In the early morning of 25 December 1954 the RMS Cathay, a British Overseas Airways Corporation Boeing 377 Stratocruiser, crashed upon landing at Prestwick Airport killing 28 people.

The aircraft had been on a flight from Heathrow Airport to New York with scheduled stop-overs at Manchester and Prestwick airports.  Due to bad weather the Manchester stop was cancelled.  The scheduled flight left Heathrow at 11.43pm but a little over an hour later it returned to London with a mechanical problem and the 25 passengers, 11 crew members and cargo were transferred to the ‘Cathay’ which left London at 1.05am bound for Prestwick, where 21 of its passengers would disembark.

The aircraft arrived over the Prestwick terminal 90 minutes after it had taken off but had to wait half an hour while a Constellation aircraft was safely ‘talked down’.  Then it was the turn of the RMS Cathay.  Initially it appeared that the RMS Cathay had been safely ‘talked down’, but it hit the ground 127 feet short of Runway 31, suffering some damage, before proceeding along the runway for 90 feet, after which it became airborne for another 400 feet, before coming into contact with the runway again and sustaining considerable damage as it came to rest with the passenger compartment in an inverted position on the south side of the runway, the port wing severed off and the fuel tanks ruptured.

Within minutes of the crash the airport fire and rescue services along with United States Air Force personnel rushed to the scene, who were quickly supported by appliances from 7 County fire brigades.  As the petrol tanks exploded the flames shot to a height of 40 feet. 

Two people, passenger Mr Henry J. Russell and Engineer Officer G. C. Wilson, were thrown from the plane as it crashed.  Twenty-four passengers, including 2 children and 4 crew members were killed.  The 7 crew members who survived, including Captain William Laing Stewart and First Officer Kenneth Arthur King, had been in the control cabin.

Navigator J. Goddard desperately tried reach his wife and son who were in the passenger section of the aircraft but was beaten back by the flames.  Stewardess Margaret Coogan was found beneath a wing and dragged to safety by a fireman, but she later died of her injuries.  Sixteen of the dead were of Scottish nationality, including 6 from South Ayrshire. 

Glasgow Herald 21 July 1955 page 5

The air crash was witnessed by the friends and family members of those who had come to meet the passengers returning home for the Christmas break.  Littered amongst the burning wreckage of the aircraft were lifejackets, pillows, Christmas mail and children’s Christmas toys.

The public inquiry into the disaster was opened on 28 March 1955.  It found that the accident was caused by an error of judgment on the part of Captain William Laing Stewart, contributed to by the First Officer’s failure to turn on the aircraft’s landing lights as they approached the airport and the presence of low cloud near the threshold to the runway.

The names of the dead were:

  • Miss Nancy Campbell, The Lodge, Lochgreen, Troon
  • Mr A. Hepburn, Octoline Drive, Troon
  • Miss M. E. Gilmour, Belmont Road, Ayr
  • Mr and Mrs John Lamont, Heathfield Road, Ayr
  • Mr Leslie Cowans Wilson, Castlehill House, Ayr
  • Mr & Mrs J. D. Smith, Mainhill, Alloway
  • Miss Margaret J. Neilson, Afton Lodge, Annbank Station
  • Mr and Mrs David Macklin, Glasgow
  • Mr & Mrs D. Beauchamp, Edinburgh
  • Mr Terence Brady, Linlithgow
  • Mr Richard Cochrane, Hawkhurst, Kent
  • Mr P. H. Boyd, Hayes, Middlesex
  • Mrs G. Goddard and son, Hounslow, Middlesex
  • Mr Kenneth R. Davidson, New York
  • Mr and Mrs W Mayland, Evanston, Illinois
  • Mr L. L. Goldfine, Liguanea, Jamaica
  • Stewardess Margaret Coogan, Hoylake, Cheshire
  • Steward Stanley Progin, his wife and daughter, Ealing, London
  • Steward Charles Ness, Paisley
  • Steward J. Hall, Romford, Essex