It was early on the morning of 14th May 1933 when Dr. Stewart of Bruichladdich took the first step in what was subsequently to become, literally, a lifeline service to the Highlands and Islands.
Dr. Stewart’s patient, John McDermid, who lived at Braeside, Bruichladdich, was suffering from a major stomach condition which could have quickly developed into peritonitis. The Doctor sent an urgent telegram to the St. Andrew’s Ambulance Association requesting that an aircraft be sent to Islay to evacuate his seriously ill patient and, after drawing a blank with the Scottish Flying Club, Captain Jimmy Orrell, of Midland and Scottish Air Ferries which Company, coincidentally, had just taken delivery of two De Havilland Dragon aircraft equipped to carry stretchers, was despatched to Islay in Dragon G-ACCZ to pick up John.
Captain Orrell landed the Dragon aircraft on the sand at the head of Lochindaal at 11.15 a.m. and Mrs. A. Ferguson, a Glasgow nurse who just happened to be on Islay on holiday, joined the return flight to Glasgow, thereby establishing the continuing tradition of in flight nursing care. As most Ileach will know John McDermid, after a 40-minute flight to Glasgow, was successful operated on and returned to Islay to live and work until his death in 1982 at the age of 82 years of age.
Since that pioneering flight in 1933 dozens of Ileach have owed their lives to the Scottish Air Ambulance Service and more than a dozen, who couldn’t wait to be born, saw the first light of day in the cabin of an Air Ambulance aircraft en route to Glasgow. These flights all had a happy outcome until disaster struck on the night of 28th September 1957…..
The Islay Air Ambulance Disaster
A four-engined Heron aircraft operated by British European Airways under the command of Captain Paddy Calderwood with Radio Officer Hugh McGinlay and Nursing Sister Jean Kennedy from Coll, had struggled in the teeth of a Westerly gale to reach Islay to evacuate a very ill patient. The aircraft was on its final approach and had been spotted by the Firecrew when it descended rapidly behind some rising ground to the South of the airfield after which radio transmissions ceased.
An immediate search was made and the aircraft and the crew, who had been killed instantly, were found in the moss about 1/4 mile South East of Glenmachrie Farmhouse. Clearly, ‘the tradition of putting their own safety in second place when saving life is concerned’ had influenced the pilot to make the flight to Islay in atrocious weather conditions which would have grounded any other aircraft.
Fifty years have now passed since that terrible night and a few weeks ago Iain Hutchison, the well know aviation writer, (‘The Flight of the Starling’, ‘The Story of Loganair’, ‘BEAline to the Islands’ and ‘Air ambulance’) contacted the Museum of Islay Life to ask if any commemoration of the tragic events of 28th September 1957 was planned. In response to Iain’s enquiry, the Museum, in association with Highlands and Islands Airports, have decided to open subscription lists to raise funds to purchase an engraved brass plaque, which would be placed in the Terminal Building at Islay Airport, recording the date of the accident and the names of those who paid the ultimate price.
It is planned to unveil the plaque at the 10th Islay Airport Open Day on 19th August when it is expected that relatives of those who lost their lives will be present. If, like the writer, you have good reason to be grateful to an Air Ambulance Crew, or want to lend your support then keep your eye open for the subscription lists and be generous.
This story was published with kind permission from The Ileach – Community Newspaper of the year.