This Side of the Pond
January 10, 2019
Once upon a time, before it became normal to eat a miniscule bag of pretzels while staring down at a cloud, we had no other option but to go about our business via sea. Coming from a maritime town, I know as well as anyone that our relationship with the waves is deeper, stronger and much more abiding than the one we now hold with luggage tags and drinks trolleys.
And with all those seafaring centuries behind us, it’s no surprise that the bottom of the ocean is a museum all of its own. It isn’t just the Titanic keeping secrets in the deep, and in my part of the world there’s enough evidence of times gone by to fill an airport hangar.
Including, as of this week, the potential solution to a 50-year-old mystery that combines old travel with the new: that of the US Air Force engineer who tried to fly home from England because he so missed his new wife.
USAF mechanic Paul Meyer crashed into the sea near my home town of Poole, a thousand-year-old port with enough flotsam and jetsam on its seabed to keep several teams of divers in lucrative business. Poole boasts a strategic position on the south coast, which is why it was one of the major staging grounds for D-Day, and the second largest natural harbor in the world.
Because of this, there are numerous wrecks in the general area that date from the world wars, including tugs, dredgers and even a U-boat. There are also many older specimens, including the Earl of Abergavenny belonging to the East India Company that went down with its captain on board – who just happened to be the brother of poet William Wordsworth.
Poole was also home to some of the infamous privateers (which is a nice name for pirates), including Harry Paye (or “Arripaye” as the disgruntled Spanish called him) and Woodes Rogers, who started out stealing things from other boats and somehow ended up as the first Royal Governor of the Bahamas. I’ve often wondered if there’s a king’s ransom in booty somewhere on our seabed, too.
There are various companies in and around Poole that concentrate on finding more of these treasures, including Deeper Dorset, which describes itself as using sidescan sonar, magnetometer and remote cameras to find needles in the haystack.
For the last decade, the owner of that company, Grahame Knott, has been preoccupied with one particular mystery: what happened to Paul Meyer on that night in 1969? He started out by indulging in some research, which largely involved buying rounds of drinks for men who operate trawlers and scallop dredgers and sometimes turn up strange bits of metal in their nets.
This innovative technique eventually narrowed the potential crash zone to a manageable 30 square miles. Knott and his team began the search for the Hercules plane that Meyer had crashed into the English Channel, setting out at an eye-twitching 4 a.m. each time and coming back after 16 hours at sea.
Knott told the BBC that his boat was not necessarily up to the task. A “day vessel”, it had nowhere near the ability to hold position in strong tides that a recovery boat would have had, but, on the other hand, it didn’t cost him millions of dollars to purchase, which is always a good thing.
Knott and his team spent 21 days searching across nine months, until finally they found what they were looking for. A wheel first, a section of wing, and there it was: the plane Meyer stole on May 23, 1969.
Meyer’s tale is a sad one. Just 23 years old and a veteran of Vietnam, he was stationed at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk and was struggling with homesickness and a need to see his new wife and stepchildren. He had put in a request to be sent back to Virginia, but it had been turned down.
On the night he disappeared, he had been drinking heavily and was arrested and escorted back to his barracks. He did not, as requested, go to bed; instead, he somehow managed to take control of a Hercules under the name “Capt Epstein” and got that plane in the air singlehandedly.
A transcript survives of the call he made to his wife, who tried to convince him that flying a warplane alone wasn’t a great idea. While this was happening, military jets were scrambling.
Ninety minutes later, radar contact was lost and, aside from the plane’s life raft washing up on shore, nothing more was heard of Paul Meyer. He did not make it home, despite a valiant effort.
But as to why he failed to make it further than the coast, therein lies the mystery. Did it transpire that a lone, inebriated man cannot fly after all? Or was his plane shot down before he lost control over a populated area?
Thanks to Knott and his team, solving that mystery has become a possibility. Knott himself says he feels strongly that Meyer’s story has yet to be told and suggests Meyer can’t have been that drunk to get as far as he did and would probably be diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder in today’s world.
Knott plans to place a plaque on the wreckage to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the crash in May, hopefully with Meyer’s surviving family present as witness. Meanwhile, he and a team of experts will “reverse engineer” the sequence of events that led to the wreck in the first place.
Because while the seabed really is littered with the artifacts of history, we don’t always know what they mean. But thanks to a combination of curiosity and tenacity, it’s never too late to find the answers.