FIFTY years ago, shortly after 4pm, Dan Air flight 1903 took off from Manchester Airport bound for Barcelona.

On board were 105 passengers excitedly looking forward to a summer break on the Costa Brava. For many it was their first continental holiday.

Two hours later the plane crashed into a Spanish hillside - all passengers, including three children and a baby and the seven crew were killed instantly.

Relatives like Jean Stobart and her brothers and sister, from Ainsworth, who saw their 17-year-old sibling Yvonne Ridgley, and her friend Sandra Bolton perish in the disaster, still recall the horror and confusion in the immediate aftermath.

If it had not been for coronavirus restrictions, they would have joined families from across the North West, in Spain, in honouring those who lost their lives in what was the worst air tragedy of 1970.

News reports at the time declared that “mill towns all over the North West were in mourning - shattered by the news that their friends, neighbours and relatives died on a Spanish mountainside”.

The Comet aircraft had been chartered by Clarkson’s Holidays with passengers coming from all over Lancashire - families in Bury, Leigh, Burnley, Wigan, Nelson, Colne and Manchester were all affected.

In total 10 were from the Bury area and 11 from Leigh. Many were teens, like Yvonne and Sandra, who had saved for months for their first holiday abroad.

The first indications something had gone horribly wrong came when air traffic controllers at Barcelona Airport lost contact with flight DA1903. This prompted a full-scale search but it would be several hours before the enormity of the disaster would be revealed.

But how did one of what was seen as one of the safest planes in the skies at that time, plough into hillside during what was regarded as a routine flight in decent weather conditions?

Due to air traffic control delays around Paris, the pilot Captain Alexander Neal, had been told to use a different route than normal to Barcelona. On the approach to Barcelona he was instructed to fly over a beacon at Sabadell in Northern Spain some 14 miles from the airport.

For some reason the crew reported that they had flown over the beacon when in actual fact they were some 28 miles north of Sabadell and flying over the Montseny mountain range.

This error was not spotted by air traffic controllers as a second aircraft flew over Sabadell around the same time and they mistook this as being flight DA1903.

Believing the pilot was making his approach to Barcelona, air traffic control instructed him to lose altitude which led to the plane crashing into a wooded area on the slopes of Les Agudes.

When contact with the plane was lost, an intensive search was launched immediately. Crews worked through the night to try and locate the aircraft but they were delayed by the fact it was believed the plane was much nearer to Barcelona than it actually was. It came down over 20 miles from Sabadell and around 50 miles from Barcelona.

Reports said that the wreckage was first spotted by a Spanish airliner coming in to land after a flight from Frankfurt.

A police rescue party started to climb the peak followed by other rescue teams.

As news that the plane had crashed filtered through, families back home were left waiting anxiously for news. The rugged terrain and rain in the area was hampering efforts to get teams to the crash site.

Clarkson’s set up an emergency office in Manchester to handle inquiries which was immediately swamped with calls.

Gradually the scale of the disaster began to emerge.

The first two rescuers to reach the crash site reported that the plane had broken into three parts and that wreckage was scattered over a pine grove at the summit of the 5,000 foot range.

“The scene was terrible,” said one, “We desperately tried to find some survivors but everyone was dead. The whole area was silent.”

As the passenger list was released, confirming all on board had died it brought home the human tragedy. Teenagers making their first trip abroad, families looking forward to the novel experience of a foreign holiday. All were victims of the crash.

To compound the agony, due to Spanish law all the victims had to be buried within 48 hours. All the passengers and crew were buried in a mass grave.

Dan Air issued a statement apologising to families, many of whom had found out that burial had taken place via newspapers.

A memorial service for all the victims was held at Manchester Cathedral and at churches across Lancashire individual services were held to remember those who had died. The Queen sent telegrams of sympathy to affected families.

But it would not be until November that year that many families would get the chance to visit the crash site and see where their loved ones were buried. A memorial to all 112 victims remains immaculately cared for by villagers to this day.

The tragic end of flight DA1903 is often regarded as ‘the forgotten disaster’ but 50 years on for those families who were affected its impact remains as harrowing as ever.