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Aviation Archaeology - USAAF Spitfire Vb EN864

Spitfire Vb EN864
Cpt. Conner
107th Observation Squadron, 67th Observation Group, US 8th Air Force
Lost 22 May 1943
Great Shefford Berkshire
Background information:

The weather on the afternoon of 22nd May 1943 was fairly typical for late spring with overcast skies & scattered showers. Captain Hal Conner had taken off at 15.40pm from USAAF Station Membury in his Spitfire Mk Vb Serial Number EN864 at approximately 15.40 hrs on a local training mission. He had up for about 30 minutes & was climbing through cloud. Just as he emerged from the cloud at about 2,700 ft. the engine cut out instantaneously althogh the propeller continued to "windmill". Captain Conner tried several times to restart the engine which was by this time now emitting black smoke. His Spitfire started to loose altitude & as the engine was still refusing to respond Conner decided to bale out & landed by parachute safely in a field about one mile north-west of Great Shefford. His Spitfire dived into the ground about a half-a-mile north-east of the same village & was completely destroyed.

Pilot's account of what happend:
Instrument readings at the time the engine cut out were: Air Speed - 160, Rate of Climb - 500 feet per minute, Tachometer - 2400 rpm, Manifold Pressure - plus 2 boost, Coolant Temp -90 degrees, Oil Temp 55 degrees & Oil Pressure 85ibs. The engine throughout the climb seemed normal although it did not seem I was getting enough climb for the setting I had. When the engine cut out it did so instantaneously without any warning. It was as though the switches had been cut. Black smoke emitted from the engine. I kept the ship in a climbing attitude, not wanting to aggrivate the condition by pushing forward on the stick. Pilot tried to get the engine to pick up in the following manner. I opened the throttle clear open in a firm steady manor & then closed it. I repeated this serveral times & finally left the throttle in about one-third open position. The Air Speed was about 100 mph so I pushed forward on the stick, I baled out at approximately 1500 ft.
Eye witness account:
The following is an account of the crash given to the authorities at the time by an R. Langford, then living at No. 6 Council Houses, Wantage Road, Great Shefford. "I was at Great Shefford at the time of the accident, about 4.15 pm on the 22nd of May 1943. The ceiling at this time was about 1,500 ft. I could not see the plane for it was either in or above cloud. I heard the engine splutter about twice & then cut out completely. A few seconds later it came diving through the cloud at about 45 degrees & crashed into a field a littel north of Great Shefford. Approximately four minutes later the pilot appeared descending by parachute through the cloud".
A local rumour stated that witnesses to the recovery by the USAAF shortly after the accident were hooked onto the back of the engine with a jib trying to pull it out of the crater. It was thought that the jib broke & they decided to give up & back fill the hole, leaving the Merlin in the ground.
Previous service history:

Spitfire Vb EN864 served earlier with the 31st Fighter Group at Atcham & on 20th June 1942 with the 309th Fighter Group at High Ercall, on 24th October 1942 EN864 was transfered to the 4th Fighter Group at Debden & later to the 336th Fighter Group, where on 23rd November 1942 EN864 was involved in an accident. After repair EN864 was sent to the 67th Observation Group at Membury where it was lost due to engine failure at Great Shefford on 22nd May 1943.

Excavation of Spitfire Vb EN864 – 6th September 2003:
After an extensive search with surface detectors the Wings Museum investigation team finally began to home in on the impact point. Further work with a magnetometer revealed a deep reading which was marked out in white paint. As the JCB stripped back the soil layer by layer the team spotted the first tell tale signs of EN864 in the form of corroded aluminium which produces a blue/white powder. As the the soild was stripped back a few pieces of shattered wood laminated propeller were discovered, a good sign we were digging in the right place.
Finds were relatively sparse apart from a boost instrument face & a section of canopy frame, until an engine Generator with an Air Ministry Plate was found at a depth of about 5 ft. Several pieces of engine bearer were also recovered. Then we found a rusty piece of steel cable tied in a loop, on close inspection the cable appeared to be broken, which fitted in with the local rumour. This steel cable was most likely thrown in the crater by the 1943 recovery team. Our hopes for finding a complete engine began to fade, it was clear to the team that a lot of the wreckage had been cleared away in 1943. Finally at a depth of 10ft the prop boss was found in a 45 degree angle embeded in the chalk. With no further deep readings this concluded the dig for EN864. The team was slightly disapointed but never the less some interesting finds were discovered from this rare US Army Air Force Spitfire.
  • Locating the impact point Locating the impact point
  • Small surface finds Small surface finds
  • Dan & Kev - the white lines indicate area of deep readings from magnetometer Dan & Kev - the white lines indicate area of deep readings from magnetometer
  • Crash site cordened off for safety Crash site cordened off for safety
  • Gently removing the top soil Gently removing the top soil
  • Scrapping back the top soil Scrapping back the top soil
  • Dan removes pieces of wooden prop Dan removes pieces of wooden prop
  • A perfect circle of chalk marks where the Spit dived into the ground A perfect circle of chalk marks where the Spit dived into the ground
  • Note dark spot in chalk, indicating point of impact Note dark spot in chalk, indicating point of impact
  • Glycol Tank Armour Plate Glycol Tank Armour Plate
  • The prop boss is uncovered The prop boss is uncovered
  • Prop boss from Spitife EN864 recovered from 10ft Prop boss from Spitife EN864 recovered from 10ft
  • Steel cable from 1943 recovery Steel cable from 1943 recovery
  • Beginning to fill in Beginning to fill in
  • Back filling Back filling
  • Filled in job done! Filled in job done!
  • Engine bearer Engine bearer

With thanks to all those who helped with the excavation & the MOD for their co-operation. Also to AFHRA/RSA Air Force Historical Rrearch Agency, Maxwell Air Force Base, USA.

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