Grostenquin France

David Earl

[Hell on High Ground]

The Iron Crag Sabre

Designed in the late 1940's and first flown as a prottype on 1 October 1947, the F-86 Sabre was an outstanding achievement. It proved it had remarkable handling characteristics when it was flown against the infamous Mikoyan MiG-15s during the Korean war (1950-1953). It was a truly versitile aircraft and could amnoeuvre extremely well at high altitudes; however, its manoeuvarability could not compensate for the ever-changing British weather, and as many of this type were in the late 1950s being used for training purposes at bases up and down the country, accidents were inevitable for a fast jet which could reach speeds of up to 700 mph. It was the end of the flying careers of many young airmen.

On Friday, 26 June 1959, a Canadair CL-13B Mk 6 Sabe had been scheduled for a cross-country exercise from Prestwick to Weathersfield; the pilot was Flying Officer RG Starling of 421 RCAF Squadron. Taking off at 1300 hours, he soon entered a thick mist which had blanketed itself over the Cambrian Fells. heading in a south-easterly direction, he gained height to avoid the hills of Dumfries and made his way via the Solway Firth. Visibility was still poor as he crossed the Firth around 1306 hours, and for reasons unknown he had made a descent to 2,000 feet - it was probably made in haste as the pilot would much prefer to have visual contact with the ground below than rely on instruments. The descent, though, would prove to be a fatal mistake, for the pilot had not yet cleared all of the high ground on his flight path. Below, lurking in the mist, was the 2,077 foot summit of Iron Cragg, just one mile south on Ennerdale Water. At 1311 hours the Sabre struck the mountain just below the summit, breaking up on impact and sending gragments of wreckage cascading down the rocky spree. The cokpit section tore itself away from the fuselage and, with its occupant, tumbled down the mountainside and wedged itself amonst the boulders. The pilot had been killed instantly, and wreckage from the ill-fated jey lay undected for over two days due to bad weather.

When the aircraft failed to arrive at Weathersfield it was posted overdue, and in a case such as this a waiting period is enforced, usually until all the fuels in the tanks has expired. It was not unusual for an aircraft flying in heavy cloud or bad weather to lose radio contact and find itself lost. There have been occasions when an aircraft with exhausted fuel supplies has had to land at other bases after becoming lost; this possibility with Sabre 23380 could not be ruled out.

Several hours passed, though, and still nothing was heard, either from F/O Starling or other bases. It was now time to order a search for the missing jet. Two teams of RAF personnel set off in jeeps to search the high ground, but due to low visibility and drizzle nothing could be found as darkness drew in on the eve of the crash. The following morning (Saturday) the search continued around the areas of Loweswater and Ennerdale; again the searchers were plagued by poor visibility and low cloud on the fells. Nothing was found that day.

It was now Sunday 28 June, and, still weary from the previous day's search, RAF personnel made their way up the steep and arduous slope of Iron Crag. It was here that they discovered the missing jet. A trail of debris littered the rocky scree for almost a mile, and the pilot, still strapped in his seat, was found in the shattered cockpit of the wrecked fighter. On his wrist was his watch which had stopped at 1311 hours, so confirming the time of the fatal accident.

Due to the rugges terrain and the height at which the Sabre crashed, much of the wreckage from this aircraft still remains where it fell over thirty years ago, a poignant reminder of the young airman's life.

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Updated: August 18, 2002