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Did spy writer's disappearance mirror his fiction?

By Calum MacLeod

Ian Mackintosh in 1978, the year before he disappeared in Alaska.
Ian Mackintosh in 1978, the year before he disappeared in Alaska.

THE mysterious disappearance of an Inverness spy writer has taken on an intriguing twist worthy of one of his own plots with a suggestion that the air crash in which he was assumed to have died was staged to cover up a defection.

The claim by a US air traffic controller was made to American writer Robert Folsom, the author of a new book on Inverness-born Ian MacKintosh and his influential spy series The Sandbaggers.

The former Royal Navy officer disappeared in Alaska in July 1979 just a few weeks short of his 39th birthday while on a flight with his girlfriend Susan Insole and his friend Graham Barber, who was piloting their single engine Rally 235 aircraft.

MacKintosh’s body was never found, fuelling speculation about what really happened that day.

The Sandbaggers, which made a star of lead actor Roy Marsden who played MI6 officer Neil Burnside, is widely regarded by aficionados on each side of the Atlantic as one of the most authentic espionage series ever transmitted on television, a by-product of MacKintosh’s own intelligence links while an officer in the Royal Navy.

Georgia-based author Robert Folsom never saw the original series when it was first transmitted, but he became intrigued by the programme when he discovered the Sandbaggers’ fan website operations.org, run by Andy Gural of Montreal .

Former journalist Folsom, the author of a book about Elmer Irey, the US Treasury Agent responsible for the conviction of Al Capone, ordered a DVD set of the series.

"I watched every episode two or three times and it was fascinating," he said.

"There has been nothing of its equal in American television that ever matched it or copied it.

"The more I got into it, the more I saw the possibilities of trying to put the story into a book. Around mid-2004 I started pursuing it and then it just grabbed me. Over the next year I made contact with some of the key actors in the series. Interestingly enough, I never went to the UK. I intended too, but there were too many handicaps so I spent many hours on the trans-Atlantic telephone."

He also got in touch with Ian MacKintosh’s younger brother Lawrie, a lawyer in South Africa, who flew to the US and spent a weekend talking to Folsom about his brother and the series.

Folsom also looked at the circumstances of MacKintosh’s disappearance for the book.

Barber, a friend of MacKintosh’s since their Naval college days and a former Fleet Air Arm pilot turned British Airways captain, sent out a distress signal at approximately 5.45pm on 7th July 1979 while flying north-northeast of Kodiak Island.

David Luedtke, the aircraft traffic control specialist at the Federal Aviation Authority’s (FAA) Kodiak airport, received the call and alerted the US Coast Guard, but when a fixed wing Lockheed C130 reached Barber’s last reported position half an hour later, there was no trace of the aircraft, wreckage or any survivors. Over the next 18 hours two helicopters and another C130 joined in the search, but though the search, assisted by a Coast Guard vessel, continued over the next few days, no evidence of the crash was found.

However, in looking further into the circumstances of the crash, Folsom discovered that Luedtke, who has since retired and moved to Hawaii, still had some unresolved questions about the crash.

They were compounded by a suggestion reportedly made by an official from the State Department, the US equivalent of the Foreign Office, that the crash might have been staged.

"David Luedtke has misgivings about some of the response, particularly whether the Coast Guard helicopter was alerted," Folsom said.

"I didn’t even have this in the book — and I’m kicking myself about it now — about this State Department briefing that was given at the FAA offices in Anchorage. A State Department official briefed Luedtke’s boss that someone on that ’plane had set up a crash in order to defect. The question is why did the State Department think that in the first place? That’s the key."

At that period of the Cold War, the Alaskan coast was a hotbed of Soviet activity with spy trawlers and nuclear submarines regularly travelling along the coast.

Though Folsom is well aware of the secrets and disinformation which surround any story connected to the subject of espionage, he is convinced about is that MacKintosh, who also created the hit Naval drama Warship for the BBC, was no ordinary Royal Navy officer.

"Ian got the MBE from Harold Wilson for his intelligence work. He went on spying missions for British intelligence, there’s no doubt about that," he said.

"The real history of these events is never revealed at the time so maybe in 25 years we’ll find out more."

Mackintosh's ITV series, 'The Sandbaggers', is still regarded as one of the most authentic spy series ever screened.
Mackintosh's ITV series, 'The Sandbaggers', is still regarded as one of the most authentic spy series ever screened.

Ian’s brother Lawrie certainly does not believe his brother was likely to defect or to ever have worked for the Soviets, but does reveal that their last meeting could be seen as Ian’s way of saying goodbye.

Though Lawrie would frequently travel back to Britain from South Africa to visit their parents, Ian would never visit his brother oeven on his London stop-offs.

However, on his last visit, Ian made a point of spending time with Lawrie.

"Everything is speculative, but on balance it did feel like he was saying goodbye," Lawrie said.

He also agrees with Folsom that Ian was almost certainly involved in intelligence work during his Navy career.

"Ian’s wife, when she called him, was often told he wasn’t there yet he was supposed to be based at a shore establishment," Lawrie said.

"Ian’s naval career, on the face of it, wasn’t exceptional. He never commanded a ship, for example, but he got an MBE. Even after he retired from the Navy every time he left the country he had to clear it with the authorities. Most former Royal Navy officers don’t have to do that.

"The New York Times wrote an article some years ago saying that The Sandbaggers was the most accurate spy series ever. If that was so, where did Ian get his information? The Sandbaggers was authentic because it wasn’t about the James Bond fantasy. It was set in an office and a lot of intelligence work happens in the office."

Lawrie also sees strong parallels between his brother and the central character of The Sandbaggers, the cool and occasionally ruthless Neil Burnside, played by Roy Marsden in his breakthrough role.

In Folsom’s book, Lawrie has a telling story about his father’s service in World War II. When his ship was attacked by German destroyers while on the arctic convoy run to Russia, a senior officer ordered his father to seal the fire doors to the engine room to prevent fire spreading to the rest of the ship. Rather than leave his men trapped inside, Mackintosh senior knocked the officer unconscious and got his men out.

Lawrie believes that in a similar position, Ian would have sealed the men in the engine room to preserve the ship. Just the kind of sacrifice Burnside makes time and again in The Sandbaggers.

"Ian was very methodical and you saw that in his television work, which you need to be in that business," Lawrie said.

"Secondly, he was very determined. If, for some reason, he had to disappear, he would do that. He kept everything to himself and he wouldn’t have spoken out of turn. Burnside, I think, was a lot of his own character and Burnside’s frustration with political interference was a lot of Ian’s frustration.

"His attitude was: I have a job to do and I will do it, regardless of the consequences."

While Lawrie rejects the suggestion that his brother might have defected to the Soviet Union, summing him up as "very much Queen and country", if the suggestion was actually made by US Government officals, it only confirms Ian’s involvement in intelligence.

"No one wants a television producer to defect," he said.

"Had the British believed that he had defected, there would have been lots of telegrams between embassies and so on. None of that happened."

However, there are hints that something was going on in connection with Ian MacKintosh’s disappearance. Lawrie said Ian’s ex-father-in-law, Nick Carter, himself an admiral, was blocked in his attempts to find out more and warned not to ask questions.

"None of this seems sensible if it was just an accident," Lawrie said.

"It could have been that for some reason Ian had to disappear, perhaps because he was under threat from the Russians or a terrorist organisation like Black September. He had a family he loved, but he would have disappeared if he had to."

For Lawrie, the fact that Ian and his companions disappeared while flying in a single engined Rally 235 aircraft is also significant.

"I remember sitting in his office in London and Ian telling me that when he went to Alaska he would hire a double engine plane because he had read a lot about planes going missing in Alaska and double engined planes were safer," Lawrie said.

Ian knew what he was talking about. He had hoped to go into the Navy as a Fleet Air pilot but was rejected because of eyesight problems. However, his fascination with aircraft never left him and he wrote a number of books about aircraft of various types.

"If you were going to fake an accident, the Rally is what you would choose because you could slide the canopy back like a sports car and it would be easy to get out," Lawrie added.

Lawrie was to suffer another tragic mystery disappearance in his life when his wife went missing from a cruise ship, presumed lost overboard. In both the case of his wife and his brother he has no expectation that the mystery of what happened will ever be resolved.

In a message from his home in Hawaii, David Luedtke confirmed his initial feeling that at the time of MacKintosh’s disappearance, there was nothing to indicate that it was anything other than an accident.

"Several weeks later, one of my co-workers told me our boss had been told by FAA officials not to worry about the people on the airplane, as ‘they are all in Russia by now’," he said.

"My co-worker also said it was his understanding that this information had been conveyed to the FAA by the US State Department.

"For me, this was third-hand information, and I gave it no more credence than gossip. Neither my boss nor anyone in the FAA ever officially gave me any information suggesting it was anything other than an accident."

Robert Folsom's book.
Robert Folsom's book.

However, since reading Folsom’s book this summer, he believes there are several intriguing details about the capabilities of the Rallye 235 and Barber’s pre-rental familiarization flight.

"The Rallye 235 is referred to by some as a ‘Tin Parachute’," he said.

"That is because it is capable of very slow, controllable flight, even in power-off conditions, and its unusual aerodynamic characteristics make it much less likely to lose lift due to wing stall.

"There was an incident near Kalispell Montana in 1998 where a Rallye 235 landed in a river without injuring any of the occupants.

"In Robert’s book, Coast Guard officials are quoted several times describing how difficult it is to get out of the doors of a light aircraft that has landed in water. The Rallye 235 does not have doors. It has a canopy that slides back, allowing access in and out by standing up and stepping onto the wing."

Sea conditions on the day of MacKintosh’s disappearance would have allowed a water landing, Luedtke added, while the Anchorage pilot who checked out Graham Barber in the Rallye also reported that the British pilot had specifically requested to practice power-off stalls during his familiarization, exactly the manoeuvre that would have been required to stage a crash landing on sea.

"The background of Ian MacKintosh surely plays into the third-hand remarks I heard at the time, and raises the same question for me now as I had then: Is it possible that there might be more to this than we know? The answer is, yes, it’s possible, but we still don’t know," he said.

"I’m grateful to Robert for writing the book. For all these years it has just been a sad and mysterious memory for me. In some ways I’m sadder now, knowing more of the details of the lives of the people on board the airplane we couldn’t find.

"But I also feel like I’m a member of the community that mourns their loss after all these years. And there’s comfort in that feeling."

• The Life and Mysterious Death of Ian MacKintosh: The Inside Story of The Sandbaggers and Television’s Top Spy by Robert G. Folsom with a foreword by Nigel West, is published in the USA by Potomac Books. The complete Sandbaggers, containing all three series, is available from Network DVD.

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