PHANTOM CRASHES

                                      
MAINE'S WORST AIRCRAFT DISASTERS THAT NEVER HAPPENED!

                                                                                                                                    
DIRIGO FLYER June 2000

                                                                                      By Peter Noddin


If you read about many aircraft crashes or "missing" aircraft incidents, you will find that in many cases people report flares, parachutes, distress shots, and explosions that turn out to have nothing to do with the incident. This has nothing to do with peoples' truthfulness or their willingness to help authorities with the emergency. Anyone who investigates accidents for a living, as I have for most of my career, will tell you that eyewitness accounts are the least reliable of all evidence collected at the scene of a mishap. Under the stress of an unexpected event, each individual will see things just a little differently due to their expertise, experience, level of excitement, etc. Flares and crash noises are often common things noticed for the first time during the heightened awareness hearing about an aircraft mishap. Whenever several people discuss their observations, there is a natural tendency to "average" their statements so that they all sound more similar. This isn't bad or good- It's just human!

An interesting twist on this is a reported crash of an aircraft that actually flew on unscathed. Maine has had several such incidents of interest.

World War II brought with it a serious case of "war nerves" in the U.S. The attack on Pearl Harbor and U-boat warfare off the Atlantic coast brought on an intense alertness for unusual activity. This awareness later proved justified when German spies actually landed on the Maine coast and U-boats engaged in combat with Navy patrol craft near our harbors.

Just three weeks before Pearl Harbor, on Saturday, November 15, 1941, a B-18 "Bolo" bomber from the Bangor Air Corps Base missed Bangor in the fog. It was returning from bombing practice at Langley Field, Virginia. It ran out of fuel and crashed on a remote ridge next to the "Thousand Acre Bog" near Lee. The crash and expedition to recover the bodies of the four crewmen was front-page news on Monday morning. That's when residents of the North Amity area, just south of Houlton, began reporting a plane crash near the New Brunswick border the previous Thursday.

A local farmer, learning of a plane missing from Skowhegan, reported seeing a plane "turn over in the air" and the pilot parachute out. A girl on a nearby farm had seen a single engine silver aircraft with its engine "missing" come down in a roll and a "package" fall out of it. She also heard the aircraft crash in the nearby woods and later saw what might have been a red flare shoot up from the same area.

The plane from Skowhegan turned out to be safe on the ground and a two-day air and ground search of the area failed to reveal a crash. No other aircraft were reported missing in the area that day, and the search was called off. Low flying RCAF aircraft were common in the area by late 1941, so the incident could have been a pilot showing off his skills. Some local legends attribute this incident to some type of smuggling "drop" operation that was noticed by the locals. It is very intriguing, however, to note that several people who likely knew very little about military aviation all gave such a vivid description of a pilot "going out over the side"!

On the morning of Thursday, July 24, 1942 a B-17 bomber flew over the Macomber corner area between Dexter and Dover Foxcroft at treetop level. This was a common sight by this point in the war. What sets this one off from the others is that at least 12 people were convinced that it crashed into a wooded ridge a short distance from the highway. Most reported something strange about the sound of the engines, and that the plane flew into a depression between two ridges and failed to come out the other side. Its engines were said to abruptly stop. One witness actually saw it fly into one of the ridges, but saw no fire or smoke.

Sheriff's Deputies and State Police responded to the telephone reports of the crash. Local men hiked into the woods to search the area.  Dow field rolled a "crash wagon" and detachment of men as well as an aircraft to search the area.

By 4 PM the search was called off. No sign of a crash could be found. No New England base was missing a bomber. At least one witness remained firm in his belief that the plane had crashed and would be found. While a Bangor Daily News reporter phoned in his story that evening, the witness repeatedly cut in on the rural party line to "correct" the assertion that it had only been a crash scare.

While not technically a crash scare, an incident occurred a few weeks later near the Washington County town of Beddington that illustrates how war nerves can deceive multiple witnesses about an object falling from the sky. Several people saw what they reported as two parachutes fall from the sky into a wooded area. Under one was a large container, and the second lowered a man to the ground. Police responded, the National Guard was called out and roadblocks were set up to prevent the man from reaching Bangor. A search of the wooded area eventually turned up a military weather balloon.

The final case, dubbed the "Phantom Plane" incident by the media, happened long after WW II on the afternoon of Thursday, October 19, 1961. A fisherman driving on Route 1 near Gouldsboro saw a large four-engine plane fly across the road at about 600 feet and disappear behind a ridge a mile or two away. He never saw it reappear and reported it as crashed. Over 50 reports eventually came in of an aircraft flying low about that time. They varied in description from a four-engine bomber to a twin engine flying boat.

A ground search of the area and brief air search by a helicopter from Dow AFB failed to reveal any wreckage. Later that evening it was apparent that no airline or military unit was missing an aircraft that could have been in the area. Two KC-97 tankers and at least two patrol aircraft from Brunswick Naval Air Station had been flying low in the general area that afternoon, but all were safe. The decision was made not to continue searching on Friday.

From detailed statements from witnesses taken by State Troopers, one containing a partial tail number, it was determined that the plane had been a two engine patrol aircraft from Brunswick Naval Air Station that had returned and landed safely.

In looking back at these incidents as history, it is important not to be judgmental or sarcastic about what people reported. My files also contain a few cases where a piece of information was not volunteered until later on due to fear of embarrassment or fear of getting involved. In these cases that vital clue might have saved a flyer, reduced his stay in the woods, or shortened a family?s uncertainty about the fate of a loved one. As a public safety official, I always tell people to call at the point that they think they have an emergency. We need time to get there and don't mind the "easy calls" where everyone's fine and we just go home. I'm sure that the majority of air search and rescue crewmen that have served over the decades have had similar feelings.

The B-18 crash near Lee was initially reported the following morning, by three hunters who walked a considerable distance to town to call the Bangor Air Base. After telling about the low flying airplane, the sound of the crash and the visible fire on the ground several miles from their camp, the officer on the other end told them that no such aircraft was missing. It had erroneously been reported as having landed safely in Augusta. Frustrated, they returned to camp to be joined that evening by Army officers very much interested in what they had seen and heard! Without the bold determination of these woodsmen to tell their story, the plane and crew could have remained missing for decades.

The final analysis of these incidents is that a dozen, or perhaps as many as 20 aircrew feared dead, landed safely and continued to serve their country. They were fortunate not to be victims of one of Maine's numerous military air tragedies, just victims of one of Maine's phantom crashes!


                                                                                   
BACK            HOME