Grahame Knott's 15 Year Search for a Hercules Stolen in 1969
In the early hours of 23 May 1969, US Air Force mechanic Sgt Paul Meyer stole a Hercules C-130 transport aircraft from RAF Middleton. Less than two hours later, the plane came down over the English Channel, and nobody knew how, or where. Until now.
For the past 15 years, Grahame Knott, a seafarer, wreck finder and diver of over 30 years, has made it his mission to locate the missing aircraft. Knott and the work of his company, Deeper Dorset, have already received national recognition on the BBC. His past explorations have included the search and recovery of racing yachts and lost torpedoes, but Knott also takes an interest in making sense of the human stories behind his discoveries.
In Sgt Meyer’s case, that story appears to be the result of a desperate, drunken attempt to see his family after having been denied leave from his posting at Mildenhall air base in the UK. Transcripts of Meyer’s final conversation with his wife, whom he called shortly after take-off, paint a moving picture of a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And one important question has so far been unanswered: did the Hercules crash, or was it shot down?
I joined Grahame onboard his dive and research vessel RWTwo in Weymouth Harbour, where we discussed at length how modern technology and diving are helping him with his search. ‘Determined to get to the bottom’ of the mystery, Grahame explains how the complex task of searching for the lost Hercules involves scanning hundreds of square miles of seafloor with sonar, deploying remote cameras, and then having divers descend onto the target to investigate. The English Channel has an average depth of around 60m/200ft and hence Grahame is looking for technical divers to volunteer their expertise and assist in the search.
‘Meyer is not the first or last man to steal a plane,’ Grahame told me. ‘He wasn’t a nutter or a drunk; the poor guy was driven right to the edge.’ Meyer had experienced two tours of Vietnam, which – as his wife later described – left him suffering with nightmares. Now stationed in the UK and homesick for his family, he had applied for leave which was denied. The night before his fatal flight, he had been seen drinking heavily at a colleague’s party, where he began to behave erratically. He managed to leave the base and was later found ‘wandering aimlessly’ by the Suffolk police, who returned him to his barracks.
Meyer subsequently broke into a Captain’s quarters, stole a vehicle key and, using the identity of a Captain Epstein, called an aircraft dispatcher to demand a Hercules be fuelled, and took to the cockpit.
Sgt Meyer had a private pilot’s licence but was not qualified to fly the 60-tonne, four-engine aircraft, usually flown by a crew of seven. As crew chief and mechanic, however, he knew the aircraft well and was familiar with the controls. He had spent time airborne with the flight crew, and was able to taxi the aircraft as part of his job.
After taking off, Meyer called his wife Jane, at that time asleep at home in Virginia, USA. ‘Guess what?’ he said. ‘I’m coming home!’ The transcript details how his wife asked him when he and his crew would be returning. ‘Now! I got a bird in the sky and I’m coming home!’ said Meyer. In a conversation that his wife says she still plays over and over, 50 years later, she begged him to turn around.
Meyer’s last recorded transmission was: ‘Leave me alone for five minutes. I've got trouble.’ The line went dead. Contact was lost at 6.55am, somewhere north of Alderney in the Channel Islands, after the Hercules had been airborne for one hour and 45 minutes.
Nearly 50 years later since Sgt Paul Meyer and his Hercules disappeared, Grahame Knott is determined to shed light on a story that has captivated him for 15 years. ‘As far as I am concerned,’ he told me, ‘he is missing in action and has been abandoned by the very country he was fighting for.
‘Paul wasn’t the only one that suffered PTSD and the rigours of long tours of duty,’ Knott continued. ‘Times were different back then, however, that is no reason to leave him and his story in the English Channel.' Finding the Hercules is not easy. ‘We don’t know what we’re looking for,’ said Knott. He explained to me how, after breaking up on impact followed by half a century of corrosion, the plane will most certainly not be intact.
The focus is on the search for the engines, and finding them would be a major breakthrough. Knott has spent ten years studying tidal movements to assist in his search, and has sought help from fishermen who have caught military hardware in their nets. Along with a dedicated ‘small band’ of divers, the quest has become a 14-hour per day, full-time job over the summer.
Trained in mechanical engineering, Grahame explained to me the delicate accuracy involved in positioning RWTwo during scanning and surveying. The search involves the use of side scan sonar over multiple runs, using specialist software to convert the echoes to images, and then layer snapshots over each other to locate and then build a picture of the target.
He describes the process as ’99 per cent boredom,’ and says that ‘if you go out ever-expectant you will drive yourself crazy.’ But he adds that ‘every day we don’t find it is another place we know it isn’t.’ The Bathymetric survey – or ‘Bathy’ – is accompanied by footage from Grahame’s ‘Slim Jim’ camera eye and ‘Fat Albert’ GoPro. Divers also descend on the target points to investigate the results. Knott never mixes sonar, divers and cameras at the same time, however, as co-ordination is too complex on a dive deck that requires meticulous safety preparation by the technical divers.
Every day of surveying or gathering more threads to the story is, as Knott says, ‘a day where we know more than when we left.’ He is clearly very deeply affected by the story of the troubled young sergeant and identifies with Meyer’s stepson, Henry Ayer, who remembers his mother collapsing after she received the official news.
Knott does not want to add to conspiracy theories as to how the Hercules came down, but rather to find what remains of it and offer Meyer’s family some closure.
‘We’ll never be sure what happened, but things are coming out of the woodwork,’ said Grahame. Meyer’s stepson has been fighting to get information from US Authorities, but claims that evidence he presented to the US Air Force has been ‘lost’, and the CIA has not responded to his Freedom of Information requests.
In the UK, MPs were told that the US Air Force had informed the RAF Strike Command’s Air Defence Operations Service within minutes of Meyer taking off. Two jets were scrambled but both were apparently ‘unsuccessful in establishing visual or radio contact with him.’ The case was closed. Meyer’s wife, however, maintains that 20 minutes into the conversation with her husband, a man’s voice came onto the line and asked her to keep talking in order that they might locate him.
As the summer search continued, my thoughts to Grahame in August were that ‘nothing worth finding is easy,’ to which he replied: ‘If it was easy, someone would have done it, and nothing ever comes easily from the sea.’ And on the last day of that summer search, Grahame found Meyer’s Hercules. Located just over 70m/240ft underwater, parts of the aircraft were recognisable despite poor visibility on the day. So far, he has not drawn any conclusions as to how it came to rest at the bottom of the English Channel, but the plane is more intact that he would have thought, and he needs expert opinion to investigate his findings.
Knott already has sponsorship from photogrammetry specialists Deep3D and Russian software company Agisoft, but needs assistance to complete the mission. A Kickstarter campaign to assist with funding the project has recently passed its target of £6,000 and the search for answers will resume in 2019, but the funds raised cover only the bare minimum of expenditure required to spend 25 days at sea.
‘We’re good at what we do,’ said Grahame. ‘Always optimistic, but we need that expertise now to help us put the pieces together.’