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12 June 2015

You won’t believe this one weird trick they used to fly beer to the D-Day troops in Normandy

Today, I have a long and very interesting article for you which was originally published on the amazing Zythophile blog by Martyn Cornell. Martyn Cornell is an author, journalist and beer historian. Enjoy!


Normandy, 70 years ago, and one of the biggest concerns of the British troops who have made it over the channel, survived the landings and pushed out into the bocage against bitter German resistance is not the V1 flying bomb blitz threatening their families back home, nor the continued failure to capture the port of Cherbourg – but the lack of beer in the bridgehead. On 20 June 1944, two weeks after D-Day, Reuter’s special correspondent with the Allied Forces in France wrote to newspapers in the UK that all that was available in the newly liberated estaminets a few miles inland from the beaches was cider, “and it is pretty watery stuff. I saw a British private wistfully order a pint of mild and bitter: but the glass he sat down with contained the eternal cider.”

Tangmere, Sussex, July 1944: in front of a Spitfire IX of 332 (Norwegian) Squadron, a standard 45-gallon Typhoon/Hurricane ‘Torpedo’ jettison tank modified for use on the Spitfire (because of an expected shortage of 45-gallon shaped or slipper tanks) is filled with PA ale for flying over to Normandy while an RAF ‘erk’ writes a cheery message on the tank. The pilot sitting on the wing in this clearly posed government publicity picture is wearing a Norwegian Air Force cap-badge – something no one who has reprinted this picture seems ever to have pointed out. Is the man filling the tank a brewery worker? Surely. Is the beer from Henty and Constable’s brewery in nearby Chichester? It seems very likely …
Addendum: the pilot has now been identified as almost certainly being the Norwegian Spitfire ace Wing Commander Rolf Arne Berg, CO of No. 132 Norwegian Wing, who was killed a few months later, aged 27, in February 1945 while attacking a German airfield in the Netherlands.

It would not be until July 12 when “real British beer” finally officially reached the battling troops in Normandy, and even then the quantity was enough only for one pint per man. But long before then, enterprising pilots in the RAF – and the USAAF – had been engaged in shipping beer into Northern France privately, using what the troops called “flying pubs”.

Some of the first attempts to bring beer over the Channel after D-Day used the expendable drop tanks, or jettison tanks to give them their proper RAF designation, carried by aircraft such as the Spitfire and Typhoon and normally filled with fuel to give the fighters extra range. These seem to have been semi-official efforts: the Air Ministry actually distributed a photograph to newspapers showing a Spitfire of 332 (Norwegian) Squadron at Tangmere airfield in Sussex having its 45-gallon jettison tank being filled with beer from two wooden casks supplied by the Chichester brewer Henty & Constable, while the pilot relaxed on the wing. That pilot was almost certainly Wing Commander Rolf Arne Borg, commanding officer of No. 132 Norwegian wing, though the aircraft does not seem to be Berg’s, as his carried three rings in Norwegian red and blue on the spinner.

It was presumably 270 gallons of beer from Henty and Constable that was flown in drop tanks slung under three Spitfire Mk IXbs from Tangmere to an airfield at Bény-Sur-Mer in Normandy, some 110 miles south of England and three miles from the sea, on June 13 1944, D-Day plus seven: the first known landing of beer during the invasion. One of the pilots was Flight Lieutenant Lloyd Berryman of 412 Squadron, 126 Wing, Second Tactical Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force. The airstrip at Bény-Sur-Mer would not, in fact, be finished officially for another two days when Berryman’s boss, Wing Commander Keith Hudson, singled him out at a briefing at the wing’s Tangmere base to deliver a “sizeable” beer consignment to the airstrip, known as B4.


Berryman recalled:

“The instructions went something like this, ‘Get a couple other pilots and arrange with the officers’ mess to steam out the jet [jettison] tanks and load them up with beer. When we get over the beachhead drop out of formation and land on the strip. We’re told the Nazis are fouling the drinking water, so it will be appreciated. There’s no trouble finding the strip, the battleship Rodney is firing salvoes on Caen and it’s immediately below. We’ll be flying over at 13,000 [feet] so the beer will be cold enough when you arrive.’

“I remember getting Murray Haver from Hamilton and a third pilot (whose name escapes me) to carry out the caper. In reflection it now seems like an appropriate Air Force gesture for which the erks (infantrymen) would be most appreciative. By the time I got down to 5,000 the welcoming from the Rodney was hardly inviting but sure enough there was the strip. Wheels down and in we go, three Spits with 90-gallon jet tanks fully loaded with cool beer.

“As I rolled to the end of the mesh runway it was hard to figure … there was absolutely no one in sight. What do we do now, I wondered, we can’t just sit here and wait for someone to show up. What’s with the communications? Finally I saw someone peering out at us from behind a tree and I waved frantically to get him out to the aircraft. Sure enough out bounds this army type and he climbs onto the wing with the welcome: ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ Whereupon he got a short, but nevertheless terse, version of the story.

“‘Look,’ he said, ‘can you see that church steeple at the far end of the strip? Well it’s loaded with German snipers and we’ve been all day trying to clear them out so you better drop your tanks and bugger off before it’s too late.’ In moments we were out of there, but such was the welcoming for the first Spitfire at our B4 airstrip in Normandy.”

Later, in the 1950s back in in Canada, by chance Berryman actually met the man who climbed onto his wing and told him to bugger off.

Four days after Berryman’s landing, on 17 June 1944, and 11 days after the invasion started, a Spitfire of 416 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force flew over from England to the newly built airfield at Bazenville, just three miles from Gold Beach, with a drop tank full of beer slung below its fuselage. The tank had been scoured out first with steam but “tough luck; it still tasted of petrol,” according to Dan Noonan, a Flight Commander with 416 Squadron.

The heftier Hawker Typhoon could carry even more beer. Pilots of the RAF’s 123 Wing, flying rocket-firing Typhoons and based from 19 July 1944 at Martragny, a few miles east of Bayeux, would run a “shufti-kite” across to Shoreham, 110 miles away, where a local brewery would fill two 90-gallon jettison tanks attached below each of the Typhoon’s wings with beer. Then the pilot would hurry back across the Channel and the RAF personnel at Martragny would drink it, quickly. There was one problem with transporting beer in jettison tanks: according to 123 Wing’s commanding officer, the New Zealand-born RAF ace Group Captain Desmond Scott, on the trip over to Normandy the beer “took on rather a metallic taste, but the wing made short work of it.”

However, the journey over the channel, at 15,000 feet or so, cooled the beer down nicely for when it reached those on the ground: indeed, according to newspaper reports, not only did Spitfires supply beer shortly after D-Day in jettison tanks made from vulcanised paper fibre, but P-47 Thunderbolt fighters, presumably flown by the USAAF, had carried iced custard, or ice-cream, in their drop-tanks to troops on the Normandy beachheads: “They flew at 15,000 feet and delivered their cargo iced in perfect condition.” (This is not as unlikely as it seems: the US army had mobile ice-cream making machines for the troops in the Second World War, and so did many US Navy ships.)

The Typhoons’ exploits were reported in Time Magazine on July 2 1944 under the headline “Flying Pubs”:

A great thirst attacked British troops rushing emergency landing strips to completion in the dust of Normandy. Thinking of luckier comrades guzzling in country estaminets and town bistros, the runway builders began to grouse. They wanted beer. They got it. Rocket-firing Typhoons, before going on to shoot up Nazis, landed on the runways with auxiliary fuel tanks full of beer. Swarms of the thirsty gathered round with enamel mugs. The first tank-fulls tasted bad because of the tank linings; this flavor was overcome by chemical means and later loads were delicious. Just like the corner pub at home.

Unfortunately, United States Army Air Forces P-47 Thunderbolts did for 123 Wing’s beer runs: the Typhoon was easily mistaken by inexperienced American pilots for the German Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter, and according to Group Captain Scott, “our aerial brewer’s dray was attacked by American Thunderbolts twice in one day, and was forced to jettison its beer tanks into the Channel … beer cost us money, and these two encounters proved expensive.” The Wing’s draught beer flights came to a sudden halt, and Scott had to arrange for an old twin-engined Anson to fly in cases of Guinness: “The troops mixed it with champagne to produce black velvet. It was hardly a cockney’s drink, but they appeared to like it,” he wrote.

It may have been 123 Wing’s experience that was covered in a publication called The Airman’s Almanac in 1945:

A possible peacetime use for the auxiliary fuel tanks attached to the underside of fighter planes in World War II to increase their range was demonstrated in the Normandy invasion of 1944. British ground crews, rushing emergency landing strips to completion in the dust and heat of the French province, complained of thirst. Their complaint being heard, rocket-firing Typhoons coming over from England on their way to German targets landed on the newly built strips with their military fuel tanks full of beer. The first tankfuls tasted awful because of the tank linings. Before the second ‘beer trip’ the tanks were treated chemically and the air-hauled brew was reported extremely palatable.

Ironically, Thunderbolt pilots learnt what the Typhoons had been doing, and copied it themselves. Lieutenant William R Dunn of the 513th Fighter Squadron, USAAF, the first American air ace of the Second World War, was a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot in Normandy.

He recorded:

During our brief stay at A6 airfield, we learned another trick of the trade from our neighbouring RAF allies, a Typhoon squadron based near Caen. Periodically they’d send a kite with a clean belly tank back to England, where the tank was filled with beer. A flight back to France at an altitude of about 15,000 feet and the beer arrived nice and cold. We soon followed their lead, with our 150-gallon belly tanks. Those British types sure know how to take all the comforts of home to war with them.

The other method used was to attach casks to the bomb racks. Pilots with the RAF’s No 131 (Polish) wing, flying Spitfire Mk IXs, (probably 302 Squadron or 308 Squadron, both fighter-bomber units) claimed to have invented the idea of the “beer bomb”, using casks that had home-made nose-cones fitted to make them more streamlined, which were fitted to the Spitfire’s bomb racks.

On 3 August 1944 131 Wing moved from England to the airfield at Plumentot, near Caen, and “beer bombing” began:

Even more popular was the ‘beer-bomb’, invented and first used by No. 131 Fighter Wing when still stationed in England. The bomb has nothing atomic about it, so the details can now be divulged. The invention is, in fact, simplicity itself: it entailed a barrel of beer, a bomb-carrying aircraft, and a willing pilot (the three were available in increasing order of magnitude). The procedure, freely disclosed for the benefit of thirsty humanity, was for the aircraft to be carefully ‘bombed up’ with a barrel of beer, flown off with every precaution to Plumentot in Normandy and landed with equal care. Never were bombs more warmly welcomed. Not least because of the dust.

Pictures exist of the “beer bombs” being put together: presumably at Ford airfield in West Sussex, where 302 and 308 squadrons were based just before they were moved to Plumentot, in which case, again, the beer may well have come from Henty and Constable, eight or so miles away at Chichester.

Above and below, ‘beer bombs’, wooden firkins being fitted with streamlined ‘nose cones’ for transporting in bomb racks underneath Spitfires by members of 131 Fighter Wing, probably in August 1944, possibly at Ford airfield in West Sussex. Pictures taken from Polish Wings 15 by Wojtek Matusiak, pub Stratus, 2012, p216, and © Stratus

One Kentish brewery that apparently supplied beer for transport across by fighter plane was Bushell Watkins & Smith of the Black Eagle brewery in Westerham.

According to Westerham villager Edward “Ted” Turner:

I worked at a garage called Brittain’s Engineering in Peckham in London making Bailey bridges for sending to France for the invasion … We were also making ‘jettison’ auxiliary fuel tanks for fighter planes to carry extra fuel to enable them to fly further into Europe and still get back home. Once refuelling facilities were established over there, the Westerham brewery used to fill those auxiliary non-returnable petrol tanks with Westerham ales for our troops in Europe. Black Eagle lorries delivered it in barrels to Biggin Hill [four miles from Westerham] where the auxiliary dual-purpose tanks were filled with Bitter on one side and Mild on the other. We made them of 16 gauge metal with baffles for safe landing, the RAF’s version of the brewer’s dray.

There is also a photograph of a cask at the Black Eagle brewery with a sign on it declaring: ‘This Cask containing “Westerham” Bitter was flown to France “D” day, June 6th 1944, by the Royal Air Force’. Unfortunately there are problems with the Westerham claims. The three fighter squadrons that had been using the airfield departed in late April 1944 for Tangmere, where they would be closer to the Normandy beaches. In any case, Biggin Hill was abandoned by the RAF soon after the Normandy landings. On June 13 1944, V1 “doodlebug” flying bomb attacks on London began, and Biggin Hill – right in the V1s’ flightpath – was deemed too dangerous to continue to be used by aircraft, with Balloon Command taking the airfield over as part of the line of barrage balloons put up against the doodlebugs. Flying operations did not begin again at Biggin Hill until September 1944, and fighter aircraft do not seem to have returned until the October. However, one of the squadrons that had been based at Biggin Hill until April 1944 was 412 Squadron, which had made that first “drop-tank beer delivery” to Normandy from Tangmere on June 13. It is possible that the beer in the tanks might have come from the Westerham brewery, 50 miles away, which the pilots of 412 would have known very well.

The Westerham Brewery’s ‘D-Day cask’. But were there any flights from nearby Biggin Hill over France on D-Day? © Westerham Brewery

Certainly, pilots were happy to fly long distances to pick up beer. Thorsteinn “Tony” Jonsson, the only Icelander to join the RAF, was flying North American Aviation P-51 Mustang III fighter-bombers with 65 Squadron, based at Ford, when the D-Day invasion began. On June 27 his squadron moved to the temporary airfield at Martragny, designated B7, five miles from Bayeux and only some 2000 yards from the German lines.

However, Jonsson recorded:

Life in our camp was really quite pleasant and comfortable. Admittedly we missed the luxury of being able to pop into a pub at the end of a day’s work for a pint of beer, and to mix with the ladies that were usually to be found there to add spice to our existence. At the beginning of the invasion and for the next few weeks, beer was severely rationed in Normandy … But some bright lad in our Wing had an excellent brain-wave; why not bring beer over from England in the large auxiliary tanks that could be hung under the wings of our Mustangs? Each tank could hold 75 gallons – this would make an excellent addition to our meagre ration. Action was immediately taken.

Four tanks were sent to a factory for their insides to be coated with a substance to prevent the taste of metal, as is done with preserving cans, and taps were fitted. A contract was made with a brewery in London, and on an appointed day every week a Mustang flew with two empty ‘beer’ tanks to Croydon aerodrome and brought back two full ones; one containing mild and the other bitter. These tanks were placed on trestles in our mess-tent, which quickly became known as the best pub in Normandy. It did not take long for the word to spread to nearby military units that we had a good supply of beer, and our mess was frequently a very popular and crowded place in the evenings. The fact that nurses from a military hospital in the neighbourhood were regulars only helped to boost the attendance … It was not long before the beer trips were increased to two a week. Although most pilots likes to nip over to England whenever possible, to contact families and loved ones, the beer-run was not in demand. The reason was that a full beer tank could easily fall off if the landing was not perfectly smooth. The ‘beer kite’s’ arrival was watched by all available personnel, and woe to the poor pilot who was unlucky enough to bounce!

It was 150 miles from Martragny to Croydon (at the time the main airfield in London), making the “beer run” for 65 Squadron a 300-mile round trip. Croydon’s one brewery was Page & Overton, a subsidiary of Charrington’s brewery in Mile End, and it was presumably Page & Overton’s mild and bitter that flew back in the tanks of the Mustangs.

Confirmation that Henty and Constable supplied much of the beer to arrived in Normandy after D-Day comes from Jeffrey Quill, chief test pilot at Vickers, the parent company of Supermarine, maker of the Spitfire.

Quill recalled:

After D-Day in 1944, there was a problem about getting beer over to the Normandy airfields. Henty and Constable (the Sussex brewers) were happy to make the stuff available at the 83 Group Support Unit at Ford, near Littlehampton. For some inexplicable reason, however, beer had a low priority rating on the available freight aircraft. So we adapted Spitfire bomb racks so that an 18-gallon barrel could be carried under each wing of the Spitfires which were being ferried across from Ford to Normandy on a daily basis.

We were, in fact, a little concerned about the strength situation of the barrels, and on application to Henty and Constables for basic stressing data we were astonished to find that the eventuality of being flown on the bomb racks of a Spitfire was a case which had not been taken into consideration in the design of the barrels. However, flight tests proved them to be up to the job. This installation, incidentally, was known as Mod XXX Depth charge.

A Spitfire IX fitted with the ‘Mod XXX Depth Charge’, modified bomb racks that could carry a cask of beer under each wing. Contrary to frequent claims, this is almost certainly a Vickers Armstrong publicity photo, and NOT Wing Commander Johnnie Johnson’s own aircraft

According to one source with a slightly different spin on the story, the job of designing fittings that would secure the kilderkins to the Spitfire’s bomb racks was done at High Post airfield, Salisbury, one of the final assembly centres for Spitfire manufacture, “more or less as a joke”. The plan to put beer in long-range tanks was abandoned “when it was found later that the practice contaminated fuel, so Strong’s, the Romsey brewers, supplied complete barrels of Triple ‘X’. This modification was given a fictitious number to conceal the operation from more official or officious eyes.”

There was already a link between Strong’s and Spitfires: after the Luftwaffe bombed Vickers-Supermarine’s headquarters in 1940, the company’s design and administration offices were transferred to Hursley Park, Winchester, a magnificent mansion requisitioned after the death that same year of its owner, Sir George Cooper, chairman of Strong’s. That Strong’s certainly was involved in the supply of casks to be carried on Spitfire bomb racks is confirmed by the existence of a photograph of just such a cask slung under a Spitfire wing, clearly branded “STRONG ROMSEY”.

A close-up of the “Mod XXX Depth charge” on the ground, showing clearly that the casks were supplied, at least occasionally, by Strong’s brewery in Romsey, Hampshire

The hint that Quill gave about the “flying drays” being replacement Spitfires ferried across to squadrons on the Normandy front line from England is given extra support by a newspaper story from the middle of August 1944:

With beer in their bomb racks, replacement Typhoons from England are sure of a specially boisterous welcome from the thirsty troops in Normandy. For the beer shortage is just as acute over there as it is in England. So at least one Typhoon squadron has solved its problem by importing its own beer.

Whenever a replacement aircraft flies to Normandy the pilot takes a quantity of beer, carrying it in nine-gallon barrels with special streamlined nose fittings slung in the bomb racks. This system has been found to be much better than the original method of taking the beer in petrol tanks, which gave the beer a nasty flavour.

In the event of the pilot running into trouble, the barrels are jettisoned as if they were bombs. Then another kind of trouble awaits him at the end of his journey.

Wing Commander Johnnie Johnson had landed with his 127 Wing, two squadrons of Canadians, at a newly built airfield at St Croix-sur-Mer, designated B3, and just over a mile and a half from the landing beaches, on D-Day plus 3. After several days of tinned “compo” rations, Johnson sent a note to his favourite Sussex landlord, Arthur King at the Unicorn in Chichester, asking for help. Every day a twin-engine Anson flew into St Croix from Tangmere with mail, newspapers and spare parts, and King arranged for items such as tomatoes, fresh lobsters, newly baked bread and “a reasonable supply of stout” to be carried across in the Anson with the mail.

When news of the arrangement leaked into the newspapers, King was visited by someone from Customs and Excise, who warned him that if he carried on, he would need an export licence.

However, Johnson recorded in his memoirs,

Since its introduction to the Service in 1939, the versatile Spitfire had participated in many diverse roles … Now it fulfilled yet another role, perhaps not so vital as some of the tasks it had undertaken in the past, but to us of supreme importance. Back in England some ingenious mind had modified the bomb racks slung under each wing so that a small barrel of beer could be carried instead of a 500-pound bomb. Daily, this modern version of the brewers’ dray flew across the Channel and alighted at St Croix. The beer suffered no ill effects from its unorthodox journey and was more than welcome in our mess.

Johnson’s memoir of the war, Wing Leader carried a photograph of a Spitfire IX in D-Day black-and-white stripes, carrying a kilderkin of beer slung from each bomb rack, and captioned “Our version of the brewer’s dray”. This seems to have given rise to the myth that the picture is of Johnson’s own Spitfire. But the photograph in the book is credited to Vickers Armstrong, and is almost certainly one of the aircraft manufacturer’s publicity shots, and nothing to do with Johnson.

A Spitfire IX bearing D-Day invasion stripes, and carrying beer casks beneath its wings, on the ground. It is probably significant that in none of the shots of beer-carrying aircraft can the identifying letters be seen: these were almost certainly all publicity shots

Eventually, organised supplies of beer for the troops supplanted the “flying drays”. In November 1944 the government actually ruled that supplies of beer for troops overseas should equal five per cent of total national production, meaning all stronger “export” beers, all naturally conditioned beers with a life of six weeks or more and all beers that could be pasteurised had to be put in the hands of the forces’ catering service, the Naafi. At the same time, breweries in liberated areas of France were being put to use.

By then it was the turn of the Home Front to be short of beer, however. Brewers blamed a shortage of labour, saying the women workers who had replaced men called up for the forces had themselves been evacuated with their children as the V1 and V2 threat increased. The Nottingham Evening Post reported that in some pubs there had been outbreaks of “panic drinking”, customers “gulping their beer and shouting for an encore lest their neighbours at the bar got more than they did.” At the same time, in “certain districts” only mild ale was available, because bitter, which kept better, was earmarked for the troops. Many pubs were only open for an hour and a half at lunchtimes and two hours in the evening because they had no beer to sell: and there was little relief even for those harvesting the grain that would be used to make the new season’s beers. In August 1944 it was announced that “In some parts of Lincolnshire the beer famine has become so acute that many inns have announced that they will not be able to continue the age-old custom of supplying harvest beer this season. Cups of tea will be provided instead.”


Martyn Cornell is a beer historian, a seven-times winner at the British Guild of Beer Writers awards, and author of Amber Gold and Black, the history of Britain’s many home grown beer styles, from porter to bitter to barley wine, which is available from Amazon. He has a new book out in July 2015, Strange Tales of Ale, which includes the story of the Great London Beer Flood of 1815, why British aristocrats drank 21-year-old beer and the true history of the ploughman’s lunch, among other stories, which is available for pre-ordering here: http://tiny.cc/g80gxx.

29 May 2015

The teenager who flew to Moscow

28 years ago, on the 28th May 1987, a 19-year old German flew a Cessna 172 to Moscow, taxi-ing straight into the Red Square.

At the time, the airspace around the Soviet Union was closed and fiercely protected. Just four years earlier, Korean Air Lines flight 007 was shot down by a Soviet Su-15 interceptor. The commercial flight departed Anchorage, Alaska normally but about ten minutes after take-off, it deviated to the north of its assigned route and maintained that heading for the next five hours, leading it on a course heading for the Soviet island of Sakhalin.

General Kornukov (to Military District Headquarters-Gen. Kamensky): …simply destroy it even if it is over neutral waters? Are the orders to destroy it over neutral waters? Oh, well.
Commander Kamensky: We must find out, maybe it is some civilian craft or God knows who.
General Kornukov: What civilian? It has flown over Kamchatka! It [arrived] from the ocean without identification. I am giving the order to attack if it crosses the State border.”

The Soviet Union initially denied having anything to do with the missing airliner but soon after admitted that they had shot Korean Air Lines flight 007 down. They claimed that the airspace infringement was a deliberate provocation by the US and that the Korean commercial jet was on a spy mission.

An investigation by the ICAO concluded that the deviation was caused by a navigation error and the crew never noticed that they had flown off course.

Commercial aircraft managed to avoid infringing Soviet airspace after that …until Mathias Rust.

Mathias was a West German teenager who was described by his mother as a dreamer who was obsessed with flying; he’d spent his allowance to fund flying lessons. In June 1987, he’d flown a total of 50 hours in flying lessons. He rented a Cessna 172 which had been modified to hold auxiliary fuel tanks and spent a fortnight flying around Northern Europe, stopping at the Faroe islands, Keflavik in Iceland and Bergen in Norway. On the morning of the 28th of May, he flew to Helskini-Malmi Airport in Finland and refuelled. He filed a flight plan to fly direct to Stockholm in Sweden, around 500 kilometres (300 miles) to the west. Ten minutes after take-off, he changed his heading to the east and followed the busy Helskini-Moscow route, refusing to talk to increasingly frantic air traffic controllers.

He disappeared from their radar. The controllers believed that he had crashed and immediately reported the incident as an emergency. An oil patch was sighted near the point where the last radar return had come from and the Finnish Border Guard was sent to the scene where they tried, without any chance of success, to find the boy and his plane.

Meanwhile, Mathias had crossed the Baltic Sea and was flying over Estonia. He turned towards Moscow and at 14:29, he appeared on the Soviet Air Defence radar. He did not reply to any attempts to contact and three military divisions with surface-to-air missiles began to track him. The military went into alert and two fighter jets were scrambled to investigate. Rust recounted later that he saw an aircraft with a red star flying so close that he could see the pilot wearing a helmet and oxygen mask. But he was sure the Soviet military would not shoot, after the political scandal of the Korean Air Lines flight 007 incident. “I was very scared at that moment, because I didn’t know what they would do. But when I set out, I didn’t believe they would shoot me down. I thought maybe they would force me to land before I got to Moscow.”

He continued flying.

The pilot of the MiG-23 reported that he’d seen a white sport plane, which he described as similar to a Yakovlev Yak-12. He asked for permission to engage, which was denied. The senior officers on the ground appeared convinced that the fighter pilot was mistaken. The Cessna 172 disappeared into the clouds while the officers argued about what, if anything, was out there. A commander in the national air defence system came to the conclusion that it was geese. He was spotted a few more times but various mishaps meant he remained undetected as an intruder, including a control officer assigning all traffic in his area friendly status because inexperienced pilots often forgot to set the correct IFF designator settings.

Mathias flew straight to Moscow. He’d studied a map of the city before his trip but once over the city, he found it difficult to get his bearings. He decided that landing in the Kremlin was too dangerous and flew to Red Square. He circled a few times to try to scare away pedestrians so that he could land, but it didn’t work. He landed on a bridge near the St. Basil’s Cathedral.

There were normally heavy trolley wires strung over the bridge but they had been removed for maintenance that morning. He landed safely and taxied past the cathedral and into the Red Square.

Tourists and Muscovites gathered around him. They thought he was part of an airshow. “When I got out of the plane, there were about 200 people around me. When they saw I didn’t speak Russian, some of them spoke English, and I told them I was on a mission of peace.” The local police and soldiers had no idea what to do with him and couldn’t understand why he didn’t have a visa. Meanwhile, Mathias signed autographs.

He spent an hour at Red Square before the KGB appeared, never seeming to understand that there might be issues with his unexpected arrival. Mathias told them that he wanted to meet Gorbachev. Instead, he found himself under arrest.

He was held until his trial which began three months later. There, he was sentenced to four years labour for breaching the Soviet border, disregarding aviation laws and malicious hooliganism. He served 14 months in Lefortova prison, sharing a cell with an English-speaking prisoner, before he was released as a goodwill gesture to the West. He returned home to Germany in August, 1988. He never flew again.

He also never got the chance to meet Gorbechev, however the Soviet leader used the opportunity to move against the defence minister and the commander of Soviet air defence forces, calling the incident a national shame.

Matthias Rust lands his plane in Red Square – May 28, 1987 – HISTORY.com

The repercussions in the Soviet Union were immediate. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sacked his minister of defence, and the entire Russian military was humiliated by Rust’s flight into Moscow. U.S. officials had a field day with the event–one American diplomat in the Soviet Union joked, “Maybe we should build a bunch of Cessnas.”
[…]
One Russian spokesperson bluntly declared, “You criticise us for shooting down a plane, and now you criticise us for not shooting down a plane.”

In 2009, Mathias was working as a professional poker player. That makes so much sense. You’d have to be pretty good at bluffing to carry on flying into Russian airspace with two fighter jets alongside you trying to make contact.

Twenty years later, he told Danmarks Radio, “I think I would advise everyone to think twice before doing something like that. On the other hand, if someone is convinced about something, they need to do it.”

21 November 2014

The Story of Diamond Jack Palmer and the Pelikaan

The story of Diamond Jack Palmer is a typically Australian story of a beach comber whose luck was in when he found diamonds worth a few million on the beach but couldn’t quite keep up with his luck.

It’s also a fascinating aviation story.

It starts with the Koninklijke Nederlandsch-Indische Luchtvaart Maatschappij airline and their Dutch Dakota DC-3 registration PK-AFV, known as Pelikaan.

KNILM logofrom the personal collection of Jorge González

KNILM (the Royal Dutch Indies Airways) was founded in 1928 and headquartered in Amsterdam. They initially offered services from Batavia (now Jakarta) to Bandung and Semarang. The airline rapidly expanded and, in 1930, they offered their first international flight connecting to Singapore. In 1938 they started operations in Sydney, Australia.

When the Japanese invaded the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), the airline evacuated all the aircraft it could to Australia.

Ivan Vasilyevich Smirnov was a Russian WWI flying ace who returned to military flying as a captain in the army aviation corps in Indonesia after the attack at Pearl Harbor. He was asked to evacuate the Pelikaan with two crew and nine passengers fleeing Java. They left just in time: the Japanese took the Bandung area three days later.

In the early hours of the morning, shortly before take-off, the Bandung airport manager handed Captain Smirnov a cigar-box shaped packaged wrapped in brown paper. Smirnov was told to hand the package to a representative of the Commonwealth Bank once he reached Australia.

The package contained diamonds which were later said to be valued somewhere between 3 million and 10 million pounds sterling in today’s money (4 million to 17 million US dollars). Ivan Smirnov claimed that he was did not know what was in the package. He and his fleeing passengers departed Bandung normally.

As the aircraft skirted the Kimberley coast of Western Australia, about 80 kilometres from its destination, Smirnov saw smoke over the town of Broome, which was under attack by nine Japanese Zeros. Japanese fighter ace Lt Zenjiro Miyano spotted the Dakota and led three Zeros to attack.

Mitsubishi A6M3 Zero (Commemorative Air Force / American Airpower Heritage Flying Museum)

The Zeros attacked the defenseless Dakota, firing at its port side. The port engine caught fire. Smirnov was badly wounded but managed to put the aircraft into a deep spiral dive.

His only option was to crash land on the beach. The right tyre exploded forcing the aircraft to veer to the right and into the water, which extinguished the fire in the port engine. The Dakota sank into the sand and swung into the surf which was at high tide.

The Zeros dived to strafe the Dakota again and they scrambled out of the plane to find protection on the beach. Four passengers were killed by the Zeros. Smirnov was badly wounded and sent one of the uninjured passengers to the aircraft to recover the cargo. The passenger picked up the post, the log book and the brown paper wrapped package but then he was hit by a wave and dropped the goods. He recovered the log book and the post but could not find the package.

The following day, while the survivors were waiting for a rescue party, a Japanese Kawanishi H6K dropped four bombs but did not cause any further damage.

Five days later, the survivors were rescued. The representative from the Commonwealth Bank came specifically for the package and Captain Smirnov had to tell him it was lost. The story of the diamonds spread like wildfire, although Smirnov said he never knew what was in the package, only that it was valuable.

It didn’t take long for local man Jack Palmer head to the wreckage to salvage what he could. He and “two Aborigines” collected what they could find. Apparently, he found the cigar box and tipped the largest diamonds into “aluminum cups” which he hid and wrapped the rest in a rag. He showed them to Frank Robinson and James Mulgrue, who were waiting nearby on a motorboat. He’s said to have told them, “Take a handful for each of yourself and don’t tell anyone.”

Investigating party standing in front of crashed Netherlands East Indies KLM Dakota DC-3 passenger transport PK-AFV ‘Pelikaan’ at Carnot Bay, Lieutenant Laurie O’Neil (second from left), ‘Diamond’ Jack Palmer (third from left) and Warrant Officer Gus Clinch (fourth from left), Western Australia, March 1942

What’s definitely known is that the three of them were at the aircraft wreck and that afterwards, Palmer was seen around town spending money and bragging that he no longer had to work, only to sit and smoke cigars. He later handed over two salt-cellars of diamonds to the authorities.

From the Advocate, an Australian newspaper, in a short piece published 4th May 1942:

BROOME, Sunday.-The discovery by a beach comber of £300,000 worth of diamonds on a remote north-western beach has been revealed.
Addressed to the Commonwealth Bank, the diamonds were handed in a parcel to Captain Smernof, Dutch pilot of one of the last planes to leave Java after its capture by the Japanese.

The plane was shot down by Japanese raiders returning from their first raid on Broome early in March, and crashed into four feet of water in Carnot Bay, 60 miles north of Broome. Of the complement of 12, four died of injuries and were buried in the sand hills near the lonely beach. The others were discovered by natives and rescued, but when a search of the plane was made the diamonds could not be found. Later officials made another search, but without success, and the Dutch authorities then despatched a special officer to investigate.

Two days later, Jack Palmer, middle-aged and ill clad, arrived on his way to enlist. He said he had given up his occupation of beach comber, and had abandoned his lugger. Then, producing a pair of large salt and pepper shakers, he poured out on an official’s desk a glittering stream of diamonds. He had found them in a sodden parcel partly embedded in tidal mud near the beach of Carnot Bay. The diamonds are now safe in the Perth Commonwealth Bank.

Palmer was immediately taken into custody for interrogation. He claimed that was all he had and that the package had broken apart with most of the diamonds falling into the sea.

More diamonds showed up in the area, presumably stashed or spent by Palmer, but the total amount recovered was just over 10% of the original shipment.

“Diamond Jack Palmer” and the two men who met him on the motorboat were tried for the theft of the diamonds in 1943. The two accomplices were acquitted as it was determined that no theft had been committed by them. Palmer had handed over two salt-cellars of diamonds to the authorities and although the majority of the diamonds were still missing, the investigation was unable to prove that he had stolen the rest.

The remains of the Dakota remained on the beach until 1970, when the stripped fuselage was broken up by dynamite. The leading edge of one of the wings is apparently all that remains now.

In an interesting addendum, in 1989 a veteran named Norman Keys wrote about his recollections of the crash near Broome.

About the Broome 1942 exhibition

Excerpt from a letter written by Norman Keys dated 29 September 1989. Australian War Memorial PR90/030

After a few days on the beach when the woman and her child and some of the crew were buried, one of the survivors when searching for water was found by one of the local natives who took the rest of the survivors to a dutch [sic] mission station about fifty miles from the beach the plane had landed on. The message got through to Broome 300 miles south and that’s where I entered the story with a trip in a utility to pick them up.

When I arrived at the Beagle Bay Mission the four survivors were in a pretty bad way and the Captain Smirnoff appeared to me to be delirious and kept repeating that he had to get back to the aircraft to pick up the diamonds. For a brief period we considered going back to the aircraft with some native guides but it was decided that we had to get the survivors to hospital in Broome as soon as possible and so began the worst 300 miles trip of my life with my passengers cursing every bump. I never really believed the existence of the diamonds until some time later it was reported in the paper that a beachcomber had come across the plane and found some diamonds and was handing them out to the natives as favours and later in Broome was freely displaying them. It turned out that there was a fortune in Dutch diamonds being evacuated from Java to the bank in Melbourne. There were court cases following the discovery of the diamonds but the bulk of the shipment has never been discovered and the belief is that they are still buried somewhere in N.W. Australia.

The interesting thing is that this is the first reference that Captain Smirnov may have known about his cargo of diamonds. After the crash, he had consistently stated that he never knew what was in the package, only that he needed to deliver it. Based on Norman Keys’ account, he may have known exactly what he was carrying but unable to do anything about it.

The remaining diamonds were never recovered.

20 June 2014

Landing in a Corn Field

I’ve been browsing old photographs again, and found an amazing pair of a Lockheed Constellation from 1951.

The Lockheed Constellation, affectionately known as the “Connie” is an easy aircraft to recognise. The propeller-driven aircraft with four 18-cylinder engines was described by Popular Mechanics Magazine in 1943 as resembling a great winged shark:

Popular Mechanics , June 1943, The Flying Shark

The civilian aircraft warning observer wore a puzzled frown as he reached for the telephone. “Army Flash!” he barked, “One big four-motored plane bound east. Looks like a shark with a P-38 wing and a triple tail, and is going like sixty! Not on my identification chart!” The observer had spotted the first flight of Lockheed’s big “Constellation” and his description was pretty accurate. The plane’s fuselage is cambered like an airfoil section, giving it a shark-like appearance. Its down-dipping nose caused Lockheed employees to name it unofficially “Old Loop Snoot.”

Lockheed were working on a four-engined pressurised aircraft when TWA requested a 40-passenger transcontinental airliner. Their requirements led to the L-049 Constellation and, at the start of World War II, the TWA aircraft were converted to military transport aircraft. In 1952, Eisenhower fell in love with the “smooth-sailing” of the Constellation and used it for his campaign and presidential travel. A year later, the aircraft’s call sign was officially changed to Air Force One, the first aircraft to ever use that call-sign. Its cabin, with a desk and long sofa-beds, became the design template for all future Air Force One interiors.

A total of 856 Lockheed Constellations were produced. Today, only nine Constellations and Super Constellations are still considered airworthy.

This is N548GF when it was flown in to Chino Airport in 2012 for display at the Yanks Air Museum:

But today I’m interested in N119A, a Lockheed L-749A Constellation that landed in a cornfield.

On the 19th of July in 1951 at 14:15, Eastern Airlines flight 601 departed Newark, NJ for a scheduled flight to Miami. It was overhead Philadelphia at the cruising altitude of 18,000 feet when the flight encountered turbulence.

ASN Aircraft accident Lockheed L-749A Constellation N119A Curles Neck Farm, VA

For the next 25 to 30 minutes violent turbulence accompanied by intermittent periods of hail was encountered. The flight continued past Philadelphia for a few minutes toward Dover and then made a turn to the west in an attempt to avoid as much of the storm area as possible. The flight broke out in a clear area at about 15:17. The flight was able to continue VFR and descended to 8,000 feet. A second squall was encountered in the vicinity of Lynchburg at 15:50. The aircraft was slowed to 185 mph IAS, light turbulence and buffeting were experienced.

Although they were now clear of the storm, the buffeting became so severe that the flight crew was concerned that the aircraft was going to break up. They reduced the airspeed again and then the Captain declared an emergency as the aircraft descended. The Captain must have known the area, because he recognised Curles Neck Farm, a plantation in Henrico County, Virginia. He selected the largest field and flew straight in with flaps up and the landing gear retracted: He didn’t dare change the flight configuration as he wasn’t sure what was causing the severe buffeting.

The First Officer and the flight engineer turned off everything as the nose of the aircraft touched the highest corn in the field. The right wing struck a power line pole at the edge of the corn field as the Connie flew under the wires. They then tore down a fence as the aircraft touched down. They skidded 1,100 feet through the field and through another fence and finally came to rest in a pasture.

There, they discovered that an access door had opened during the flight through the storm and was the cause of the violent buffeting.

Amazingly, the aircraft was fully repaired and put back into service with no ill effects. Sadly, a few years later it crashed after take-off from New York-Idlewild with 22 passengers on board. The Captain of that flight took off into drifting fog and lost perspective. The aircraft descended into the ground, killing everyone on board. The Lockheed L-794A Constellation was written off.

The photographs were taken by Adolph Rice who opened a commercial photography studio in Richmond in 1949. He and his son did commercial work ranging from studio portrait photography to aerial landscape shots. The studio closed down in 1961 and over 16,000 negatives were donated to the Library of Virginia. You can see highlights on Flickr: Adolph B. Rice Studio Collection and the full collection is searchable on the Library of Virginia’s website.

18 April 2014

The Disappearance of Aeronaut Walter Powell


I meant to be researching something else entirely but then I stumbled upon the sad story of Walter Powell, a Welsh gentleman born in 1842 who disappeared in 1881.

Walter Powell, the Tory Member of Parliament for Malmesbury, took up ballooning in 1880 after the death of his wife. He received training and soon had his own balloon made for him. The red and yellow striped silk balloon used hydrogen gas and was designed by his friend, James Templer.

Colonel James Lethbridge Brooke Templer is considered the godfather of the modern Royal Air Force. He pioneered the British military use of balloons and airships. In 1878 Captain Templer started a British Army balloon school in Woolwich, using his own balloon, Crusader. Templer was also the Instructor in Ballooning to the Royal Engineers and commanded the military balloon department at Chatham.

Walter Powell became an avid balloonist. He had a dream that one day a balloon would be able to fly across the Atlantic to America. Ballooning took over his life.

Walter Powell – Malmesbury Memories by David Forward

In Malmesbury they looked at their Member’s new interest with tolerant amusement. We read how in October 1880 when Walter Powell was to have proposed the election of the town’s new coroner he had to send a telegram of apology as he would be up in a balloon then. There was much friendly laughter at the meeting when the message arrived, and jokes were made about the hope that they would not soon be needing to elect a new M.P. as well.

Captain Templer often used balloons to make observations for the Meteorological Office. On the 9th of December, 1881, London was enveloped by a very peculiar fog and Templer wished to ascend to investigate the conditions which had produced it. The Meteorological Society had been given access to the newly developed military balloon Saladin from the War Office and it was available to Captain Templer for an ascent to measure the temperature and atmospheric conditions which had produced the fog. The Saladin was moored at Bath.

Captain Templer arranged a flight for the 10th of December and invited the 39-year-old Powell to attend to the balloon, which would leave Templer free to make his observations. A gentleman by the name of A. Agg-Gardner was also invited to join them.

Saladin was a green and yellow calico balloon which used coal gas. The balloon rose when sacks of ballast where dropped out to reduce the weight. A valve in the balloon neck allowed the balloonists to let out the gas, reducing the lifting power and bringing the balloon down. The direction was dependent on wind and air currents.

They departed from the field at Bath Gas Works on the 10th in poor conditions and passed over Wells at 4,200 feet. They passed over Glastonbury and then a current of air blew them between Somerton and Langport. Here, they rose to 5,000 feet to investigate a bank of cloud and then sank to 2,000 feet and drifted towards Crewkerne.

Visibility was poor. Captain Templer heard the roar of waves and realised they were within half a mile of the sea nears Eypesmouth, west of Bridgport. The balloon was now rapidly drifting towards the sea and Captain Templer felt that the descent was critical.

Captain Templer reported the final moments to the Meteorological Office:

’Crewkerne was sighted when we were at 2,000 feet altitude, and Mr Powell allowed the balloon, at my request, to descend, and we passed Beaminster, where we first heard the sea, and immediately I verified my position, and we prepared to effect our descent. The horizontal velocity was increased to thirty-five miles an hour. The balloon was descending most favourably near Symondsbury when Mr Powell threw out some ballast. On his telling me that he had done so I immediately opened the valve. He then asked me if this was necessary? I answered, “We are nearing the sea,” and he replied “I am afraid I rather overdid that last ballast.” Glancing downwards I found that our pace had increased.

The Saladin touched the ground less than 150 metres (450 feet) from the edge of a cliff. The “landing” was uncontrolled and violent. Captain Templer half-fell, half-disembarked from the balloon as the car capsized, still holding the valve line in his hand. The balloon rose sharply as a result of the change in weight and Agg-Gardner fell out as well, breaking his leg in the process.

Powell remained in the car as it righted itself. Captain Templar was dragged along by the valve line and shouted at Powell to come down. The car was still just 2.5 metres / 8 feet above the ground but Powell did not jump. The valve line was ripped from Captain Templer’s hands as the balloon rose. Templer said that he believed that Powell stayed with the balloon hoping that he could save it by bringing it down on the beach. The Captain said that it was possible with the light weight that the balloon might even make it across the Channel.

Powell was last seen waving his hand to Captain Templar as the balloon was swept out to sea. No trace of Powell was ever found.

Two years later, the New York Times reported that the remains of Saladin had been discovered. Fragments and shreds of cloth were recovered in the mountains of Sierra del Pedroza in Asturias, on the northwest coast of Spain.

The balloon had in fact made it across the Channel and even the Bay of Biscay, but of its passenger there was no sign.

28 February 2014

B-1B with its Nose to the Ground

On the 5th of October in 1989, a B-1B Lancer departed Dyess Air Force Base with four crew on a routine training flight. Three hours later, the flight crew discovered that the aircraft had a hydraulics fault. As they came in to land at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, the front landing gear failed to lower.

Ex-28th BW Rockwell B-1B Lancer 85-0070

They circled the airfield for four hours, twice being refuelled by an airborne tanker, as they struggled to lower the nose wheel. Supporting the crew on the ground were military personal and mechanics for the aircraft manufacturer; however they were unable to resolve the issue.

The Air Force had the flight crew fly a further three hours and over 1,000 miles to Edwards Air Force Base, where they circled for another two hours. Air Force officials decided to land the plane on Rogers Dry Lake. Rogers Dry Lake bed is a natural clay runway and is the site of most of the Space Shuttle landings (see Brent’s comment below – it looks like I got this wrong).

The $280 million B-1B Lancer is a four-engine supersonic bomber which is 146 ft (44.5 m) long and a wingspan of 137 ft (41.8m). This is almost the size of a DC-10.

The B-1B has a maximum speed of Mach 1.25 (721 knots, 830 mpg, 1,340 km/h) at 50,000 feet and a range of 6,500 nautical miles. A total of 100 B-1Bs were produced.

The bomber made several low-level passes, which confirmed that the landing gear was still partially retracted. They attempted to jar the nosewheel loose with a touch and go. When that failed, they made a final approach onto the lake at 18:15 local time.

This newly released video of the landing was emailed to me by a reader and it is simply amazing.

None of the crew was hurt and the aircraft unbelievably only suffered minimal damage.

Once on the ground, one of the pilots told the press, “It’s been a great day for flying, except for a few glitches.”