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.

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