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Divers delve deeper into the remarkable story of US airman Paul Meyer who stole a Hercules from RAF Mildenhall




A team of divers are delving deeper into the story of a US airman who stole a plane after a night out drinking - in a bid to see his wife.

Deeper Dorset will this month send down cameras to investigate the wreckage of a Hercules C-130 transport plane which crashed in the English Channel in May 1969.

On May 23 that year, homesick USAF mechanic Sergeant Paul Meyer, stole the plane from RAF Mildenhall in a bid to return home to see his wife Jane in Virginia, USA, some 3,800 miles away.

The Hercules transport plane which Sgt Meyer stole from RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk on May 23, 1969. Picture Deeper Dorset
The Hercules transport plane which Sgt Meyer stole from RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk on May 23, 1969. Picture Deeper Dorset

The couple had only been married for eight weeks when he was posted to the Suffolk base.

The 23-year-old Vietnam veteran posed as a pilot to commandeer the four-engined, 37-tonne aircraft - and calling himself Captain Epstein - even had the plane refuelled for his flight.

The night before, he had been drinking heavily at a party in Freckenham.

Sgt Paul Meyer, 23. Picture Deeper Dorset
Sgt Paul Meyer, 23. Picture Deeper Dorset

Ninety minutes after taking off, the transport plane disappeared from all radars and plunged into the sea.

The airman’s disappearance has been shrouded in mystery ever since.

The official line to his wife, was that he simply ‘disappeared at sea’.

Others theorise he may have been shot down, in the midst of the Cold War.

Sgt Paul Meyer with his wife Jane. Picture courtesy of Deeper Dorset/Jane Goodson
Sgt Paul Meyer with his wife Jane. Picture courtesy of Deeper Dorset/Jane Goodson

Deeper Dorset team leader Grahame Knott, has been investigating the story for more than 15 years.

He is returning to the scene after first discovering the wreck of the plane in November 2018.

The exact site was established after months of painstaking work - examining tidal movements, official records and local reports from trawler and fishermen, who often drag up wreckage in their nets.

Part of plane has already been salvaged, but it is not known, by whom.

Deeper Dorset divers will use high-res cameras to gather further evidence to piece the full story together.

"It is what is left of the wreckage, and what that might tell us, that is interesting," said Mr Knott.

“We are pretty sure we know what happened, but every piece of information helps."

The wreck is 200ft below the surface south of Portland in the middle of the Channel.

Grahame Knott has been investigating the story for more than 15 years.
Grahame Knott has been investigating the story for more than 15 years.

Sgt Meyer was due to go on leave, on June 15, two weeks after he stole the plane.

But after having his tours of duty extended several times before, 'probably didn't believe it would happen', Grahame believes.

Following his tours in Vietnam, he could also have been suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Records show he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly the night before he took the controls of the giant Hercules.

He was escorted back to his barracks but escaped through a window, and headed to the airbase.

He took off on May 23, just after 5am.

"In-flight transcripts of Meyer’s final conversation with his wife from the plane paint a moving picture of a Vietnam veteran, suffering from PTSD," said Mr Knott

While in the air, he told her: 'I got a bird in the sky and I'm coming home!

"After talking for some time, he cut the call short, saying to wife, Jane: "I'll call you back in five. I got some trouble".

Official USAF details of the accident showing the time Meyer took off and the coordinates of the accident. Picture: Deeper Dorset
Official USAF details of the accident showing the time Meyer took off and the coordinates of the accident. Picture: Deeper Dorset

On both sides of the Atlantic, there was unease that a mechanic had been able to steal a giant military plane and fly it for over 90 minutes, across British airspace, in the midst of a Cold War.

In a May 1969 Hansard entry, Eldon Griffiths, MP for Bury St Edmunds, demanded to know why the plane was not picked up by US or British radar earlier.

According to Meyer's wife, he told her he had been flying low to avoid detection.

He did have a pilot licence, but not that for that size of aircraft.

He also knew a lot about it, working as a mechanic.

US Air Force reports into the plane crash mention a F-100 jet fighter being scrambled from nearby RAF Lakenheath to track the inexperienced pilot in an "effort to assist him".

This along with another C-130 Hercules from RAF Mildenhall.

Both, according to official records, were "unsuccessful in establishing radio contact".

Paul Meyer's stepson Henry Ayer has been asking for details, and answers, for many years

But he says his questions and Freedom of Information requests are met with silence, and he is just passed from 'pillar to post'.

"There are many theories as to what happened, that range from plausible to pure conspiracy," said Grahame Knott.

The US Air Force accident report. Picture: Deeper Dorset
The US Air Force accident report. Picture: Deeper Dorset

"The story is still talked about on both sides of the Atlantic to this day, in person, and on the internet.

"Not a day goes by without something happening in relation to it.

"Theories range from, he simply crashed, as an inexperienced pilot, he was shot down to prevent an accident en route, or on landing; he was shot down because the plane, which was under CIA control, contained secret papers, to wilder theories that he survived and went into hiding in the Eastern block.

One theory goes that he was trying to crash the plane in Paris.

Mr Knott hopes this month to be able to take pictures of the wreck from all angles, to enable a computerised, 3D-image of the crash site to be constructed.

"We are treating the accident scene like an archaeological investigation to help us piece together the story," he said.

"What is left will also tell us what has been removed.

"The project is always ongoing and I would also still love to hear from anyone who has any information which will help corroborate what we have so far, or even tell us something new.

"Some of the airmen are still alive from that time and have been helping us.

"Rumours from the airbase at Lakenheath at the time was that two F-100 jets were scrambled to track the Hercules, so we are just trying to get the the truth.

A tribute to Paul Meyer in his home town. Picture: Deeper Dorset
A tribute to Paul Meyer in his home town. Picture: Deeper Dorset

"We'd like to hear from anyone in the Mildenhall or Lakenheath, or even Freckenham, where Paul is said to have gone drinking at the party.

"Nobody at the time ever said that much.

Paul's wife wasn't even told there had been a crash.

Mr Knott said there have been discussions with a film maker about retelling Sgt Meyer's final journey, which has also been dramatised in a BBC radio play 'Bird In The Sky'.

Fuel for the first trip in 2018 was funded by a Kickstarter campaign.

An excerpt from the video is below.

Stepson Henry Ayer told his story to help with the campaign.

Anyone with any insight into what happened to Sgt Paul Meyer on that fateful day on May 23, 1969, can contact Grahame through www.deeperdorset.co.uk

Read more: All the latest news from Suffolk

Read more: All the latest news from Mildenhall

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