Jubilee Flypast

I watched the Deutsche Welle archived live stream of Her Majesty the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee yesterday. None of the British news outlets had any such thing, and the service inside St.Paul’s Cathedral was limited to UK viewers only. Nevertheless it was quite a moving and nostalgic moment, since I haven’t watched Trooping the Colour for many a year.

As you may imagine, I was in full spotter mode at the very end when a huge assortment of aircraft (72 in total – I did count them from the list provided by the RAF on their website) operated by the British armed forces flew over Buckingham Palace.

Queen’s Platinum Jubilee tri-service flypast seen from Waterloo Bridge in London

What astounded me was how out of touch with current British military aviation types I have become. I spent some of the time thinking “I didn’t know we had any of them” and then found out that in most cases the aircraft concerned have been in service for at least five years, perhaps more.

The constituent parts of the Jubilee flypast are (or were):

1 x Wildcat HMA2 (Royal Navy), 2 x Merlin (Royal Navy)
1 x Wildcat AH1 (British Army), 3 x Apache AH1 (British Army)
1 x Wildcat HMA2  (Royal Marines, Royal Navy), 3 x Merlin (Royal Navy)
3 x Puma
3 x Chinook HCA6
1 x Lancaster, 2 x Spitfire, 2 x Hurricane (Battle of Britain Memorial Flight)
1 x Phenom, 4 x Texan
3 x C-130J Hercules
1 x A400M Atlas
1 x C-17 Globemaster
1 x P-8A Poseidon MRA1
1 x RC-135W Rivet Joint
1 x Voyager, 2 x F-35B Lightning, 2 x Typhoon
1 x Voyager, 4 x F-35B Lightning
4 x Hawk T2
15 x Typhoon
9 x Hawk T1 (Red Arrows)

So let’s examine the names which made me say “huh?”

Wildcat – no, not the tubby little Grumman shipboard fighter. I had this down as a Lynx when I saw the flypast and I wasn’t far wrong. This is the AgustaWestland AW159 Wildcat, which was known as the “Future Lynx” and “Lynx Wildcat”. It’s been in service with the British Army since 2014 and the Royal Navy since 2015 although trials were being undertaken from at least 2011.

A Wildcat helicopter HMA Mk2 of 700(W) Naval Air Squadron conducting flying trials near HMS Monmouth off the South coast of the UK in November 2013 – This file is licensed under the Open Government Licence version 1.0 (OGL v1.0).

Merlin. Formerly the EH101 and now the AW101. I didn’t know that the RAF’s Merlins had been transferred to the Royal Navy. But seemingly they have.
Puma. – really? wow! I built an Airfix Puma in the 1970s and yes, this is still the A3330 Puma, having been radically upgraded and now called the Puma HC2
Chinook. – Now in its HCA6 iteration, and I wonder just how much noise three of them made as they flew over in formation.
Lancaster, Spitfire, Hurricane. – The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight were pretty familiar although the Deutsche Welle video gave them about five seconds of screen time. Hey Ho.
Phenom – I had no idea what this was. It’s the Embraer EMB-500 Phenom 100. “Operated as part of the UK Military Flying Training System. On 2 February 2016 the Ministry of Defence signed a contract with KBR-Elbit Systems for the procurement and support of five Embraer Phenom 100 jets to train Royal Air Force and Royal Navy air crew until 2033.” Thank you, Wikipedia.

Pictured are two of the RAF’s new Embraer Phenom 100’s which are taking over the multi-engine aircrew training duties of the King Air B200 and B200GT. Operated by 45(R) Squadron, under the command of No. 3 FTS. They run the Multi Engine Advanced Flying Training (MEAFT) course for pilots, whilst simultaneously training Non-Commissioned Aircrew (NCA) rear-crew for Fixed Wing, Rotary and ISTAR roles throughout the RAF. This file is licensed under the Open Government Licence version 1.0 (OGL v1.0).

Texan. – so the RAF is now operating the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II following the withdrawal of the Tucano. The contract was signed in 2016. I couldn’t lay my hands on a picture of an RAF Texan, but this one gives you an idea of what it looks like. That’s a Texan in front, too, although my dad would have called it a Harvard. Fittingly the Canadian Armed Forces call the new Beechcraft the CT-156 Harvard II.

An original T-6 Texan aircraft, right, flies with the new U.S. Air Force T-6 aircraft during the 2007 Randolph Air Force Base (AFB) Air Show at Randolph AFB, Texas, Nov. 4, 2007. (U.S. Air Force photo by Steve White/Released) (Public Domain)

Hercules. – fine. This is the C-130J so they looked a big bigger. I remember there was some argy-bargy about the C-130J at the time the A400M was looking like it wasn’t going to get anywhere.
Atlas A400M (Atlas C.Mk.1). – I didn’t know the RAF had bought some A400s, but clearly they have. I find its shape weirdly pleasing. Operational in the RAF since 2014/15.
Globemaster. – I do recall seeing one of the RAF C-17s at RIAT before I left the UK so that wasn’t much of a surprise. I was intrigued at the way the C-17 pilot was maintaining very close station with the A400, or so it looked.
Poseidon MRA1. – The RAF’s new maritime reconnaissance aircraft, known elsewhere as the P-8A and developed from the Boeing 737-800. The UK announced its intention to order nine P-8As in the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015. The last aircraft (of seven, so a couple got cut on the way) was delivered in January 2022.

The very first RAF P-8A Poseidon (ZP801) on the pan at NAS Jacksonville after being officially ‘delivered’ to the RAF in 2019. The flattened profile of the CFM-56 (q.v.) nacelle is very clear here. This file is licensed under the Open Government Licence version 1.0 (OGL v1.0)

RC-135W Rivet Joint. – this was the one that really made me sit up. I saw it looked like a KC-135, but I had no idea the RAF had any. Of course it wasn’t a KC-135, although at some point in its life the airframe (and its mates) had been tankers. Previously, the RAF had gathered signals intelligence with three Nimrod R1 aircraft but with the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 the United Kingdom bought three KC-135R aircraft (all of which first flew in 1964) for conversion to RC-135W Rivet Joint standard[ under the Airseeker project. They came into service in October 2014 and are expected to remain in service until 2045. (Mashed from Wikipedia). Talk about life expectancy. By my calculation those airframes when they retire will be 81 years old.

RAF RC-135W Rivet Joint / Airseeker at Waddington, 2014, bearing the red goose of 51 Squadron on its fin, The RAF purchased three RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft, converted from KC-135R Stratotanker airframes to RC-135W standard at the L3 Communications (formerly Raytheon) facility in Greenville, Texas. This file is licensed under the Open Government Licence version 1.0 (OGL v1.0).

Voyager. – I did wonder why there were two A330s in the flypast, but one of them was the repainted ZZ336 known colloquially as “Boris Force One” since the eponymous Prime Minister allegedly ordered a special paint job when it was next in for a service. There are one or two disturbing facts about the British variant of the A330MRTT tanker, not the least of which is the British continuation of “probe and drogue” refuelling practices. This rendered the UK’s sole big tanker unable to refuel a number of “modern” aircraft which use the American “flying boom” system. Maybe this is why the publicity pictures all show a Voyager refuelling a couple of Tornado GR.4s seven years ago. A bog standard Voyager initially couldn’t have refuelled a 1964 era Rivet Joint, much less a C-17 or a Poseidon – and what about the F-35? No, I’m being too picky. Hmmm. “In April 2016, the RAF stated its interest in the idea of fitting a boom to some of the Voyager fleet, bringing its aircraft into line with other A330 MRTT operators” (Wikipedia) Jolly Good idea. The RAF website says the Voyager KC. Mk.3 has a large centreline hose “for use by large aircraft.”

A Royal Air Force Voyager KC2 refuels two RAF Tornado GR4, March 4, 2015, over Iraq. The RAF aircraft provide combat air support for the coalition against Da’esh. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Perry Aston)(Public Domain)

Lightning, Typhoon. – The formation discipline of the 15 Typhoons making up the number “70” in the sky was a joy to behold.
Hawk. I saw a news piece about the end of 100 Squadron at Leeming a few weeks ago and that some of their black Hawks would be repainted and passed to the Red Arrows – and here’s why. “In July 2021, it was announced that all UK military units operating the Hawk T1 aircraft, apart from the Red Arrows, would see their airframes retired by 31 March 2022“. The longevity of the Hawk in RAF service is almost becoming the stuff of legend. Maybe I need to blog that separately.

Merlin Anniversary

Packard built V-1650 “Merlin” Engine at the National Museum of the United States Air Force

It always happens – you read a couple of sentences and three hours later you knew a lot more than you ever wanted to. In today’s example it was the following:

“The first two Packard-built Merlins to be completed were demonstrated on test stands at a special ceremony at the Packard plant in Detroit on Aug. 2, 1941”


Oooh. August 2, 1941? Eighty years ago today. A tad before Pearl Harbor. A couple of weeks before FDR and Winston Churchill met in Newfoundland and on board HMS Prince of Wales and declared the Atlantic Charter. A month before the USS Greer incident and the fireside chat which I refer to in my history class as the “Rattlesnakes of the Atlantic” broadcast. Of course the Lend Lease Act was introduced in March 1941

Naturally the whole story is more complex. Because of its significance the UK wanted to have Merlins produced outside the UK. Henry Ford had rescinded his offer to produce the Merlin and so Rolls-Royce and the Packard Motor Car Company came to an agreement in September 1940 to manufacture the Merlin under license. The contract was worth $130 million dollars in 1940, which according to Wikipedia is worth about 2.4 (American) billion dollars today. The NMUSAF article says that over 55,000 Packard Merlins were built.

Naturally I wondered what proportion of total Merlin production that might represent. Back to Wikipedia for a convenient answer. 149,659 total including Packard versions.

One hundred and fifty thousand engines is a pretty mind boggling total. In addition to the Packard plant in Detroit, engines were built by Rolls-Royce at their Derby and Crewe factories in England, at a massive specially built factory in Glasgow, and ironically by Ford of Britain at another specially built factory in Trafford Park, Stretford, Manchester.

I won’t go on too much about the specifics of the Merlin engine since the Wikipedia article makes a pretty thorough job. I will add a personal note that it was one of those sounds that would guarantee my father’s rapt attention, no mater what else he was doing when he heard one. I remember an episode of the original BBC TV series Survivors in which one of the characters said: “How can anyone get excited about an engine?” This is a thought which tickles me still, since one of the stranger pleasures is playing any YouTube clip of a Merlin in an unoccupied classroom at the History ‘end’ of my building and seeing who comes to investigate, much as my late father would have done.

But today, August 2, 2021, we raise our metaphorical glasses in the direction of Detroit and salute the Packard Merlin. Long may it roar.

Another 90th Anniversary – Knute Rockne and the Crash of NC999E, March 31st 1931

In 2015, and again in 2020, I wrote about an air crash which influenced the investigation of civilian air crashes in the United Kingdom. July 21, 2020 was the 90th anniversary of the Meopham Air Crash / Meopham Air Disaster.

March 31st 2021 sees the 90th anniversary of another famous air crash. The death of a notable personality in this crash, along with seven other souls, may have caused a shift in the culture of air crash investigation and reporting in the United States in much the same way that the Meopham Air Disaster did in the UK. The crash had a subtle but distinct influence on aircraft design and development, and represented a watershed in civil aviation. The story was so fascinating that I started to write a blog article, and then shelved it. As today is the 90th Anniversary of this crash, I can’t let the event pass without a mention.

The individual who died on March 31, 1931 was Knute Rockne, the Norwegian-American Coach of the University of Notre Dame football team. The aircraft involved was a Fokker F.10A belonging to Transcontinental and Western Air, and the crash location was close to the township of Bazaar, in Chase County, Kansas, not a huge distance from where I live.

Knute Rockne (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Knute Rockne was born in Voss, Norway in March 1888. He emigrated to Chicago with his parents when he was five years old. He graduated from Notre Dame in 1914 with a degree in Pharmacy, but soon passed on a career in science when he was asked to help coach the football team. After a short career in professional football, he returned to coach Notre Dame in 1918, and the rest is history. Rockne is held up as one of the greatest coaches in college football history and brought the “Fighting Irish” to preeminence.

Rockne was a hero of the early depression, embodying the All American spirit, despite (or because of) his Norwegian roots. Always an astute publicist and an early advocate of commercial air travel, he was on his way to Los Angeles to take part on the production of a movie The Spirit of Notre Dame.

He was flying on a Fokker F.10A, registration NC999E belonging to Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA), which was making the line’s Flight 5 from Kansas City, Missouri to Los Angeles with intermediate stops at Wichita, Amarillo, Albuquerque, and Winslow.

Fokker F.10A NC999E which crashed on March 31st 1931, seen here at Glendale, California in the earlier livery of Western Air Express, March 1930. (Southern California Edison Photographs and Negatives, Huntington Digital Library)

NC999E departed Kansas City at approximately 0915 on the first leg to Wichita. Weather conditions were poor with snow falls, clouds, mist, drizzle and icing. At 1022, the copilot reported they were south of Emporia, Kansas and were turning back to Kansas City. However on hearing that Wichita’s weather was clearer they may have attempted to turn round again in order to complete their first leg. Their position near Bazaar, slightly west their usual course, indicates the crew were following the aviator’s friend the “iron compass” – in this case the tracks of Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.

It’s entirely possible that the crew needed to open the throttles and gain altitude to execute another 180 degree turn. A couple of witnesses saw NC999E emerge from cloud diving almost vertically, its engines backfiring – perhaps as the pilots throttled back and fought to lessen the impact they knew was inevitable.

Crash site of NC999E in Chase County, Kansas. The tail is the only identifiable part of the wreckage – the port wing was found half a mile away (https://www.baaa-acro.com)

Five of the eight occupants were thrown clear of the wreckage. The aircraft’s port wing was found half a mile away. Small pieces of ice were to be found around the wreck, indicating that key instruments may have iced. Subsequent investigations found clear signs of wood adhesive failure in the main spars and plywood covering following prolonged exposure to moisture. An article in the British journal Aeroplane theorized that if the pilots became disoriented in cloud, and with key instruments inoperable through icing, it is highly possible the aircraft entered a spiral dive, during which the weakened wing separated.

Embed from Getty Images
Original Caption – This is a view of the wreckage of the Transcontinental Western Air Transport Liner in which Knute Rockne and seven others died, when it crashed near Bazaar, Kansas. Sections of the plane and some of the victims were scattered over an area of over a hundred yards. The plane plowed deeply into the soft soil by the force of the crash. (Getty Images)

President Herbert Hoover called the crash a ‘national disaster’. The King of Norway sent a delegation to the funeral and knighted Rockne posthumously. United States Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur sent condolences, as did several state legislatures.

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Another view of the wreckage of NC999E (Getty Images)

The public outcry and the demand for answers which followed the crash had a profound effect. The Aeronautics Branch of the US Department of Commerce followed its accustomed policy and made no public announcement about the crash. This would not satisfy the press, and so a number of implausible theories about pilot error, stress and propeller fracture were advanced, none of which stood up to investigation. Wood-framed aircraft were suspect. Every Fokker Trimotor in U.S. airline service was temporarily grounded. The expense of new more rigorous safety checks, and the bad publicity associated with Rockne’s death caused the reputations of TWA and Fokker to sink considerably. Fokker’s would never recover.

For TWA, the only way out of the morass, occurring at the outset of the worst depression in American history, was to look for new aircraft. The Ford Trimotor was an early beneficiary but it looked too much like the “Plane that killed Knute Rockne” even if its metal construction was entirely different. Boeing produced the semi-legendary Model 247 which was widely regarded as the forerunner of modern commercial aircraft, featuring de-icing, a metal construction, and supercharged engines. TWA wanted Model 247s, but Boeing were fully committed to manufacturing 60 for its United Aircraft and Transport Corporation (UAT) subsidiary company United Airlines – TWA’s arch rival. Boeing couldn’t supply TWA for some time, if at all.

In the summer of 1932, a TWA Vice-President contacted Donald Douglas and four other manufacturers to bid for construction of an all-metal three-engined, 12-seat aircraft capable of landing and taking off with one engine out from any of its operating airports. TWA asked who would be interested in a manufacturing job and how long would it be before a prototype could be evaluated.

Donald Douglas was at first hesitant, but after hammering out a few details with TWA such as persuading them to drop their trimotor specification, Douglas’ corporate response was the Douglas Commercial 1 (aka DC-1), which flew a year after the initial letter of interest from TWA.

Douglas DC-1 on its handover to TWA in December 1933 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

TWA accepted the aircraft and subsequently ordered 20 examples of the production model, the DC-2.

You can see where this is going. From the DC-2, Douglas produced the improved DC-3, and a legend was born. The Boeing 247 was outperformed by the DC-2 and relegated to a sideline in commercial aviation history, albeit a sideline that arguably gave birth (via the four-engined, pressurized Model 307) to the B-17.

Air crash investigation was brought into the public arena. The aviation industry in the United States took a leap forward with the development of the DC-2/3 series and made the USA the predominant force in airliner construction for four decades. Even Boeing would re-enter the lists with considerable effect.

Would things have been different had Knute Rockne landed safely in Los Angeles in 1931? I think it’s true to say, as the Aeroplane article suggests, that without the market created by the Rockne crash, airline development might have progressed at a slightly different pace. The Junkers 52 and the venerable Ford Trimotor demonstrated the safe developmental route. Without the timely impetus to develop the DC series, the DC-2 and later DC-3 / C-47, the speculation starts to go off the scale. Had the DC-3 emerged a couple of years later, what would the legions of paratroopers have jumped from in the Second World War?

And we haven’t even begun to think about college football. 🙂

Among other sources, see the following:

Miracle on the Hudson

It seems like it was only yesterday, but it was on January 15th, 2009 that US Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320-214 with the US civil registration N106US, ditched in the Hudson River, having lost power to both engines following a collision with a flock of Canada Geese.

US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, New York, USA on 15 January 2009 Photo by Greg L, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t have anything unusual to say about the events because like everyone else I am simply in awe of the skill of the pilots – Chesley B. Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles – not to mention the three flight attendants on the flight who conducted a successful evacuation.

‘Cactus’ 1549 was on a scheduled flight from New York – LaGuardia (LGA) to Charlotte Douglas (CLT), North Carolina with 150 passengers. We’ve seen a variety of video clips and still images, and some people (not me, for whatever reason) will have seen the 2016 movie Sully directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks.

Apparently after being salvaged, N106US was offered for sale for two years without any takers, until in 2011 it was obtained by the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte, NC where it remains on display sans engines. It’s fitting that it should be displayed at the intended (initial) destination for that flight.

N106US on display at Carolinas Aviation Museum Photo by RadioFan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Pearl Harbor Veteran Aircraft

I was planning to post this article on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, but as you can see I got a little sidetracked. I wondered if any aircraft surviving in museums or elsewhere were present at or around Pearl Harbor on the “date that will live in infamy” to use FDR’s words. I had the feeling that a P-40 in England was a Pearl veteran (I must have read about it in FlyPast when I used to subscribe), but I was unsure of any others.

My brief research indicates there are three (perhaps four) such aircraft extant.  While reading up for this article I noticed that a museum specialist from the NASM was quoted as saying there were about seven, so I’d be happy to hear about any others.  Here’s what I know.

Grumman J2F-4 Duck, BuNo 1649 – Mid-America Flight Museum, Mount Pleasant, Texas.

Grumman J2F-4 “Duck” Bu No 1649 – seen at Kenosha, WI in 2010, in the markings it would have worn on December 7th 1941. Photo by Glenn E. Chatfield – used with permission.

Most of the Grumman Ducks seen on the warbird preservation circuit are the later J2F-6 model, However BuNo 1649 is an earlier J2F-4. She was taken on charge by U.S. Navy in December, 1939 and served throughout the Second World war. Having been sold by the War Assets Administration in 1947, she acquired the civil registration N63850. In 1955 the aircraft crash landed and sank in the Bahamas, remaining underwater until salvaged in 1991. The restoration project went through two or three owners and consumed parts from another J2F before her first flight in 2005. She was restored in her original markings, and was grand champion at the EAA show at Oshkosh in 2007.  In the last few years, she has been sold to the Mid-America Flight Museum in Mount Pleasant, Texas. 

Ducks at Ford Island. “A view taken from a building at Ford Island Naval Air Station, looking over Hanger No. 37 toward the Navy Yard, during the Japanese attack on 7 December 1941. In the left distance are the mast tops of USS Pennsylvania (BB-38), in Navy Yard Drydock No. 1. The mast tops in center are those of USS Nevada (BB-36). The smoke is from Nevada and the burning destroyers USS Cassin (DD-372), USS Downes (DD-375) and USS Shaw (DD-373). The planes in the foreground include two Grumman J2F Duck and one Douglas RD-3 Dolphin. Two Douglas SBD Dauntless are inside Hangar No. 37.” (US Navy – Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Coincidentally, the MAFM in Texas is also the home of a 1929 Ford 4-AT Trimotor N9612 / NC 9612 which is also alleged to have been in Hawaii at the time of the attack – having bullet holes to show for it – although no documentary evidence exists to demonstrate conclusively that it was there. Not only that, there are no photographs with suitable usage rights that I can track down on the web so this brief paragraph will have to serve.

Sikorsky JRS-1 BuNo 1063 at the National Air and Space Museum, Chantilly, Virginia

The Sikorsky JRS-1 was the military version of the civilian S-43, known colloquially as the Baby Clipper.  The US Navy received 17 of the 50-odd that were built. According to the NASM, ten of them were based at Pearl flying with VJ-1, a utility squadron doing everything from delivering parts and people to photographic duties, at the time of the attack.   BuNo 1063 is the only surviving JRS-1.

Sikorsky JRS-1 BuNo 1063 at the Uvar Hadzy center of the National Air and Space Museum – Photo by Aaron Headly, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a fairly utilitarian design and was doing a pretty mundane job. What may surprise the reader (as it surprised me) is that 1603 and four of its companions took off on December 7th and went looking for the Japanese fleet as this fascinating clip relates:

Wesley H. Ruth, CDR USN Ret., was an Ensign Duty Officer on 7 December 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii. He was ordered to make a reconnaissance flight in a JRS-1 unarmed, twin engine, amphibious plane (BuNo 1063!) after the two attacks and did so with a copilot, radioman, and three sailors armed with WWI Springfield rifles. For his valor he was awarded the Navy Cross. This is his story of that day.

The NASM site says that 1063 was taken off operations in the fall of 1942, and shipped to California for maintenance. It spent about a year assigned to the Commander Fleet Airship Wing 31 at NAS Moffett Field in California (now the NASA Ames Research Center) before being put into storage in the fall of 1944. For some obscure reason it was taken out of storage and flew for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at Langley Field in 1946.  Someone must have noticed the significant date in its logbook when it was returned to storage and talked to the Smithsonian Institute. 1063 was added to the Smithsonian’s collection in 1960 and moved to the Udvar-Hazy Center in March of 2011

Three U.S. Navy Sikorsky JRS-1 of utility squadron VJ-1 in flight, circa late 1930s. VJ-1 operated eight aircraft from San Diego, California (USA). USN – Official U.S. Navy photo UA 2015.05.01 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command – Public Domain via Wikimedia

Curtiss P-40B Warhawk, Serial Number 41-13297

Until I read a little more about Wes Ruth’s amazing mission in the JRS-1 I would have assumed that this was the aircraft which might have flown operationally against the Japanese attackers on December 7th. Sadly by a twist of fate, it was not the case.

P-40B Warhawk 41-13297 G-CDWH (as it was then) at the Duxford (UK) Autumn Airshow, 2013. At around this time, the aircraft was purchased for the Collings Foundation by an anonymous benefactor and has subsequently relocated to the USA. Photo by John5199, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Like so many P-40s, 41-13297 was built in Buffalo, New York and following acceptance by the USAAF was allocated to the Seventh Air Force’s 18th Pursuit Group, 19th Fighter Squadron, based at Wheeler Field, O’ahu, Hawaii. In October 1941, 41-13297 made a wheels-up landing at Wheeler and thus was under repair on the base on December 7th when the attack happened.

Photo is said to show P-40B Warhawk Serial Number 41-13297 on a dolly after its wheels-up landing in October 1941 (Public Domain)
41-13297, we assume, is inside one of the hangars. Several P-40s can be seen burning on the ramps. “Planes and hangars burning at Wheeler Field during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941.” U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation photo No. 1996.488.029.041 also Ibiblio.org; Naval History and Heritage Command photo NH 50473 (Public Domain)

In January 1942, 41-13297 crashed while on a training mission, killing the pilot, 1st Lt Kenneth W. Sprankle. The wreckage remained untouched until 1985. Full recovery of all components was completed in 1989.

The venerable P-40 had only flown a little over 50 hours at the time of its crash. Some assessment must have been made as to the condition of the wreck, and restoration commenced, using parts from two other machines.  Once the fuselage was restored, 41-13297 was purchased by the UK-based Fighter Collection in Duxford, England.  Additional restoration was completed and in July 2007 the P-40 arrived in the UK, with the civil registration G-CDWH where it took part in the airshow circuit.

However, an anonymous benefactor in the US may have recognized the machine’s significance and in 2013, purchased 13297 for a sum described coyly as  “several million dollars” on behalf of the Collings Foundation.  13297 is now on display at the American Heritage Museum in Massachusetts.

I couldn’t resist this picture! 41-13297 and friends at Duxford (UK) in 2011. “The development of the Curtiss Hawk monoplane fighter, all in one line! From far to near:- Radial engined Hawk 75 (G-CCVH), Allison engined P-40B Tomahawk (G-CDWH), Merlin engined P-40F Kittyhawk (VH-PIV), Allison engined P-40N Warhawk (F-AZKU). All parked together on the grass flightline. Flying Legends 2011.” Photo by
Alan Wilson , CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I would like to convey my special thanks to Glenn E. Chatfield for proving me with pictures of the J2F-4 BuNo 1649.

Lady Be Good

I am grateful to the social media presence of the National Museum of the United States Air Force for a reminder.  I would never have realized that November 9th  is the anniversary of the day in 1958 when some British oil prospectors, flying over the Calanscio Sand Sea in Libya, spotted the wreck of an aircraft lying on the surface of the desert below.  It would take another four months to confirm that what they had seen, as they suspected, was the wreck of a B-24 Liberator, but what galvanized the US Air Force was the fact that the Liberator on the desert floor had been reported missing in April 1943 from a raid on Naples, Italy.

The ill-fated crew of the Lady Be Good photographed in front of a different B-24. From the left: 1st Lt. W.J. Hatton, pilot; 2nd Lt. R.F. Toner, copilot; 2nd Lt. D.P. Hays, navigator; 2nd Lt. J.S. Woravka, bombardier; Tech Sgt. H.J. Ripslinger, engineer; Tech Sgt. R.E. LaMotte, radio operator; Staff Sgt. G.E. Shelley, gunner; Staff Sgt. V.L. Moore, gunner; and Staff Sgt. S.E. Adams, gunner. (U.S. Air Force photo)
The Wreckage of Lady Be Good discovered in Libya, November 1958
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lady Be Good was a Consolidated B-24D-25-CO Liberator with AAF serial 41-24301, allocated to the 541st Bomb Squadron / 376th Bomb Group based at Soluch Airfield, Libya (also known as Benina, after the adjacent town) 12 miles east of Benghazi. Having been ferried across the Atlantic by a brand-new crew, the B-24 arrived at Soluch on March 25th 1943.  The crew which would fly it on the raid to Naples, commanded by 1st Lt. William J. Hatton, had arrived a week earlier, on March 18th.  The Naples raid would be the Hatton crew’s first combat mission.  

The attack was intended to be carried out by two formations of twelve aircraft. A sandstorm caused eight aircraft from the second wave to turn back to Soluch, leaving four aircraft, including Lady Be Good to complete the attack.  Visibility over Naples was poor.  Two aircraft bombed a secondary target and the other two jettisoned their bombs while heading back to North Africa. 

Hatton apparently radioed his base around midnight asking for directions and reporting his Direction Finder was inoperative.   People on the ground at Soluch reported hearing an aircraft flying overhead which continued South.  It was assumed that Hatton’s B-24 had crashed in the Mediterranean on its way back from Naples. A brief search launched over the sea from Soluch the following day failed to find any wreckage or other indications. Strangely, no connection was made between the aircraft flying overhead and Lady Be Good.

The discovery of the wreck in 1959 upset this narrative.   In March 1959 a British oil exploration crew examined the wreckage and the surrounding area, and started taking souvenirs from the aircraft. The B-24 was in a remarkable state of preservation, and there was enough evidence in the form of maintenance records and logs to name the crew members, but no trace of the crew themselves.  One of the oilmen was on friendly terms with the USAF officer commanding  Wheelus Air Base near Tripoli, and wrote a long letter detailing the discovery. This information was passed to USAF Europe in Frankfurt. The wheels of officialdom ground into motion.

Wreck of the Lady Be Good in the Libyan Desert – from “History and Units of the United States Air Forces In Europe”, CD-ROM compiled by GHJ Scharringa, European Aviation Historical Society, 2004. Image source listed as United States Army Air Forces via National Archives (via Wikimedia) This photograph is said to date from “approximately 1957” but the tire tracks around the wreck suggest the photograph was taken sometime after March 1959 when the first ground exploration located the remains of the aircraft.

In February 1960, the U.S. Army conducted a formal search of the area for the remains of the crew.  The search discovered piles of discarded equipment and trail markers cut from parachutes, weighed down with small rocks, indicating the presence of a group of people, specifically the crew of the Lady Be Good.

Five bodies – those of Hatton, Toner, Hays, LaMotte, and Adams – were found on February 11, 1960 at a location 81 miles from the crew’s post bail-out assembly site.  The searchers found evidence, specifically diaries,  which recorded the crew’s suffering on the walk northward. None of the men were aware they had been flying over land when they bailed out, or how far inland they had flown. As they walked, the group left behind footwear, parachute scraps, Mae Wests and other items as markers to show searchers their path.

A prayer service at the location of the bodies of the “Lady Be Good” crew members in the Libyan Desert provided a simple but solemn commemoration. Chaplain (Lt. Col.) William G. Woods, Chief of Wheelus Chaplains, conducts the service while members of the US Air Force investigating party and oil exploration personnel listen in silence. Local ID: 342-B-ND-075-4-92672AC (National Archives)

The diaries also recounted that the group survived for eight days with only a single canteen of water, a few energy sweets, and no other survival equipment.  Three of the strongest surviving crew members – Ripslinger, Shelley, and Moore – continued walking. The ninth crew member, Lt. Woravka had never joined up with the other eight.  Significantly they had also never found the wreckage of the B-24 which had continued south after they bailed out. 

In the summer of the 1960 the U.S. Army and Air Force commenced a joint operation – Climax – to search for the remaining bodies, although ironically it was another British oil crew who discovered the body of Sgt. Guy Shelley on May 11.  Shelley’s body was found 37.5 miles beyond the group of five.  Sgt. Ripslinger’s body  was discovered 26 miles from the main group on May 17th by the US search teams.

Image from Operation Climax. Local ID: 111-CC-17245 (National Archives)

Operation Climax never found the body of Sgt. Moore. However, it is possible that a body which was discovered by a British Army patrol on a desert exercise in 1953 may have been his.  Since the patrol had no inkling that allied aircrew were missing in the area, the remains were recorded, photographed and buried.  The photographs came to light in 2001 but no conclusive evidence could be drawn from them.

The body of Lt. Woravka, the Bombardier,  was discovered in August 1960, 16 miles North East of the crash site of the B-24 by yet another British oil crew and recovered from its resting place by officers from Wheelus Air Base. Woravka’s parachute had failed to open and the body was covered in shroud lines and the partially deployed parachute when found. While in the area, the recovery team almost literally stumbled upon a pile of discarded parachute harnesses, flight boots and signal cartridges. This was the crew’s assembly point after the bale-out, whose location was previously unknown.   It was less than half a mile from the point where Woravka’s body had been lying. By a cruel twist of fate one of the items on Woravka’s body was a canteen of water which was still more than half-full after 17 years in the desert.

Propeller from Lady Be Good – ex Wheelus AB,Libya, now at Lake Lindon, MI. June 2020. Photo by Kairotic, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the years that followed, the wreck of the Lady Be Good became a navigational point and target for military and civilian explorers.   The wreck was systematically stripped by numerous visitors over the intervening years and no doubt hundreds of individual pieces are in the hands of private individuals around the world. Several pieces were removed by the US Air Force during its examination of the wreck, which are now mostly to be found in the NMUSAF and the Army Quartermaster’s museum in Fort Lee, VA. One of the propellers was taken to Wheelus Air Base.  Another was said to be at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.  The propeller which had been at Wheelus was sent back to the USA and is now outside the village hall in Lake Linden, MI which was the home town of Robert LaMotte  

In 1968 an RAF team removed one of the engines from the wreck. Following examination my McDonnell Douglas it was passed to the NMUSAF where I photographed it in 2002. It has since been joined by another propeller although I’m not sure which one this is.  

Fascinating picture of an RAF Vulcan overflying the wreck of Lady Be Good which I believe was taken in the late 1960s in a navigation exercise. It is worth noting that the tail of the aircraft has been re-aligned with the fuselage, all the engines have been removed – the left horizontal stabilizer (tailplane) is partly missing and the port vertical stabilizer / fin is missing entirely. The nose of the aircraft is now also completely severed from the rest of the fuselage.

The B-24’s broken tail section was moved and re-aligned with the rest of the fuselage by visitors to the wreck, and in some of the last photographs I saw, the entire port vertical stabilizer had been hacked off and removed. Its location is a mystery.   Finally, in 1994 the wreck was sectioned and removed from the crash site by a team of Libyan archaeologists.  It sat for a while in a compound in Tobruk, although it may have been moved again to another location in Libya, which I believe to be Gamal Abdel Nasser Airbase (aka RAF El Adem in a previous life).  I don’t suppose anyone is going over there to take a look in the foreseeable future.  

Sectioned wreck of Lady Be Good is removed from its resting place by Libyan Archaeologists, 1994. The wreck by this time had been thoroughly stripped with only the bare frame remaining. Even one of the vertical stabilizers had been removed by souvenir hunters.

In Memoriam:
1st Lieutenant William J. Hatton, Pilot – Whitestone, NY
2nd Lieutenant Robert F. Toner, Copilot – North Attleboro, MA
2nd Lieutenant Dp Hays, Navigator – Lee’s Summit, MO
2nd Lieutenant John S. Woravka, Bombardier – Cleveland, OH
Technical Sergeant Harold J. Ripslinger, Flight Engineer – Saginaw, MI
Technical Sergeant Robert E. LaMotte, Radio Operator – Lake Linden, MI
Staff Sergeant Guy E. Shelley, Gunner/Asst Flight Engineer – New Cumberland, PA
Staff Sergeant Vernon L. Moore, Gunner/Asst Radio Operator – New Boston, OH
Staff Sergeant Samuel E. Adams, Gunner – Eureka, IL

Meopham Redux

At least two people realized that Tuesday July 21st 2020 will mark the 90th Anniversary of the Meopham Air Disaster / Meopham Air Crash. One of those is me. I thought about it a few weeks ago and completely forgot.

The other is Samuel (Sam) Supple from BBC South-East who emailed me this week and said “It’s the 90th Anniversary of the Meopham Air crash next week and I just read your blog article – I’m going to do a piece for BBC News and can I interview you?”

A blurry picture of G-AAZK at Meopham, July 1930 from

I am stunned to find I wrote that blog article in February 2015. I am also stunned to find how little I actually put in the article. I’ve been collating information on and about the crash ever since my parents told me about it when I was quite young. You may or may not know but my great-grandfather Lewis Powell (1884 – 1956) was one of two village policemen in Meopham (apparently reporting to Sergeant Charles Eve, based in Cobham) at the time of the crash.

Pathe news footage of the aftermath of the crash

As we know, the aircraft involved was Junkers F.13ge G-AAZK, Werk Nr 2052 named Bartgeier. Built in 1929, the aircraft had only flown about 100 hours since new. It had been registered in the UK on 26 May, 1930 and received its Certificate of Airworthiness on June 4th.  

Despite the appearance of being the property of an airline, G-AAZK seemingly was owned by its pilot, Lieutenant-Colonel George Lockhart Piercy Henderson. Henderson loaned the aircraft to the Walcot Air Line to operate a charter flight between Le Touquet and Croydon, picking up a society party who had spent the weekend at Berck. The flight was the third round trip that day. First Henderson had flown his wife from Le Touquet to Croydon. He returned to France for four more passengers, and after they had disembarked in England had gone back again for the remaining four. It was on the final leg, at 2:35 pm, flying at at an altitude of about 1000 feet, above Meopham, when witnesses reported a rumbling noise and that the aircraft emerged from a cloud and then broke apart in mid-air.

All but one of the occupants were thrown from the aircraft and fell into an orchard.  The fuselage and one wing of the aircraft fell close to a bungalow, (see the picture at the top of the page) while the other wing was found a mile away. The tail was found 300 yards from the crash site in a field. The engine fell into the drive of an unoccupied house, just missing a gardener working nearby.  

Screenshot from the Pathe News film on YouTube, showing the tail of G-AAZK found some distance from the major portions of the wreckage and attracting the attention of the local populace. Notice how shiny the metal is, and also notice that half the port (left) tailplane is missing. This has not been removed by souvenir hunters – this was the first structural failure which triggered a number of others, notably the separation of the tail from the aircraft, causing a violent downward pitch which may have thrown the passengers through the roof of the aircraft.

The co-pilot, Charles Shearing, was pulled from the wreckage and carried inside the bungalow. Shearing died soon afterwards.

Screenshot from the Pathe News film on YouTube showing the engine of G-AAZK with what seems to be some of the nose structure attached, having fallen in the driveway of a house in Meopham on July 21st 1930

Family history holds it that my great grandfather was told to gather up the personal effects which had been scattered widely at the time of the crash and keep them at his cottage in Meopham. It is alleged that some items of jewellery were never recovered. Similarly the Air Ministry investigative team reported that some pieces of the wreckage had been taken by souvenir hunters.

The passengers who died were certainly an aristocratic group.

I forgot I had a Pinterest Account – thanks Sam! Passengers and Crew aboard G-AAZK on July 21st 1930 L-R Mrs Sigrid Loeffler; Frederick Temple Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 3rd Marquess of Dufferin and Ava; Sir Edward Ward Bt. The smallest picture is Viscountess Ednam (formerly Lady Rosemary Sutherland-Leveson-Gower). Then Lt. Colonel George Henderson, Pilot, and on the right I assume this is Charles Shearing, Co-Pilot. Given the passage of time I can’t believe that any of the portraits are not in the Public Domain

Frederick Temple Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood (Lord Dufferin) was born on 26 February 1875 in Ottawa, during his father’s term as Governor General of Canada. He joined the 9th Lancers as a second lieutenant on 11 August 1897 and served with his regiment during the Second Boer War from 1899 to 1901. He retired from the Army in 1913 with the rank of Captain, but rejoined his old regiment following the outbreak of the First World War. He was seriously wounded when serving on the Western Front in October 1914. He subsequently transferred to the Grenadier Guards and was again seriously wounded in the autumn of 1915 having returned to duty for only three days. He served as a staff captain in the Guards Division in 1916 and was seconded to the Machine Gun Corps as an instructor in 1918. After the war he was president of the Ulster Ex-Servicemen’s Association. Lord Dufferin’s eldest brother Archibald, Earl of Ava, had been killed in action at Waggon Hill in the Boer War in January 1900, while his other brother, Lord Basil Blackwood, was killed attacking German trenches in July 1917. Lord Dufferin was elected to the Senate of the Parliament of Northern Ireland in 1921, where he served as Speaker from 1921 to 1930. He was sworn of the Privy Council of Ireland on 16 September 1921 and of the Privy Council of Northern Ireland on 12 December 1922. He was an RNVR (Royal Naval Reserve) aide-de-camp to King George V and was appointed Vice-Admiral of Ulster by the King in 1923.

Captain Sir Edward Simons Ward, 2nd Baronet Ward of Wilbraham Place was born on 1 July 1882. He was the son of Colonel Sir Edward Willis Duncan Ward GBE KCB KCVO (1853 – 1928), 1st Baronet. and Florence Caroline Simons. Colonel Ward (1st Baronet) was a career British Army officer and de facto founder of the (Royal) Army Service Corps. He also served as Permanent Secretary of the War Office. Edward was educated at Eton College and married Lois Jefferson on 29 April 1908 at  the Royal Military Chapel, St James Park (Guards’ Chapel) in London. They were divorced in 1916. Having apparently lived in British Columbia for some time, the Wards returned to England and Edward fought in the First World War, as a Captain in the Grenadier Guards and was wounded in action. After his death at Meopham, Captain Ward was succeeded in the baronetcy by his younger brother, Melvill Willis Ward (1885–1973), as the 3rd Baronet. The title became extinct on Melvil Ward’s death.

The story of Lady Rosemary Millicent Sutherland-Leveson-Gower (1893-1930) is one of the great “what if?” stories in recent British history. Lady Rosemary was the daughter of Millicent Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, The Duchess of Sutherland (1867 – 1955) who was a British society hostess, social reformer, author, editor, journalist, and playwright, often using the pen name Erskine Gower. The Curious Life of Rosemary Leveson-Gower describes how, when working as a volunteer nurse on the Western Front, presumably in one of the field hospitals organized by her mother. Lady Rosemary was particularly concerned about a shell-shocked young officer, who, when he regained his speech (“he pointed at Rosemary and said darling“) turned out to be none other than Edward, Prince of Wales, heir to the British throne. Edward and Rosemary fell very much in love and were romantically attached for some time, but apparently George V put a stop to any thoughts of the marriage simply because there were too many skeletons in Sutherland-Leveson-Gower family closet. There were suggestions of alcoholism, gambling, and perhaps worst of all (in George V’s view) Lady Millicent’s unfortunate cycle of marriage and divorce. One can only speculate how British History might have changed if Rosemary Sutherland-Leveson-Gower had married Edward and become Queen Rosemary to Edward VIII?

Lieutenant-Colonel George Lockhart Piercy Henderson (1888-1930) while not aristocratic is an interesting and possibly neglected character in British aviation history. More about him in another blog article

It is suggested that the loss of so many members of the aristocracy in one accident prompted the British Government to launch an extensive investigation into the cause of the crash. The report of the inquiry into the accident was made public, the first time in the United Kingdom that an accident report was published. Whether this was the result of Establishment or political pressure is a matter for conjecture.

The final report (issued in January 1931) concluded the cause of the crash to be the “failure of the tailplane under severe buffeting from air eddies produced by the centre section of certain low-wing monoplanes when the aircraft approaches the stalling attitude”. This was the first time that the term “buffeting” had been used in such an investigation. The report further stated that the aircraft, flying in clouds, may have been thrown into an unusual attitude. This resulted in buffeting of the tailplane, causing the port tailplane to fail, and that the aircraft then entered a dive.

It is said the four German experts from Junkers disagreed and blamed pilot error.

The crash and its aftermath generated a small number of technical reports, all of which are probably still in the collections of the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Missouri. I looked at them some years ago when I worked there. Both the Russian and American research papers mention the accident to G-AAZK at Meopham in July 1930.

  1. Accident Investigation Sub-Committee: Accident to the Aeroplane G-AAZK at Meopham, Kent, on 21st July, 1930. R. & M. No. 1360, HMSO 1931
  2. Abdrashitov, G., Tail Buffeting, NACA TM-1041, February 1943 (Translated from Russian. Report 395 from the Central Aero-Hydromechanical Institute, Moscow, 1939).
  3. White, J. A. and Hood, M. J.: Wing-Fuselage Interference, Tail buffeting and Flow about the Tail of a Low Wing Monoplane, NACA Report 482, 1933.
  4. Hood, M. J. and White, J. A.: Full Scale Wind Tunnel Research on Tail Buffeting and Wing-Fuselage Interference of a Low Wing Monoplane, NACA TN-460, 1933.

And then, as we love these things, I found the image below, only today. In the front row are the four passengers of G-AAZK standing in front of the ill-fated aircraft. Col Piers Legh is hidden behind Mrs. Loeffler – Mrs Legh is the lady not wearing fur in the middle of the picture, partly hidden behind the two other ladies.

Meopham Air Disaster; Sir Edward Ward Hon. Walter Piers Legh Mrs Henrik Loeffler Hon Mrs Piers Legh Viscountess Ednam And The Marquess Of Dufferin And Ava (l-r) Pictured Minutes Before Ill Fated Flight From Le Touquet. Col Piers Legh And His Wife Did [not travel] Stock Image by Associated Newspapers for editorial use, Jul 23, 1930 (Shutterstock Social Share)

Grant, O Lord, to all who are bereaved the spirit of faith and courage, that they may have strength to meet the days to come with steadfastness and patience; not sorrowing as those without hope, but in thankful remembrance of your great goodness, and in the joyful expectation of eternal life with those they love.  (Book of Common Prayer)

More about B-29s in the CBI

I had a very interesting email at the weekend about B-29 operations in the China / Burma / India theater (aka the CBI) which also tied into the case of a very specific B-29 (B-29-15-BW 42-6358 Ding How of the 794 BS / 468th Bomb Group) which I had blogged about previously.

B-29-15-BW 42-6358 “Ding How"

B-29-15-BW 42-6358 “Ding How” of the 794 BS / 468th Bomb Group, while still in service with the USAAF in China. This photograph taken before November 21, 1944 when the aircraft failed to return from a raid and force-landed in Vladivostok, USSR.

Andrea Ding-Kemp emailed me and said that her husband’s grandfather, James E. Kemp, flew B-29s in China in the 1940s and used to say “Ding Hao” a lot when he was alive.  Was he in some way associated with the B-29 called Ding How ?

Andrea sent me a couple of pictures including James E. Kemp’s USAAF aircrew ID card and a picture of a piece of enemy metal which apparently hit his seat during combat operations.  She also told me that he was part of the crew of two B-29s, named Lucky Seven and The Craig Comet.

It only took a couple of minutes searching on Google to find that 1st Lieutenant James E Kemp was in fact assigned to the 794 Bomb Squadron, 468th Bomb Group. Their pilot was Capt. Harold Estey, so they were known as the Estey crew.

42-6407 Lucky Seven was one of the very early build Superfortresses, a B-29-20-BW built by Boeing in Wichita, KS.  She was assigned to the to the 795th Bomb Squadron, but was re-assigned to the 794th when the former squadron was deactivated in October 1944 due to shortages in equipment.  Lucky Seven was declared “war weary” (not able to continue war operations) on January 11th, 1945 and returned to the Zone of the Interior (United States).    I looked up her serial number on Joe Baugher’s website http://www.joebaugher.com/usaf_serials/usafserials.html and found one additional piece of information.  Lucky Seven was scrapped on December 21st, 1949 at Pyote Air Force Base, Texas.

42-63445 The Craig Comet was a B-29-15-BA built by Bell in Atlanta, GA.  I was amazed to find that a photo of the aircraft and the Estey crew appears in the Wikipedia page for the 468th Bomb Group.


Captain Harold Estey and crew of B-29 “The Craig Comet” of the 794th Bomb Squadron,  468th Bomb Group. Co-Pilot James E. Kemp is in the back row on the left of this group. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Estey crew flew from Kharagpur Airfield in India (they were the first crew to arrive there) and also flew from the prosaically named Field A-7 at Pengshan, (Szechwan Province) China.    Click here for a list of missions flown by the 58th Bomb Wing (which included the 468th Bomb Group).    When flying operationally from Pengshan,  itself 1200 miles from Kharagpur, the first task of the B-29s was to haul their own operational fuel supplies, bombs, ammunition, and other necessities over the Himalayas (the ‘Hump’).   ‘Hump’ missions were symbolized by a camel painted on the nose of each aircraft that carried them out. Two such camels are visible on the nose of The Craig Comet at the time this picture was taken, as well as 11 bomb symbols indicating 11 operational missions for the aircraft.

The 468th Bomb Group website (http://www.468thbombgroup.org) contains a potted history of the Estey crew, which it seems was supplied by James E. Kemp himself in 2007. Estey’s crew did not transfer to Tinian when the 58th Bomb Wing moved en masse to the Marianas in the Spring of 1945. A commentator on the 468th site speculates that the crew had amassed more “hump” and combat hours  than any other crew and so they were rotated home from India in May 1945.  The Craig Comet soldiered on briefly in her new home.  She was badly damaged in a raid on May 1945 and crashed on landing at West Field, Tinian.

There is little doubt in my mind that James E. Kemp  knew, or knew of the B-29 named Ding How in the 794th Bomb Squadron. I am sure he would have been aware of its loss and forced landing in the Soviet Union since he was operational in the same squadron at the same time.

I must mention also that James E. Kemp’s USAAF ID card listed his birth date as being at the end of August 1918, so it seems fitting that my first blog post of August 2018 should in some way connect with and honor the centenary year of the late veteran.  James Edward Kemp, a Pearl Harbor veteran,  served in the USAAF and later USAF from 1940 to 1962, retiring with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.




Farewell Then, Tornado

Not right now, but in about 11 months, at the end of March 2019, the Panavia Tornado will retire from service with the RAF. With a front line service record that spans 36 years and something like four decades of service in the RAF, it’s a pretty staggering thought. The Tornado pretty much symbolizes the RAF of the eighties, nineties, oughts and teens.

A while ago I was looking for images of the Tornado marked with the 40th anniversary livery and haven’t found anything suitable (i.e. something that I can post with a clear conscience) yet. But I did run across this YouTube video (“Tonka Tails take to the Skies”) published by the RAF which shows five Tornadoes in September 2015 – apparently four from Marham and one from Lossiemouth – wearing commemorative schemes of their operators. I think I can see IX, 12, XV, and 31 squadrons represented, with the addition of the type 40th anniversary commemorative machine.

It’s a very short video, but nice to see, if a little poignant. Enjoy

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 VĂ©lizy-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 50Âş 15’N 0Âş 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.