Mountain rescue veteran on 'last fight' after terminal diagnosis

David Whalley
David Whalley at home in Burghead, Moray [BBC]

A mountain search and rescue veteran who was one of the first on scene at the Lockerbie disaster has been speaking about getting a “devastating” terminal illness diagnosis.

David “Heavy” Whalley served with the RAF Mountain Rescue Service for almost 40 years, attending more than 1,000 mountain incidents, dozens of air accidents and helping save hundreds of lives.

Earlier this year he was told he has stage four liver disease.

He told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme he has “always been a fighter, and I think I’ve got that in me to the end”.

The 71-year-old, who lives in Burghead in Moray, is one of the UK's most experienced mountain rescue experts.

Since his diagnosis he’s been writing about his illness online.

He said he knew something was not right with his health about five years ago as he was losing weight and not feeling well on his regular hillwalking trips.

But it wasn’t until after the Covid pandemic, in March this year, that he got his diagnosis, and then learned how to cope with the news and deal with what comes next.

He is known in the climbing community by his nickname, “Heavy”, given to him when he joined the RAF, due to being 5ft 4 inches tall and weighing just seven stone, which belied his spirit and determination on rescues.

Heavy said initially when he met friends and told them about his health he would “burst into tears” but that actually helped as it “cleared my emotions.”

“I was told I had six to nine months (to live), so I’ve already had three of them,” he said. “So we just have to keep going and see what happens.”

Heavy has decades of experience working as team leader for both the RAF Leuchars and RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue teams, he was Deputy Leader at RAF Valley in North Wales and is president of the Search and Rescue Dog Association Scotland (SARDA).

He has attended over 70 aircraft crashes and was senior team leader of the rescue effort at the scene of the Lockerbie disaster.

Two hundred and seventy people were killed when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over the Borders town on the evening of the 21 December 1988 in what remains the UK’s worst terror attack.

“The place was like hell,” he said, his voice dropped to a whisper. “It was terrible, and it was so dangerous, and there were fatalities everywhere.”

“And I don’t think people can ever imagine what that was like.”

Wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103
Wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103 [AFP]

He said the police force and the fire brigade were overwhelmed and it took its toll on his mental health.

“I was just working non-stop for about a week, no sleep, nothing.

“One day afterwards I tried to get up and I was frozen, I could not move. I had about three or four weeks in bed.”

He said after the trauma of the disaster he fought hard for the military to offer help to rescuers who may have suffered from post-traumatic disease, which is a legacy he is proud of.

Over his years with the RAF he said one of the most rewarding parts was helping train many young men and women who joined the mountain rescue teams.

He passed on to them the importance of “being kind and caring”, as the role could involve speaking to families whose loved ones had died in the hills.

“The legacy you leave behind is incredible,” he said.

He was also involved in the search for survivors of the RAF Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintrye in 1994.

Heavy said he remembers vividly the scene as the helicopter crew landed on the fog and smoke shrouded peninsula: “I’ve never been so scared.”

All four crew and 25 passengers, among them almost all of the United Kingdom’s senior Northern Ireland intelligence experts, died when their helicopter crashed on its journey from near Belfast to Inverness.

The 71-year-old said his passion for the great outdoors has seen him travel all over Scotland and further afield, and make some great friends, with the late mountaineer Hamish MacInnes, among them.

David 'Heavy' Whalley in the Himalayas in 1990
Heavy in the Himalayas in 1990 [BBC]

After the shock of his diagnosis, he said he decided to “get practical” and do what he calls his “death clearing”.

That has seen him give away many of his possessions and raise money for charity.

“It’s great to be able to give. Doing things like that bounce you along,” he added.

He has even started planning his own funeral and hasn’t stopped helping people, even after his death, deciding he wants to donate his body to medical science.

This is a man with the mountains in his blood. He has climbed Scotland’s 282 Munros (mountains over 3,000ft) eight times.

But that has all had to stop because of his poor health.

He said he found gazing at the mountains on a recent break in the Torridon area of the north-west Highlands “emotional” because he can no longer climb.

But added: “I get great joy just looking at the hills.”

David, sleeping on couch, with his granddaughter, Ellie Skye, in 2013
David with his granddaughter, Ellie Skye, in 2013 [BBC]

As he faces his death he said the hardest thing will be leaving behind the people he cherishes and who have cared for him over the last few years: “My two beautiful granddaughters, step-daughter and friend Kalie, and all these people who’ve been so good to me.

“That’s hard, but it’s going to happen, and that’s life.”

Heavy said he fought to get into the military and he will “fight to the last”.

With a smile of his face he said he’s had a good life, and added with a chuckle: “I didn’t expect to live this long.”