Could this plane wreck solve the mystery behind a homesick airman's untimely death?
PUBLISHED: 09:04 08 January 2019
After more than 10 years of searching, a professional diver claims he has found the plane wreck that could prove once and for all how a Suffolk-based airman crashed down to Earth nearly half a century ago.
The year is 1969, just two months before Neil Armstrong will take his first steps on the moon, and US Air Force mechanic Sergeant Paul Meyer, based at RAF Mildenhall, is painfully homesick.
Envisaging his wife and stepchildren back in America, he downs a few drinks at a party, gets himself arrested, boards a Hercules transporter C-130 aircraft and attempts to fly home to Virginia. An hour and a half later, all contact with the plane is lost – and Sgt Meyer is never seen again.
This is the mystery that has fascinated professional diver Grahame Knott for over a decade. A keen storyteller, irritated by countless conspiracy theories, Mr Knott has dedicated years to finding out whether the homesick mechanic was shot down or crashed of his own accord. It is a question that has remained unanswered every since, and prompted a number of whacky explanations from self-appointed investigators.
Now, thanks to an extraordinary discovery off the south coast of England, Mr Knott thinks he may finally be able to solve the mystery.
“I don’t believe in theories of cover-ups,” he said, “I believe it was a cock-up.”
From radar records to deep sea searches
After years of searching, Mr Knott claims he has found the carcass of the very plane that Sergeant Meyer was flying that night, lying on the seabed of the English Channel.
Thanks to specialised 3D imaging technology, he now believes he can answer the mystery surrounding the mechanic’s fate once and for all.
His search began just over 10 years ago, and ended in late 2018 with his team scouring the seabed for what they expected to be a pile of debris. In reality, they found something with far more substance.
While parts of the aircraft has been recovered and returned to RAF Mildenhall, the team knew there was more to be found.
“I thought this could be anywhere in the English Channel,” Mr Knott said.
“Over the years we collected information. We found a report from a British Airways pilot who said he’d seen an oil spill 24 hours after the crash.”
The team also collected log books, as well as radar records from airports such as Heathrow, the Isle of Wight and Guernsey.
This narrowed the potential crash site to an area of roughly 100 square miles.
Mr Knott then started talking to trawlermen and fishermen, who were able to estimate where they had spotted aircraft remains in the past.
“We came up with five areas that we knew we needed to look at closely,” he said.
“Each area was probably about four or five square miles.”
Next came the physical search – Mr Knott took his team out on the Channel, where they began to scour the designated areas.
“We are a small outfit,” he explained. “We have a small boat only 14 metres long – we are little guys running basic equipment to the absolute maximum.”
An extraordinary discovery
After 21 days out on the water, and 20 square miles surveyed, Mr Knott’s team had a breakthrough.
“We found the aircraft in the second area we were looking,” he said.
“We had found something the size of a small dustbin. We didn’t know whether we were looking for a complete aircraft – we thought it was more likely we’d find a massive pile of debris. But we didn’t.”
Honing in on the area, the team knew they had found something special.
“This would have been our last day at sea,” Mr Knott added. “We saw the target on the site scan and thought: ‘What’s going on here?’. We stopped working and thought this looked hot.
“The in-water visibility was starting to go – we had to get the camera very close to the wreck. We treated the whole site as if it were a forensic crime scene.”
According to Mr Knott, this was, without a doubt, Sgt Meyer’s plane. However, rather than jumping for joy, there was a brief moment of anti-climax.
He added: “[My crew member] looked at me and said: ‘That’s it, isn’t it?’. And I said yes.”
Now the team are planning an full investigation into the cause of the crash: studying the wreck from every angle and speaking to anybody who may be able to help piece together the mystery.
“This is not a personal witch hunt,” Mr Knott said, “even if we find out he was shot down and we find out who the pilot was, we would never name that guy. People were just doing their jobs.
“What [the family] don’t understand is why there was this wall of silence. I think that one or two things happened that probably the US Air Force are not proud of.
“All we want to know is the truth about what happened.”
He is now appealing for anybody with connections to RAF Mildenhall who may have information about the crash to come forward.
The mystery continues
Reflecting on Sgt Meyer’s story, Mr Knott said he refuted the common assumption that the mechanic, who had done two tours in Vietnam, was merely a “lovesick puppy” – arguing that he must have had some grit to attempt the trip.
“He was almost certainly suffering from PTSD,” Mr Knott said.
“To be honest I think he was quite angry. He was a hard guy.
“He was under a lot of stress anyway. He obviously snapped and he decided he wanted to go.”
For now, the mystery of the homesick mechanic’s death continues.
“What we have found on the seabed doesn’t add up,” Mr Knott said. However he refused to go into any more detail until further investigations have been carried out.
The team will resume their dive in the summer.