RAF Lakenheath, Great Britain, May 1969.
Pretending to be an officer, United States Air Force (USAF) Sergeant Paul Meyer calls his squadron operations center and requests a C-130E transporter to be outfitted for immediate departure. Although he is drunk, he aims to fly the plane back to Virginia to meet his wife. He steals an officer’s uniform and manages to fool the ground crew. Approximately 30 minutes after taking off, all contact with the ground is lost as he flew over the English Channel.
For 50 years, the aircraft’s fate has been unknown. Some speculated it was shot down by U.S. or French fighter jets to stop him from crashing in a populated area. Others said Sgt. Meyer couldn’t handle the plane as it went off the autopilot system and he crashed.
Now, nearly five decades after that fateful night, Grahame Knott, a British professional diver, has found the aircraft wreck and solved the mystery. After hundreds of interviews with British fishermen, Knott was able to limit the search radius to a 30 square mile block in the English Channel, which divides Great Britain from continental Europe.
Knot and his team scoured that block of water for nine months, making 21 trips. At times, the team dove and searched the seabed for as long as 16 hours a day – with breaks, of course. Then, on their last trip for 2018, their sonar equipment pinged. What they saw in the camera feed was a big aluminium body and a wheel. Sgt. Meyer had been found.
“It’s not like a typical boat wreck. It’s more like a sacred site, especially since Meyer’s family are still alive,” said Knott to the BBC.
At the time, the Air Force’s investigation of the incident concluded that leading up to the event, Sgt. Meyer had been “under a considerable amount of stress.” The reason was his wife’s insistence for him to return to the U.S. The couple had been married for just two months before Sgt. Meyer was deployed with his unit to Great Britain. Despite their marriage, however, his wife’s ex-husband was suing her, and thus the repeated requests for his return.
Compounding his marriage problems, Sgt. Meyer was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from his time in Vietnam. The increasing pressure had led him to seek a way out by turning to the bottle. Soon, he was arrested in an alcohol-related incident. As a result, he was grounded and confined to the barracks. He was also passed over for promotion.
As an aircraft mechanic, he was familiar with the controls of the Hercules. After taking off from the base, he called his wife from the cockpit. Unbeknownst to him, his conversation was being tracked and recorded by the Air Force. Here’s a part of it:
Sgt. Meyer: “Well, honey I’ll be really honest with you,” he admits. “I kind of think I made a big dang wrong mistake here. I feel like the biggest dodo around here right now. Over.”
Sgt. Meyer: “Everything will be all worth it if I can just kiss your sweet lips one more time. Over.”
Wife: “You’ll get to kiss my sweet lips until we are old and grey in the rocking chairs in Missouri. Over.”
Then Sgt. Meyer was recorded speaking to himself: “I’m doing all right, I’m doing all right, uh.”
And then radio silence.
The Air Force initially scrambled an F-100 Super Sabre fighter jet and then another C-130 to try and find Sgt. Meyer. Both returned empty-handed. It’s still unclear how the American airman met his demise that night, but at least his remains have been found.