of the luckiest escapes.”
The car belonged to a couple from Wales who were honeymooning in Malta and the second they saw the fire they abandoned their car and ran away from the searing flames. Within seconds, the car was just one blaze. The scene was chaotic.
The Times of Malta reported: “The rescuers suffered from lack of water. Having exhausted both the foam and the water carried in the tenders, they desperately sought a well in the vicinity. They only succeeded after a long time. For hours after the crash, the fire-fighting tenders ran a shuttle service to and from the scene of the crash.”
One corner house was so gutted the RAF rebuilt it from scratch for the owners. The house was re-named Vulcan.
Ironically, for Flt Lt Alcock, it was second time lucky. International aviation expert Richard Caruana said the airman had been involved in another Vulcan accident four years earlier in the UK but he had taken the aircraft up to 10,000 feet to give his crew time to jump out, preventing the aircraft from crashing on a village school.
The success of that operation was probably the reason why he opted to circuit the damaged Vulcan but the plan failed and it led to one of the biggest aviation tragedies in Malta, leaving a permanent scar on the nation. During the filming for the feature on the tragedy, The Times crew were approached by several people wanting to recount their sad memories of the day. One woman summed it up: “I was here. I saw the bits fall off from the sky. I haven’t been on an aeroplane since that day.”
Watch more on the Vulcan tragedy on timesofmalta.com.