Friday, July 27, 2018

A matter of historical record: The war time crash over Sebago Lake by Walter Lunt

May 16, 1944 – six war planes out of Brunswick Naval Air Station were buzzing in the late morning sky over Sebago Lake. Residents in the region were accustomed to the protracted drone of British Corsair fighter planes, destined for the Pacific war theater, breaking the early day stillness as they engaged in frenetic training exercises.

A North Sebago woman was watching when two of the aircraft dived low. She later told the Portland
Over 2000 gull-winged Corsair fighter planes, similar to the one show here, were issued to the British Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm during World War II. Many saw action in the Pacific on aircraft carriers. (Mobile)
Evening Express, “The planes…skimmed the water and I could see spray flying up. Then came an explosion (and) smoke. Then another explosion.” As the other four planes flew away, she and a neighbor scanned the lake with field glasses, “but there was nothing to be seen on (the surface) of the lake.”

Boaters from Long Beach searched the crash area but found no trace of the planes or the occupants. Killed, and to this day listed as missing in action, were two young Royal Navy pilots, sub-lieutenants Vaughan Reginald Gill and Raymond L. Knott, both 19. They are memorialized in their home town of Lee-on-Solent in Hampshire, England.

Military investigators sent amphibian planes, Marines and Navy men to the site and used a Navy diving bell in a recovery effort but found only an antenna and a headrest. Few other details were released. Speculation centered on either the two gull-winged planes got too close to each other or too close to the water. Press reports over the years have favored the collision theory. Both aircraft remain submerged about 300 feet down in Sebago Lake.

Sadly, air crash fatalities in Maine during training missions, especially low-level combat training were not rare during the second world war. One-hundred thirty-two mishaps involving Corsair fighter planes were recorded in Maine in 1944 alone.

“We probably had a crash every two or three days (in the state) during the war,” said BNAS spokesman, John James in a Bangor Dailey News story in 1998.

Peter Noddin, custodian of Aviation Archaeology in Maine, a website devoted to the memory of Maine’s military crash victims, reports 805 military aviation accidents in Maine between 1919 and 1989. More than half, he says, happened during World War II with a total of 143 fatalities.
Noddin maintains that the logistics of gearing up for war must be understood from a 1940s perspective.

“The war was waged with great urgency…the army didn’t have the luxury of elite flight-training programs, testing protocols or the patience for ideal flying conditions. Thousands of airmen, many with no greater qualification than a high school diploma, were rushed through training. Mass-produced planes were delivered as quickly as they were riveted together.”
From the video footage of the fuselage code

In recent years, well publicized efforts by various entities such as aircraft restoration groups, wreck hunters and “war bird” collectors have expressed interest in locating and even salvaging the Sebago Corsairs. In 2003, using historic eyewitness accounts and modern side-scan sonar equipment, one of the two aircraft was located in one of the deepest parts of Sebago’s main lake. Footage produced by remote controlled video documented the fuselage code (3BH) and the serial number and fin flash on the tail. The aircraft was shown to be resting nose-down by the weight of the engine. The wings were torn off – one was located approximately 100 feet off to the side. The landing gear was down and the canopy open. Clothing and a tangle of parachute shroud line appear to drift upward from the forward cockpit.

The second Corsair is thought to be resting less than a mile from the “3BH” plane.

Controversy surrounds release of the video footage, as well as the legality and the moral and ethical considerations in any attempt to retrieve the wreckage. Many suggest the remains of the dead pilots are still with, or near, the submerged aircraft.

 A proposed salvage operation was foiled in a federal court when a judge dismissed a suit brought by a recovery firm that sought to recover the Corsairs. The company had argued the “admiralty law” (laws of salvage and finds) applied to their retrieval plans. The court, however, ruled that Sebago Lake is considered a “great pond,” and does not fall under the jurisdiction of federal navigable waters. During deliberations, the State of Maine and Great Britain maintained that the warplanes are grave sites and shouldn’t be disturbed.

Feelings on both sides run deep, as evidenced by testimony on an aviation forum website (Key.Aero Network). Noddin, writing in favor of recovery, writes “Why has this not been recovered, and the man given a proper burial?” Jayce (from Key.Aero Network) admits to mixed feelings, “On the one hand, recovery and a proper burial can only be a good thing. But personally, I feel strongly there is something morally repugnant about recovering an air frame simply for commercial purposes.”
For the full historical record of the crash of two British Navy Corsairs over Sebago Lake, read “Finding the Fallen” by Andy Saunders. 

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