Entertainment Books

Saturday 20 October 2018

On the wings of heroes and demons, mystery and injustice

Con Houlihan

Cleared For Disaster Michael O'Toole Mercier, ?12.99 ALTHOUGH a lover of many forms of sport since childhood, my especial heroes are in the world of aviation. They were two bicycle mechanics in a small town in the US mid-west who, in their spare time, invented the aeroplane.

Orville and Wilbur Wright had no formal training in aeronautics; they tried to teach themselves from library books. Yet they were the first to fly with a heavier-than-air machine - and to come down alive. The story is pure romance: their sister prepared the canvas for their machine on her ironing board.

I first went in a plane at 11 years of age and have never felt the slightest fear, even on domestic flights in Mexico where the planes are mostly US cast-offs and where conditions can be very turbulent.

Ernest Hemingway used to say that matadors live their lives all the way up; so do airline pilots - they, too, can ill-afford mistakes.

I harbour a belief - illogical, of course - that planes should never fall from the sky; I think of them as fish swimming in the air.

Journalist and author Michael O'Toole, who died in 2000, was as devoted to aviation as Isaac Walton was to angling, so much so that he became a pilot. Nobody was better qualified to write about air disasters than Michael, an aviation correspondent in the Sixties and Seventies.

Two of the 11 accidents analysed in his enthralling book Cleared For Disaster were of particular interest to me - the forced landing of the St Kieran near Birmingham in 1953 and the fatal crashing of the St Phelim off Wexford in 1968. I had friends on both planes.

Captain TJ Hanley was flying the St Kieran from Dublin to Birmingham when both engines failed suddenly within a few seconds of each other.

Birmingham Airport was 15 miles away; he brought the plane down in open country, steered it across three fields and barely avoided a tree. The St Kieran, badly damaged, ended up in a ditch.

Captain Hanley and his co-pilot, first officer PJ Whyte, and air hostess Philomena McCluskey distinguished themselves in evacuating and comforting the 22 passengers.

Miraculously, only PJ Whyte suffered injury; he had damaged vertebrae. He resigned from flying and so did Philomena McCluskey.

Captain Hanley came home to a hero's welcome. Several public bodies congratulated him. He was made Mayo Man of the Year. But the story hadn't a happy ending.

A public enquiry ruled that he had made the error that rendered his plane powerless by feeding the fuel from one tank instead of two.

But his colleagues didn't believe such an experienced and respected pilot could make such a simple error. His explanation was that water had entered the fuel, which was far more likely. Nevertheless, Captain Hanley lost his full licence and was reduced to flying freight. This was a cynical act - Aer Lingus was not flying freight at the time.

Captain Hanley eventually got work in Honolulu, far from his four teenage daughters at school in Dublin. It is a story of cruel injustice.

The crash of the St Phelim - in which everyone on board perished - has evoked innumerable theories and several investigations; the mystery continues to this day.

The St Phelim flew out of Cork at 10.32 on a fine Sunday morning on the way to London, with a crew of four, and 57 passengers. There were slight discrepancies in the messages between the plane and Cork Airport, but they did not seem important. The first sign of trouble came at 10.58 when the radar at London Airport intercepted a garbled call. And then, two seconds later another: "Five-thousand feet . . . descending . . . spinning rapidly." It was the voice of the pilot, Captain Bernard O'Beirne.

Here the mystery begins. Several people gave evidence of having seen the plane in trouble. One young man who was deemed very reliable said he had seen the plane crash into the sea near Tuskar Rock at 11.15. That seems incredible. How could a stricken plane have remained so long in the air? Others said the plane came so low that it burned patches of grass. Some said they had seen the passengers crouched in their seats. All this seems very unlikely.

What happened to the St Phelim that brought it down to 5,000 feet and had it spinning rapidly? One theory was that it had collided with a flight of geese or swans. Some people believed it was hit by a stray missile from a RAF firing range in West Wales.

Despite several enquiries and investigations, it is unlikely the answer will ever be known. Captain O'Beirne's colleagues in Aer Lingus believed there was a cover-up and that the plane came down because of metal fatigue. It is alleged that the pieces of the wreckage were stored in Baldonnell and destroyed. The records kept by the RAF in West Wales show that there wasn't any firing that day.

You might think that the Wright brothers and their good sister lived happily ever after, but not so. They had thought their wondrous invention would be used to overcome what author Thomas Wolfe called "the cruel distance of America" - but it was used to kill and destroy in World War One. It is said they were very sad in their old age.

Michael O'Toole didn't live to see his brilliant book in print; his widow Maureen edited the last chapter on the Tuskar Rock tragedy. She did a very good job.

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