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Australian’s Remains and Spitfire Recovered

When Royal Australian Air Force Flight Lieutenant Henry Lacy Smith’s Spitfire Mk.IXb was hit by flak during a strafing mission over Normandy five days after D-Day, he radioed,“I’m going to put this thing down in a field.” He might have lived had he been able to, but instead he went down in a tidal flat off the Orne River near Caen. His flight mates saw the airplane skid across the water briefly, then nose down and slowly turn onto its back. Smith was trapped in the cockpit and drowned.

Sixty-six years later, his remains—and the hulk of his airplane— were recovered from the mud flat by a team led by Brigitte and Fabrice Corbin, who run a World War II tourist museum overlooking the D-Day beaches in Ouistreham, in the blockhouse that once served as Wehrmacht headquarters for the Atlantic Wall fortifications (see

Initial reports of the recovery placed the crash in the Orne River, but the wreck was in fact dug out of the mud just off the town of Sallonelles, brought to the surface at high tide by large floats, and then tidal currents carried it out to the Orne before full recovery could be attempted.

It is possible that Smith had extended his gear in hopes of reaching a landable field—an act that sealed his doom when he ditched instead. Norman locals had for years known of the Spitfire’s existence because the mainwheels of the inverted airplane appeared above the mud at low tide.

Brigitte Corbin told Aviation History that Smith’s remains will be buried in France (at Ranville War Cemetery) rather than being sent back to Australia, and that the wreckage of his Spitfire will remain in Normandy.“We do not know yet if the plane will be exhibited in our museum,” she explained. But the Corbins have one very valuable piece of the airplane—the dataplate with its serial number, LF IXb MJ789—and restorers are surely bidding for it already. An “authentic” Spitfire can be built from scratch around an original dataplate, which has already been the case with several recovered but unrestorable Spits.

-Stephan Wilkinson

Jolly Green Giant

Last December the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, rolled out its newly restored Sikorsky HH-3 “Jolly Green Giant” rescue helicopter, which had been stored at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona until entering the museum’s collection in August. The HH-3, no. 67-14709, served 32 months with the 37th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron at Da Nang Air Base in Vietnam, executing search-and-rescue missions that led to the recovery of 27 American airmen. It now occupies a place of honor in the museum’s newly expanded Southeast Asia War Gallery.

Fairey Gannet Revival

Most vintage-warplane restorers fancy the big, brawling fighters, the superstars of air combat. A few are drawn to rarer military aircraft that served as supporting actors, planes often without charisma, sometimes surprisingly mundane and occasionally flat ugly. One good example: the Fairey Gannet, a huge, obese but effective 1950s anti-sub twin that never went to war. (Had the Royal Navy not replaced Gannets with helicopters in the mid-’60s, many think it might have found its brief niche during the Falklands War.) Yes, it was a twin, though it doesn’t look like one, with two separate Bristol Mamba turbines each driving one of a pair of contrarotating propellers through a common gearbox. Either engine and its prop could be shut down in flight for long-duration ASW patrolling—or, its later-in-life function, airborne early warning—with no perceptible change in the airplane’s handling.

Two Gannets are currently being restored to flying status, one in the U.S. and the other in the UK, and when complete, will be the only ones aloft.

In New Richmond, Wis., aviation enthusiast Shannan Hendricks is refurbishing an unusual dual-control Gannet T.5 trainer—one of only eight built—that last flew on the U.S. airshow circuit in the late 1990s. In 2004 XT-752 started a ferry flight back to the UK but made it only as far as Goose Bay, Labrador, before mechanical problems suggested the need for at least one new engine.

Last October that Gannet finally found a home in Wisconsin, after being stored outdoors in the harsh Goose Bay climate, and was air-freighted to its new owner aboard a Antonov An-124. It’s expected to fly on its own sometime in 2012 (you can keep up with its progress at

In England a more extensive Gannet renovation is being undertaken by an outfit called Hunter Flying, which restores, maintains and operates the biggest fleet (10 flying, four under restoration) of Hawker Hunters in the world. Their Gannet, XL500, is an AEW version with an unfortunately prominent radome goiter on its belly. Hunter Flying hopes to have its Gannet running by the end of 2012 and requests that if any Aviation History readers have or know of any Gannet tooling, please contact them at hunterflying@

-Stephan Wilkinson

Missing B-24 Crew Returns Home

In August 1943, Sergeant Hollis Smith, in Port Moresby, New Guinea, penned a letter to his parents in Cove, Ark., urging them to spend the money he was sending home rather than keep it for his return. “I want you to finish paying off that place [the farm], and use all of it that you need,” he wrote. Smith would never know if they heeded his advice. On October 27, 1943, he and 11 other crewmen aboard the Consolidated B-24D Shack Rat crashed in the thick tropical rainforest of the Sarawaget Mountains in southeast New Guinea.

Part of the 320th Squadron, 90th Bombardment Group (the “Jolly Rogers”), Smith and his crewmates took off at 7:30 a.m. from 5-Mile Drome, an airfield outside Port Moresby, to observe and photograph enemy ships in the Bismarck Sea. At 2:30 p.m. V Bomber Command warned Shack Rat of bad weather at Port Moresby, ordering it to land instead at Dobodura. After acknowledging the order, the B-24 was never heard from again. U.S. Army Air Forces recovery teams launched multiple air searches along New Guinea’s east coast, but couldn’t find the crash site. In 1949 the Army Graves Registration declared the 12 airmen unrecoverable.

That’s how things stood until August 2003, when Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) acquired a B-24 data plate and the ID card of Jack Volz, Shack Rat’s pilot, which a New Guinean had salvaged from wreckage in the mountains northwest of Dobodura. After two failed attempts to reach the crash site, in 2007 a JPAC recovery team spent three months there, then set to work contacting relatives and comparing DNA samples.

As of December 2010, the identified remains of three Shack Rat crewmen have been returned Stateside and buried with full military honors: engineer Hollis Smith in Cove; tail gunner Claude A. Ray in Riverside, Calif.; and photographer Claude Tyler in Arlington, Va. The remains of the airmen who could not be identified will be interred at a memorial in Arlington National Cemetery in May.

Before the fateful flight, Claude Ray wrote his parents that he hoped to return to Kansas for a white Christmas in 1943. With 297 service hours in B-24s, he needed just three more to complete his tour of duty, so he volunteered to serve on Shack Rat when its tail gunner got sick. For the rest of her life, Ray’s mother would leave the room whenever “White Christmas” was played on the radio.

Gayla Claborn, Smith’s niece, expressed her gratitude for the continuing efforts to repatriate fallen servicemen. “Our family was overwhelmed and amazed,” she said. “It is very encouraging to know that 67 years later the military would put forth the time, energy and resources to bring my uncle home.”

-Stephen Mauro

World’s Fastest Private Planes

When it rains, it pours—MiG-29s, in this case. Not one but two of the Russian superfighters have recently flown in private hands in the U.S., making them the fastest, highest- climbing, quickest-accelerating, loudest and coolest private airplanes in the world, and humbling every billionaire’s Mach .92 Cessna Citation X and even the Mach .925 Gulfstream G650, due on the market next year.

The first private MiG-29 to fly was ex–U.S. Navy pilot Don Kirlin’s two-seat version of the Fulcrum air-superiority fighter. This past December, Kirlin’s MiG-29UB took off for the first time since he bought it in once-Soviet Kyrgystan in 1996, flying from his home base in Quincy, Ill. With a top speed somewhere beyond Mach 2.2 and a ceiling of nearly 60,000 feet, the Fulcrum, once intended to face off with the F-15 Eagle, was one of the USSR’s most advanced fighters—though still typically Soviet-crude in many ways—and a popular export to dozens of client countries.

It took several years and considerable paperwork for Kirlin to satisfy the FAA and various other government agencies that he could safely operate the MiG, but Kirlin has had ample experience putting N-numbers on foreign fast-movers. His Quincy company, Red Air, owns a considerable fleet of Aero Vodochody L-39 and L-59 Albatros and Super Albatros two-seat jet trainers, a MiG-21, a gaggle of Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet light strike fighters—and three more MiG-29s awaiting flight status.

Six weeks later, the vintage-aircraft museum Historic Flight, north of Seattle, Wash., flew its ex–Ukrainian air force MiG-29, also a twoseat UB. Historic’s struggles to import the airplane were if anything more extreme than Kirlin’s. The wings and engines were shipped safely from the Ukraine across the Atlantic, but the fuselage, en route separately via the Pacific, was seized in Hong Kong as military contraband in 2006. It took two years of negotiations for the Chinese to finally release the fuselage, after which the entire airplane was rebuilt by the highly regarded Morgan Aircraft Restorations in Arlington, Wash., with help from a team of experienced, ex-military MiG-29 mechanics flown over from Slovakia.

Restoration was complicated by the fact that the Russian air force grounded all of its MiG-29s after two 2008 crashes caused by vertical stabilizer failure due to corrosion, which required Morgan Aircraft to re-engineer the tail-to-fuselage interface. Historic Flight has two more MiG-29s in its hangars that will eventually be restored and offered for sale. (Now’s your chance to get in line. Bring lots of money.)

-Stephan Wilkinson


Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.