From London to Lockerbie: The 30th Anniversary of Pan Am 103
The late 1980s were notable for a relentless string of disasters which affected Britain; the Zeebrugge ferry capsize, the King’s Cross fire, the Piper Alpha oil platform explosion, the Hillsborough Disaster and, as seen recently on this site, the Clapham rail crash.
Christmas 2018 marks the thirtieth anniversary of another of these appalling catastrophes: The Lockerbie bombing.
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The bar at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 heaved with Christmas travellers as Jaswant Basuta enjoyed a drink with his brother-in-law.
As Sikhs, the consumption of alcohol was discouraged but that late afternoon of December 21st 1988 was an exception as Jaswant- who’d been visiting relatives in Southall, west London- was about to begin a job in New York and a merry send off was in order.
The beer flowed too easily however and before long Jaswant realised he was running late. After hasty goodbyes he jogged through Terminal 3’s seemingly endless corridors and arrived breathless at Gate 14– only to find it’d just closed.
Despite his pleas, Jaswant was refused entry to the flight that he could now see backing away from the gate: Pan Am 103.
Jaswant wasn’t the only person to miss that fateful flight bound for New York’s JFK Airport.
Also booked on Pam Am 103 were Motown legends, The Four Tops.
On December 21st the group were at BBC Television Centre, Shepherds Bush recording a performance of their latest release, ‘Loco in Acapulco’ for a festive edition of Top of the Pops.
A second recording- this time of their classic 1967 hit, ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ which was to be broadcast on the show’s new year special- was also scheduled and the group were hoping to get it in the can as quickly as possible so they could get going to Heathrow.
The show’s producer however cared little for the Four Top’s travel plans and refused to rush the schedule.
Although the group were understandably frustrated at the time, the delay saved their lives.
In Harrods meanwhile, actress Kim Catrell, who was in the UK working on ‘The Return of the Musketeers’, was purchasing a Wedgwood teapot for her mother. She too had a seat on Pan Am 103 but switched flights at the last minute in order to complete her Christmas shopping.
A clip of Kim discussing her decision can be viewed below:
Elsewhere, former Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) who, despite his anarchic image, was a self-confessed stickler for time, was embroiled in a heated row with his wife, Nora whose slowness in packing meant they too had no chance of making the flight.
The couple would soon realise just how lucky they were.
Back at Heathrow, Pam Am 103- a 747 Pan-American Jumbo Jet named ‘Clipper Maid of the Seas’- taxied on the crowded tarmac.
The jet was a real workhorse, having flown in to London from San Fransisco just a few hours before. Now cleaned and refuelled, it was ready to head back out across the Atlantic.
The Boeing 747 was one of the earliest built, having been delivered to Pan American Airlines in 1970. The company had originally christened the aircraft ‘Clipper Morning Light’ but changed the name to ‘Clipper Maid of the Seas’ in 1979.
Shortly before its name was changed the aircraft appeared in the 1978 BBC documentary ‘Diamonds in the Sky’; a series which explored the history of aviation.
The specific episode- ‘Conquering the Atlantic’- featured footage from both inside and outside the 747 as it made a routine flight from London to New York; the same route it was set to travel ten years later on December 21st 1988.
This now extremely poignant episode can be viewed in its entirety below:
Onboard Clipper Maid of the Seas were 259 passengers and crew, including 35 students from New York State’s Syracuse University who’d just completed an international semester in London.
At 6.18pm the 747’s engines howled into life, powering the huge aircraft along the runway. As it lifted and began to climb through the dark winter sky over west London, air-traffic controller, Richard Dawson watched from Heathrow’s tower and, over the radio, wished the crew goodnight.
Unbeknownst to all, a brown Samsonite suitcase belonging to nobody onboard lurked within the jumbo’s hold.
Inside the case, bundled amongst clothing, was a Toshiba ‘Bombeat’ radio-cassette player packed with a small, but lethal amount of Semtex.
At around 7pm, 38 minutes after departing Heathrow, Pan Am 103 reached its cruising altitude of 31,000 ft and radioed Scotland’s Prestwick air-traffic control to request clearance across the Atlantic Ocean.
The communication was handled by controller Alan Topp who, moments later, saw Flight 103 vanish from his radar screen.
At the same moment residents in Lockerbie– a small, friendly town in the Scottish borders just north of Gretna Green and approximately 70 miles south of Glasgow- heard a deep rumble of thunder overhead which rapidly crescendoed into a deafening roar.
Several miles above, the Semtex bomb onboard Pan Am 103 had detonated, causing a catastrophic structural failure which ripped the 747 apart.
With its engines still running and wings fully loaded with aviation fuel, the aircraft’s devastated sections plummeted towards Lockerbie in flames, smashing into the ground with terrifying force.
An animation depicting the moment the device detonated can be viewed below:
At around the same time, a British Airways flight from Glasgow to London passed high overhead.
Glancing down from the cockpit window, pilot Robin Chamberlain saw an inferno thousands of feet below, later describing the sight as “Something that looked like the burning oil fields you see in the Middle East.”
A BBC newsflash reporting the disaster can be viewed below:
Wreckage and bodies from the doomed flight were spread over a wide area; across fields, in trees, on rooftops and in back gardens.
Homes were reduced to rubble and 11 residents on Lockerbie’s Sherwood Crescent were vaporised in an almighty fireball.
According to one of the first reporters on the scene, the immediate aftermath of flaming rubble set against the night sky resembled “the London Blitz of 1940”, whilst a Lockerbie resident likened it to “Walking into hell”.
Another Lockerbie resident, Ella Ramsden– who narrowly escaped with her life when her home was destroyed- was convinced armageddon had been unleashed.
All onboard Pan Am 103 perished.
Combined with victims on the ground, a total of 270 people were killed.
It wasn’t until 2000 that the individual accused of the terrorist act- Libyan national, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi– was tried at a purpose built court in the Netherlands, the witness box of which is now displayed in the Imperial War Museum.
Found guilty of the deaths of all 270 victims, al-Megrahi was sentenced to life but was controversially released on compassionate grounds in 2009 after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Al-Megrahi however always protested his innocence and there are many- including some relatives of those killed- who believe he was framed and that many questions remain unanswered.
The circumstantial evidence for example used to convict Megrahi was dubious, based upon the testimony of Maltese shopkeeper, Tony Gauci who claimed to have recalled the Libyan purchasing clothing (fragments of which were found in the wreckage at Lockerbie) in his shop.
It was later revealed that Gauci had been secretly paid a huge sum for providing this evidence.
It was also said that al-Megrahi had planted the bomb by checking it in at Malta’s Luqa Airport from where it travelled to London via Frankfurt.
At the trial however no mention was made about a mysterious security breach which had occurred within Heathrow’s baggage during the early hours of December 21st 1988 when a door lock was found to have been snapped with bolt cutters.
Also, according to Heathrow baggage handler, John Bedford, an out of place brown Samsonite case was spotted on a Pan-Am 103 luggage container before the connecting flight from Frankfurt had even landed.
Sadly, 30 years on, it seems we will never have full closure over what precisely lay behind the Lockerbie atrocity.
Jimi Hendrix’s London (Part One)
Incredibly, it is almost fifty years since legendary musician, Jimi Hendrix’s sublime guitar skills became known to the world.
Born in Seattle, Washington on November 27th 1942, Jimi Hendrix obtained his first guitar- an acoustic model costing a mere $5- when he was fifteen years old.
In 1961 he enlisted in the army where he trained to be a paratrooper.
Military life wasn’t for Private Hendrix- perhaps most clearly demonstrated when he was caught dozing whilst on duty!
He was discharged in 1962 and, eager to forge a career in music, began touring clubs across the United States.
Over the next few years Jimi perfected his craft but despite his talent, he struggled to make a wage, remaining undiscovered and creatively stifled.
His luck changed in May 1966 whilst playing at the Cheetah club in New York.
Here he was spotted by Linda Keith– girlfriend of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards– who recommended the dazzling guitarist to Chas Chandler– former bassist for The Animals who was looking to establish himself as a manager.
Like Linda, Chas Chandler could see that Jimi Hendrix was indeed a very rare talent… and so decided to whisk him to London which, during the swinging 60s, was the place where Jimi Hendrix would flourish and make his name.
Tragically, it was also the city in which he would lose his life.
In tribute to Jimi Hendrix and to celebrate the exciting announcement that one of his former London homes will soon be opening to the public as a museum, I have compiled a list of some of the most notable London locations associated with the late, great performer…
11 Gunterstone Road, W14
Jimi Hendrix first arrived in London on 24th September 1966, flying into London Airport (which officially changed its name to ‘Heathrow’ that same year).
After several years as a struggling musician, Jimi Hendrix had very little to his name. When he boarded the plane in New York his only possessions were a change of clothes, a set of hair curlers, $40 (which he’d borrowed) and of course his beloved guitar.
Upon his arrival in London, Jimi was taken straight from the airport to 11 Gunterstone Road, West Kensington which was the home of British musician, Zoot Money, a major figure on the Soho scene at the time.
Whilst at the house, Jimi took part in a jamming session with Zoot’s friend, Andy Summers– who would later go on to play with The Police.
Scotch of St James Club, 13 Mason’s Yard W1
On the evening of 24th September 1966, Jimi Hendrix played his first ever UK solo gig at the exclusive Scotch of St James club in Mason’s Yard; a peaceful courtyard which is now dominated by the White Cube modern art gallery.
A stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace, the club was popular with The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, both of whom enjoyed the luxury of their own private tables. The Who and Stevie Wonder also spent time here.
Immediately after his set, Jimi met Kathy Etchingham and the pair embarked upon a two year relationship.
The following month, Hendrix returned to Scotch of St James with musicians Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, who together formed The Jimi Hendrix Experience and thus it was here that the trio performed their UK debut.
Les Cousins Club (now Club 49), 49 Greek Street W1
Originally opened in the 1950s as the ‘Skiffle Cellar’, Les Cousins (tucked away beneath the Soho Grill) was at the heart of London’s folk scene by the 1960s
After just a few days in London, Jimi Hendrix and Chas Chandler paid a visit to the club as regular guests, paying their own entry fee.
Blues musician, Alexis Korner was on stage that night and Chas Chandler asked if Jimi could join him on stage for a jamming session… needless to say the crowd were gobsmacked by the young American’s flair!
Westminster Polytechnic (now Westminster University, Regent Campus), Little Titchfield Street
On the evening of 1st October 1966, Cream were playing at this London Polytechnic campus when Jimi Hendrix rather audaciously asked if he could get up and jam with Eric Clapton, the UK’s undisputed guitar king.
Jimi’s skill and flamboyant style knocked Eric Clapton for six and, once back stage the Cream guitarist had to ask Chas Chandler if the American was ‘always that good?’!
Despite their guitar duel, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix became firm friends.
Cromwellian Club (now gone), 3 Cromwell Road, SW7
Situated directly opposite the Natural History Museum, the Cromwellian Club was rumoured to have started life as an illegal gambling den.
By the 1960s, ‘The Crom’ as it was nicknamed had established itself as a popular casino and music venue, witnessing performances from the likes of Georgie Fame, Eric Clapton and a very young Elton John.
Jimi Hendrix played one of his earliest gigs here in October 1966.
Bag O’ Nails Club, 9 Kingly Street W1
The Jimi Hendrix Experience played a gig at the Bag O’Nails club on 25th November 1966, after which, Jimi remarked, “Britain is really groovy”- not a surprising observation considering the club backs onto the ultra-hip Carnaby Street.
At another Bag O’Nails gig on 11th January 1967, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were in the audience… it was the first time they’d seen Jimi play live and, naturally, they were entranced.
Later that year, Paul McCartney met his future wife, Linda at the club.
Blaises Club (now gone) 121 Queen’s Gate SW7
Located in the basement of the now demolished Imperial Hotel, Blaises (named after the cartoon character, Modesty Blaise) was a cramped, sweaty club which, according to Melody Maker journalist, Chris Welch, was a venue, “where musicians, agents, managers and writers allowed themselves to be deafened whilst imbibing quantities of alcohol.”
Jimi Hendrix appeared here on 21st December 1966 which led to one of first rave reviews: “Jimi has great stage presence and an exceptional guitar technique which involved playing with teeth on occasions and no hands at all on others!” (tricks which he’d learnt from old timers whilst on the US circuit).
Pink Floyd were another big name to appear at Blaises and the club can be seen in the cult 1967 film, The Sorcerers (in which Boris Karloff uses hypnosis to seriously mess up one cool cat’s mind!)
Please click below to view a clip of the Blaises club in its heyday:
34 Montague Square, W1
During the 1960s, the basement of this rather grand address was leased by Ringo Starr.
Consequently, the home has numerous connections with The Beatles– the song, ‘Eleanor Rigby‘ was developed here for example and in 1968 the racy cover for John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s, Two Virgins album was snapped on the premises.
Jimi Hendrix rented the basement from Ringo between December 1966 and March 1967, moving in with his girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham. Whilst at the address, Jimi composed ‘The Wind Cries Mary’.
Unfortunately Ringo had no option but to evict Jimi Hendrix when the guitarist, whilst under the influence of LSD, splashed paint all over the walls…
One of the most iconic photographs of Jimi was taken just across the road on Montagu Place outside the Swedish embassy. Sadly, the original street sign has since been removed.
Lime Grove Studios (now gone), W12
Between 1940 and 1991, Lime Grove in Shepherd’s bush was home to a BBC studio where many classic shows including Top of the Pops, Blue Peter, Doctor Who and a 1954 adaptation of George Orwell’s, 1984 (performed live and starring Peter Cushing) were filmed.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience filmed their first appearance for Top of the Pops here on 29th December 1966 with a performance of ‘Hey Joe’. Their next shoot took place on 30th March 1967– and can be viewed below.
Sadly, Lime Grove studios were demolished in 1993 and a modern housing development now occupies the site.
The Upper Cut Club (now gone), 1-39 Woodgrange Road, E7
Out beyond Stratford and past the former 2012 Olympic Park, this is probably the furthest east Jimi Hendrix ever ventured whilst in London!
Based in Forest Gate, the Upper Cut Club was in business for just one year between 1966 and 1967. Despite its short span, the club shone bright playing host to such greats as The Who, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Prince Buster, Ben. E. King and Nina Simone.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience appeared at the Upper Cut on Boxing Day, 1966…and it was here, whilst resting in the club’s dressing room, that Jimi penned Purple Haze, one of his most definitive hits.
A simple plaque now marks the site.
The Speakeasy Club (now gone), 48 Margaret Street, W1
Opened in 1966 a short distance from the bustle of Oxford Circus, the Speakeasy modelled itself on the illegal drinking dens which flourished during the era of American prohibition.
Visitors entered and signed in via a fake undertaker’s parlour… and were then permitted to enter the main club through a false wardrobe door! Inside, a menacing portrait of Al Capone loomed over the patrons.
This was one of Jimi Hendrix’s favourite London clubs and he could often be spotted hanging out with friends here.
Jimi’s first Speakeasy gig took place in February 1967… and it was here that he cheekily tried to chat up Mick Jagger’s then girlfriend, Marianne Faithful!