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Drama in the air at 1979 Bantry Regatta Festival

May 10th, 2020 11:50 AM

By Southern Star Team

Pictured with the plane which crashed in Bantry Bay during an aerobatics display as part of the Bantry Regatta Festival in August 1979 were Garda John O’Regan (left) and Arthur O’Connor, a security man with Gulf Oil at the time, both since deceased. The pilot, Chris Bourke from the UK, was not injured in the crash. (Photo: Denis Connolly) -- 0868127336

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THREE organisations from the town, Bantry Rowing Club, Bantry Sailing Club and Bantry Junior Chamber, came together to form a committee to help revive the annual regatta which was held in August annually. Interest had waned in the regatta itself and it was decided to build a 10-day festival around the maritime event.

The first regatta festival was held in 1976 and annually for about eight to 10 years. The year we will focus on here will be 1979 and we will concentrate on regatta day and in particular a shocking and spectacular incident which took place on that day.

One should remember that Bantry was still dealing with the great tragedy and sadness of, what became known as the Whiddy Island disaster, and the tragic loss of over 50 lives. Bantry was still a very busy town economically, particularly with the influx of specialist crews from abroad and the many locals employed in the clean-up.

Like many festivals, one of the most difficult jobs was the raising of funds and the collection of sponsorship. The committee approached the firm which was involved in attempting to disperse the oil from light aircraft which flew over the stricken area dispatching detergent on the oil slick.

This firm used particularly light aircraft, which were agile and frequently used to spray crops in the UK and USA. They were called crop dusters. The firm refused our request for £100 of sponsorship, but instead offered to provide us with a spectacular display of aerobatics by one of their pilots, who was well experienced in these technique; they would later regret not giving us the £100 donation!

The second Sunday in August 1979 was a beautifully sunny day with large crowds lining the walls all the way from The Abbey to Murphy and O’Connor’s establishment stretching in almost to The Square. The usual entertainment was going at the head of the pier, swimming races, the greasy pole, etc.

The ever-exciting gig races were taking place from the Abbey and Dr Matt Murphy, our esteemed chairman, was conducting a commentary, perched highly on the back of a truck located by the bathing box, on a really exciting race, when he was forced to interrupt and describe the aerobatic display which had just begun.

The small plane with our expert pilot on board flew towards the shore and then straight up into the sky, spectacularly turning the plane on its back and upside down, but to the horror of the pilot, the engine cut out and dropped from the sky  straight into the water a mere 100 metres from the gob macked crowd.

The whole area was stunned in silence, until our ever-composed commentator spotted the pilot extracting himself from the plane, which was still sitting on the water, and realising the pilot was uninjured, Dr Matt uttered those words in his unique droll, which I will never forget, ‘I don’t think that was part of the planned demonstration!’

A Dutch Smit Tak salvage boat. ‘The Baracudda,’ which was moored at the pier rushed to the scene, recovered the shaken but uninjured pilot and lifted the damaged plane from the water. The moral of the story is never refuse a committee, in need of funds, a cash donation!

A codicil to the story, which I only heard about 12 months later, was that a telex (what’s that!) message was sent to the Gulf Oil office in New Street on the night before the demonstration, instructing the pilot not to use that particular plane, as it had not been adapted to fly upside down. The message was not read until Monday morning!

Moral number 2: always read your post/messages in time!

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