Paul Meyer (1946-1969)
Paul Meyer was just a homesick youngster under considerable emotional stress who was driven to desperation by a rigid and unsympathetic system
What can a mechanic in the United States Air Force (USAF) stationed in England do if he is desperate to meet his wife of 55 days back home; but has been refused leave? Paul Meyer’s answer was – he would fly there himself. However, there was a small problem. Meyer had very basic knowledge of piloting a light plane. He had never flown the aircraft he chose for his daring mission – the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, a 37-tonne four-engine military cargo plane. Incredibly, he managed to get the big bird airborne and flew for almost two hours before the aircraft disappeared over the English Channel. Neither wreckage nor human remains were ever found or positively identified. Now, almost 50 years later, attempts are being made to piece together what happened on that fateful morning of May 23, 1969.
Sergeant Paul Meyer was born around 1946. When he reached England at the age of 23, he was already a Vietnam War veteran. He had been at RAF Mildenhall, where the USAF’s 36th Airlift Squadron was based, for about three months, with only a short break to get married to Jane Goodson who already had three small children. In the days and weeks following their wedding, she called him numerous times to complain that her ex-husband was harassing her over money. Meyer was anxious to go and support her. Denial of leave left him emotionally frustrated and under immense stress. He was also professionally embittered because he had recently been passed over for promotion. His superiors failed to spot either these red flags or reports that he was suffering from nightmares and drinking heavily.
On the night of May 22, Meyer and some friends went to a party where Meyer became rather high and belligerent. Although he was tucked into bed, he soon escaped and made his way to the nearby base where the C-130 aircraft were located. He got hold of a Captain’s flying overalls and ordered the ground crew to refuel an aircraft for an urgent mission. This did not arouse suspicion because Mildenhall was active around the clock, and early morning flights were routine. Thereafter Meyer entered the cockpit alone, as though to prepare it for the mission. It was only when he started up that the ground crew began to suspect something was amiss. As Crew Chief, he knew how to taxi an aircraft to the runway and run up the engines and he may have done so before. The other personnel finally raised an alarm; but no one knew what was going on or how to react. Then, before their stunned eyes, Meyer took off. The plane banked left steeply, wingtip almost touching the ground and began to climb away in a SouthWesterly direction flying dangerously over London’s heavily populated suburbs. That is when the emergency response system finally got going.
Here was a lone inebriated man who had not slept the whole night in control of an airborne giant that ordinarily needed two experienced pilots. He had no idea of how to trim the controls or manage the four turboprop engines or how to interpret the numerous instruments. It is unclear how he made radio contact with his wife Jane in the US, but somehow he did. And he soon confessed that he had made a terrible mistake. She tried to calm him down and they continued talking for several minutes as Meyer fought to control the aircraft.
Meanwhile, at least two aircraft had been scrambled to pursue the getaway plane. This was 1969, at the height of the Cold War and any suspicious aircraft picked up by radar was liable to be treated with great hostility, even severity. However, radar contact was lost over the English Channel at 6.55am after the Hercules had been airborne 107 minutes. Meyer’s final words to Jane were, “I’m doing all right; I’m doing all right, uh.” Then silence. Did he enter a cloud and get disorientated? Did he simply succumb to inexperience and lose control of the plane? Or was he intercepted and shot down? If the USAF knew anything it would not say.
On hindsight, Paul Meyer was just a homesick youngster under considerable emotional stress who was driven to desperation by a rigid and unsympathetic system. He made an unbelievably rash attempt to reach his wife and, inevitably, perished in the process. In April 2018, a diving team called Deeper Dorset began searching in the English Channel for the wreckage. The crowd-funded project is using side-scan sonar, remote cameras and other equipment to try and determine what happened. If a promising lead is found, divers will descend for a closer inspection. With some luck they will succeed in solving the mystery of what happened to this lovesick young man who tried to fly home alone.