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Thursday 22nd December

Background

Large scale

RAYNET callout

Cleveland RAYNET callout

Friday 23rd December

Situation report

Telephones

Cell phones

Utilities damage

The wind

Saturday 24th December

Search sectors

RAYNET comms.

Main tasks outside

The searches

Cleveland RAYNET locations 24th December

Cleveland RAYNET locations 25th December

Radio messages

RAYNET repeaters

Written messages

Maps and navigation

Fitness limitations

Minibus: 28th December

Cleveland RAYNET locations 29th December

Cleveland RAYNET locations 30th December

Cleveland RAYNET locations 31st December

Where did we sleep?

What about Christmas?

Keep it confidential

Expenses claimed from the REPO

Observations

Lessons learned

Finally

Thursday 22nd December

Cleveland RAYNET Group Controller was telephoned on Thursday evening 22nd December 1988 at 21:00 hrs by the RAYNET Zone 1 Co-ordinator.  All RAYNET groups in Northumberland, Tyne & Wear, Durham and Cleveland were on standby.  We could expect to be called out on Friday 23rd or Saturday 24th December.

In theory, the user service would be the Regional Emergency Planning Officer.  In practice, it would include many others.

Being placed on standby instead of being called out immediately is a great advantage as it gives us plenty of time to prepare.

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Background

The Maid of the Seas was a Boeing 747 aircraft.  On that fateful evening of Wed 21st December, it was designated as Pan Am Flight 103.  It left Heathrow at 18:25 hrs with 259 people on board and was bound for JFK airport.  It headed on a great circle route to New York.

At 19:03 hrs Pan Am Flight 103 was at 31,000 feet above Lockerbie in Scotland when it vanished from radar at Prestwick Air Traffic Control.  Witnesses heard an explosion and one said it was raining fire.

The impact registered on remote seismometers as 1.6 on the Richter scale.  Parts of the aircraft hit the ground at Lockerbie.  Many people dialled 999.  The Emergency Services turned out and soon realised the scale of situation.  It was declared a Major Incident.  Other organisations were called out to assist the Blue Light organisations.

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Large scale

To give an idea of the scale of the disaster relief operation as regards manpower, when the incident occurred there would normally be 4 police officers in Lockerbie.

This eventually increased to 1,100 police officers, plus 1,000 military personnel (Army and RAF), plus 500 more from the professional and voluntary sectors.  This made an eventual total of 2,600 extra people in the Lockerbie area dealing with the disaster.  Plus the press, radio and television people.

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RAYNET callout

The callout of RAYNET was initiated by the REPO – the Regional Emergency Planning Officer.  At that time, England and Wales had CEPOs and Scotland had REPOs.

Dumfries & Galloway RAYNET Group was called out.  Eventually, distant groups were put on standby.  Over the next few days, RAYNET groups from all over Scotland, England and Wales were involved.

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Cleveland RAYNET callout

The group callout plan is based on a telephone callout with personal visits and amateur radio channels used if telephones are not working.  When alerted and the callout has been passed down the chain, the standard procedure is for members to come on the air on the local RAYNET channel from home or where they happen to be.

Although many of us had heard of the plane crash on the TV news that day or the previous evening, it didn’t occur to us that we would be needed as we are so far away.

The group telephone callout was initiated.  All available members established a VHF radio network from home.  They were briefed that operators would be needed in Lockerbie area: in buildings, cars and on foot.  They could expect a callout tomorrow or Saturday.  They should monitor the local RAYNET channel and connect to the AX.25 Packet Data Mailbox to watch for updates.

Packet Data Mailboxes are a pre-runner of e-mail facilities.  There is a national and international network of amateur radio mailboxes linked on HF, VHF and UHF frequencies.  Using this, radio amateurs can send messages via their computers to either individuals or groups of radio amateurs.

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Friday 23rd December

No callout was received in the morning.  Lockerbie is 93 miles away from us on a straight line.  We could hear some of the VHF RAYNET radio network around Lockerbie.

We wanted more information but didn’t want to stop the flow of more important radio messages.  We decided to send a volunteer to Lockerbie to gather information that would be useful to us and to report back either by telephone or to find a large hill and contact us on the Cleveland RAYNET VHF channel.  At noon, one RAYNET member was sent to Lockerbie.

Our advance volunteer reached Lockerbie and warned us to buy Ordnance Survey maps and street maps of the area before we set off, or somewhere on the way.  Local shops had sold out of them.

He was about to walk with SARDA (Search & Rescue Dog Association) to provide comms from a night search back to Lockerbie Control.  Search dogs are trained by their volunteer handlers to search for human scent and to bark when they find people.  Their use is very limited if many people are near, but the dogs are excellent at finding individuals or a group of people in unpopulated areas.  They work on air scent, not on ground scent.  They don’t usually follow trails.

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Situation report

Our advance volunteer at Lockerbie set the scene for us.  The A74(M) road runs north-south and is on the west side of Lockerbie.  The aircraft’s nose-cone hit ground on the west side of the A74.  Part of the fuselage and wing hit Lockerbie near the south-bound carriageway of the A74(M).  Vehicles on the A74(M) had caught fire.  One carriageway had been closed.  Bodies, body parts and aircraft debris were dispersed over a huge area (later proved to be 845 square miles).

Later on Friday, we were told by the RAYNET Zone 1 Co-ordinator to be at Lockerbie for 07:30 hrs on Saturday morning 24th December.

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Telephones

The burning Boeing 747 wing and fuselage crashed next to the A74(M) and as British Telecom lay their trunk cables at the side of main roads, the trunk cables were destroyed.  Lockerbie telephone exchange was therefore partially isolated from other towns.  The exchange was overloaded with calls.  Telephone service was still available, but limited.

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Cell phones

Cell phones are a commercial enterprise, so the number of cellular (mobile) telephone base stations depends on the population of an area.  Lockerbie is a small town and so there weren’t many cell phone base stations in that area.

The public tried using cell phones.  The Emergency Services tried using cell phones.  The press, radio and TV tried using cell phones.  Cell phone service was virtually unusable as the system only allowed for a small number of calls to be made at the same time.  Its capacity was very much overloaded.

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Utilities damage

Apart from telephones being limited, some gas supplies were cut, some water supplies were cut and some electricity supplies were cut.

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The wind

The wind was from the west.  The Boeing 747 was torn apart at 31,000 feet.  Most heavy and compact items were close to Lockerbie.  Lighter items such as letters and papers were carried by the wind and ended up a large distance to the east near Kielder Forest.

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Saturday 24th December

Thanks to our advance volunteer, we back in Teesside had useful information on what to expect when we got there.  We had been using computer messages on Packet Data Mailboxes to liaise with Zones 1 and 2 RAYNET groups.

We arranged to rendezvous with Richmond (North Yorkshire) RAYNET Group at 05:30 hrs in a service station on the M6 motorway, 11 miles north of Penrith.  We had breakfast at the RV point and then continued north.

We arrived at Lockerbie and found our way to Incident Control at Lockerbie Academy.  11 Cleveland RAYNET members reported for duty at 07:30 hrs, along with many others.

The system was that each morning we would be briefed on the tasks for the day and volunteers obtained for each task.  We had assumed that we would be working shifts to cover 24 hours a day but the system had changed as the searches were virtually impossible to do in the dark.  We would be working day shifts only, from 08:00 hrs to 18:00 hrs.

The canteen at Control was being run very capably by the Women's Royal Voluntary Service and they provided an excellent service over the entire length of the disaster relief operation.  RAYNET operators manning radios at Control could arrange relief operators for toilet breaks or meal breaks.  Those working outside Control could collect food and drink from the WRVS before leaving.

At 08:30 hrs, the Cleveland RAYNET Group Controller suddenly realised that he seemed to be in charge of 130 RAYNET operators.  He didn't know which callsign was at which location.  He didn't know how many reserve operators were available or where they were.  He had no local knowledge.  People were asking questions for which he had no answers.  He didn't know where he was going to sleep that night.  He would have been much happier spending Christmas Eve elsewhere.  Tough!  He shouldn't have joined if he wanted an easy life.

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Search sectors

A) Sherwood Park.
B) Rosebank Estate.
C) Beechgrove and Golf Course.
D) Tundergarth.
E) Halldyke Farm.
F) Balsock Farm.
G) Dunnable.
H) Kennels Bank.
I) Border Forest.

Search sectors had been defined for areas in or close to Lockerbie.  Sherwood Crescent was where the fuselage and wing had hit.  There were many bodies in the golf course and other areas.  RAYNET members whose real work was in the Fire Service, Police or NHS tended to volunteer to work in search areas which were known to be bad i.e. which had many bodies or parts of bodies.  They later regretted this, as the incident was like nothing which anybody had seen before, but somebody had to do it.

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RAYNET comms.

The general communications plan was as follows.  Lockerbie Academy was the Control point used by all services and organisations.  Each organisation had their own room.  Communications were needed between Control and the many disaster relief personnel working across a large area.  Although a RAYNET operator may have accompanied a particular police officer, RAYNET passed messages for many other organisations, including the FBI.

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Main tasks outside

The RAF carried out photo reconnaissance flights.  RAF and civil helicopters had established a landing area a few minutes walk from Control.  Carlisle Airport is relatively small.  It had changed to working 24 hour shifts so that it could fuel the helicopters and operate a full-time Air Traffic Control System.

Helicopters were also used to transport personnel to or from some search areas.  We discovered that RAF and civil helicopters have problems talking to each other by radio.  They both have access to a standard aircraft radio channel but there didn’t seem to be any common working channels for long conversations.

The RAF photographs of the ground were made into a mosaic on a wall in a room at Control.  These showed up areas with large amounts of debris which came from Flight 103.  In some cases, RAYNET would walk with a police inspector to check an area before a full search and recovery team was sent to the area.

The Army provided much of the manpower to search, record and recover the debris.  Volunteer Moors Search & Rescue Teams or Mountain Search & Rescue Teams also provided manpower.  The police supervised the actual searches.  Initially, we thought we were also looking for survivors.  With hindsight, it seems a silly idea.

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The searches

The function of the searches was to find and recover every part of the aircraft and all of its contents.  This included all bodies, body parts, clothing, luggage and people’s possessions which had been on the aircraft.

The location of all debris was recorded and treated as police evidence in case a crime was proven to be committed.  The aircraft was later to be assembled by the government's DTI Air Accident Investigation Branch in a hangar in a different part of the UK as a method of proving the cause of the crash.

We had been briefed about touching things which could turn out to be important evidence.  At the time, nobody knew why the plane had exploded.

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Cleveland RAYNET locations 24th December

Here are the locations of Cleveland RAYNET members on Christmas Eve.  When radio amateurs pass the exam and receive a licence to use their radio equipment, they are issued with a callsign which they must use.  Radio amateurs in Great Britain are issued with callsigns starting with G, so callsigns below indicate a Cleveland RAYNET member.

G8EIA: Net Controller.
G4MCF: Net Control assistant.
G8KIK: Net Control message logger.
G4KUU: DTI AAIB.
G4OLK: DTI AAIB and police dog handlers in sectors F, G, then H.
G8HZS: Mortuary (Ice Rink).
G8VFE: Mortuary (Ice Rink).
G1AAG: Mortuary, then Moffat Mountain Rescue Team, then police underwater search team.
G4ZML: Asst. Chief Constable.
G7AOR: Asst. Chief Constable (Relief).

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Cleveland RAYNET locations 25th December

G8EIA: Net Controller.
G4WZG: Net Control assistant.
G1AAG: DTI AAIB.
G8HZS: Mortuary.

On Christmas Day, there were 4 Cleveland members at Lockerbie.  At the end of the day, we returned home and other RAYNET groups took our place.

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Radio messages

Our radio messages on behalf of the various user services were usually to or from Control.  There wasn’t much of a requirement to send messages between search teams.  If we were close to Control, messages could be sent on a direct radio path.  If further away, there was no direct radio path due to the hills.  We set up a network of Talk-Through Units (radio repeaters) on VHF and UHF to extend the range of the system.

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RAYNET repeaters

Talk-Through Units, or repeaters, can consist of a VHF radio and a UHF radio connected together by wires.  It could also be a single box, housing a dual-band radio. 

Any radio signals received on the UHF channel are automatically transmitted at the same time on the VHF channel.  A reply on VHF gets transmitted onto UHF.  In this way, a Talk-Through Unit placed in a car on a suitable hill can at least double the normal radio range. 

   

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Written messages

Where possible, all messages were written down at the originating end and at the destination end.  This may be slow but gives the accuracy of the written word.  It also leaves a word for word record which can later be checked.

Net Control kept a log of every message, showing the time, where it was sent to, where is was from, and the serial number.  This can help with problems at a later time.

Operators using handheld radios may have had problems but others used written messages.  The user service wrote its message on a RAYNET message form, then handed it to the RAYNET operator.  RAYNET sent the message to its destination where it was written down and a copy handed to the user service.  This maintained accuracy.  If the receiving RAYNET operator said “What is the word before ‘suitcase’?”, the transmitting operator could look at the message form and reply “brown”.  When messages are not written down, the transmitting operator may not be able to remember exactly what was said.

A RAYNET station may be handling many messages from different user services.  Message serial numbers are useful.  Firstly, they indicate the date and time when the message was originated.  Secondly, they can be used in replies to save repeating the original message.  For example “Re your message 25 1428.  About 1 hour.” is the reply to a message sent on the 25th of the month at time 1428.

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Maps and navigation

RAYNET operators are trained and practised at map reading.  The Regional Emergency Planning Officer provided photocopiers at Control and black and white copies of maps were issued.  Entertainment was in short supply, so when it rained and these maps turned to pulp, we made papier mache objects out of them.

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Fitness limitations

You don’t have to be physically fit to be a RAYNET member.  Currently, a few members are reasonably fit for walking over rough terrain at a reasonable pace but most are not.  Some have much walking experience but are very slow. Others are not equipped for walking or are too unfit.

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Minibus: 28th December

On Wednesday, 28th December, we prepared to return to Lockerbie.  A Hartlepool company kindly offered us the free use of a minibus.  Arranging insurance for the minibus was a problem.  We tried firm after firm, but couldn’t get an answer.  We guessed that the problem was due to extended Christmas festivities.

Although we couldn’t think how he may be able to help, we telephoned the County Emergency Planning Officer and told him about the problem.  By co-incidence, a friend of his ran an insurance company.  We dialled the number and got a reply.  The minibus insurance was soon arranged over the phone.

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Cleveland RAYNET locations 29th December

On Thursday 29th December, 13 Cleveland RAYNET Group members went to Lockerbie to relieve the other groups working there.  The Group Controller had had enough of doing Net Control, so instead went with a CID inspector for a gentle ramble across the fields and heather.  He was walked off his feet.

G1AAG: SARDA team.
G8MBK: Search sector E base.
G4KUU: Police, search sector E.
G4MCF: Police, search sector E.
G7AOR: Police, search sector E.
G8KIK: Police, search sector E.
G4WZG:  Search sector H base.
G4OLK: North Wales SARDA team, CAA and police, search sector H.
G8EIA: CID and Army, search sector H.
G8HZS: REPO, search sector H.
G4ZML: Police, search sector H.
G8VFE: Police, search sector H.
G8YDC: Police, search sector H.

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Cleveland RAYNET locations 30th December

Cleveland RAYNET was still present on the Friday, and most of us went home at the end of the day.

G8HZS: Boeing and Pan Am.
G4MCF: CID, search sector F.
G7AOR: CID, search sector F.
G4OLK: Search sector G base.
G4WZG: Search sector H base.
G4ZML: Police, search sector H.
G8YDC: Police, search sector H.
G8VFE: CID, search sector H (in helicopter).
G1AAG: Police dog handlers, search sector I (in helicopter).

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Cleveland RAYNET locations 31st December

On this Saturday, only one Cleveland member was present.  This was our last day, although other groups continued.

G8YDC: Police, search sector H.

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Where did we sleep?

There were 2,600 extra people in Lockerbie, plus the media.  Initially, local hotels and B&Bs were used, then more distant hotels.

The Regional Emergency Planning Officer liaised with the local community.   Lockerbie residents with spare bedrooms were very happy to have us in their houses.  They were pleased they could help.  Later on, schools and church calls were also used to sleep in.

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What About Christmas?

As the incident happened a few days before Christmas and continued for a couple of weeks, most people simply cancelled Christmas.  They didn’t feel like celebrating.  Lockerbie residents explained to their children why celebrations would be postponed.  Presents were unopened.

Being short of entertainment again, we found that a filter mask worn on top of your head in the WRVS canteen looks vaguely festive.

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Keep it confidential

All used message forms were collected at the end of each day.  All Control logs were collected at the end of each day.  In general, the taking of  photographs was not allowed.

RAYNET were told to refer all media questions to the police media liaison team.

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Expenses claimed from the REPO

RAYNET is voluntary.  We often get donations for providing communications at an event.  For the Lockerbie incident, we were later told that we could claim expenses from the Regional Emergency Planning Officer.  Although he worked in Scotland, he used to live in Middleton St George on Teesside.  We claimed:-

£201.11  Fuel
£  80.00  Accommodation
£  23.67  Food
£  17.80  Maps
£  11.60  Minibus insurance
£334.18  Total over 6 days
Average £25.71 per person
Average £4.28 per person per day

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Observations

Observations noted include the following.  Initially, we didn’t always organise ourselves to best advantage.  There were some radio failures.  Any problems were all cured and the RAYNET aspect of the incident worked well. The prominent features were the immense area needing saturation radio coverage and the amount of communications required by so many user services.

An ice rink makes an ideal temporary mortuary.  Just cover the ice with tarpaulins.

We had set up an HF radio link to New York as it was thought it would be needed, but it wasn’t.

It isn’t easy to forecast manning requirements.  It is best to have plenty of reserve members to cope with changing requirements.  They also serve who stand and wait.  If reserves are present, they can be allocated instantly.  If there are no reserves, there is no back-up for unexpected situations.

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Lessons learned

The RAYNET Controller on each shift must have immediate access to at least one RAYNET member with local knowledge.
If operating far from home, take sufficient vehicles and personal luggage to be as flexible and self-sufficient as possible.
Take enough transport.  Some people will be able to stay longer than others and all must have transport home.
Take enough money.
Buy laminated OS maps before leaving your home area.  Paper maps are of little use in the rain.
Take cups, many empty vacuum flasks and sandwich boxes.  The WRVS will fill them for use out in the field.
Helicopters are extremely noisy.  Use headphones and a throat mike when in or near them.
Don’t discuss sensitive information in the canteen, even though it is in a secure area.  The media may be present, or victims’ relatives.  Or Prince Charles, who made a visit.
The national HF RAYNET channel should have been set up at an early stage to give situation reports to other groups and allow others to take some of the organising workload.
Many RAYNET groups from different areas and with different dialects and accents can work well together.
Black humour is a strong defence against unpleasant working conditions but outsiders don’t understand this.

Finally

Strathclyde RAYNET Controller got a new job as a REPO.

The Assistant Chief Constable was awarded an OBE at the time of the flight 103 incident.  A year later, the Dumfries & Galloway RAYNET Group Controller was awarded an MBE by the Queen.

If you participate in a simulated disaster exercise and are told that telephones are dead, and that water, gas and electricity are cut off, don’t say that the scenario is totally unlikely.

Packet data message after the incident

MBE

Packet data message from the RAYNET chairman one year later

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Page updated on 09 January 2017

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