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Sunday, October 02, 2005

Ace Pilot lost over southern Berkshire

There is something about the concept of humans flying through the air that we as a species seem to have a built-in incredulity about. Long before flight was even a remote possibility, various cultures the world over had stories outlining its seemingly inevitable failure. Icarus’ plunge into the sea is a well-worn favorite from classical mythology – though many overlook the fact that Daedalus survived the flight from Crete just fine, and one out of two really ain’t so bad, when you’re dealing with wax-based aerial technology. Those folks in Genesis also got themselves in quite a mess just for trying to take the long route to the upper atmosphere with the Tower of Babel. Even after the reality of human flight had been repeatedly demonstrated, some folks just couldn’t bring themselves to accept it. For example, in January 1906, more than two years after the Wright Brothers first successful flights at Kitty Hawk, a no less respected publication than Scientific American was denouncing the Wright flights as a fable for the gullible.

Though most people have, I presume, by now accepted the fact of air travel, there may always be a lingering undercurrent of skepticism about its safety and efficacy- a primordial instinct that tends to bubble closer to the surface following any publicized plane crash. It is reflected even more keenly, though, in the fascination we have with aircraft that go permanently missing. The name Amelia Earhart, for instance, is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon. Likewise, the alleged “Bermuda Triangle” has, since it was first hypothesized 55 years ago, provoked endless debate, innumerable (and for the most part thoroughly unwatchable) television movies, and even board games. All of which is but elaborate preface to this week’s meditation on a case that has long interested me: the ill-fated flight of Captain Mansell R. James, believed to have gone missing over the hills of southern Berkshire in the summer of 1919.

It should be mentioned at the outset that James was no novice when it came to piloting an airplane. He was a decorated veteran of the Royal Air Force, an ace who had brought down no less than ten enemy planes. Just prior to his final, fateful flight, he had just collected a $1,000 prize for a competitive flight from Atlantic City to Boston. While returning from Boston to New Jersey on May 28, he ran into trouble and had to make a forced landing in Lee. The following day, he took off from there around 11:00 a.m., headed for Mitchel Field in Long Island, where he intended to refuel for the next leg of his flight. This was the last time anyone ever saw him.

When he never arrived in Atlantic City, they assumed that he may have changed his mind and started out for Toronto, where another major aerial contest was taking place. When word came that this was not so, and that he had never even arrived at Long Island, a search began on June 2 in the area south of where he had taken off. By June 4, five planes were searching full time, spread out across southern Berkshire County and northwestern Connecticut. Search parties grew in manpower and planes over the following days, U.S., Canadian, and British Air Forces pitching in to help locate the missing ace. A considerable fleet of planes conducted fly-overs of western Massachusetts, Connecticut, the Hudson River and the Long Island Sound, but not a trace of Captain James or his Sopwith scout plane could be spied. Numerous theories and ideas were kicked around, but none led to locating the (presumably) downed aircraft.

Over time, many people saw what they believed to have been the crash site of the famous flyer. Early in August, wreckage was reported from a gull at Connecticut’s Mt. Riga, but this turned out not to be his plane. A week or so later, three men fishing near Branford saw what they thought was the wing of the missing craft, but this too proved to be a false lead. Finally, more than six years later, in December, 1925, the best lead to date manifested. While hunting in “a remote section of Tyringham,” one Warren Campbell became separated from his companions, and subsequently stumbled onto the wreckage of a small plane half-buried in brush. As it appeared to have been there for several years, Campbell assumed that others had come across the overgrown debris in the past, so did not bother to mark the spot. Only when he finally found his way out of the woods and told the others about it was it suggested that this could have been the craft of the lost British ace. Unfortunately Campbell, a Brooklyn native, was unable to guide them back to the spot where he had seen the wreck. Several days of extensive searching ensued, covering miles of forest and swamp without success. To the best of my knowledge, the location of Captain James’ crash site remains a mystery.

The fact that James failed to reach his destination is in itself not resoundingly mysterious. He had after all just made a forced landing in Lee the day before, after unspecified difficulties. Furthermore, when he left Lee that day, it was without a compass. The mystery is in the total failure to find any trace of the plane, despite extensive searches of the region, in which the Air Forces of three different nations all became involved at one point or another.

More than eighty years later, a number of questions remain. What precisely was the cause of the talented pilot’s failure to reach Long Island? Was the debris spotted in the woods of Tyringham the remnant of James’ missing plane- and if not, whose was it? Has anyone since stumbled onto the wreckage and, like Campbell, made little note of it, assuming it had been discovered long before? Perhaps someday answers to these questions will come to light, but at this time, it remains one of many aviation mysteries, a local chapter in the sometimes tragic history of humankind’s precarious mastery of the sky.