originally published in Supernatural Peak District (Robert Hale: London, 1999) – also see my 2013 blogpost ‘Yorkshire Ghost Plane Mystery Solved‘ here.
A Sheffield woman called Doreen Ashall described will never forget the ‘ghost plane’ which turned an ordinary day out into a magical mystery tour. Doreen had been on a day-trip to Derbyshire with her husband Gordon, their daughter and son-in-law. The family were travelling in the Ashall’s four wheeled drive and had reached a crossroads at Grindleford when they saw what Doreen described as ‘a huge old plane’ flying low in the sky, and apparently heading straight towards them. Gordon, who was driving, almost went into a ditch and Doreen said she was tempted to duck her head as the plane swooped silently above the startled foursome before disappearing from sight. The couple were so certain the plane would have collided with one of the nearby rocky fells if it had continued in its flightpath that they stopped at a nearby cafe and alerted the police in Chesterfield. The duty officer checked with local airports and reported back to the puzzled family that ‘there was no record of any aircraft in the vicinity at that time.’
The Ashalls were left with an experience that was both striking and real to them but for which there was no obvious explanation. Doreen said: ‘It was definitely real and I saw everything and no one can tell me did not see it. I’m sure I saw what I saw.’
Equally sure was a Chesterfield man called Tony Ingle, who was so puzzled by what he saw in the sky over the Peak District that he contacted a local newspaper. Tony was enjoying a holiday break at a caravan park at Hope when he decided to take his golden retriever Ben for a walk one sunny April afternoon in 1995. As they strolled along leafy Aston Lane, Tony suddenly put a foot backwards in time…and was astounded to see what appeared to be a wartime aircraft flying between forty and sixty feet in the air above him.
‘It was very eerie…I could see the propellers going round but there was no sound,’ Tony said. ‘It was getting lower and lower and I thought “crikey, this thing’s going to crash…” It was bizarre…I could see it was banking as if trying to turn, and then it seemed to go down just over a hedge. I ran up the lane to see if I could see anything. I expected a plane to be in the field but there was nothing…just lambs and sheep. Everything was silent, you could hear a pin drop…the best way I can describe it was as if someone had died; it was terrible, a very eerie sensation.’
Tony has been back to Aston Lane many times but Ben refuses to go anywhere near the field where the plane appeared to crash. ‘He just cowers and won’t budge and the only time I tried to pull him along he just slipped his collar,’ he said. Before his experience, Tony did not believe in ghosts but now he is not so sure. ‘I have racked my brains for a logical explanation but I can’t find one. I can’t explain it; I saw that plane all right, and it disappeared before my eyes.”
Coincidentally Tony’s sighting came just a short while after plaques commemorating two wartime tragedies, which claimed the lives of a dozen Allied airmen, were unveiled in the hills of the Peak. The air crashes, just two of fifty separate accidents which have claimed the lives of more than two hundred pilots and crew since the Second World War, have added to the sinister reputation of the mountains among fliers. These tragedies of half a century ago have become woven into local folklore and have more recently provided the backdrop to a string of reports describing ‘ghostplanes’ which have baffled both the emergency services who have responded to calls of crashing planes and local historians who have struggled to explain them.
For experiences of Tony Ingle and the Ashall family are certainly not unique. Over the last ten years the high moors between Sheffield and Manchester have become the scene of dozens of sightings of phantom planes. They are generally described as large, prop-driven machines of Second World War vintage, make no noise and vanish before the eyes of startled witnesses, often leaving them with the impression that the plane has ‘crashed.’ A number of witnesses have said that the plane they saw was so low they instinctively felt the urge to ‘duck’ their heads as it passed overhead. No sign of a crash has ever been found when searches have been carried out by the police and mountain rescue teams.
Aviation historians who have studied the reports have said the description given by Tony Ingle in particular resembles a WW2 vintage C-47 Dakota or a Wellington bomber. Strangely enough, there have been crashes of both types of aircraft in the same area of the Peak District within living memory which have claimed the lives of air crew from several nations. Almost exactly half a century before Tony Ingle’s sighting, on 24 July 1945, a Dakota crashed into the Peakland hills with the loss of all six US aircrew and an RAF passenger travelling on the plane. The C-47 came to grief above Shelf Moor near Glossop on a routine supply trip from Leicester to Scotland. Captain George Johnson ignored advice which suggested he should fly up the East Coast to avoid deteriorating weather. Instead he took a short cut across the Pennine mountains and became lost and disorientated in mist before the plane crashed into the crags of Bleaklow.
Of the existing Dakotas still operating today, just one is flown by the RAF and 11 are operated by Air Atlantique which runs the largest civilian Dakota operation in the world. A film crew who made a mini-documentary on the ghostplane mystery ran checks with the company and were able to establish that none of these planes were airborne at the time of Tony’s sighting. The single Dakota operated by the RAF was flying that day, but was more than 150 miles away at the time.
So the mystery has continued and in recent years has been increased by sightings of what appear to be ghostly versions of the wartime Avro Lancaster bomber which was used with devastating effect by the RAF against the cities of Nazi Germany in the Second World War. On several occasions a phantom Lancaster has been spotted skimming across the still waters of the giant Ladybower reservoir in Derbyshire’s Derwent Valley. Stories which have been circulating in the area for almost twenty years describe how the ghost flier appears on moonlit nights and vanishes before the eyes of spectators. A typical sighting reported to writer Wayne Boylan came from a couple called the Shaws who were returning home along the Snake Pass after a visit to relatives in Glossop one still, moonlit night in October 1982. They had pulled into a layby beside Ladybower for a breath of fresh air when Mr Shaw caught sight of something flying across the waters of the reservoir towards them. The object swung around to his right and continued up the reservoir, and he concluded that it must have been a hang-glider. It was at then that the flying object turned again and flew back towards the couple and at that precise moment there was a sudden burst of moonlight which revealed the familiar outline of a Lancaster bomber of World War Two vintage. Mr Shaw said: ‘It continued flying over the reservoir for about two hundred yards and then, quite suddenly, vanished before our eyes, leaving myself and my wife stunned at what we had witnessed.’
The Ladybower reservoir is just one part of the larger Derwent Dams complex which stretches north from the Ashopton viaduct towards the Derwent and Howden reservoirs, built between 1901 and 1916. Ladybower was added during the 1930s when the beautiful green valleys were flooded to create a huge reservoir and immense dam wall covering houses, farms and Derwent’s parish church beneath millions of gallons of water. Less than a decade later, the peaceful silence of the new complex was shattered by the drone of Rolls Royce Merlin engines as waves of low flying aircraft dived and skimmed across the dams and reservoirs. These were crewed by the daring pilots who formed one of the most famous of the RAF squadrons during the Second World War. It was at the Derwent dams and others at Bradfield near Sheffield, where the hand-picked crews of the famous 617 squadron led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson flew training sorties before their attack on Germany’s Mohne and Eder dams in 1943. On occasions the crews used the twin towers of the dam to practice their attack runs, sometimes flying as low as fifty feet above the water. During the training the RAF crews used bags of flour in place of the ‘bouncing bomb’ they were to carry in the forthcoming attack upon the German Ruhr.
While the daredevil nature of the practice runs often placed the Lancaster crews in great danger, none were ever lost or disabled in an accident which might have triggered stories about a ghost plane. Despite this missing link the direct association between the legend of the ‘Dambusters’ Squadron and the Derwent Dams is undeniable and is today a major tourist attraction for the area. On several occasions during the past twenty years, squadron veterans have revisited the dams to watch the last remaining operational Lancasters perform a symbolic fly-over watched by thousands of visitors to the National Park. Derwent Valley’s historian Vic Hallam said it was during this same period that rumours first began to circulate describing ghost fliers in this part of the Derwent Valley. Before that time there were stories about phantom organ music and bells ringing in the steeple of drowned church at Derwent, which can on rare occasions be glimpsed above the water when the reservoirs are low.
Vic runs a small museum dedicated to the Dambusters Squadron which is housed in a tower in the Derwent Dam itself. Many hundreds of visitors have visited the displays of memorabilia and a number of them have volunteered their own sightings of ghostly wartime aircraft around the reservoirs. ‘It’s a real puzzle, but the ordinary people who see these things are genuine, they are not cranks.’ Vic told me. The one story which impressed him the most was that of a woman who had been sat in a car with her husband enjoying a cup of tea from a flask on the Ladybower viaduct, near the site of the lost village. It was a fine, sunny afternoon and as she glanced sideways through the window she saw a plane fly past the car ‘as quiet as a mouse.’ It was a large, dark coloured bomber of the Lancaster type and the woman said she distinctly saw four engines with propellers whirling round. She watched it fly past and disappear into the trees before turning to her husband but at first she did not dare to say anything in case he had not seen it. Her fear evaporated when she saw the look of shock etched upon his face and before she could utter a word he turned to her and said ‘Did you see that?’
‘She came and asked about it in 1998 wanting to know if the Lancaster which sometimes visits had come over,’ Vic explained. ‘But I had to tell her there was no question about there being a four-engined bomber in the area at that time. They were also clear that the aircraft they saw was an old wartime Lancaster, which is nothing like the Hercules transports we sometimes get over the valley. The pair of them were literally staggered and the lack of sound is unaccountable because if it was a real Lancaster you would have been able to hear the familiar growling sound of the engines for miles.’
Only two serviceable Lancasters are currently in existence which could possibly account for these puzzling sightings. One forms part of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, while the other is preserved in the aircraft museum at Duxford. The pilot of the Coningsby Lancaster, Flight Lieutenant Mike Chatterton, says the aircraft are flown only during the summer months when they take part in high profile, and well-advertised display work. During the winter, the ageing craft are confined to their bases for servicing. Asked about the phantom Dambuster sightings, Flight Lieut Chatterton told a documentary film crew: ‘I have heard rumours that aircraft resembling old wartime Lancasters have been seen flying over the Peak District hills in the winter, but I can confirm they are not ours.’
While there are no records of Lancasters being lost in tragic circumstances in the Derwent valley one did crash into the hills west of the valley. All six crew of the Royal Canadian Air Force Lancaster bomber from 408 Squadron died when their aircraft collided with James’s Thorn on Bleaklow on 18 May 1945. The tragedy, which happened just ten days after the end of the war in Europe, occurred during a routine flight when Captain ‘Sonny’ Clifford was caught out by bad weather above the mountains. Like many others he had decided to take a short cut across the Peak, not realising how fickle the weather could be in this region and how rapidly conditions can change without warning. Flying without his navigator Captain Clifford, a seasoned veteran at twenty one of countless raids over Nazi Germany, became lost as the light deteriorated and tried to lose altitude in a bid to locate a familiar landmark. He failed to see the rocks and crags of the Dark Peak which were shrouded in low mist and fog until it was too late.
Far from being isolated accidents the loss of the Lancaster and the USAF Dakota on the same mountain two months later were just the beginning of a series of tragedies which have continued almost until the present day. In 1948 a US Air Force B-29 Superfortress lost its way in low cloud and exploded at Higher Shelf Stones 1,600 feet up on the summit of Bleaklow while on a flight from RAF Scampton to Warrington in Cheshire. All thirteen crew including Captain Langdon P. Tanner died in the crash. Today, pieces of the wreckage from the Superfortress can still be seen partly buried in the peat groughs, high up near the exposed summit near Bleaklow Head. The crash has become the focus of an annual pilgrimage by local people who come here to pay their respects to the dead, who are commemorated by a simple shrine and a plaque. When the mist and fog descend, the place takes on an eerie atmosphere which has been noted by many visitors to the moor and has helped to discourage souvenir hunters.
It is perhaps the lingering memory of tragedies such as these which have led to the growth of stories and legends about the ghosts of airmen who continue to haunt the scene of the crashes which have claimed so many lives. Aviation historian Ron Collier has spent the last thirty years studying the Peak District aircrashes and although he finds the reports of ghost planes difficult to believe he admits to being disturbed by experiences which he cannot account for in scientific terms. ‘There has to be a logical explanation but in my research I have repeatedly come up against the paranormal,’ he says. ‘There is a force which governs the moors. You can feel it. And the scores of sightings of ghostplanes only back that up. Something is going on, and it is very difficult to explain what.’
Among the stories Ron has collected include that of a farmer who picked up debris from the wreckage of an RAF Blenheim which crashed on Sykes Moor near Glossop in 1939. ‘He picked it up for use as farming equipment and stowed them away in an outhouse,’ said Ron. ‘But then one day he and his son saw the barn almost shake itself to pieces. They immediately took all the stuff back to where they found it and it never happened again.’ Another man who was presented with a propeller from the plane later suffered such a series of disasters and personal tragedies that a year later he became desperate to dispose of the momento. ‘I saw him in a pub and he was shaking from head to foot,’ said Ron. ‘He was cursing and saying “you gave me that propeller” but I managed to calm him down and he told me the full story, and what a story it was. Within months of taking it home and putting it on display his financial world fell apart. Hs wife left him and his kids were scattered. He associated all his bad luck with that propeller, and in the end he took it back to the crash site and buried it.’
Retired Woodhead railwayman John Davies has also seen a ghost flier above the northern fells near his home in Longdendale. He tells another story about pieces of the wrecked Blenheim which he and a friend recovered and stored in an garage near their home in the valley. Soon afterwards they were terrified by a sound like a large animal – a huge cat, or a lion – sniffing around the hut late at night. Describing the experience to writer Rex Bellamy years later, John said: ‘My father didn’t believe in ghosts. But he said to me: “There’s only one thing I can say – I’d get rid of those bits of Perspex if I were you.” So I took it right up t’moors and buried it.’
Then there was the story told by a local nurse who with a group of friends had dabbled with a ouija board during her night shift. She approached Ron Collier in a terrified state, claiming the the board had spelled out a message reading: ‘Where we are now, we are not at rest,’ and then went on to give all the names of the crewmen who died in the Superfortress crash. ‘I told her to see a priest, which she did,’ he said.
Another personal experience Ron found impossible to dismiss was that of his friend, fellow historian Gerald Scarratt, who witnessed the aftermath of the B-29 crash as a Glossop schoolboy in 1948. Gerald returned to the wreck with his son a quarter of a century later and while scratching away soil during heavy rain he came across what he thought was a tiny washer. After cleaning the ‘washer’ turned out to be a gold ring engraved with the name of the plane’s captain, Langdon P. Tanner. Shortly after the discovery was publicised, a group of aircraft enthusiasts asked Scarratt to show them the place where he found the ring, and he agreed to take them up to the crash site on Bleaklow. ‘I bent down to show them where I had found the ring and when I looked up they had scarpered and were ten or fifteen yards away,’ he said. ‘When I caught up with them they were ashen-faced. They said they had seen someone standing behind me, looking down and dressed in full flying uniform. I told them I had seen nothing, but they said: “We’ve all seen him, thanks for taking us up, but we are going.” And I have never seen or heard from them again.’ Gerald added that ever since that time there have been reports not just of the ghosts of airmen, but of phantom aircraft flying over the area.
Vic Hallam recalls a weird story of a ghostly airman who emerged from the waters of the Derwent Reservoir one damp, misty morning before the eyes of a terrified walker. ‘This man was on the walkway looking towards the Derwent Dam looking up the valley,’ said Vic. ‘He was out hiking and was up there early one morning; it was quite damp and there was a mist over the dam. Then he noticed a light reflected in the water. It was a misty day, and saw a large figure come out of the dam and disappear. It wore and old brown great-coat with a sheepskin collar, flying boots and his back seemed to be on fire which explained the light he had seen reflected in the water. He just walked out of the water and disappeared into Hollingsend Wood. He was emphatic that it was definitely the figure of an airman or bomber pilot of world war vintage and he was able to describe it clearly. But he said it was unreal and not in proportion to the dam, almost as if it was a projection from something. The way he described it was a weird feeling.’ Vic added: ‘I can’t explain it but he was very sincere and very convincing. When there is a mist it looks very eerie on the dam, but I have noted that there is a single conifer on the banking which can be mistaken for the figure of an airman when the conditions are right.’
As the years pass by the ever-growing numbers of sincere people who have witnessed inexplicable happenings in the Derwent valley increases. On the surface, some of these sightings appear to be virtual replays of actual tragic events which have taken place up to fifty years ago in these hills. Peak Park Ranger Brian Jones, who is based at the Fairholmes Visitors Centre near Ladybower, says the rescue services receive several reports of supposed ‘crashed planes’ from the Derbyshire moors every year, to the extent that this kind of sighting has become almost a regular event. The sincerity and shock displayed by callers sometimes leads even the emergency services into believing real aircraft must have come down.
The most spectacular recent example happened on the night of Monday 24 March 1997 when police in both Derbyshire and South Yorkshire received a series of 999 calls reporting a low flying plane on a collision course with the Peak District hills north of the Howden Reservoir. Once again reliable witnesses, including a police special constable and several farmers reported seeing the plane and two gamekeepers were startled by a huge explosion as if something had crashed into the moors near Strines Forest. The special constable, Marie-France Tattersfield, insisted the object she saw while driving near Bolsterstone was a real plane and not a ghost. But she had to admit the plane was ‘the weirdest thing I have ever seen … it was big and it was well below the legal altitude for night flying. All its windows were lit up which made it look even more odd as no pilot would fly blind at that time of night over these hills.’ Her story was supported by a gamekeeper who said he saw the aircraft pass over as he worked on Midhope Moor. He said it was ‘definitely a plane, and it was a big one, like an old wartime Lancaster.’ It flew off towards the moors at Woodhead and he could hear a ‘loud humming noise’ as it disappeared from view.
The police were left with no choice but to take these reports seriously and called out a full mountain rescue team including more than one hundred volunteers, tracker dogs and two helicopters to search more than forty square miles of barren moor. They eventually called off the search after fifteen hours when no trace of any kind of crash could be found. Afterwards, a police spokesman admitted they could not rule out a ‘paranormal’ explanation in the light of the legend of the ghost flier. The case remains an unsolved mystery to this day, and some have even speculated that the mystery was really sparked by a UFO which crashed or had shot down a pursuing military jet over the Peak District. As an example of modern beliefs and obsessions replacing older traditions, this was a classic case of folklore in the making.
As for the Peak Park ranger, Brian Jones says he remains baffled by the continuing reports of ghost fliers and ‘phantom’ crashes but tries to take a down-to-earth view on the whole subject. Brian said that on many occasions people have reported seeing aircraft in distress and as a result the rescue team have gone on full alert before they have realised there was only a possibility that a crash had actually occurred. Often it has quickly become apparent that only a very low flying aircraft has been seen and this has been a view confirmed when checks with police and air traffic control have revealed that no planes were reported missing.
As to what it is that so many people have reported seeing, Brian remains open-minded. ‘It’s a phenomena,’ is the simple conclusion. ‘These are very genuine people and usually they are in trauma. They have seen these things, they can’t understand it, and why should I disagree with them? I honestly believe that they believe they have seen these things, and the last thing we want to do is refuse to turn out and an incident has actually occurred.’
Copyright David Clarke 2011