It’s mid-November 2018 – and the last day of the season for Grahame Knott and his fellow divers of the Deeper Dorset group. Astonishingly, they’ve been searching for a particular wreck at the bottom of the English Channel for a decade. But now the team’s sonar shows something interesting – and then their underwater camera reveals a wheel. Have they found what they’ve been looking for after all these years?
The English Channel is a popular place for wreck diving, and it’s relatively accessible too. The stretch of sea that lies between southern England and northern France is only some 21 miles across at its narrowest point. Granted, many divers prefer the warmer waters of the likes of the Red Sea or the Caribbean. But a lot of keen wreck hunters, in particular, believe the English Channel is unbeatable.
And that’s despite the cold, the often poor visibility and the inherent risks of diving in the world’s busiest commercial shipping lane. Offsetting such downsides, though, is the fact that there are an enormous number of wrecks to explore. The reason for this? Well, over the centuries, the English Channel has set the stage for countless sea battles – not to mention the aerial warfare that played out overhead during the 20th century’s two world wars.
But what of Grahame Knott and his fellow divers in the middle of all of this? Well, for one, Knott and the Deeper Dorset outfit have certainly had some successes over the years. Back in the 1990s, for instance, the team discovered the wreck of a sailing ship called the Aracan – a trader that had made trips to India and China. She sank in about 180 feet of water after colliding with another ship in the English Channel in 1874.
Then there was the Miniota – a cargo ship that had been sunk by a German submarine in 1917. Knott and his comrades found that sunken vessel as well, you see. Yes, although professional salvage divers had arrived at the site first – attracted, no doubt, by the silver bullion on board – those salvagers didn’t report their find. So, Knott was the first to reveal the Miniota’s location.
But it wasn’t a vessel from Britain’s rich maritime history, nor indeed a ship or plane from the world wars, that Knott devoted ten years of his life trying to find. Rather, it was a 37-ton Lockheed C-130 Hercules – a transport plane that had been lost in the English Channel on May 23, 1969.
And the story behind the loss of that aircraft would scarcely be credible if it hadn’t been so comprehensively documented. Now at this point, we need to meet an American, Sergeant Paul Meyer, who was a U.S. Air Force mechanic back in the day. You see, in 1969 this airman was serving at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, England.
Before his posting to England, though, Meyer had also served a tour in Vietnam. And while we don’t know much about his time in the Southeast Asian country, in the late 1960s, of course, the Vietnam War was raging. What’s more, in England Meyer was reportedly experiencing flashbacks from his time in active service – and drinking heavily to boot.
Another stress for Meyer came from the fact that he’d only recently married – and yet his new wife, Jane, and his stepchildren were stateside. Indeed, Meyer was under “considerable emotional distress,” according to an official report about him. The report also claimed that he was angry because he hadn’t been given a hoped-for promotion.
One man who remembers the young Meyer well from his time in England is Ralph Howard Vincent. Better known to his friends as “Sergeant Mac,” Vincent was serving at RAF Lakenheath with the 48th Air Police squadron. Lakenheath, you see, isn’t far from the base at which Meyer was stationed in Mildenhall.
Speaking to the BBC in July 2018, Vincent recalled that he’d first encountered Meyer in a Suffolk pub. The American was apparently not at his best, either – sprawled across a table in a drunken stupor. And when Vincent then asked him if he could sit down at the table, it seems that the Englishman got no response.
Still, Meyer reportedly sprang back to life when somebody brought a round of drinks to the table. According to Vincent, he woke up and said, “I’ll let you sit here if you buy me a drink!” And after this somewhat unorthodox introduction, the two men had a couple of lengthy pub sessions together.
Vincent also told the BBC that he had a strong memory of Meyer expressing his disillusionment with the Air Force. Apparently the U.S. airman talked at length, too, about how much he missed his family back in the United States. And in addition – bizarrely – it seems that he shared some of his favorite squirrel recipes with Vincent.
But what really stuck in Vincent’s mind all these years later when he spoke to the BBC is what Meyer had said about his flying plans. “[He] came up with a proposition,” Vincent remembered. “He said he wanted to get a private pilot’s license so [that] he could fly home on leave… And he wanted to split the cost 50:50 with me.” The significance of this conversation will become apparent a little later.
In any case, after those drinking sessions, Vincent never saw Meyer again. Not long afterwards, the American asked to be posted away from Mildenhall to the Air Force base at Langley, Virginia. But even though this would have meant that he was nearer to his family, his request was denied.
Things then came to the boil for Meyer on the night of May 22, 1969. First, he went to a house party and drank too much for his own good. Friends later recalled that he then became aggressive and volatile. And although his buddies got him into bed, he apparently made his exit through a window.
Civilian police later found Meyer rambling along a main highway. And so, arguably with good cause, they subsequently detained him on drunk-and-disorderly charges. Instead of taking the airman to the nearest police station, though, officers brought him back to Mildenhall. Not unreasonably, they probably assumed that he could safely recover from his intoxicated state there.
But Meyer had a completely different agenda. First, he broke into a room belonging to one Captain Upton before stealing the keys for the man’s truck. Then, using the false name Captain Epstein, the escapee called the ground crew, who were in charge of dispatching planes, and ordered himself an aircraft. What’s more, he specified that the plane should contain enough fuel to fly to the States.
Meyer didn’t want just any old plane, either; he was very specific. He ordered that a Hercules C-130, aircraft number 37789, should be made ready for take-off. And staff obeyed the fake captain’s orders without question. So, Meyer now had his own four-engined U.S.A.F. plane ready to fly wherever he wanted.
Unfortunately, though, Meyer had no pilot training – but then again, he clearly didn’t regard this as an obstacle. After all, he’d been around pilots and planes throughout his military service. And there had been times during flights when a pilot had given him turns on the controls. Engaging the throttles, then, Meyer sped off down the runway and guided the huge plane into the air.
As far as Meyer was concerned, as he headed into England’s early morning sky, he was on his way home. And indeed, not long after the sergeant was airborne, his wife Jane’s phone rang in Virginia. Meyer had managed to connect up the Hercules’ radio to the phone system.
In April 2018 the BBC reported that Meyer’s words to his wife had been as follows: “Hi honey! Guess what? I’m coming home!” Jane, though, had apparently been sound asleep when the call came, and at first she couldn’t work out what was going on. So, reasonably enough, she asked her husband when he was scheduled to return to the U.S.
Meyer’s reply was startling, to say the least. “Now!” he told his spouse. “I got a bird in the sky, and I’m coming home!” At this point, then, what Meyer had done began to sink in for Jane. “You? You are flying the plane? Oh my God!” was her panicked response.
Jane then implored Meyer to turn around and head back for base – but he was having none of it. And, speaking to the BBC half a century after that fateful night in 1968, she had a clear memory of the last thing that he’d said to her.
“Babe, I’ll call you back in five. I got some trouble.” Then, nothing. What Jane didn’t know at the time was that 105 minutes after taking off from Mildenhall, the plane crashed into the English Channel. And although some wreckage washed ashore in the ensuing days, Meyer’s body never appeared.
The circumstances of that crash into the sea remain controversial to this day. “Why did he crash like that? You know, the U.S. Air Force never told me he’d crashed. No one told me he’d crashed. I just got a telegram to say the plane was lost,” Jane told the BBC. “When he told me he was in trouble, I’ve surmised the trouble must have been jets that were sent up to take him down… I’m sure I’ve not been told the whole truth.”
Over the years, the U.S.A.F. has certainly been tight-lipped about what exactly caused the plane to plummet into the English Channel. Which, of course, has been a huge encouragement to every variety of conspiracy theorist. Indeed, the internet is rife with all kinds of theories about how and why the plane ended up in the ocean.
Some have said that the plane belonged to the CIA. And, if true, this would mean that it would have had classified documents on board – and that it had to be shot down. The fact that the Cold War was still at its height in 1968 certainly lends credence to this idea – at least in some people’s minds. Some even claim that Meyer escaped and defected to the Soviet Union.
But one individual – instead of engaging in arguably pointless speculation – has spent ten years of his life searching for the wreckage of the Hercules transport plane. And that man is Briton Grahame Knott, whom we met on a dive in the English Channel right at the start of this story.
After 30 years of underwater exploration with his dive group, Deeper Dorset, Knott may well know the English Channel seabed as well as anyone alive. And Paul Meyer’s story has fascinated him for 15 years. “Completely sucked [in],” is how Knott described it to the BBC.
Deeper Dorset is, though, a group of diving enthusiasts rather than some well-funded professional salvage outfit. So for them, the search for the wreck of Meyer’s plane has really been a labor of love. The diving trips over the years have been far from easy. On a given trip, Knott and his buddies would set off at 4:00 a.m. in their 42-foot boat before staying out in the treacherous waters of the Channel for some 16 hours.
When the BBC asked Knott what had made him so determined to find the crashed plane, the diver replied, “Honestly, I ask myself that [question] all the time, and I just keep coming back to the image of young Meyer up there in that plane, completely alone, and I guess I’m just doing it for him. He was just a kid, you know? Just a homesick kid.”
It also seems as though Knott has heard enough of the dubious speculation about what happened back in 1969. When asked by the BBC if he believes the theory that the Hercules had been shot down, his answer was to the point. “There are enough conspiracy theories out there already without adding to them,” he said.
“We just want to try to find the aircraft. Some people say, ‘Well, what’s the point? What’s it going to tell you?’” Knott added. “And the truth is, we don’t know. But leaving it lost in the Channel isn’t going to tell us anything, either.”
The job of hunting for the Hercules would have been a lot easier for Knott and Deeper Dorset if they’d had access to a state-of-the-art search vessel, mind you. But such a boat would cost nearly $40,000 to run just for one day – money that the divers simply didn’t have.
In fact, the total cost of all the equipment that Knott had at his disposal was less than $80,000, and their boat was only suitable for day journeys. What’s more, Deeper Dorset had to resort to crowdfunding appeals to raise the $250 in fuel costs that each trip incurred. And the divers weren’t just up against a shortage of cash, either.
There was also the notoriously unpredictable English Channel weather with which to contend. In the nine-month-long diving season of 2018, the Deeper Dorset team were able to get out on the water to dive a total of just 21 times. And on the first 20 of those trips, they turned up blanks.
But in mid-November, on Deeper Dorset’s 21st trip of 2018, the team’s sonar equipment picked up something that was definitely of interest. And so at this point they dropped their remote camera into the water. Speaking to the BBC, Knott remembered the moment. “Then we spotted a wheel sticking out [of] the sand [and] then a section of wing with rivets. It just got bigger and bigger.”
This was it. The team had found the missing Hercules. But that being said, whether or not this discovery helps answer the questions about what really happened all those decades ago remains to be seen. Did Meyer crash, or was he shot down? We may never know. But Knott, for one, is in no doubt about the significance of the find. “It’s not like a typical boat wreck. It’s more like a sacred site, especially since Meyer’s family are still alive,” he pointed out.
And we’ll leave the last word on this story to one of those family members: Meyer’s widow, Jane. “He was having bad nightmares about Vietnam,” she told the BBC. “We wrote to each other every day, and we marked the days off a calendar. You know, he just wanted to come home. All he wanted was to come home.”