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A fast taxi in memorial to RN FAA PILOT LT STEVE KERSHAW

August 2018

On 11th November 1974, around 4.45pm, Buccaneer XV351 was flying a routine weapons sortie over Wainfleet range on the Lincolnshire coast. It had taken off just after 4pm from RAF Honington – the lead aircraft of three Buccaneers from 809 Squadron – with an experienced Royal Navy crew. It was dusk, very cold, but visibility was good and there was only a light wind. On the fifth bombing run, Wainfleet reported a ‘no spot’ from XV351, although the aircraft instrument panel indicated a bomb had been released. The aircraft broke off to the right and flew over The Wash in a decreasing banked turn to re-enter the range. At 16:48hrs, the Range Safety Officer gave clearance for Gold Leader to make another run on Ship Target 3. The aircraft passed over the marker buoy at the mouth of The Haven, near Boston, at approximately 500 feet, and straightened up on the attack heading. The pilot could see the target lit up.

At 16:50hrs, Lt David Thompson – a very experienced Buccaneer observer – was in the back seat watching the radar and groundspeed indicator. They were flying around 420knots, descending to 150 feet for a ‘laydown’ attack run over the target. All appeared normal in the aircraft.

Around 4:45pm, David Griggs was driving his family back home near the village of Freiston Shore. They were travelling towards the sea bank which separates them from the marshes and mud flats of The Wash. He saw a military aircraft flying on the normal course up to Wainfleet range. It was banked to the right and he could see the underside of the aircraft. He noticed that it was much lower than normal and gradually getting nearer the ground. It disappeared below the level of the sea bank.

When correctly set up for a laydown attack, the pilot lets the aircraft fly itself to the target. The precision radio altimeter allows the Buccaneer to do the job it was built for – fly fast, ultra low. At some point before that run, unknown to the crew, it had developed a fault. In 1974, the Buccaneer was not equipped with a back-up instrument.

Charles Patchett was walking along the sea bank with his binoculars. He heard an aircraft – quieter than usual – but could see nothing. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a dark object over the water. Less than a second later, he heard a thud.

In the aircraft, Lt Thompson heard a sudden, horrendous bang. There was a momentary impression of the cockpit falling away beneath him, and then he blacked out.

Immediately after the sound, Mr Patchett saw a grey/black cloud engulfed by a fireball, from which orange pieces erupted upwards. Leonard Fox saw it from his farm; he had climbed onto the sea bank after losing sight of the aircraft. He saw red/amber objects in the sky. A Boston fisherman less than two miles away saw the fireball with fragments shooting off; he thought the flash had occurred on land.

Buccaneer XV351 hit the mud flats a mile and a half out from The Plummers Arms, at Frieston Shore, just as the tide was on the ebb. The crew had no time to react. The impact disintegrated the cockpit. The canopy broke off and the ejection seats were torn away. The drogue guns fired correctly, which caused the pilot’s and observer’s parachutes to deploy.

Lt Thompson regained consciousness underwater. He was entangled in his parachute, but somehow his lifejacket was inflated and he rolled to the surface. His emergency light was activated. He saw - fifty yards away - the aircraft’s tail plane, but he was rapidly drifting away from it on the ebb tide. He was unable to release his harness and his hands were too cold to grip his knife. By now, it was fully dark, his immersion suit was leaking, and he had inhaled a dangerous amount of sea water.

At 16:52hrs, The Boston dredger Jean Ingelow, and the pilot cutter Arthur Lealand were still on duty nearby. They put out an emergency radio call and headed to the crash scene.  The crew of the Jean Ingelow saw a flashing white light in the water, but the boat became grounded. The Arthur Lealand managed to reach the location, and saw the reflective strip on a flying helmet which turned out to be the observer in five to six feet of very cold water.

John Holland entered the water and attempted – under Lt Thompson’s instructions – to remove the parachute, which had entangled around the propeller and begun to drag him back underwater. Michael Green left the grounded Jean Ingelow and swam 100 yards to assist. Despite the onset of darkness, strong tidal stream, and shifting footholds, they supported Lt Thompson and managed to lift him into a dinghy. Both men received Queen’s awards for bravery.

The Range Safety Officer at Wainfleet had informed RAF Conningsby of failure re-establish contact with XV351. At 16:55hrs, a search and rescue helicopter from RAF Coltishall was directed to investigate. It arrived at the scene to find Lt Thompson severely injured. He was picked up from the pilot cutter and flown, via RAF Coningsby, to Nocton Hospital.

With the tide going out, the search for the pilot gathered momentum. A USAF helicopter from Woodbridge flew in. Several vessels, including the re-floated Arthur Lealand, joined the search. On foot, on the marshes, in darkness, police and fire officers were joined by the crew of the grounded Jean Ingelow.

Just after 19:00hrs, the SAR helicopter returned to the scene, partially illuminated by the crane lights on the dredger. The crew – out on the flats – indicated an area of wreckage that they could not reach because of an impassable creek. The helicopter turned and flew along the wreckage trail. At 19:13hrs, the crew saw an ejection seat. The pilot was lying face down on the mud nearby, still attached to his parachute. Flt Sgt Richard Amor was winched down to him, and turned him over. He was dead.

Lt Steve Kershaw, grievously injured in the ejection and unable to inflate his lifejacket, had drowned.  

He’s my Dad.

The Buccaneer – a beautiful and unique cold war aircraft – was part of my life. It was so exciting to be a small boy growing up amongst ‘Buccaneer Boys’. The cry of Spey engines formed the sound-track to my early childhood. I vividly recall watching the Buccaneers of 809 Squadron flying back in to RAF Honington off Ark Royal about a week before the fatal accident. The thrill of seeing my Dad landing, and running out to meet him is undimmed by the passing of years. “Hello Tiger!”, I can still hear him saying. And as a matter of fact, the guy climbing out of the back seat would have been Dave Thompson – destined, only a few days later, to miraculously survive an experience beyond comprehension.

On 11th November 1974, the Buccaneer changed our lives life forever. And it has remained part of my life ever since. As a child seeking answers, the stories you are told are moderated by the adult world – motivated by the duty to protect and placate – and so the questions have never gone away. A summary report obtained from the Navy in the late 1980’s was valuable, but fell short of drawing a line under the chapter.

The demands of an ordinary life create distractions which – quite rightly – draw you away from too much backward reflection.  However, as my own children grow up, I am finding myself with a little more time to dig deeper. I want a more rounded, ‘grown-up’ understanding of what occurred. I want to know all that I can know, and take responsibility for that knowledge – unfiltered by anyone’s good intentions. And there is a lot of information out there.

Crucially, time marches on. I, the aircraft and the Buccaneer Boys are not getting any younger. We still have the privilege of being able to tell our stories to each other, and to admire the aircraft at the heart of them. But it will not always be so.

I have made (and re-made) some invaluable contacts who have played a part in those stories: Graham Pitchfork (arguably the Buccaneer Boy!); Richard Amor, SAR helicopter winchman, who brought my Dad home; Mike Curtis who, as a young journalist, and military aviation enthusiast, covered the accident in the Lincolnshire Standard with the sensitivity and passion – it turns out his family is haunted by a military air crash.  Through Mike – and an unbelievable coincidence – I contacted Paul Collins, ex-Buccaneer observer who knew my Dad very well and flew with him several times in 800 Squadron at Lossiemouth and aboard HMS Eagle.

Most poignant of all, on the evening of 11th November 2018, I received a letter from David Thompson. As customary, at the hour of the accident, he raised a glass of Glenmorangie to his pilot of 44 years ago. He must have told David it was his favourite spirit. He wouldn’t have known it had also become mine.

Whenever I visit an aviation museum, I want to know if they have a Buccaneer. I note the serial and check my Dad’s log book to see if he flew it. In recent years, I have kept my virtual eye on all the surviving Buccaneers. I had set my heart on saving for a back-seat flight at Thunder City, until events put that project on hold.  So, I had been aware of the runners at Bruntingthorpe for a while, but not found time to visit. When I a saw a video of XX894 on a fast taxi run in the beautiful dark sea-grey paint scheme of 809 Squadron, Royal Navy, I thought about a ride in that back seat – and fired off a request to TBAG.

Following a swift and friendly correspondence with Mike Overs, a donation was very willingly made to TBAG and I turned up – family in tow – at Bruntingthorpe on a very rainy August Bank holiday. A very warm welcome awaited from Dave Webber, Mike Overs and the whole of TBAG. They introduced me to the aircraft and to Ollie Wheeldon, my pilot, and gave me a generous amount of time to play around in the cockpit whilst answering myriad questions. My 15 year old son took the back seat and had the idea of setting me up to replicate a very ‘posed’ photo we have of my Dad in the cockpit of an 800 Squadron Buccaneer. He did a very good job of directing me.

As to the ‘flight’, it was an awesome experience. It must have been at least 35 years since I had last heard and smelled a Buccaneer engine starting up. It was emotional. In sync with XW544, we demonstrated bomb bay, arrestor hook and wing-fold to the spectator line. Ollie talked me through the power-up sequence and cockpit instrument drills. I sounded like one very excited little boy over the intercom. And the feeling of power behind the seat when the pilot applies full throttle and the aircraft goes...  I just wanted to smash through that line of brand new cars strung across the runway. Ollie said he was not prepared to risk prison by accidentally allowing the wheels leave the ground. Good man. I was shaking when I climbed down the cockpit ladder afterwards. I had worn my Dad’s flying suit for the occasion – complete with 800, 845 and 809 Squadron badges. I don’t think he would have minded. Afterwards, I discovered that my mother had approached the commentator whilst I was strapped in ready to go: it was announced that the run was in honour of Lt Stephen Kershaw. My son recorded it for me.

I would fly in a Buccaneer tomorrow if I could. But I’d probably ask about the altimeter(s)...

History goes around and comes around: shortly after the crash of Buccaneer XV345 in 1980, Sqn Ldr Ken Tait’s son, Robin, came to my school. Our teacher told me in advance, because of our similar history, and initially sat Robin next to me in class. We went through the same schools until we lost touch in our late teens. Through Dave Webber, I am delighted to discover that Rob Tait had also found TBAG and enjoyed a ride in XX894 – an aircraft of great significance to him.

Our shared passion for the Buccaneer comes from different places within each of us, but the convergence of those passions is what sustains such brilliant efforts to keep and maintain, and occasionally fire-up, those magnificent Cold War brutes.

I offer my heartfelt thanks to TBAG for their part in Buccaneer history.