Bloody Orkney, Excerpt One: Mountain Flight

The weather forecast had been good, but it had been wrong. Sally Fowler was more irritated than worried. She’d been told before leaving Lossiemouth that she’d have clear skies all the way. There was meant to be a front coming in from the south-west later, but it had clearly moved faster and turned up earlier than expected.

If she’d known in advance, Sally would have taken a route round the Aberdeenshire coast and set off earlier. She didn’t want to be late, not today. She knew that Roger had taken off that morning from Filton near Bristol. He’d flown south the previous day to drop off three pilots due to collect Beaufighters and return them to Lossiemouth.

They’d agreed he would meet her when she arrived at RAF Errol and they would have an enjoyable flight back, just the two of them. Roger had booked a table at the Grand Hotel in Elgin for dinner and Sally wondered how things might progress from there. She’d known Roger for some weeks now, and while she found him very attractive, his approach to the world seemed rooted in a genteel, pre-war era. In her more insecure moments, Sally wondered whether Roger had real feelings for her, or whether being seen with her was simply a convenience for him, a way of fitting himself neatly into the sort of relationship that others expected of him. Sally was running out of patience. There were, as they said, many other fish in the sea, and she’d had offers. As far as she was concerned, tonight would be Roger’s last chance.

Timing therefore mattered. It wasn’t a long flight in a straight line, but the expected weather meant their trip back would need to take the indirect coastal route. If she took too long getting to Errol, then they’d never make it back in time to get themselves ready for dinner.

Sally knew this area well. She’d crossed the broad valley of the River Spey and the tighter, more upland course of the River Don before she’d realised that the deep bank of cloud ahead of her, which she’d been trying not to think about since first seeing it, was going to be a serious problem. Her route would take her over the large village of Ballater and the valley of the River Dee. Then she’d have to cross mountains that in places rose to over 3,000ft.

Sally considered her options. The safest course of action would be to head east along Deeside, as far as Aberdeen if necessary, staying above low ground and then following the coast south-west and then west as it passed Dundee. But that would nearly double the length of her remaining journey and the Avro Anson she was flying was not what anyone would ever call swift.

The next best option would be to take a more direct course, hoping that the cloud base remained above the height of the highest ground she needed to cross. But what if it didn’t? In that case, she decided, she would climb through the cloud to medium altitude. When she was further south, she’d be able to descend through a gap in the cloud or, if necessary, get a triangulation on her radio transmissions from ground stations. That would give her position accurately enough to allow her to let down through the cloud. Air Transport Auxiliary pilots weren’t meant to use their radios on delivery flights, but exceptions could be made in circumstances like this.

With her mind made up, Sally continued over Ballater, losing height as she did so. Her aim was to fly along Glen Muick to the south-west and over the short stretch of high ground at its head, before dropping into Glen Clova and following it south-east then south to the lower and much safer ground beyond.

It didn’t take long for Sally to realise that, even in the glen, the gap between the base of the cloud and the ground was shrinking quickly. As the near end of Loch Muick passed beneath her, she applied full throttle, aiming to climb through the cloud as rapidly as possible. Three things worked against her. The first was that most of her recent flying had been done in the high-performance Bristol Beaufighter fighter-bomber, a type of aircraft that she’d often flown from the factory at Filton to Lossiemouth and then from Lossiemouth to operational units in various parts of Britain. Like the Beaufighter, the Avro Anson she was flying today had two engines, one on each wing, but there the similarities ended. While the Beaufighter would have soared gleefully upwards, the Anson climbed sluggishly and reluctantly.

The second thing working against Sally was the way Loch Muick curved round to the west ahead of her, with steeply rising ground on its south-eastern side.

Then there was her knowledge that once she was high enough, clear of the glen and the surrounding mountains, she needed to turn a little to the left, to head due south. Somehow this knowledge found its way from the back of her mind to her hands and feet before it was wanted or needed and without her noticing. As the Anson entered the cloud in Glen Muick it started a gentle turn to the left.

Sally first knew there was a problem when she caught a brief glimpse through the windscreen of the hazy outlines of trees. She had no time to react before the Anson smashed into them, and a split second later into the mountainside that rose steeply above and behind them.

There was no fire or explosion, but the impact was catastrophic. The aircraft was smashed into fragments by the force of it. Most of the wreckage came to rest at the foot of a rock face, screened from view by the trees below it. If anyone looked carefully, the damage to the trees would be evident, but no-one was likely to come close enough to look that carefully. The track along this side of the loch was at a lower level and some distance away. The Anson’s passage had been noticed over Ballater, but no-one had seen or heard the crash.

The only witnesses to Sally’s death were the sheep that grazed the rough pasture below the trees, and even they were only very briefly distracted from their main role in life, of turning grass into sheep.

Roger was going to have a long wait at RAF Errol.