On July 3, 1970, Dan-Air Flight 1903 took from Manchester Airport (MAN) in the North of England, heading for Josep Tarradellas Barcelona-El Prat Airport (BCN) in Spain. Organized by package tour travel agent Clarkson's Tours, the 105 passengers from the north of England were looking forward to an all-inclusive vacation in Lloret de Mar on Spain's sunny Costa Brava.

A map showing the route from Manchester to Barcelona.
Image: GCmaps

The aircraft chartered for the flight was a ten-year-old Dan Air Services Limited de Havilland DH-106 Comet with the registration G-APDN. The aircraft departed Manchester at 16:08 local time with the abovementioned passengers and seven crew for the two-hour, twenty-minute flight to Barcelona. The planned route was changed because of air traffic control (ATC) delays around Paris airspace.

The pilots made a navigational error

At 17:53 local time, contact was made between the aircraft and the Barcelona Area Control Center (ACC). The plane was instructed to descend to 22,000 feet, after which it would be handed over to BCN ATC.

The aircraft was then ordered to land on Runway 25R. After flying over the Sabadell non-directional beacon (NDB) 14 miles north of the airport, the aircraft descended to 6,000 feet as it began its final approach. While performing a left turn to line up with the runway, the crew reported that they had made an error and had yet to pass over the Sabadell non-directional beacon (NDB); they were still 32 miles to the north.

At the same time, as the Dan-Air Comet reported that it had flown over the beacon, another aircraft had done so, and as a result, BCN ATC mistakenly thought that the radar echo was that of the Dan-Air flight.

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The plane flew into a mountain

At around 18:05 local time, the plane flew into the 5,597-foot-high Les Agudes mountain at 3,800 feet. At the time of the crash, the mountain was partially covered by clouds, though the visibility was reported as good. When the aircraft impacted, it exploded, killing everyone onboard.

The crash site was discovered the following morning after a search that went on through the night. The wreckage was spotted by an Iberia flight en route to Barcelona from Frankfurt. When news of the crash reached the United Kingdom, Clarkson's immediately set up an emergency office in Manchester and was swamped by calls from the passenger's families.

All the victims were buried in a mass grave

One of the rescuers to first reach the site reported that the plane had broken into three parts and that there were no survivors. The victims included families looking forward to a beach vacation and many teenagers going abroad for the first time.

At the time of the crash, Spain was still controlled by Franco, and setting aside the family's grief for public health reasons, all bodies needed to be buried within 48 hours. Dan-Air apologized to the families, many of whom found out their loved ones had been buried in a mass grave by reading the newspapers. For the victims, a service was held in Manchester Cathedral and many smaller churches in Lancashire. The Queen even sent out condolences to all the victim's families.

An investigation into the crash concluded that errors by both the pilots and Barcelona ATC led to everyone believing that the aircraft was in a different area than it was.