Woman describes tragic moment in UK’s worst aviation accident when ‘plane fell out of the sky’


A British European Airways Flight 548 crashed 50 years ago at Staines, Surrey, 150 seconds after takeoff from Heathrow Airport, killing 118 people

The cause was determined that Captain Stanley Key had a heart condition.
The cause was determined that Captain Stanley Key had a heart condition

Frances Castledine’s words to the man found in a fuel-soaked field near the remains of a wrecked passenger plane were gentle and reassuring. “You’re ok. We’ll take care of you. Everything will be sorted out.”

Frances gave him oxygen and splinted his broken legs at the luggage-strewn spot. Her comforting voice, with a soft Irish accent, was probably the last Melville Miller ever heard.

Melville was a passenger on British European Airways Flight 548 which crashed 50 years ago at Staines, Surrey, 150 seconds after takeoff from Heathrow Airport, killing 118 people.

Recalling the unimaginable scene she witnessed on June 18, 1972, former nurse Frances, now 80, says: “If I had been a ward nurse, I could not have coped with what I saw that day.

“But because I’ve worked in accident and emergency response, I’ve been trained to deal with acute trauma.

“Nevertheless, it made a deep impression on me for at least two months.

Captain Stanley Key


press association)

Former emergency room nurse Frances Castledine, who was the first person at the scene of the Staines Trident plane crash 50 years ago



“I knew I had to get on with life and being busy with a little baby helped. But there were many private moments when I quietly took time to pray. I still pray for the lost.”

Frances was cleaning upstairs at home when a tremendous bang cut through the still summer day.

She dismissed it as roadwork until two brothers, Paul and Trevor Burke, then aged nine and 13, knocked on her door asking for help.

They had seen the plane bound for Brussels crash into a field.

Trevor said: “It was like a dream. The plane just fell out of the sky. We saw it hit the ground. The front bit hit first and the back bit was blown away.”

The wreckage of the crashed plane killed 118 people


Alamy Stock Photo)

The brothers walked a quarter mile to Frances’ house, knowing that she had worked as an accident and emergency room nurse.

Frances says: “I told the boys to go home as it could be dangerous for them.

“Then I went next door, told my neighbors what Paul and Trevor said, and asked them to watch my baby while I ran to see what happened.”

A 6-foot-tall concrete wall blocked her path to the crash site. Adrenaline shot through as she struggled to help survivors.

Frances says, “I took a few steps back, then ran and jumped towards it. And I was over.”

British European Airways passenger flight 548 crashed less than three minutes after takeoff near the town of Staines


mirror image)

She adds: “I envisioned a much smaller aircraft. But it was this giant trident airliner. I was really shocked to see it.

“The stern had come off and the main hull was a few meters away, so it was completely broken.

“There was a huge smell of fuel and the grass underneath was wet from it. I was worried about staying there because it was really dangerous.

“But I’ve decided to stay. If people were alive, I thought I could help them. Unfortunately, apart from the hiss of the plane, it was silent – ​​there were no voices calling for help.”

The Department of Trade and Industry’s Accident Investigation Division conducted tests on the wreck


mirror image)

Frances was one of the first to arrive at the scene of what remains the worst aviation accident in Britain.

Two paramedics, who Frances knew from her six years in the hospital, joined her in searching for survivors.

Frances says: “When we checked on the plane, it seemed like a lot of people were dead. There was no movement at all.”

Irish businessman Melville was nearly unconscious and unable to speak. He died shortly after arriving at the hospital. None of those on board survived.

Frances says she knew there was no hope, adding, “We were just glad we were there to take care of people as best we could.”

So many drivers parked their cars along the nearby A30 to view the disaster area that rescue workers were delayed in reaching the site.

“I didn’t see all the viewers crowding in as I focused on the people we found,” says Frances.

Frances’s words to the man found in a fuel-soaked field near the remains of a crashed passenger plane were gentle and reassuring


Adam Gerrard / Daily Mirror)

“Eventually the police came and one of the officers took my name and number. I told him it was a privilege to be able to stay and help.”

Six weeks later, Frances returned to the crash site with her husband. She says: “It was very poignant because it was a sunny day, but it was very quiet.

“When we first hear about people who have died, we hear it in numbers and that’s a shock.

“But maybe even worse is when we learn their names, their ages and what they mean to their families. All their intelligence, their future and all the love they had in life were gone.”

In 1973, Frances was awarded an MBE for her bravery.

“I went to Buckingham Palace to pick it up from the Queen, but when I received this award I had very mixed feelings,” says Frances. “It seemed sad to get it when it was about something so tragic.”

Her award came on the day the public inquiry into the crash was released.

She was shocked at the conclusion: pilot error caused the plane to stall and the plane had not been at sufficient altitude for the crew to regain control.

An underlying cause was that the captain, Stanley Key, 51, had a heart condition.

Among those killed were 16 doctors and senior staff at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital.

Over the decades, Frances has met many relatives and friends of those killed.

She says, “I’ve always tried to convey to them that even though I’m not related to the deceased, I really want them to be cared for and that everything possible is done for them.”

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Frances, who still lives in the same house as she did then, attended a service marking the 50th anniversary of the disaster.

The faith that comforted her after the accident inspired her to serve 25 years as a chaplain at Ashford Hospital after retiring as a registered nurse.

Frances says: “Immediately after the crash, all I could think about was how sad it was that so many people died… It could have been an even bigger catastrophe.

“This field was the only green space outside of Staines, and if the plane had flown another 50 meters it would have hit downtown.

“I’m glad I could be there to help or offer comfort in any way.

“Prayer and special services where all families can be together and talk together help ensure lost people are never forgotten.”

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