NEW YORK – Sixty-five years after it ran out of gas and crash-landed on a beach in Wales, an American P-38 fighter plane has emerged from the surf and sand where it lay buried — a World War II relic long forgotten by the U.S. government and unknown to the British public.
During those decades, beach strollers, sunbathers and swimmers were often within a few yards of the aircraft, utterly unaware of its existence just under the sand. Only this past summer did it suddenly reappear due to unusual conditions that caused the sands to shift and erode.
The startling revelation of the Lockheed "Lightning" fighter, with its distinctive twin-boom design, has stirred considerable interest in British aviation circles and among officials of the country's aircraft museums, ready to reclaim yet another artifact from history's greatest armed conflict.
Ric Gillespie, who heads a U.S.-based nonprofit group dedicated to preserving historic aircraft, finds romance as well as historic significance in the discovery. "It's sort of like `Brigadoon,' the mythical Scottish village that appears and disappears," he said. "Although the Welsh aren't too happy about that analogy — they have some famous legends of their own."
Gillespie's organization, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, known as TIGHAR, learned of the plane's existence in September from a British air history enthusiast and sent a seven-member team to survey the site last month.
It plans to collaborate with British museum experts in recovering the nearly intact but fragile aircraft next spring. The Imperial War Museum Duxford and the Royal Air Force Museum are among the institutions expressing interest.
"The difficult part is to keep such a dramatic discovery secret. Looting of historic wrecks, aircraft or ships, is a major problem, in Britain as it is worldwide," Gillespie said.
British aviation publications so far have been circumspect about disclosing the exact location, and local Welsh authorities have agreed to keep the plane under surveillance whenever it is exposed by the tides of the Irish Sea, he said.
Based on its serial number and other records, "the fighter is arguably the oldest P-38 in existence, and the oldest surviving 8th Air Force combat aircraft of any type. In that respect it's a major find, of exceptional interest to British and American aviation historians," Gillespie said.
Officially, the U.S. Air Force considers any aircraft lost before Nov. 19, 1961 — when a fire destroyed many records — as "formally abandoned," and has an interest in such cases only if human remains are involved.
The twin-engine P-38, a radical design conceived by Lockheed design genius Clarence "Kelly" Johnson in the late 1930s, became one of the war's most successful fighter planes, serving in Europe and the Pacific. Some 10,000 were built, and about 32 complete or partial airframes are believed to still exist, perhaps 10 in flying condition.
Another P-38, part of a "lost squadron" of warplanes marooned by bad weather in Greenland while being flown to Europe in 1942, was recovered and extensively restored with new parts. Dubbed "Glacier Girl," its attempt to complete the flight to Britain earlier this year was thwarted by mechanical problems.
The Wales Lightning, built in 1941, reached Britain in early 1942 and flew combat missions along the Dutch-Belgian coast.
Second Lt. Robert F. "Fred" Elliott, 24, of Rich Square, North Carolina, was on a gunnery practice mission on Sept. 27, 1942, when a fuel supply error forced him to make an emergency landing on the nearest suitable place — the Welsh beach.
His belly landing in shallow water sheared off a wingtip, but Elliott escaped unhurt. Less than three months later, the veteran of more than 10 combat missions was shot down over Tunisia, in North Africa. His plane and body were never found.
The discovery in Wales was stunning news for Robert Elliott, 64, of Blountville, Tennessee, the pilot's nephew and only surviving relative, who has spent nearly 30 years trying to learn more about his namesake's career and death. All he knew of the Wales incident was a one-line entry saying Elliott had "ditched a P-38 and was uninjured," he said.
"From the time my uncle was shot down in December 1942 until 1978 we knew nothing. So this is just a monumental discovery, and a very emotional thing," said Elliott, an engineering consultant. He said he hopes to be present for the recovery.
Gillespie, who last summer led TIGHAR's ninth expedition since 1989 to search a remote South Pacific island for clues to the 1937 disappearance of famed aviator Amelia Earhart, said the P-38 case is unusual because the crash site is in a populated area.
"This just never happens like this," he said. "They're always in the most inaccessible places."
As the disabled P-38 could not be flown out, "American officers had the guns removed, and the records say the aircraft was salvaged, but it wasn't," Gillespie said. "It was gradually covered with sand, and there it sat for 65 years. With censorship in force and British beaches closed to the public during the war, nobody knew it was there."
It was first spotted by a family enjoying a day at the beach on July 31. British authorities said it probably was an unmanned drone used for aerial target practice from the 1950s, but a local aviation enthusiast recognized it from a local newspaper photo as a Lockheed P-38.
That person notified TIGHAR, which "quickly and quietly" organized a team to visit the site. Due to the threat of looting, "we saw it as an aviation preservation emergency," Gillespie said.
He said that since the survey in October, the sands have again buried the plane, and "whether and when it will reappear is anybody's guess."
David Morris, curator of aircraft at Britain's Fleet Air Army Museum, called the P-38 "an exciting discovery" that merited a careful approach to "make sure that the aircraft stands the best chance of survival."
Gillespie, whose father flew 25 bomber missions from England during the war, said his team found some British still feel "a strong feeling of gratitude" toward the young Americans who did that.
"That's very much a part of British history, and among people we talked to, this is not just an American plane," he said. "As the lady proprietor of our hotel said when she saw a photo of the plane on my computer screen, `that's one of ours."'