The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery
When Morgan taxied in and parked on the apron in front of the small control tower, he brought the engine back to idle and set the brake, but he did not shut down and he did not go inside to get the latest weather. Stopping the engine would officially terminate the flight. Continuing on would then require a clearance, and Morgan knew that if the weather in Paris was still IFR, clearance would be denied and the flight would be over.
In fact, the forecast for weather over the Channel called for an overcast at 1,000 feet or lower, intermittent light freezing rain, and localized fog. The Paris area airports were open but only for IFR flights. Had Morgan made another request for clearance to Villacoublay, it would have been declined. His decision to keep the engine running suggests that he had already decided to “scud-run” to France below the overcast and without clearance. Baessell and Miller walked up to the idling Norseman, threw their B-4 bags into the cabin and climbed aboard, Baessell taking the co-pilot’s seat and Miller buckling in on the bench seat behind Morgan. Morgan taxied out and, at 1:55 PM, took off. The Twinwood flying control officer, assuming that the pilot was simply continuing the flight on a previously received clearance, watched 44-70285 fade into the murk as it climbed away to the south.
Continued bad weather the next day kept the regular shuttle to the Far Shore grounded, so Haynes was not able to get to Paris as planned, nor could he confirm Miller’s arrival because the surprise German offense kept the communications circuits jammed. It was December 18 before Haynes and the band arrived at Orly airport. To their surprise, Miller was not there to greet them. Puzzled, Haynes began making inquiries. Learning that neither Miller nor Baessel had checked in to the hotels where they usually stayed, he became alarmed and alerted his superiors.
When Eighth Air Force Service Command investigated and discovered that Miller, contrary to his travel orders, had left with Baessell in a C-64 bound for the Far Shore they suspected the worst and ordered a search of the usual route. No trace of the missing plane or a life raft was found. The missing flight was assumed to have gone down in the water due to either mechanical or weather-related causes.
On December 23rd, Miller’s wife was notified that her husband was missing. On Christmas Eve, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) released a statement to the wire services:
“Major Alton Glenn Miller, director of the famous United States Army Air Forces Band, which has been playing in Paris, is reported missing while on a flight from England to Paris. The plane in which he was a passenger left England on December 15 and no trace of it has been found since takeoff. Major Miller, one of the outstanding orchestra leaders of the United States, lived at Tenafly, New Jersey, where his wife presently resides. No members of Major Miller’s band were with him on the missing airplane.”
In 1984, former RAF navigator Fred Shaw related a forty year old recollection of seeing a light aircraft knocked out of the sky by the explosion of a 4,000 pound bomb jettisoned into the English Channel from his Lancaster returning from an aborted mission on December 15, 1944. Shaw felt certain that the unintended casualty was a C-64 Norseman and speculated that he may have witnessed the demise of Glenn Miller.
The story was investigated by British aviation historian and author Roy Nesbit, who found it to be credible. Media coverage soon made the alleged friendly fire incident the most widely accepted answer to the mystery of Miller’s fate. Nesbit died in 2014. However, in researching Glenn Miller Declassified, author Dennis Spragg uncovered numerous errors and discrepancies in Shaw’s account and in the historian’s assessment.
Using squadron logs, Nesbit calculated that the time the bomber jettisoned its load matched the time the C-64 carrying Miller could have mistakenly wandered into an approved bomb disposal area, but he erred in assuming the logs used Greenwich Mean Time. In fact, the RAF was using British Summer Time in December 1944. (During summer months Double British Summer Time was used.) The times do not match by at least an hour. Shaw was back on the ground before the Norseman was over the Channel.
Also, the Lancaster jettisoned its bomb from an altitude of 5,000 feet above 8/10ths cloud cover. Making positive identification of a light airplane glimpsed through a break in the clouds a mile below is problematical to say the least. At the time, Shaw did not report what he later said he saw, nor did anyone else in the seven-man crew. Contrary to Shaw’s memory of seeing an explosion, bombs dropped into non-target areas were jettisoned un-fused.
Like many legends, the Miller friendly fire myth may have sprung from an actual incident. Norseman 44-70285 was not the only light aircraft trying to cross the Channel under the weather that day. Guided by an RAF Walrus amphibian, seven American Stinson L-1 Vigilant observation aircraft being ferried to the Far Shore were sneaking along under a 300 foot ceiling when the pilots suddenly found their aircraft drenched in the spray thrown up by bombs hurtling down out of the overcast. As told in a February 1, 1945 Stars and Stripes article, “Later the mystery was explained when a break in the overcast showed a flight of Lancasters from which the bombs had been jettisoned, flying high above the cloudbank.” Whether the Stinsons or the Lancasters, or both, were a bit off course is not known, but the time of the incident, a little after 1:00pm, matches the time Shaw’s Lancaster jettisoned its bomb.
Shaw’s flawed recollection fits a psychological phenomenon well known to TIGHAR as “Saipan Syndrome” after the many eyewitnesses who came forward decades after the fact to describe incidents on Saipan related to Amelia Earhart’s supposed “capture” by the Japanese. An individual has an unusual, emotionally stimulating, but unexplained experience. Years, usually many years, later they become aware of a famous mystery that might explain their strange experience. Their mind fills in the gaps in their memory to match the mystery. The positive attention the individual gets for “solving” the famous mystery reinforces their conviction that their unwittingly embellished memory is accurate.
The loss of C-64 44-70285 was a classic weather-related aviation accident driven by human factors. The proximate cause of the tragedy was the pilot’s decision to attempt an extremely dangerous flight without current weather information, without clearance, and without provision for rescue in the event of trouble. His decision, as is so often the case in such accidents, was undoubtedly influenced by his desire to please a demanding, or even bullying, boss. Miller was complicit in his own death only in his error in judgment in accepting Baessell’s invitation.
The experience of the seven Stinson L-1s shows that it was possible for light aircraft to make a CFR crossing of the Channel on the afternoon of December 15, 1944. The conditions they encountered were challenging – a 300 foot ceiling and ice due to freezing drizzle (not to mention being inadvertently bombed) – but they made it across. The pilots had been trained as glider pilots and certainly had less experience than FO Morgan, but they were properly cleared and were guided by an RAF amphibian that could have landed and rescued a pilot forced to ditch.
Whatever befell 44-70285 all that can be said with certainty is, “Aircraft missing and presumed lost over English Channel.”
The only way to remove the word “presumed” is to find whatever is left of the aircraft. Some clue to exactly why Norseman 44-70285 came to grief may emerge if its wreckage is found, but searching the entire English Channel, or even portions of it that might be considered likely, is not practical. The only course of action that might result in the discovery of Norseman 44-70285 is to try to re-locate the airplane wreck a fisherman briefly pulled up in his net in June of 1986 or ’87.
In June of either 1986 or ’87, a boat owned and captained by a man we’ll call “Mr. Fisher” was trawling for mullet and squid several miles off Portland Bill, a sliver of land protruding from the Dorset coast. At a depth of 130 feet on a smooth bottom, the net snagged on something that brought the trawler to a stop. The English Channel is littered with shipwrecks, many of which are charted and carefully avoided, but nothing was recorded in this area. Not wanting to tear up his net, Mr. Fisher judiciously tried to pull free and, after about an hour, the object broke loose. Pulling the net out of the water, he was amazed to see a small, mostly intact, aircraft dangling from the A-frame at the stern of the trawler.
Mr. Fisher is an aviation fan and a member of an RC model airplane flying club, so he was fascinated by his unexpected catch. The wreck hung there for upwards of two hours while he tried to decide whether to haul it in for scrap, try to save the nets, or cut it loose. Hauling up wrecks, especially wrecks that may have bodies, is considered bad luck and the deck crew was getting more than a bit antsy, so the lines were cut and the plane returned to the deep, but not before Mr. Fisher made note of the boat’s position.
He thought nothing more of the incident until 2014 when the Glenn Miller mystery re-surfaced in the British press. A wartime plane spotter’s notebook brought to the popular Antiques Road Show television program was discovered to include a notation of a Norseman aircraft passing overhead on December 15, 1944. The plane carrying Miller is alleged to have been the only Norseman aloft that day and the time of the sighting seemed to match. Reading about this new information, Mr. Fisher wondered if there was any chance the wreck he pulled up might be the Miller aircraft.
A friend in the RC model flying club worked as a volunteer at a major UK air museum and he arranged for Mr. Fisher to tell his story to a senior museum official. The museum official listened with skepticism and queried Mr. Fisher about the details of what he had seen, as best he could remember. The incident pre-dated the era of smart-phones and there was no camera aboard the boat, so there are no photos of the wreck, but the official helped Mr. Fisher make a sketch of the wreck as it appeared hanging off the stern of the trawler, carefully avoiding “leading the witness.”
The sketch depicts a high-wing, strut-braced monoplane with fixed landing gear. The radial engine has a three bladed propeller with bent tips.
All C-64s were powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp – the same engine that powered Earhart’s Model 10E Electra. Most had two-blade, but some had three-blade, props. Bent prop tips and a largely intact airframe are consistent with a controlled ditching.
Mr. Fisher remembered the color as silver with the remnants of white stars on the underside of the wing. There are no known photos of 44-70285 but, beginning in June of 1944, aircraft arriving from the U.S. were no longer painted in camouflage. The C-64 in which Miller disappeared was delivered to England in late July 1944 and almost certainly remained in its original silver paint scheme.
In the sketch, there is a door on the port side with what Mr. Fisher interpreted as “parachute cords” streaming out. There were several light aircraft types in service in England during WWII but only the C-64 Norseman had a door on the port side. There were no parachutes aboard 44-70285 and, even if there were, they would not be equipped with static lines.
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