11 November 2007

In the summer of 2007, a WWII Lockheed P-38 “Lightning” fighter aircraft emerged from the sand of a beach in Wales where it crash landed in 1942. The aircraft is one of the most significant WWII–related archaeological discoveries in recent history and will be recovered in the spring of 2008 for preservation at a major national museum in the United Kingdom.

Upon learning of the discovery in September, Richard Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) alerted curators at the UK national aviation museums (Imperial War Museum, Royal Air Force Museum, and Fleet Air Arm Museum). Interest in the discovery was keen and, as a service to the national museums, Gillespie mobilized a seven person TIGHAR archaeological survey team to assess the aircraft’s condition, describe and record the wreck site, and collect data that will be useful in recovery operations planned for the spring of 2008. TIGHAR also notified the United States Air Force Federal Preservation Officer.

Best known for its on-going investigation of the 1937 disappearance of Amelia Earhart and work with the United States Navy to recover a rare WWII TBD “Devastator” torpedo bomber from a lagoon in the Marshall Islands, TIGHAR is a U.S.-based nonprofit historical and educational foundation. TIGHAR serves the worldwide aviation historical community as a source of expertise and funding for responsible aviation historical research, archaeology and historic preservation. An international membership of 600 scholars, scientists, historians, educators, archaeologists and enthusiasts supports the organization’s research, educational programs and field work.

The TIGHAR archaeological survey of the P-38 was carried out over a four day period from October 8-11, 2007. Assisting and observing were representatives from the Imperial War Museum, Duxford; the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust; the Underwater Archeology Department of the University of Wales, Lampeter; Gwynedd Council; Gwynedd Archaeological Trust; and Snowdonia National Park. A conservator from the Royal Air Force Museum also examined the wreck. The survey was carried out in full compliance with the UK Protection of Military Remains Act of 1986.

The aircraft is believed to be P-38F USAAF serial number 41-7677 assigned to the 49th Squadron, 14th Fighter Group, 8th Air Force. On September 27, 1942, fuel exhaustion during a training mission forced 2nd Lt. R. Frederick Elliott to land the large twin-engine fighter in shallow water near a beach in Wales. Lt. Elliott survived the crash unharmed but was later killed in action in North Africa. Following the accident, 8th Air Force authorities disarmed, but did not salvage, the aircraft which was soon covered by the shifting sand beneath the surf. At the time of Lt. Elliott’s mishap, few civilians in the local area were aware of the accident because the beaches in the United Kingdom were closed to the public during World War II and the press was not allowed to print stories about Allied wrecks. After the war, recreational use of the beaches resumed but the Lightning remained hidden only to re-emerge briefly sixty-five years later. The sands have once again shifted and, like the mythical village of Brigadoon or the Welsh legend of the Bells of Aberdyfi, the fighter has vanished – this time to await its recovery in the spring.

First delivered to the U.S. Army Air Corps in June 1941, the Lockheed P-38 was the only American fighter to remain in continuous production for the entire duration of the United States’ involvement in the Second World War. A total of 10,037 examples were built. An estimated thirty-two complete or partial airframes survive in museums and private collections worldwide. Approximately ten aircraft are reportedly airworthy. A similar number are displayed as extensively restored non-flying aircraft. The remaining airframes exist only as wreckage or parts to be used in rebuilds. Only one Lightning, the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum’s P-38J 42-67762, a former training aircraft, survives as an original, unrestored example of the type.

The P-38F was the first model to see combat but no original example of the mark survives in any collection. Nearly all existing P-38s are late-production G, H, J and L models. In Papua New Guinea, components from four P-38F hulks (42-12647, 42-12652, 42-13084, and 42-13105) are reportedly being used to re-construct a single composite aircraft. Another P-38F, 41-7630, was recovered from under the Greenland icecap in 1992 and subsequently re-manufactured as “Glacier Girl” to create an airworthy P-38F. While attractive and evocative, the flyable aircraft is essentially a new P-38.

The recently discovered aircraft is arguably the oldest surviving P-38 and the only intact P-38F in original condition. Prior to the accident, the airplane participated in fighter sweeps over the Dutch and Belgian coasts, making it the only surviving 8th Air Force combat veteran P-38 and probably the oldest surviving 8th Air Force combat veteran of any type.

TIGHAR is presently working with the UK national museums, Ministry of Defence, University of Wales, and local governmental authorities and archaeological foundations in planning and funding the recovery of the P-38 in the spring of 2008. Individuals and corporations interested in participating in this historic project are invited to contact TIGHAR Executive Director Ric Gillespie.

Contact Information

Ric Gillespie, Executive Director, TIGHAR
2366 Hickory Hill Road
Oxford, Pennsylvania  10363 • USA
Phone: 610.467.1937

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