Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Tale of P-38 #44-23914

A fellow wreck chasing enthusiast and I visited the site of #44-23914 just over a year ago.  I was amazed at how  much, and yet, how little, remained.  The forces that are at play in an aircraft crash are phenomenal!  The majority of the pieces we saw bespoke a horrible and violent end.  There were pieces of aluminum that had been fold like an accordion.  Others were simply misshapen to the extent that their original form was unrecognizable.

My friend, Mr. Gould, obtained the accident report for #44-23914 and furnished me with a copy.  I now present the small amount of information contained therein along with some other components that will fill out the story.  Unfortunately, the report leaves more questions than it answers.

The day was September 30, 1944.  A few days earlier and about 20 miles to the south, the super-secret Uranium pile of the B-Reactor, part of the Manhattan Project, had gone critical for the first time.  Further away, men of the US and its allies in Europe had just taken part in in the ill-fated Operation Market Garden and were withdrawing to lick their wounds.  The situation in the Pacific was looking up, soon our forces would be gathering for another invasion, this time on the Philippine Islands.  The small town of Othello a few miles away was quiet, except for the freight trains bearing war materials every now and then. The wind was moving at a leisurely 9 miles per hour.  There were a few clouds above the valley floor.  The farm land did not show the scars of war, yet.  That would change this afternoon.

There were several Army Air Fields near by.  Moses Lake Army Air Field was the closest.  The fighters from that base would be training throughout the day over the farmland of Eastern Washington.  The fast Lockheed fighter was the one that was seen most.  It could be seen in flights of four, most days.  The pilots would be going through the various training missions.  From navigation, to bombing, to dogfights and low level flight.

The P-38 Lightning was recognizable because of its unique shape.  Instead of the normal cross shape of most aircraft, the P-38 looked a lot like two T's written close together and attached at the bottom.  It had two engines and was a great fighter as long as the pilot did not mistreat it.  A training film of the era cautioned against inverted flight for any length of time, as the oil pressure would drop dramatically and ruin the bearings in the engines.  It also stated that if you needed to recover the aircraft in a downward maneuver, you needed to have at least 10,000 feet altitude.

On this particular day, at 12:55PM, yet another flight of P-38s had left Moses Lake Army Air Field.  These four proceeded to a local gunnery range for a sighter burst and then climbed to 12,000ft. for a syllabus of "supervised acrobatics" and individual combat. (the number three man, 2nd Lt. James B. Keller, and number four man,2nd Lt. John W, Eveland, both stated that they were actually at 7000-8000, this difference in stated altitudes is interesting.  The leader, 1st Lt. Charles N. Fagan, stated that the cloud bases were at 7000-8000 feet and the cloud tops at 11,000.  Could this be a mix up?)

The leader strung his formation out in "String Formation." and began to "rat race" around the cloud tops.  This would appear to be simply a game of follow the leader.  At one point, about 1:30PM, according to all flight members, the formation passed into the top of a cloud or through a wisp cloud (again, they differ).  The flight members all stated that they were only in the cloud for one to two seconds at most.  They did not even switch to instruments.  When they entered the cloud, the number two man was there where he belonged.  When they came out he was gone.

The number two man was Flying Officer Gene L. Dyer, apparently of Australia.  He was flying P-38L #44-23914.  There were no problems listed concerning the aircraft, save for the left oil shutter which was left in automatic.  Dyer simply disappeared from the flight.  A BT-13 pilot, 2nd Lt. Morris D. English, flying in the general area witnessed a P-38 in a spin at about 1:20PM, it came out of the bottom of a cloud at about 6500 feet and at about 5000 momentarily recovered in a nose down position.  The BT-13 pilot did not see more because a cloud obscured his vision.

When he was noted as missing, his flight made radio calls to him and to Moses Lake tower.  They flew around looking for the crash site.  Then they headed back to the field to see what the tower knew.  Lt. Fagan took another plane out and searched for Dyer.  He located the wreck and guided the crash truck and ambulance to the site.

The majority of the aircraft was recovered.  What remains today are just small pieces.  Some of the cylinder housings from the engines, various hydraulic fittings and hoses, and even the side of a Browning Mk. 2 .50 caliber machine gun.  There is just a crater or impact scar that marks the place where Gene L. Dyer died.  There is no other marker.

What happened?  Is it possible for things to go so completely wrong in 1-2 seconds that you cannot even call for help in your plummet to the ground?  Given the characteristics of the P-38, and the eye-witness report from the BT-13 pilot, it seems that Dyer somehow got himself into a spin and may have been recovering.  The ground level at the crash site is about 1000 feet above sea level.  If the flight was at 12,000 feet, it seems completely possible that Dyer had plenty of room to recover.  However, if the two other members of the flight were indeed correct when they stated that the flight was at 7000 to 8000 feet, it seems Dyer was just too low to recover completely from the spin.

Is it possible that the three members of his flight were covering for each other when perhaps they had been doing maneuvers that were not permitted?  I do not know.  I only bring it up because of the amazingly short amount of time that he was out of sight and the conflicting reports, which do not seem to have been questioned by anyone.  Even though I am aware that accidents can happen very fast, the report just seems to be missing something.  I suppose we will never know for sure.


Sources:

USAF accident report for #44-23914

Personal observations of wreck site, March 14, 2009.

http://www.othellowashington.us/

YouTube, WWII era training film.
  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDmIB7u18_0

5 comments:

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