Wolferton air crash remembered 35 years on

2ND DECEMBER 2018

Wolferton Air Crash Remembered 35 Years On

by Ben Colson

This year, the 27th September was a Thursday, and a beautiful sunny day it was too, the perfect weather to commemorate the memory of Squadron Leader Michael Stephens who had been killed thirty five years earlier in the course of duty, when his plane crashed into the marshes North of Wolferton and to re-dedicate the memorial there to his memory. Much of the information used in this article is taken from the Lynn News and Advertiser of Friday 30th September 1983 and subsequent editions, and from RAF Marham’s in-house magazine article published October 2018.

Back in 1983, the 27th was a rather windy Tuesday, and that evening Wolferton village postmaster, Reg Southgate, walked the couple of hundred yards from his home and post office to the village social club. He later told the newspaper that an aircraft flew overhead which seemed to be heading on a north-easterly course and that “all of a sudden, when it got above me, it cut out and seconds after there was an explosion. I heard this terrific bang and a few seconds afterwards it burst into flames and plummeted to the ground. There were definitely flames coming from the plane before it hit the ground, then a terrible flame when it hit the floor”. Reg said that he was the only person outside at the time “I don’t expect anyone else even heard it. They were all in the club at the time.” He said that when he told his friends in there, they didn’t go outside to see, as they were playing whist! Those still living in the village today confirm that, to the contrary, they most certainly did hear it.

Possibly because the whist was so engrossing, it took the navigator, later named as Flight Lieutenant Nigel Nickles, who had ejected and parachuted to safety before the plane crashed, to raise the alarm. He knocked on the door of the nearest house to where he landed, belonging to self-employed plumber Roy Franklin at Beach Road, Snettisham, and asked to phone his base – and was also offered a beer. Others living in that area certainly had heard it, and ran outdoors to see what had happened, one resident there told the newspaper that “it sounded as if it was stuttering, then there was a tremendous whoosh, like a flame-thrower at close quarters”.

Actually, the search and rescue operation had been mounted before the navigator phoned in, because the aircraft’s disappearance had been picked up by the Eastern Radar defence system, and teams were being dispatched along the coast and for miles around the wreckage and the crater in which it was buried. Local police and Coastguard staff were soon joined by a contingent of servicemen from RAF Marham and its home base Honington near Bury St Edmunds, but it was two fire appliances from Sandringham that were the first to arrive in Wolferton.

The plane had crashed in the wood to the North East of Steer Road about quarter of a mile from the village of Wolferton. The navigator, however, landed in a field about three miles away, close to where Snettisham by pass now runs. He had ejected at 15,000 feet, and the 30 knot wind blowing that night had carried him that distance.

The game of whist in Wolferton social club presumably over, at soon after eleven in the evening, the club was commandeered as Search Headquarters and the first of some 350 personnel were arriving to start the search, including a specialist team from RAF Stafford. The search for missing weapons instructor and pilot, Squadron Leader Mike Stephens, was described then in the newspaper as one of the biggest peacetime operations of its kind ever mounted in West Norfolk. Soon after midnight an RAF Nimrod flew overhead dropping flares as it started a systematic night search. At midnight thirty, Wing Commander Cunningham from RAF Honington, ZA586’s base, said at a hurriedly arranged news conference at Wolferton that “we are literally searching in the dark”.

“Sleepy Wolferton began to take on the appearance of a frontline military camp. Puzzled villagers gathered in small clusters to see what was happening, and press and television and radio teams scurried back and forth trying to establish the state of the search” said Lynn News’ Mike Last in his report.

By three the next morning a field kitchen had been established on the sugar beet pad in Steer Road, and the newspaper reported that by 9.45am no less than 1,500 meals had been served.

That bang, that event, that crash of aircraft code ZA586, led to the RAF’s entire fleet of the then new Tornado aircraft – to be temporarily grounded in what the Ministry of Defence described as “purely precautionary because it is a newish aircraft.”

One of the search team despatched that night from Marham’s Tornado 617 Squadron was then a young man in his twenties, today a successful West Norfolk businessman. He told me at the commemoration this year that the contingent he was part of worked for three days day and night, eight hours on, eight hours off, and the search mission covered an area much wider than just the plane’s crater itself. The initial task was to find the missing pilot, and as day broke on 28th the search area was widened to fifty square miles, and included lifeboats as well.

In the morning press conference, Wing Commander Cunningham said “the search is going on over ploughed fields, marsh, in woodland, and thick bracken; some is easy and obvious, some is murderous”. Later that morning, Mike Stephens’ body was located in the cratered wreckage and the massive search was scaled back. It was speculated that he died because he remained in the aircraft to steer it away from Wolferton, mindful of the inevitable loss of life there that would have otherwise been caused.

Over the weekend of 1st and 2nd October the search for clues continued, including drafting in the Royal Engineers from Waterbeach Barracks near Cambridge as 500 gallons of aviation fuel remained in the wrecked plane. The black box recorder was located and taken to Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, and other pieces of the wreckage, to Farnborough. Thus the search moved to the technical phase.

The subsequent Board of Investigation established that ZA586 was returning to base on a Southerly course as it approached Wolferton. One of the generators failed and as the crew were working through the procedure to shut off non-essential electrical systems, the second one also failed. This double failure led the engines to exceed their governed limit, causing the turbines to fail and the aircraft to lose power, height and navigation and causing it to veer northerly again. The Board of Investigation was unable to ascertain what caused this double failure on what was the first production Tornado, and the first to have been lost. The Parish Council at the time commemorated the event by planting an oak sapling and building a memorial close to the crash site.

Thirty five years later, the sapling had blossomed into a full tree but the memorial and fencing were tired and staff from RAF Marham mounted a project to restore the site. An open air service of commemoration and re-dedication was held on 27th September 2018; the Parish Council was honoured to have been asked to attend and also to invite people living in the village at the time, as the help and support given by the village to the search teams had been recorded with much appreciation by the RAF.

The service, led by RAF Padre Geoffrey Firth, was attended by some 30 people, including navigator Nigel Nickles and Michael Stephen’s sister. A two minute silence was observed, and one of today’s Tornados flew overhead. It was a simple but moving service, and for me the most poignant thing to have learned that whilst the crash happened in this quiet village in a corner of England, Michael Stephens died in the protection and security of the nation, equally as a Tornado pilot today may put his life in danger flying sorties in hostile territory.

I am indebted to Betty Woodhouse for lending me her collection of newspaper cuttings from the time and Chief Technician Rob Swanson of 9 Squadron, RAF Marham, for sight and use of his article for their in-house magazine.

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