Riding a Norseman into Posterity

Major Glenn Miller, USAAF

Major Glenn Miller, USAAF (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Last Friday, 15th December, was the anniversary of the 1944 disappearance of Major Glenn Miller, Lieutenant Colonel Norman Baessell, and pilot Flight Officer John Morgan, on board a UC-64A Norseman, AAF serial 44-70285. The aircraft departed from RAF Twinwood Farm near Bedford (England) en route for Paris (France – one article mentions a Ninth Air Force airfield at Vélizy-Villacoublay) but disappeared presumably while flying over the English Channel. No wreckage or bodies were ever found.

Conspiracy theories abounded through the years, many of them stretching the reader’s indulgence beyond endurance.

A 2014 article in the Chicago Tribune (actually reviewing an episode of the PBS  series “History Detectives”) reported that despite the many theories that had been proposed, Miller’s plane probably crashed because of icing in the carburettor. The Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp used a two-barrel Stromberg that was prone to icing, and carburettor heating sought to rectify this.

Glenn Miller Declassified - Book Cover

Dennis M Spragg “Glenn Miller Declassified” Potomac Books (September 1, 2017)

The key person in the Tribune article, the PBS show, and most of the other articles I’m going to cite is Dennis M. Spragg. Spragg is Senior Consultant at the Glenn Miller Archive in the American Music Research Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He’s just published a book entitled “Glenn Miller Declassified” (Potomac Books, September 2017) which, according to the Amazon reviews is a tad dry, but which has a lot of documentary detail.

I must get hold of a copy of this book, since it piques my librarian, historian, airplane nut and Glenn Miller fan interests simultaneously – a rare enough event.

According to the various reports in news articles and interested websites, Spragg’s book answers a few questions and advances my personal favourite theory of history – that the most mundane explanation is probably the most likely to be true.

The conspiracy theorists will be left grinding their teeth. Glenn Miller was not on a secret mission under orders from Eisenhower. His body was not dumped outside a Paris brothel following his capture by German special forces. He was not blackmailed or repatriated to the USA under arrest and tried for black market activities, racketeering, or anything else. Miller’s Norseman was not struck by bombs jettisoned from a returning force of RAF Lancasters following a cancelled raid. The mundane explanation, an iced carburettor, and a crash in the English Channel, is Spragg’s proposed solution.

One of the conspiracy theory books I read years ago stated that Miller’s plane couldn’t possibly have left from Twinwood Farm because the airfield was closed for flying on 15th December.  Morgan was apparently denied permission to undertake the flight due to the appalling weather and low cloud. Miller had been delayed for two days already.  Spragg apparently says Baessell simply overruled Morgan on his own authority and ordered him to proceed, despite the fact that Morgan (who was not an experienced B-24 pilot with a completed tour of operations behind him, as one theory states) was not qualified for instrument flying.  Baessell seemed to have been able to authorize his own flights before and did it again, either disregarding or not being aware that his authorization was not valid in these circumstances.millermap

Spragg’s evidence includes the handwritten log of of a plane-spotter named Richard Anderton (now sadly deceased) who was living in or around Maidenhead at the time and who observed “1 Norseman going ESE” on the afternoon of 15th December 1944. Continuing to head ESE from Maidenhead would, in my estimation,  make the Norseman cross the coast somewhere around Folkestone or Dover and give the pilot the shortest possible channel crossing.  Obviously we have no way of knowing what course Morgan may have taken after overflying Maidenhead.

If Richard Anderton had spotted Miller’s Norseman flying ESE, and had it stayed on that course  – Anti-Aircraft defences notwithstanding,  it would tend to discount the theory that the Norseman was struck by a bomb or bombs jettisoned by RAF Lancasters of 149 Squadron returning from an aborted bombing raid on railway yards at Siegen, Germany.

The “Lancaster” theory says that Morgan would have flown south-south east or south from Maidenhead (avoiding London) to leave the English coast at Beachy Head in order to avoid the heavy Anti-Aircraft defences on the south coast of England. The attraction of this theory is that a straight line from Maidenhead to Paris passes over Beachy Head and into or close to what was known as the Southern Jettison Area.

The Southern Jettison Area used by 149 Squadron that day,  was located at 50º 15’N 0º 15′ E.  One of the 149 Squadron crewmen said in a 1985 interview that it was “near” Beachy Head,  but actually the zone is midway between Beachy Head and Le Havre).  The Air Historical Branch of the Ministry of Defence record that the raid on Siegen took off at 12 noon.  Miller’s plane took off from Twinwood Farm at 1.55pm and was spotted by Richard Anderton before 3pm. The AHB said in the 1985 article that Miller’s Norseman and the Lancasters may have been “many miles apart.” It would be informative to know when 149 Squadron were recalled and what course they took to the Jettison Area.

It’s entirely possible that the returning Lancasters may have hit a low-flying aircraft when they jettisoned their bombs. There may be no record another light aircraft incident on December 15th, but there appears to be no official record of Baessell’s unauthorized flight with Morgan and Miller either. This, says Spragg, is part of the reason why the USAAF was so slow in announcing Miller’s death. They couldn’t believe they had simply lost someone like Glenn Miller. Until someone hauls up an identifiable piece of wreckage from the English Channel we will never know.

As you can imagine,  no photographs exist of 44-70285,  leading to some speculation as to how it might have looked on the day Miller, Baessell and Morgan took their fateful flight. Opinion is split on whether the Norseman was in an Olive Drab / Neutral Gray scheme or whether it was unpainted. Modellers have built their own versions of Miller’s Norseman both ways and differing interpretations of 44-70285 are visible on the Web. Needless to say some aircraft spotters and modellers will always associate the Norseman as being the aircraft on which Glenn Miller was lost.

Noorduyn UC-64 Norseman

Noorduyn UC-64 Norseman – Olive Drab with AEAF “Invasion Stripes” painted out in the upper fuselage and lower wings, indicating a photograph taken in late 1944 or early 1945 (Public Domain)


Noorduyn UC-64 Norseman.

Noorduyn UC-64 Norseman. Silver finish with AEAF “Invasion stripes” on all lower surfaces possibly indicating a photo taken in Summer or Autumn 1944. (Public Domain via 33 PRS)

It would be remiss of me not mention Miller’s musical legacy and to feature a YouTube clip of Miller and the AAF band performing, although many people have done it a lot more capably than me.  This number caught my attention when researching the story of Miller’s disappearance.  “Jeep Jockey Jump” was restored by Mike Zirpolo in his review of Spragg’s book.   See the Bibliography for a longer list of sources I consulted.


Amelia Earhart – Quotes, Pictures, and Silence.

I must have said something about 2017 being the anniversary year of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance.  I lectured a couple of times about her (the first time was in 2011) and even gave a Pecha Kucha presentation a couple of years ago to a bemused audience at the First Christian Church in Pittsburg on the topic.

What brought Amelia back to my consciousness was the fact that one of my students this semester prepared a short presentation on Earhart for an extra credit project.   She apparently visits Atchison, KS quite regularly for the Earhart celebrations.  It was nice to see that Amelia isn’t forgotten by the younger generation.

Inspired by this,  I had a riffle around the TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery) website to see what has developed recently.

An entry in TIGHAR Executive Director Ric Gillespie’s blog  caught my attention. The article “Crickets and Corrections” discusses a photo which I had forgotten about, despite only being revealed five or six months ago in June / July 2017.

Is this Amerlia's Airplane?

A Japanese ship  docking in the Marshall Islands, allegedly towing a barge upon which is the remains of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra. Earhart and Fred Noonan are supposed to be shown among the people on the dockside. Earhart is said to be seated with her back to the camera,  and Noonan is the very tall man  on the left. (National Archives / History Channel)

You may have seen this photo which is preserved in the US National Archives. A program on the History Channel supposedly blew away much of the conspiracy theory and the detailed research of TIGHAR by stating that the picture shows conclusively that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan’s flight actually ended in the Marshall Islands,  and that they were taken prisoner by the Japanese.   This would have been especially aggravating to TIGHAR,  who have spent many years and a a considerable amount of money trying to prove their theory that Earhart and Noonan crashed and eventually died on Gardner Island in the Phoenix Islands, now known as Nikumaroro in the Republic of Kiribati.

Ric Gillespie says that some other information has come to light about the picture.   Another copy has emerged in a Japanese book  published in 1935, and Gillespie / TIGHAR take much trouble to examine and translate the bibliographic information showing that the photo may have been taken two years before the  famous pair disappeared.   Gillespie says the History Channel have pulled the show from its schedules, and indeed the History Channel website mentions that new information has come to light and that they’re investigating.   Gillespie’s blog post is the equivalent of a crowd of British football supporters singing “It’s All Gone Quiet Over There”  to their previously raucous opponents’ stands when their team scores.

I have no doubt we’ll hear more about this.  TIGHAR’s investigation has been going on since 1989, according to their website, and will no doubt continue as funds permit.  They have amassed an absolute wealth of circumstantial evidence. All of it is very highly plausible, (Personally I think their explanation is the best one and the most likely) but as they admit,  there is nothing which can prove the hypothesis beyond reasonable doubt.

We will keep watching and waiting.

40 Years of Voyager

Launch of Voyager 1

Launch of Voyager 1 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, September 5, 1977, (Public Domain via NASA)

There were many things happening in September 1977. Some were good,  and some were bad.  On the good side,  I started my undergraduate career at Brighton Polytechnic (now part of the University of Brighton).   On the negative side, if you remember  Peter Gabriel’s lyrics,  you’ll know that in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko was killed by officers of the South African state security services following his arrest in August. This event, and Gabriel’s commemorative song on his third album (Peter Gabriel III  informally known as Melt, released in 1980)  had a profound effect on public consciousness of the Anti-Apartheid movement in the UK and elsewhere.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, on September 5, 1977, Voyager 1,  the subject of this article, was launched  from Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, aboard a Titan IIIE.

Voyager is currently the most distant man-made object from Earth at approximately 139 AU (Astronomical units – 1 AU is the mean distance from the Earth to the Sun). It is also the most distant object in the solar system whose location is known.

I am amazed when an aircraft celebrates 40 years in service, and this is happening fairly frequently as design life causes aircraft which I thought to be modern to be consigned to museums, whereas others are kept in service as there is simply no conceivable replacement.  I was shocked when I noticed the 40th Anniversary of the Panavia Tornado had occurred a couple of years ago (probably more). So for a Spacecraft to be functioning 40 years after launch is a thing of considerable wonder.

There are many things to wonder about the Voyager mission as a whole.  The famous Golden Records with images, recordings of voices, music and sounds (including the Rolling Stones “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”) are just one feature. Look at the Voyager website for more images and information on the mission than I could ever want to squeeze into a blog post.

For me – the picture below is the real kicker.  The “Pale Blue Dot”,  as it has become known, is a photograph of Earth taken on February 14, 1990 by Voyager 1 from a distance of about 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles, 40.5 AU). It was part of the Family Portrait series of images of the Solar System.  That’s us. Planet Earth takes up approximately half a pixel and is visible just over half way down the brown band on the right of the picture. The bands of colour are caused apparently by sunlight in the camera’s optics,  even from a distance of 40.5 AU.

The 'Pale Blue Dot’ - Earth seen from Voyager 1, 1990

This narrow-angle color image of the Earth, dubbed ‘Pale Blue Dot’, is a part of the first ever ‘portrait’ of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system from a distance of more than 4 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic. (Public Domain via NASA)

I’ve lifted the quote below from the Wikipedia page on the Pale Blue Dot and apart from taking out a couple of the hyperlinks, present it here unaltered.  I always loved the things Carl Sagan had to say about the Cosmos, and this is another of them.  It makes an excellent way to close the article.

During a public lecture at Cornell University in 1994, Carl Sagan presented the image to the audience and shared his reflections on the deeper meaning behind the idea of the Pale Blue Dot

“We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

[…] To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

 This image and others are available at https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/downloads/


79 Years Going The Wrong Way


Douglas Corrigan beside his Curtiss Robin aircraft – (Public Domain)

On July 17th 1938,  Douglas Corrigan took off in an easterly direction from Floyd Bennett field and kept on going.   Just over 28 hours later he landed at Baldonnel field near Dublin,  and until the end of his life he maintained he’d been trying to get back to Long Beach, California.  His aircraft was a nine-year old Curtiss OX-5 Robin,  partially re-engined with the best parts from two J-6-5 Wright Whirlwinds, (making it a J-1 Robin, technically)  and otherwise modified for long-distance flight.

Corrigan was a aircraft mechanic and a devotee of Charles Lindbergh.  Corrigan assisted in the construction of the Spirit of St. Louis and it was Corrigan who pulled the chocks away from the Ryan NYP at the start of Lindbergh’s solo flight in 1927.  It’s a sad irony that Lindbergh never did acknowledge Corrigan’s Atlantic crossing eleven years later. Other notable Americans from Howard Hughes to Henry Ford congratulated him.

Corrigan retired from aviation in 1950, but apparently on the 50th anniversary of his flight in 1988 allowed a group of enthusiasts to retrieve the Robin from its hangar and start it up.  There is humorous comment on the Wikipedia page that Corrigan himself, by then aged 81, may have wanted to take the aircraft up for a spin.

Douglas Corrigan

“As I looked over it at the Dublin airdrome I really marveled that anyone should have been rash enough even to go in the air with it, much less try to fly the Atlantic. He built it, or rebuilt it, practically as a boy would build a scooter out of a soapbox and a pair of old roller skates. It looked it. The nose of the engine hood was a mass of patches soldered by Corrigan himself into a crazy-quilt design.”
Knickerbocker, H.R. (1941) quoted in Wikipedia.
Corrigan and his modified Curtiss Robin “Sunshine”

Rumours persist that,  later in life,  Corrigan dispersed the parts of the Robin to prevent it from being stolen.  I haven’t managed to track down any references to dispersed Robin parts in the Santa Ana area of California although I have no doubt a few such articles exist.

There are a few nice pictures of Corrigan and the Robin at Baldonnel in the collections of the National Library of Ireland, and Bryan Swopes on This Day in Aviation has a picture of Corrigan and the Robin in 1988 at the 50th Anniversary celebrations. The the card model site Fiddlers Green has a different signed photo of Corrigan and the Robin taken at around that time.

If you’d like to see the man himself explain things,  try this public domain clip from YouTube.

I wonder if some parts of the Robin will emerge in 2018 when we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the flight?

14th June, 1919

Alcock and Brown Take Off, 14th June, 1919.

Alcock and Brown depart St. John’s, Newfoundland in their Vickers Vimy.  14th June, 1919 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

I remember going to the Science Museum in London when I was small and seeing the Vickers Vimy  that Alcock and Brown used to make the first non-stop Atlantic crossing.  Until today it had never actually struck me on which day the crossing had taken place. Admittedly it was on the 14th/15th June.   You can read about some of the trials and tribulations of the flight  on their Wikipedia page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transatlantic_flight_of_Alcock_and_Brown

A couple of things I didn’t know about the flight:

  1. John Alcock had been a POW in Turkey in the First World War while flying with the Royal Naval Air Service – while a POW he dreamed of making the Atlantic crossing.
  2. There was a very real competition between Vickers and Handley-Page (among others) to win a 10,000 GBP prized offered by the Daily Mail. The Handley-Page team were still testing their aircraft when the Vickers team arrived, assembled their aircraft and took off.
  3. Alcock approached Vickers suggesting they use a modified Vimy bomber for the attempt. Vickers were impressed and made him their pilot.
  4. Arthur Whitten-Brown was apparently unemployed and approached Vickers looking for a job.

It’s amazing how a series of chances came together. One would say it was a very British undertaking.

Dragon Lady

1 May 1960 is the anniversary of Francis Gary Powers being shot down somewhere over the Soviet Union in his U-2A  by what I call a SAM-2  and everyone else calls an S-75. I assumed the event took place earlier in the year and have to thank my regular engagements with Bryan Swopes’ blog for reminding me.   Funnily enough I mentioned the U-2 incident to my American History class last week.  Every so often I get close to an anniversary like this, but mostly it’s coincidence.   In March 2014 I happened to hit the 70th Anniversary of the “Great Escape” and subjected my class to a few minutes of Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough.

The engine of the downed American Lockheed U-2

The engine of the downed American Lockheed U-2 plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers on view in Gorky Park. (RIA Novosti archive, image #35173 / Chernov / CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

I had a quick riffle through the pages of Wikipedia to find a Public Domain picture of an original U-2 and read briefly that another U-2 was shot down during the Cuban Missile Crisis.   I didn’t managed to teach that part and will have to look it up.   I will also have refresh myself on the clandestine overflights that were carried out by Canberras and RB-45s flown by RAF aircrews (and the RB-45s had RAF markings) a few years previously.

Lockheed U-2A

Lockheed U-2A at the National Museum of the US Air Force

Many years ago I saw a TR-2 (I think it was)  derivative of the U-2 climbing out of RAF Alconbury  and watched as best I could while I was driving down the M11 Motorway at the time. I believe I did see the NMUSAF example (basking in the sun in the picture above)  at Dayton some years ago.   I’m looking forward to going again sometime soon.

A Little Quiet Recently

My fault.   Mostly just getting caught up with the daily life of an adjunct professor and occasionally doing some teaching.   We’re into the 1960s next week, which means about three weeks of the semester remains and then into the long-ish summer break.  I do have a little prep work for the Fall Semester, in which I assume I’m still teaching.

In the meantime.   I want to pause and remember that we have just passed the 20th Anniversary of the crash of ATL-98 Carvair N83FA in Griffin, Georgia on April 4th. On that day I actually did sit back for a moment and took a moment for prayer and reflection.    I never for a moment imagined that a blog article which was born from reading a John Le Carre novel and thinking “huh?” would generate so much interest.  Looking at the WordPress statistics for the blog, it always seems to get a couple of hits most weeks. I was touched and honored to have received comments from Kris Whittington, son of pilot Larry Whittington who was killed in the crash of N83FA, and recently Vanessa Presley, who as a child in Griffin saw and heard the crash and who suffers from the after effects to this day.  My deepest thanks to everyone who contributed to expand a little piece of aviation history here.

HM Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip board an ANA C-54 (VH-INY) at Western Junction, Tasmania. Feb 20, 1954. This C-54 would seven years later be converted into a Carvair which, with the registration N83FA, would crash on take-off at Griffin, Georgia in April 1997


My research project,  the history of B-24J-1-FO  42-50535  “Joplin Jalopy” got a boost this month.  For some reason an article appeared in the Joplin Globe a couple of weeks ago (which I have managed not to read) but which, I am told, listed the correct number of operations the Jalopy flew.  This would then indicate that someone read some of the research material I forked over to the globe in 2006.     Shortly afterwards I received an email from Ray Foreman from KODE12  TV in Joplin  (Hi Ray!)  who had seen my January 2016 post commemorating the anniversary of the start of the now defunct “Joplin’s Bomber”  blog.   Apart from being a military aviation history enthusiast Ray has some connection with the Joplin Civil Air Patrol so I hope to have a chat with him, and them in the near future.  This has been a timely prod not to let all that information  go to waste.

B-24 Joplin Jalopy

B24J-1-FO 42-50535 “Joplin Jalopy” – 506BS / 44BG

I was relating all of this to one of my colleagues at Pittsburg State who then said “you ought to write this up for a journal article”  (in one of the local academic journals) ,  so given a long enough period of rest  I may actually do that.

In the meantime I will continue to be fascinated by little snippets that float into my field of vision from the world of aviation.