Friday, January 18, 2008

Old landing gear linked to 1945 airplane crash

By Charlie Patton
January 18, 2008

Although the Navy says it is still investigating the source of a large airplane landing gear snagged off the St. Augustine coast in a shrimper's net in early December, two local experts on vintage military aircraft say they are certain it's from a World War II-era bomber manufactured as a B-24.

Roy Stafford, a former Marine pilot who for many years restored vintage aircraft and now consults for museums and collectors, said the landing gear came off a PB4Y-1, which was originally manufactured for use by the Army Air Corps as a B-24 Liberator but was converted for use by the Navy. An official with the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, after reviewing photos Stafford sent him, agreed that the gear came from a PB4Y-1.

Stafford, who viewed the landing gear at the urging of Mike Collins, a retired FBI agent and former Air Force investigator who now works as a private investigator on Amelia Island, said he is 99 percent sure they know the specific plane from which the landing gear came.

After reviewing an Internet site that lists what happened to all PB4Y-1 aircraft, Stafford and Collins concluded this gear came from a plane that crashed off the coast of Mayport on April 17, 1945, killing 12 of 13 men aboard.

According to contemporary accounts in The Florida Times-Union and in the Jacksonville Journal, the plane crashed during a morning training flight that began at the Naval Auxiliary Air Station, which was located at Jacksonville's Municipal Airport. Later called Imeson Airport, it is now the site of Imeson Industrial Park.

Two Jacksonville residents were listed among those who were killed in the crash: the pilot, Lt. Donald LeGarde Jackson, and Ens. David Foreman Hayes.

According to a copy of a post-crash Navy report that Collins obtained from the organization Aviation Archaeology Investigation and Research, a fire near the cockpit caused the aircraft to spin into the ocean about 3 miles off Mayport. One crew member, James H. Mulkey of Seattle, bailed out and was picked up by a Navy boat.

At the time of the crash, World War II was still being fought on two fronts. Allied forces were closing in on Berlin while fighting between American and Japanese forces raged on the Pacific island of Okinawa.

Last Dec. 1, shrimper Jerry Dean Armstrong was operating his boat off the coast of St. Augustine when a large object tangled in his nets. Unable to free it or bring it to the surface, Armstrong returned to Mayport and the docks of the Mat Roland Seafood Co., where the landing gear remains.

Navy personnel examined the landing gear at the time but as of Thursday they had made no determination.

"The investigation is ongoing," said Bill Austin, a spokesman for Mayport Naval Station.



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