The Maid of Harlech
It’s unusual that somebody comes across the wreck of a World War II aircraft who has the forbearance to not only leave the wreckage undisturbed but to maintain secrecy about its location, and then to search out a like-minded aviation archaeologist who will treat the discovery in a professional manner. But that’s exactly what happened in Wales last summer.
The wreck is a rare Lockheed P-38 Lightning. It was found on a Welsh beach, still half-covered by sand, when a combination of surf, weather and unusually low tides suddenly exposed its wings, twin boom-mounted engines and cockpit center pod. And the highly experienced aviation archaeologist is Richard Gillespie, co-founder with his wife Patricia Thrasher of TIGHAR—The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery.
The aircraft’s presence was not unknown to locals; small hints of it have occasionally surfaced ever since the P-38 bellied onto the beach in 1942. But it wasn’t until July 31, 2007, that it became fully obvious the hulk wasn’t just “some trainer” or, as the RAF claimed, a drone shot down during target practice. No, it was an F-model P-38, the first Lightning version to go into combat and a variant of which only one flyable, albeit largely reconstructed, example exists—the famous Glacier Girl, recovered from under the Greenland icecap in 1992.
A Welsh WWII buff and historian, Matt Rimmer, went to see the wreck when a local newspaper published a photo of the site. Rimmer immediately saw that this was an important find: the remarkably unbent and intact airplane, he sensed, offered an enormous recovery and preservation opportunity. Sixty-five years of aluminum submersion in salty sand would certainly preclude a flightworthy restoration, but the airplane had been gently flared into 2 feet of water by an unfortunate second lieutenant who had forgotten to switch fuel tanks and had a double engine shutdown while flying a training mission.
“I have no intention of attempting to make money out of this,” Rimmer wrote to Ric Gillespie. “My only aim is to see the aircraft preserved, preferably in the UK, as there is not a single P-38 in the UK despite the fact that the type was operated from here by the Eighth Air Force.”
Gillespie, a devoted guardian of undisturbed aviation archaeology sites who is best known for his efforts to find Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega, immediately got the word out to the British authorities, and the Welsh site—its precise location still unpublished—was placed under surveillance to ensure that prospective souvenir hunters didn’t happen upon it. Within three weeks of hearing from Rimmer, TIGHAR also had a seven-person team in Wales to do a site survey and aerial photography from a kite-camera rig, all of it in strict cooperation with British authorities, to prepare for a possible future recovery mission. (The airplane itself was not touched.)
Who owns the Lockheed? The United States considers it to be an abandoned write-off and has no claim on it. The wreck lies on public land, so if it is recovered and conserved, its fate will be governed by United Kingdom laws.
In any case, the P-38F is in good, if temporary, hands. Gillespie, with canny Scots lineage, has officially named the project airplane the “Maid of Harlech,” after a famous Welsh coastal stronghold that, it’s a safe bet, is nowhere near where the Maid actually rests.
During the baffling back- and-forth war between Bosnia and Serbia in 1992-’95, a French aviation enthusiast serving as a soldier with the UN peacekeeping forces (then an unfortunate oxymoron) saw a battered Douglas C-47 parked on a hardstand at the edge of the Rajlovac air base, near Sarajevo, in what had been Yugoslavia. It’s said that he somehow negotiated a one-hour truce between the Bosnians and Serbs contesting that strip of ground and boarded the hulk to record whatever data he could find.
After a registration check, he was fascinated to find that this weary Yugoslav army transport, ex-French air force, ex-Czech Airlines, had actually flown in combat during World War II. It later turned out to have dropped paratroopers the night before D-Day behind German lines at the Normandy beaches. The old Skytrain had also unloaded airborne troops during the disastrous “A Bridge Too Far” Operation Market-Garden around Arnhem, as well as during the Battle of the Bulge.
The C-47’s pre–D-Day target was the big German battery at Merville, which overlooked the beach code-named Sword. It and a number of other C-47s dropped a battalion of British paras that eventually spiked the guns, though at huge cost to themselves; 65 of the 150 Tommies who’d made the assault were killed or wounded.
Today a French-run private museum is housed in one of the huge former casemates, and the museum had been looking for a C-47 with D-Day history as an exhibit. In the age of the Internet, it didn’t take long to hook up the French and the UN reggie-spotter who’d seen the Sarajevo airplane, which during its U.S. Army Air Forces days turned out to have been named Snafu Special.
In Sarajevo, it sported the logo “Maybe Airlines” along its upper fuselage, from the days after the Bosnian war when it was converted into a crude saloon for soldiers, who also gave it some sexy nose art. But the C-47 will by this June be back in its D-Day livery, cleaned up for display and parked outside the Merville Battery Association’s museum. A team of French aircraft mechanics (helped, ironically, by German UN peacekeepers still stationed in Sarajevo) disassembled the Douglas and loaded it aboard trucks for the trip to France.
Little noticed among all the patriotic fervor about the airplane being restored to its rightful place and the like was the disturbing fact that whatever right the French had to appropriate the C-47 was clouded by suspicions of doubtful dealings. News reports described the retrieval of the airplane as a “long bureaucratic battle,” as though the French had some implicit right to the hulk. It had in fact been sold to Yugoslavia by the French Armee de l’Air in 1972 and was not so much “abandoned in a field,” as some enthusiasts described it, as “parked at an airport.”
Ultimately, the office of the president of Bosnia reportedly decided to give the airplane to the French—hard to believe, since that corrupt and graft-riddled government is in no position to be so munificent about an eminently restorable airplane boasting such a priceless provenance.
There is a splendid museum in Belgrade, Serbia, with a collection of some 200 aircraft, some very rare (including the wreckage of the only F-117 Nighthawk ever to be shot down) that has the capability to fully restore an airplane like Snafu Special, but of course that would have meant giving the hulk to one’s former enemy.
The spectacular warplane collection of Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen isn’t nearly so well-known beyond its home near Seattle as Ed Maloney’s 150-aircraft Planes of Fame fleet or Kermit Weeks’ 40-airplane Fantasy of Flight armada. In fact, there are those who know Allen best for his fabulous collection of vintage guitars, to say nothing of his ranking as the fifth-richest person in the country ($18 billion and counting, thanks to the miracle of compound interest).
Allen’s extensive Wikipedia biography makes virtually no mention of the Flying Heritage Collection, though it goes into detail about the 12 professional sports teams, 40 technology and media companies and three megayachts that he owns, plus his Experience Music/ Science Fiction Museum in Seattle, his Microcomputer Gallery in Albuquerque and also his multimillion-dollar sponsorship of Burt Rutan’s successful SpaceShipOne project.
Too bad. What clearly sets Allen’s collection apart is not the number of airplanes he owns but the strict standards to which they have been and are being restored—“a level of authenticity never attempted before,” the collection’s Web site claims (www.flyingheritage.com).
Allen has no interest in a Merlin-engine Spanish Buchon Messerschmitt; his is a fully authentic DB 601–powered Me-109E-3, which when it does fly will be one of only two fully authentic 109s in the world that are operational. Nor does Allen dabble in polyurethaned 1940s warbirds painted to Lexus standards and instrumented like glass-cockpit bizjets. Instead, his World War II fighters are faithfully restored with original material, finishes and equipage, including WWII radios that still work, though on frequencies no longer in use.
A Curtiss P-40E, P-51D Mustang, P-47D Thunderbolt, Supermarine Spitfire, two Russian Poli kar povs (U-2 and I-16), a Curtiss JN-4D Jenny and a Fieseler Storch are all currently flying and as close to totally authentic as possible.
They’ll soon be joined by a Mitsubishi Zero and Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat. Allen owns an impressive but ultimately modest 21 important airplanes (plus a German V-2 rocket), varying from collection-of-parts to fully restored and flying.
Allen won’t discuss his collection’s worth, though borrowing the kicker “Priceless” from the MasterCard ads should suffice. Still, he wants it to be experienced by the public, not locked away as a multi-billionaire’s swag. The collection was opened (by reservation only) to the public in 2003, at a temporary base on Arlington Airport, about 40 miles north of Seattle.
Last year, Allen decided to move his fleet to a permanent home at Paine Field in Everett, Wash., also the site of Boeing’s 747/777/787 factory. There, the Flying Heritage Collection will reopen in a more accessible new facility this summer. It promises to be a spectacular venue, in a huge, appropriately vintage- 1950s hangar that Allen is having totally restored. (The move has already been delayed twice, largely because rebuilding the hangar as a museum has been more time-consuming than originally expected.)
“Paine Field was very attractive because it’s a destination for a couple of other aviation attractions, including Boeing’s Future of Flight facility, which is tied to a tour of the Boeing plant,” says Flying Heritage spokesman Michael Nank. “Also, it’s closer to Seattle, a major metropolitan market.”
Nank says that Allen is not particularly interested in amassing any more aircraft. “With the space we have, he’s put together a strong representative collection,” Nank explains. “If there’s an aircraft out there that would add an element to our collection, there would be interest, but it would have to have some major significance and pedigree.”
Along with the rest of us, Paul Allen will soon be able to stand outside his new museum hangar and watch his airplanes fly overhead. He is not a pilot and will never even go aloft in any of the single-seat airplanes that he owns.
May 31, 1967, Over the Gulf of Tonkin— In the course of a remarkable mission that saw the first trilevel refueling operation, the crew of a U.S. Air Force Boeing KC-135 Strato tanker came to the rescue of Air Force and Navy fighters as well as Navy tankers. Thanks to their skilled handling of multiple emergencies that day, pilot Major John Casteel, co-pilot Captain Richard Trail, navigator Captain Dean Hoar and boom operator Master Sgt. Nathan Campbell became the first Strategic Air Command tanker crew to receive the Mackay Trophy, awarded by the National Aeronautic Association for the most meritorious Air Force flight.
It began when the KC-135 crew was alerted that a couple of Air Force Lockheed F-104s needed refueling during a mission north of Vietnam’s DMZ. During that operation Major Casteel got word that two Navy Douglas KA-3 “Whale” tankers were headed in his direction too, almost out of gas. Ironically, the Whales were actually carrying fuel they could transfer but could not use themselves.
Since the KC-135 would be especially vulnerable to North Vietnamese MiGs while refueling the Whales, the Starfighters took on only a partial load, then stayed alongside the Stratotanker to protect it as the Whales arrived. Once the first Navy tanker had taken on a partial fuel load, it disengaged so the second KA-3 could hook up.
To make matters more interesting, two Navy Vought F-8Us also showed up, the pilot of one so desperate that he couldn’t wait for the second Whale to finish refueling—and that’s how the first-ever trilevel hookup came about. The thirsty Crusader hooked up to the Whale still loading fuel from the Strato tanker. At the same time, the other Whale refueled the second Crusader, finishing its own replenishment from the KC-135 once the Crusaders had their fill.
There was still more fun on the horizon, however, since the Stratotanker crewmen had heard two Navy McDonnell F-4 Phantoms were also headed in their direction. Casteel’s crew transferred more avgas to the F-104s, then gave the Phantoms sufficient fuel to get back to the carrier. But by that time the Stratotanker didn’t have enough fuel left to return to its base in Thailand, so Casteel had to set course for a landing in South Vietnam. En route he gassed up the Starfighters once again, so they could get back home too.
Eight aircraft and their crews owed their safe return to the professionalism of Casteel’s crew—and the Stratotanker’s fuel capacity of more than 31,000 gallons.
Originally published in the May 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.