Today's anniversary of the Lockerbie disaster will be a dark and uncomfortable time for many, not least the many first-responders who witnessed at first hand the hideous devastation and colossal loss of life. 

David ‘Heavy’ Whalley MBE knows this as well as anyone. 

In December 1988 Whalley was 37, the full-time leader of the RAF Leuchars Mountain Rescue Team (MRT). He was in charge of the RAF search and rescue team at Lockerbie for the first couple of days. On his popular blog in the years since he has frequently recalled the team’s experiences in the aftermath of the disaster and has written about the post-traumatic stress disorder that has befallen many of them. 

Lockerbie 1988 was the very first call-out for one young member of Whalley’s MRT team. Whalley writes that the man received a new posting not long afterwards and went on to have “years of problems” as no-one at his new post understood what he had gone through there. 

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“He had awful memories yet seems after so many years to have learned to cope … Yet he is just back from Ukraine, dropping medical supplies to help others. I felt so proud of him despite the hard time he had”, the blog continues. 

Whalley, now 71 and living in Moray, can never forget the evening of December 21, 1988, and its hellish aftermath. 

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What does he remember of his day before news broke? Was it an ordinary day? “No”, he says. “My girlfriend had left her husband and she arrived at my door at four o’clock. You couldn’t make it up. 

“We got the call as soon as the plane went missing at about seven o’clock. Air Traffic Control at Prestwick had picked it up straight away, and a rescue control centre at Pitreavie, in Fife, sent out an alert. We were the nearest team and we were told that a jumbo jet had fallen out of the sky. 

“I briefed all of our team. We were hoping we would get survivors. We took about 32 people, a very strong team, a very good blend of youth and experience. Remember", he says, "that we were used to trauma, attending to casualties on the mountains all over Scotland, but aircraft casualties were another matter entirely".

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When Whalley and his MRT colleagues arrived, the emergency services were already on the ground, dealing with a situation that very few could have had training for. “Remember also that Dumfries and Galloway had the smallest police force in Scotland, and something had happened that no-one had ever thought would happen”. 

An old school building in the town quickly became the disaster control base. Whalley says he “did a quick recce [of the site] and saw the horror that was lying all around. I told the emergency services that we couldn’t do anything until the fires had been put down. We couldn’t do anything that night. As far as I could tell, there were no lives to save, and we would have to sit things out until first light. 

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“In the morning we had hundreds searching – there were at least 10 helicopters involved, as well as search dogs and civilian Mountain Rescue Teams. Our expertise was in finding the black box flight recorder, an absolutely important find in what would be the huge inquiry into the disaster. The awful thing was that we couldn’t move casualties because this was now of course a major crime scene”. 

Whalley’s team members placed jackets and clothing over casualties, many of whom were children. A grimly surreal sight was of the number of Christmas presents that could be glimpsed.

Whalley was at the control base, where he and others mapped the locations of casualties and assorted debris. “Our control at Pitreavie asked me what I wanted and I said, we need all the helicopters down, because it was like Vietnam. I also said we were going to need psychiatric help afterwards because of the horrors we had seen, which were beyond my understanding or experience”. 

In his 2011 book Trauma, Edinburgh-born Professor Gordon Turnbull, a world-renowned expert on PSTD, recalled that he was contacted by Whalley on December 23, two days after Lockerbie. 

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“Mountain rescuers are the SAS of the RAF: tough beyond belief and generally blessed with a healthy measure of cynicism”, Turnbull wrote. “David was no exception. He’d seen everything – from fingers and toes blackened by frostbite to chunks of RAF jets and their occupants strewn across the most inhospitable landscapes”. 

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Whalley was calling from one of the few telephones still working in Lockerbie. He pleaded with Turnbull for specialist help for some 120 mountain rescuers, who even now were starting to leave Lockerbie and returning to their home bases. He asked if Turnbull and his colleagues could debrief every member of his team and visit all four of the RAF mountain rescue teams when they came down from the mountains on January 3. 

“To be honest”, Whalley reflects now, “it was more than 120, because I was thinking only about our guys, but there were also all the dog-handlers, the police, the army. It was huge. Some of the local mountain rescue teams were at Lockerbie for months”. 

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He has long been an outspoken campaigner for the need for better PTSD treatment. Each anniversary of Lockerbie, he says, means a “dark time” for him and for those of his many former colleagues who are struggling. 

“I think the military pays lip service", he observes. "I remember being hauled up by higher-ups in the Air Force and told, ‘Be a man – get a grip’. Most of them were pilots and I said, ‘You haven’t seen the horror we have seen’. So I fought for [better treatment] for years, but it didn’t do me any good. I made a lot of enemies out of it. 

“Even half of my own team didn’t want this at the time. I said to them, ‘Unless you come to the briefing that Gordon is going to give us …you’ve got to give it a chance. You can do what you want after that but you’ve got to sit and listen. I think ninety per cent of them have come back to me with problems. As a leader I took all the team's problems on myself: it was a big mistake. 

“When I left the military in 2007 they gave me a medical. I broke a few things in the military but I spent 37 years in the air force and I always worked my hardest, having started all these years ago as a cook. 

“They sent a retired senior officer to interview me at the house, and do you know what he said to me? ‘Post-traumatic stress disorder? How did you get that being a cook?’ I nearly threw him out of the house”. 

Whalley, who is from Ayr, spent 37 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and three with a civilian team, Torridon and Kinlochewe MRT. Now an environmentalist and blogger, he remains an active mountaineer. During his distinguished mountain-rescue career he was involved in the hunt for survivors when a Chinook helicopter crashed on Mull of Kintyre in June 1994; four RAF crew members and 25 terrorism experts lost their lives. In all, he handled nearly 70 aircraft crashes.

The Herald: David 'Heavy' Whalley has never forgotten his experiences at Lockerbie 35 years ago. Today he is an environmentalist, and keen mountaineer and bloggerDavid 'Heavy' Whalley has never forgotten his experiences at Lockerbie 35 years ago. Today he is an environmentalist, and keen mountaineer and blogger (Image: David Whalley)Earlier this year he became the Fort William Mountain Festival’s 16th recipient of the Scottish Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture. He is currently president of the Search & Rescue Dogs Association, Scotland. 

Despite the turbulent and lasting effects of his time in Lockerbie, David Whalley can remember some positives from those dark days of December 1988. 

In late 2018 he and four other men – Colin Dorrance, representing Police Scotland; David Walpole, representing the Scottish Ambulance Service; Paul Rae, representing Scottish Fire and Rescue, and Lockerbie Academy headteacher Brian Asher – cycled 600 miles from Washington DC to Syracuse University. No fewer than 35 Syracuse University students lost their lives in the tragedy. 

“We met hundreds of grieving relatives during the cycle ride, but the love, kindness and care we received at Syracuse was heart-warming and heart-breaking.

“And the people of Lockerbie were magnificent. They opened up a kitchen. I told the guys at Lockerbie, when you’re searching, come in every two hours and debrief me, and get a cup of tea and something to eat. 

“The ladies had their arms around them and gave them comfort. In the face of the tragedy that struck a small town, the local people were amazing”. 

Read more from David Whalley here