Hero of Kirkcaldy jet crash inspires new award

Clem O'Mara presents Ellie Cunningham with the award, along with Derek Allan.
Clem O'Mara presents Ellie Cunningham with the award, along with Derek Allan.

A new award, which recognises bravery among pupils at Kirkcaldy High School has been given to Ellie Cunningham, after she helped an elderly neighbour who fell and broke her hip.

Ellie (14) stayed with her neighbour while she waited on an ambulance, which took two hours due to a mix-up.

How The Press reported the crash

How The Press reported the crash

She was delighted to be given the Mike Withey Award, which was presented by headteacher Derek Allan.

Ellie said: “I was really excited and proud to be given the award.

“I was really honoured. I didn’t think I would get it.”

She spoke of the moment she ran to help her neighbour.

Clem O'Mara presents the Flt Lt Mike Withey Bravery Award to pupil Ellie Cunningham, watched by Rector Derek Allan Picture: FPA

Clem O'Mara presents the Flt Lt Mike Withey Bravery Award to pupil Ellie Cunningham, watched by Rector Derek Allan Picture: FPA

“She’d managed to scrape herself to the door and she called us. I ran along and stayed with her. I got her blankets and talked to her while we waited.”

Ellie says she is now on the mend.

“I still see her every day. I’m glad she’s feeling better.”

This is the first year of the award, and the school now plans to honour the award’s namesake each year.

The award is named after the pilot of a jet plane which crashed near Kirkcaldy High School October 18,1957.

Flight Leutenant Mike Withey’s Meteor jet ran into engine trouble on the way to Leichars. He is thought to have avoided an emergency landing on the playing field near the old KHS building at Templehall after seeing pupils out playing rugby.

He diverted and the plane exploded near Dunnikier House. also aboard the plane was Daniel McLoughlin.

Headteacher Derek Allan, said: “We greatly value character as part of a young person’s upbringing, so we’re very proud of Ellie.

“Mike Withey made a tremendous sacrifice, it’s not the kind of thing many of us would face.

“If he’d ejected it may have been much worse. At the time, it was said that his actions had avoided certain catastrophe.”

The award was also presented by Clem O’Mara, the brother-in-law of Mike Withey.

Clem’s late wife Maureen had been close to her brother and he was often in the thoughts of the couple.

“I got to know Mike while I was courting Maureen,” said Clem. He was only a year or so older, but he was very much a role model. He was a King Scout and determined to be the perfect Scout – the sort of chap you looked up to.

“I lost Maureen two years ago, and Mike was always in our thoughts especially around our anniversary as he died just a few months after we were married.

“When Maureen died, I had a burning ambition that Mike would be remembered. I asked myself ‘what could I do?’. I emailed Kirkcaldy High School and said I’d like Mike to be adopted.

“The head teacher was very potitive about it.”

Speaking about presenting the award, Clem said: “I can’t tell you what it meant to me. I’m so delighted that Ellie won.

“Another person may have hesitated, but she didn’t.

“There’s an old saying that you should do what your heart tells you is the right thing to do, and Ellie certainly did that.

“There’s was a lovely feeling in the auditorium. I felt I had to dispense with my notes and speak from the heart.

“I did say in my speech that the children of 1957 were spared because of Mike’s actions. They may be the parents or grandparents of those in the auditorium, and it may be that they owe their lives to him.

“I regard him as a son of Kirkcaldy now, as that’s where he died.”

The jet crashed around 50 yards from Dunnikeir House, and the incident was reported in the Fife Free Press the following day. The article said: “The plane exploded as it hit the trees and wreckage was strewn over a wide area. The explosion was heard by householders over a mile away.

Just before it crashed, the aircraft passed over the new Kirkcaldy High School, now nearing completion, at a height of less than 100 feet.”

It continued: “The explosion broke windows in the house and outhouses and shattered a garden seat in front of the main building which is a popular rendezvous for elderly people in good weather.

“Wreckage of the aircraft was scattered over a wide area and many trees were felled. A parachute was found on a tree at the scene of the crash.”

One witness, William Glen (34), of Leslie Street described the moment of the crash.

“There was a terrific flash and a noise like thunder.

“I rushed out and saw the trees on fire. There were bits of wreckage falling all over the place.”

Address to pupils

In his address to pupils, Kirkcaldy High School rector Derek Allan said that the awards gave the school the opportunity to “celebrate our young people in so many ways - academic achievement, sport, all sorts of contributions”.

And he told the students: “It’s always about more than book learning, it’s about learning being yourself, but the very best version of you.”

Mr Allan welcomed back former pupil MSP Shirley-Anne Somerville and former rector Lindsey Roy, along with Clement O’Mara.

He paid tribute to all staff at the school who have contributed over the course of the year.

Special mentions were given to retiring staff members, including Lesley Mellon, who served as Head of the Art Department, and the school office’s Ann McBride.

Touching on attainment levels, Mr Allan spoke of raising standards, saying that he was encouraged by well over half of the school’s pupils managing to succeed at Higher level by Fifth Year.

He also highlighted the need to tackle inequality. “But there is one situation that we must work doubly hard to address. It’s the persistent postcode success gap. Reducing the impact of child poverty must be our number one aim. There are some streets in this town, in Kirkcaldy, where there is a greater statistical likelihood of a young person going to jail rather than to university. It’s down to poverty, and it’s a disgrace.”

And, concluding, Mr Allan told the pupils: “I want you always to believe in yourself. Never, ever think that you have any lesser worth than any other person. Do not be intimidated by anyone’s status, or their money, their social background or their education. You are their equal.

“But there is another side to it. Because it means that you in turn are no better than anybody else; the beggar on the street, the refugee or those who disagree with you. Respect all others equally. But always challenge unfairness and hatred and work for a better world.”