Amongst the treasure trove of items my mother has sent me back to New Zealand with are these two aerogram letters which she has kept for 45 years and probably 20 or so house moves between three countries.
Now old letters themselves can be incredibly interesting to family historians, but these two are kinda special. They survived, and were salvaged from, a plane crash that killed five people during an emergency landing at Heathrow Airport.
On 8th April 1968, a British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) Boeing 707 took off from Heathrow, bound for Sydney, Australia. There were 127 people onboard, including a crew of eleven. During take-off an engine failed, caught fire and fell off. Although the crew managed to carry out a successful emergency landing back at Heathrow, five people died in the crash – four passengers and one member of the crew.
The investigation into the crash attributed the initial engine failure to metal fatigue, but also found that a series of errors by staff contributed to the ultimate loss of the aircraft and the deaths that occurred.
One of the fatalities was Barbara Jane Harrison, a 22 year old flight stewardess from Bradford. She was the only member of the crew not to survive the crash; her death being the result of her refusing to leave the aircraft without first trying to help an elderly, disabled passenger, who also died. Before her death Barbara Harrison is credited with helping many of the surviving passengers evacuate the aircraft. For her extraordinary bravery, she was posthumously awarded the George Cross – the youngest woman, and the only woman in peacetime – to be so honoured.
When I read an account of Flight 712 on April 8th, 1968, I was struck by the fact that my family had travelled on a similar BOAC flight – in the same kind of aircraft – ten months earlier. In June 1967, my family emigrated to New Zealand; flying from Heathrow on a Boeing 707 to Hong Kong, then completing the journey on Air New Zealand.
At a time when flying was expensive and comparatively rare for working-class families, it was a huge adventure for us – and something I remember in minute detail even after all these years. I particularly remember the impossibly glamorous stewardesses who looked after my three year old brother and I; making up beds for us on a row of empty seats when the tedium of the long flight left us exhausted and grumpy.
Before that trip, I had apparently announced to my mother that I was going to be an air hostess when I grew up. However, after one of those kindly young women had cleaned up my second lot of vomit (I was sick on pretty much every landing), I experienced a major change of heart and career direction.
One of the things I particularly remember was being given a Junior Jet Club Kit, like the one below. It included a little metal badge, with Junior Jet Club logo, and a log-book that we had to fill in and have signed by the Captain. I remember being so enamoured of mine that I persuaded the stewardesses to sign it too.
I have no idea what happened to that book. Although I kept it through much of my childhood, hoping to have another trip to record, it disappeared sometime in my teens – probably during one of our many house moves. I wish I had it now to read the signatures I collected. Actually, I wish that about a lot of stuff from my past.
Looking at my mother’s letters, I can only feel incredibly sad. Death in a burning aircraft was a very cruel fate for one of those extraordinary young women who made flying such a comfortable and enjoyable experience for so many people, and who helped the restless (and very airsick) five year me cope with the biggest event in my little life.