A British European Airways Vickers Viking 1B, Vigilant, bearing the UK Civil registration G-AIVL, was en route from London (Northolt) to Paris on Thursday April 13, 1950. The weather conditions that evening were stormy. Over the English Channel, an hour from Paris, there was a loud bang in the tail section of the aircraft. Whatever had happened blew two large holes approximately 8′ x 4′ on either side of the fuselage. The damage to the aircraft’s structure made elevator and rudder control practically impossible. The flight attendant was severely injured and several passengers pulled her away from the gaping hole.
The pilot that evening was Captain Ian Harvey DFC, a former RAF Bomber Command pilot. Captain Harvey thought the aircraft had been struck by lightning, and decided the safest course of action was to return to his departure point at Northolt. He was not aware of the full extent of the damage to Vigilant and, to the consternation of ground observers, actually made two attempts at landing, overshooting the first but making a long slow approach and landing safely on the second.
One observer commented that Vigilant looked as if it had been hit by Anti-Aircraft fire. On further investigation, it was apparent that an explosion had occurred inside the aircraft since the holes in the fuselage were blown out. It was later discovered that a bomb, referred to as an “infernal machine” in the inquiry and subsequent report, had probably been hidden in the waste paper receptacle in the toilet at the rear of the aircraft.
I read about this incident as a schoolboy in a chapter (“The Infernal Machine”) of Ralph Barker’s book Great Mysteries of the Air (London: Chatto & Windus, 1966) . Barker didn’t have any suggestions as to who might have planted the bomb. In recent years, suspicion has apparently fallen on a French passenger who was allegedly trying to kill himself. The 31 other people on board the Viking (27 other passengers, 4 crew) were to be sacrificed as part of his suicide plan. Captain Ian Harvey received the George Medal for his gallantry and “extreme coolness” in landing the crippled Viking. After a long career with BEA, Captain Harvey died in 2004, aged 83. Sue Cramsie, the flight attendant, made a full recovery from her injuries and resumed her duties. Surprisingly, Vigilant was repaired and put back into service with BEA, eventually being sold to British Eagle and enjoying a second career there.
Today I was amazed to see some Pathé newsreel footage on YouTube showing Vigilant with Metropolitan Police CID officers inspecting the damage. The hole in the rear fuselage is amazing to behold. I felt that this little piece of aviation history deserved to be shared.