Are we set to learn truth of Suffolk plane drama 49 years later?
News that divers hope to find the wreckage of a Suffolk military plane has Michael Cole remembering the events of 1969, and hoping the mystery might finally be solved
It is excellent news that divers from Dorset plan to find the wreck of the Hercules C-130 aircraft stolen from RAF Mildenhall by an American airman in the middle of the night in 1969 and which disappeared from radar near the island of Alderney.
What happened to the four-engine transport plane that usually needs a crew of six to get off the ground? Did it crash into the sea because of pilot error? Did the weather play a part?
Or was it shot down because it was heading for France, where the unqualified pilot could have crashed the plane on a town, causing a diplomatic crisis between French president Georges Pompidou and the White House of president Richard Nixon?
I covered the story. Right from the start, I felt I was not being told the truth. My every instinct said the US Air Force, previously candid in my dealings with its press officer in my role as the BBC TV News reporter for East Anglia, were hiding the truth.
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It was the early hours of a Friday morning in May. When the phone rang on my bedside table during the night, at our home in Somerleyton, it meant a big story had broken. Doug Salmon, the BBC’s deputy news editor at Norwich and a veteran of major stories, gave me the facts as he knew them from a contact in Mildenhall.
What he said was accurate and didn’t change throughout the next four days. American Air Force sergeant Paul Meyer had been out in Mildenhall, drinking. He had earlier been on the phone to wife Jane, in their married quarters at Langley air base in Virginia. Whether there had been an argument or not, Sgt Meyer had then decided to fly home to see his wife, presumably to put things straight.
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Sgt Meyer, 23, was a “load master”. He was in charge of loading the Lockheed Hercules – then, as now, the workhorse of America’s air force and many others.
Sgt Meyer had one or two flying lessons on light aircraft – “hobby flying”. I was told he didn’t even have a private pilot’s licence. What was without doubt is that he had never flown a Hercules, an aircraft assigned only to the most experienced, fully qualified military pilots.
The Hercules was probably unlocked but Sgt Meyer’s job required him to have a key to the crew door on the side of the aircraft. He needed access at all hours in order to operate the huge rear hatch and drive the cargo into the capacious hold.
Sgt Meyer had pulled the chocks away from the wheel at the front and from the two pairs of wheels under the wings. Before anyone could stop him, he had started the engines and was taxiing down the runway at Mildenhall.
The air traffic controllers in the control tower were aghast as they watched the Hercules lumber into the air and fly off.
Sgt Meyer flew over London’s northern and western suburbs, where hundreds of thousands of people were blissfully sleeping, unaware of the danger overhead.
The plane skirted Heathrow to the west and headed south, leaving the coast between Portsmouth and Southampton. Then, it disappeared.
Or that is what we were told when I arrived at Mildenhall’s twin base, RAF Lakenheath, 90 minutes after my call. To keep journalists away from Mildenhall, where they would be able to talk to service personnel inside the base, the press office at Lakenheath was opened as a convenient place to corral the media.
I was the first reporter to arrive. I established the facts and wrote a report for BBC Radio News. I tuned in to the 7am news on my car radio. When my voice report was not broadcast, I rang the radio news desk.
I was told my report had not been run because “It’s not on PA” – the Press Association news service. I said PA had no correspondent in Mildenhall. The BBC was in danger of missing a scoop. If they did not run a story from their own reporter in the next bulletin, I said, I would be making that known to the director of news & current events.
My report was broadcast.
An Air Force sergeant was in charge of the Lakenheath press office. He was invariably jovial and pleasant. But on this morning he was morose and taciturn – not good for someone who is supposed to liaise with the press.
I suspect he was affected by the loss of a comrade. I believe he knew the aircraft was down and the pilot almost certainly killed. He just couldn’t tell us.
I had no doubt the sergeant had been told to hold the fort and stall every inquiry. It was obviously a big story for the Sunday papers and a very young Anne Robinson arrived for The Sunday Times. In a pink check shirt, jeans and sneakers, she sat on the edge of a desk, swinging her legs and questioning the big sergeant with all the ferocity she later brought to The Weakest Link.
The Hercules had to be somewhere. Hour after hour, the sergeant persisted with the line they were still trying to find Sgt Meyer and the missing plane.
I felt sorry for him, having to maintain an untenable position. With the very best radar, tracking devices and communications, it was inconceivable the great US Air Force had lost one of its planes and didn’t know where it was.
It wasn’t me but, late on Saturday afternoon, one of the reporters announced to the room, “They’ve obviously shot it down”. It struck me as entirely plausible that America would not hesitate to sacrifice a sergeant and a plane if the alternative was the possibility of the Hercules causing death and destruction on the territory of an ally.
I also calculated that the government of Harold Wilson would have stern words to say about a potential flying bomb traversing more than 200 miles of British real estate.
It wasn’t until late on the Sunday evening that the Americans informed us debris had been found in the sea near the Channel Islands. A life raft and other jetsam had been spotted by aircraft and recovered.
Sgt Meyer’s body was never recovered. The wreck was never found. There was an enquiry into the affair. The most obvious change was a new US Air Force order: all aircraft parked when not on operations were to be secured around the wheels with heavy chains that would be fixed to an immovable anchor point.
I wish the dive team, Deeper Dorset, success in their mission to find the Hercules. If they do, it should be possible to establish if it was shot down with missiles or cannon fire. If not, then so much the better: It was a tragic accident that killed only the man responsible.
Either way, Sgt Meyer’s widow deserves to know the fate of her husband, a veteran of Vietnam and Cambodia, who met his death off the picturesque island of Alderney.
That’s the great thing about truth. It usually comes out in the end, even if you have to wait 49 years.