The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery
2366 Hickory Hill Road · Oxford, PA · 19363 · USA
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    For the present, our ability to say what happened ends at 1:55pm on December 15, 1944 when the C-64 Norseman carrying Miller took off from a small airfield in England and headed for France. What we know for certain is that the weather was terrible, the flight was not properly authorized, the pilot was not qualified, and Miller should not have been aboard.

No photo of the aircraft in which Glenn Miller was lost is known to exist but this wartime photo shows a C-64A only 30 serial numbers later. This aircraft served with the Eighth Air Force in England at the same time as 44-70285.

    Miller was one of two passengers aboard a C-64A Norseman flown by Flight Officer J. Stuart Morgan. The central figure on the flight was the other passenger, Lt. Col. Norman Baessell. Baessell, age 44, although not a pilot, was an important figure in the Eighth Air Force. His civilian background as a construction contractor and civil engineer made him a valuable asset in the building of airfields and the administration of logistical support facilities. In March 1944 Baessell was made commanding officer of Headquarters Squadron, Eighth Air Force Service Command in charge of maintenance and repair for all Eighth Air Force bomber and fighter groups. His job was, quite literally, to “keep ’em flying.” Loud, profane, and domineering, Norman Baessell administered his command from Milton Ernest Hall, known colloquially as “the Castle” – a grand 19th century country house in Bedfordshire.

From left, Morgan, Miller, and Baessell. Photo courtesy Dennis Spragg.

    The pilot, John Stuart Morgan, was trained in Canada and then transferred to the AAF as a Flight Officer. He was qualified to fly in IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) conditions, but he was reportedly uncomfortable “on the gauges” and did not have the 1,500 hours required for a full Instrument Rating.

    In early December 1944, Morgan was in Paris with Baessell who was finalizing arrangements for a Strategic Air Depot on the Continent. On December 10, Baessell was summoned back to England by the new commanding officer of the Eighth Air Force Service Command, Col. James Early, to discuss the new facility. Early told the Lt. Col. that it was urgent that agreements with other commands on the Continent be completed before a staff meeting scheduled for December 16. Feeling the pressure from his new boss, Baessell planned to have Morgan fly him back to Paris the next day, December 11, but Alconbury was closed due to low weather and the forecast for the rest of the week was iffy at best. Baessell was determined to head for France at the first break in the weather.

    Glenn Miller, too, was desperate to get to the Far Shore. The band had travel orders to fly to Paris on December 16 to begin a six-week tour on the Continent, and Miller needed to complete billeting, transportation, and mess arrangements before their arrival. Normally such logistical tasks would be handled by his administrative assistant, Lt. Donald Haynes, but Haynes was in the dog house for womanizing and dereliction of duty during an earlier trip to Paris. The director of Troop Broadcasting Services, British Lt. Col. David Niven (yes, that David Niven) would have nothing to do with him and insisted that Miller come over to handle things himself.

    Miller had a seat reserved on a C-47 shuttle flight from Bovingdon on Thursday, December 14, but when he got to the terminal that morning he learned the flight had been cancelled due to weather. Flights would not resume until Sunday, the 17th. Frustrated and dejected, Miller returned to his hotel in London.

    Baessell, meanwhile, was watching the weather forecasts and saw a chance for some improvement by the next morning. At lunch on the 14th, he ran into Haynes who told him about his boss’s plight. Baessel told Haynes that he thought the weather would pick up and he would be pleased to give Miller a ride to Paris if conditions permitted. Haynes relayed the invitation to Miller. Travel orders be damned, the band leader eagerly accepted.

    The 10:00pm forecast for the next morning’s weather over England was not good, but neither was it necessarily prohibitive. A solid overcast at 2,000 feet or lower with multiple layers above was predicted. The wind would be 5 knots from the South with the possibility of intermittent light freezing rain and localized fog. Conditions over the Channel were expected to be 6/10ths to 10/10ths cloud cover with layers up to 24,000 feet. In other words, the weather might be anything from barely acceptable to absolutely horrible. Baessell called Morgan and told him the trip was on.

    Potentially deadly weather; two officers willing to bend the rules to get their jobs done; and a young pilot eager to prove his worth. The stage was set for an avoidable disaster.

    At 8:00am Alconbury was CFR (Contact Flight Rules, same as today’s Visual Flight Rules) but conditions were predicted to deteriorate as the day progressed. FO Morgan ordered the flight line to service C-64A, tail number 44-70285, for the anticipated trip and filed a request with the Alconbury air control officer for a clearance to Villacoublay near Paris with an intermediate stop at Twinwood.

     To clear the flight, the air control officer needed to see that the trip was authorized and that the pilot was qualified for the route and weather conditions. If all was in order he would register the flight with the Army Air Communications Service air traffic center at Bovingdon. When the flight took off, a message would be sent to the destination airfield with the aircraft type, tail number, pilot’s name, departure time, and ETA. When the flight landed at its destination, a return message would be sent confirming its arrival.

Restored wartime control tower, Twinwood Farm.
    Baessell had self-authorized the flight as was his custom, but there was a problem with Morgan’s clearance request. The Alconbury air control officer could not clear him to the Far Shore because all of the Paris area airfields were reporting IFR conditions. A qualified instrument pilot could cross the Channel in CFR weather, but Morgan did not have the full Instrument Rating needed for an IFR clearance. The air control officer set the clearance request aside and told Morgan he would have to wait for a weather update to see if conditions on the Continent improved.

    By lunchtime there was still no further word about the Paris weather, but Alconbury was now predicted to go IFR and close by 1:30pm. Morgan had to make a decision. He must either abandon any hope of getting Baessel to Paris today or get out of Alconbury while it was still CFR. He could leave at his own discretion as long as he stayed within 25 miles. Twinwood was only 17 miles away. Morgan decided to “get out of Dodge” while it was still an option. Around noon he phoned the Castle and left word for Baessell that he would be arriving at Twinwood around 1:30.

    The early morning weather at Twinwood had been terrible with a 250 foot ceiling, light freezing drizzle, and less than a quarter-mile of visibility in dense fog. By noon the ceiling had risen to 2,000 to 3,000 feet and the visibility had lifted to a still-crummy mile and a half in light mist. By the time Morgan arrived overhead at 1:45 the cloud base was at 2,000 feet and the visibility had picked up enough for him to make a visual approach to Runway 23.

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