This Norfolk air tragedy was reported around the world
- Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021
He was a war hero pilot, she was an East Anglian beauty queen but there was no happy ever fairytale for Ole and Nanette.
The mid-air collision above Norfolk was more than 40 years ago but shockwaves from the tragedy which killed pilot Bill Olson, and helicopter winchman David Bullock who battled to save him, still reverberate.
Nanette Olson’s recollection of the moment she discovered that she was a widow and her two small children were fatherless is still heartbreaking. That morning the weather was stormy and as Bill, who was often known as Ole, got ready to leave their home in Hethersett, near Norwich, she said: “Surely you are not going to fly in this.”
His reply: “Honey, we fly above this. See you later.”
But when she arrived at his Suffolk airbase to meet him after work she was met by his boss and told he was dead.
At 9.15am on November 18, 1980, two US Air Force A10 Tankbuster aircraft from RAF Bentwaters collided over Norfolk. Pilot Major Steve Kaatz ejected before his aeroplane smashed in flames near Itteringham, injuring an off-duty air traffic controller. Pilot Lt Col William Olson flew on and out to sea in an attempt to return to base without flying over populated areas, but was forced to eject into the sea off Winterton. He was later commended for his efforts to avoid crashing into a built-up area.
Within minutes of the collision a search and rescue helicopter was scrambled from Coltishall. Its crew spotted Ole Olson in the water and David Bullock was lowered to try to free the American from the waterlogged parachute dragging him through the waves, and pluck him to safety. But in gale force winds and waves of up to 15ft the winchman became tangled in the pilot's parachute lines. As rescuers tried to haul them up the steel winch cable snapped. Divers from a second rescue helicopter freed the men and pulled them from the water but both were pronounced dead on arrival at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital.
David Bullock, of Aylsham, was awarded the George Medal for his outstanding bravery as he battled to save the pilot. He had served in the RAF for 22 years. Both men were just 38; both men left a widow and two young children.
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The double tragedy was reported around the world.
To mark the 40th anniversary of her husband’s death, and what should have been their 50th wedding anniversary year, Nanette had planned a memorial event, with friends and family gathering at the home she had shared with Ole, and still lives in today. Instead friends, family and colleagues sent her their memories and she spent lockdown creating an account of his life in words and pictures.
The project helped her relive the happiest of times, as well as the saddest.
They had been a golden couple – the handsome American pilot and his beauty queen bride. During the 1960s Nanette won more than 200 titles including Miss Anglia, Butlin's Holiday Princess of Great Britain and the National Ballroom Queen, even travelling to New York to represent England in a contest called Stars of the World.
She was working as a model and dancer when she met Ole at an air show. The pilot who had been due to take her was offered a seat in a Red Arrows plane, so introduced her to some of his airmen friends to keep her company. Seven months Ole and Nanette married and went on to travel the world as Ole was posted to the USA and Korea before returning to Britain. They welcomed a daughter, Alexandra, in 1971 and son, Tony, three years later. They were just nine and six when their father died.
Nanette’s tribute to her husband includes her struggle to find out what had happened that terrible day. While an inquiry blamed pilot error Nanette believes it was because it was convention to blame the dead pilot and said: “It is such a shame that the dead man always takes the blame when he has no chance to speak up for himself.”
Ole Olson grew up in Ohio and was a scholar and athlete. He served in Vietnam, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross Air Medal but Nanette said: “Like so many others who return from fighting in a war, Ole never spoke about his tour of duty.” He also had a masters degree in economics, had worked as a professor of aeronautical studies and was about to be promoted to squadron commander.
But above all he was a family man. And now his widow has told his story in a book for his family and friends. His exceptional kindness and positivity shines through all the tributes. The foreword is written by Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market who knew Bill and Nanette. The former Suffolk MP is also an accomplished conjurer and dancer Nanette would sometimes perform alongside him at constituency events.
Ole is buried in the churchyard of St Remigius, Hethersett, his gravestone inscribed with words from the poem by John Gillespie Magee which begins: Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings,” and ends: “ And with silent, lifting mind I've trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space, put out my hand, touched the face of God.”
His wife, and son and his family, still live in Hethersett. His daughter followed Nanette’s lead and is a dancer, living with her family in Las Vegas.
“I wanted to do the book for myself and my children and grandchildren,” said Nanette. She said the project had also helped her remember the joy he brought to so many other people “And - most importantly – it was a time for me to fall in love with him all over again.”
She finishes with an anecdote of overhearing him telling his mum that she was the kind of girl who would be able to cope with him being away on lengthy missions.
“I didn’t expect him to be gone this long, though,” she said.
Nanette’s book, Only One Ole, was put together with the help of Imogen Lees and Andy Taylor and although it was produced for family and friends, a few are available – email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.