News about Marauder crash Nov 16th 1942 out of Fort Myers

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  1. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    Team seeks to solve WWII B-26 mystery | news-press.com | The News-Press

    Team seeks to solve WWII B-26 mystery
    Propeller raised from Gulf may provide clues
    By Kevin Lollar • [email protected] • September 21, 2008

    Within 30 minutes, the propeller was aboard the commercial fishing vessel Lauretta Ellen. The prop possibly holds the final clue as to why a B-26 Marauder crashed on the evening of Nov. 16, 1942, during a training flight out of the Fort Myers Army Air Base (now Page Field), killing all six airmen aboard.

    "This is the first time that prop has felt the air in 66 years," said Pat Clyne of Paradigm Video Productions as the propeller broke the surface.

    The prop is scheduled to be sent to an expert in Opa-Locka for analysis - the plane's wing, both engines and other propeller remain on the bottom.

    "We found a treasure - we're just pursuing it," said commercial diving consultant Capt. Jon "Hammerhead" Hazelbaker. "We opened up more questions than we answered. We're on a quest. We want to know how the airplane crashed, how it killed six men. It's like a big jigsaw puzzle. It's exciting."

    Pursuit of loot

    In 1990, fishing guide Capt. Tim Wicburg discovered the wreckage of a B-26 in 75 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico.

    He thought the aircraft might be a fabled treasure plane.

    According to legend, before fleeing Cuba on Jan. 1, 1959, Cuban dictator Fulgencia Batista loaded loot from the national treasury onto four B-26s, which took off for Tampa.

    Three arrived; the fourth crashed into the Gulf.

    To find the Cuban treasure, Wicburg and Tom O'Brien of Chicago formed TBT&J Adventure Vacations, which included Hazelbaker and fabricator Brian Ulman.

    In May, 13 divers on seven boats searched the wreck site for a week. Also on hand was Clyne, who has recorded the team's efforts for a possible documentary.

    Instead of treasure, divers found the aircraft's serial number: The plane is an early model Marauder (officially, a B-26B3) that crashed in 1942.

    TBT&J obtained the military's accident report, which stated, "Pilot charged with accident," suggesting that pilot Lt. Donald Vail of Macomb, Ill., caused the crash - records show that the crew bailed out; only the bodies of Vail and co-pilot Lt. Fred Dees of Pender County, N.C., were recovered.

    Cause of the crash

    But the B-26B3 was famous for crashing - not from pilot error, but from design flaws - so TBT&J set out to confirm whether Vail was really at fault.

    Clyne sent video of the wreckage to Kevin McGregor, a Delta Air Lines pilot interested in aircraft crash investigation, who sent it to National Transportation Safety Board investigators.

    "The NTSB can't get involved because it's not a civilian aircraft that needs immediate investigation," McGregor said. "The military won't touch it because it's an old aircraft they don't make anymore. That's where I come in."

    Further research showed that most noncombat military aircraft crash reports during World War II were rubber-stamped "Pilot charged with accident," and that the official cause of the Nov. 16, 1942, crash is "unknown."

    Not good enough to exonerate Vail, and TBT&J continued to pursue the cause of the crash.

    "The report saying it was pilot error is what got everyone so angry," Clyne said. "If not for that, TBT&J might have dropped it."

    Fantasy of Flight

    McGregor needed to dive the wreck site to collect forensic evidence, but first he wanted to meet TBT&J members at the Fantasy of Flight aviation museum in Polk City, home of the only known flyable B-26.

    "We came up here to see this B-26 because it's a perfect match to the one in the Gulf," McGregor said at the museum. "It's helping us understand what we're going to see in the water, what the wing is supposed to look like, what the prop is supposed to look like. We're not experts. We came here to talk to people who are experts."

    A likely suspect in the Gulf crash is the right propeller: Marauders used variable-pitch Curtis Electric props, which means the pilot can change the angle, or pitch, of the prop blades relative to the airflow.

    Curtis props sometimes changed pitch on their own.

    "If the prop was running away - they couldn't control the pitch - the pilot probably called a bail out," said Paul Stecewycz, Fantasy of Flight aircraft restoration specialist. "That happened often with the Curtis. It's a good prop. As long as they were maintained, they did well."

    At the wreck site

    Debris from the Gulf wreck covers a large area: The two engines lie 100 feet apart; the wing lies 1,350 feet to the north; the nose landing gear is 600 feet beyond that.

    Last week, McGregor and Hazelbaker meticulously inspected the wing.

    They found nothing unusual on the left wing. But McGregor saw major damage to the right wing, indicating that it might have hit the water first.

    So, the plane hit the water at a high rate of speed; the engines tore off on impact, and the rest of the aircraft kept going, coming to rest more than 1,000 yards away, with the nose landing gear being hurled even farther.

    The Holy Grail

    But why did the Marauder crash?

    "This was a brand-new aircraft: It had less than 100 hours on it - so sad," McGregor said. "It was a brand-new crew - so sad again. Here's a new pilot flying a new aircraft out here at night. It's hard to imagine what caused them to bail out."

    McGregor thinks the answer is in the right propeller, which, unlike the left propeller, broke away from its engine.

    "That prop is the Holy Grail to identifying the cause of the crash," he said.

    It all comes back to pitch: The blades of the left propeller are angled in cruise position; the right-side prop, however, might be flat, blades facing into the airflow, which would create tremendous drag on the right side, causing the plane to go out of control and prompting the crew to bail out.

    But McGregor couldn't determine the pitch of the right prop, so he wanted to raise it and send it to Aviation Propellers of Opa-Locka, where the pitch can be calculated.

    Divers tried lift bags to raise the prop last week - a lift bag is a large bag attached to an object underwater; air is pumped into the bag, and as the air rises, the bag lifts the object.

    Even with 2,500 pounds of lift in three bags, however, the 600-pound prop wouldn't budge: Its metal drive shaft had punched into the limestone sea floor and, over the years, became fused to the bedrock.

    So the TBT&J team returned to the crash site Sunday, and with Rick Verklan and Hazelbaker taking turns with a pry bar, the shaft was broken free.

    This time lift bags raised the prop smoothly from the sea floor, and it was hoisted aboard the Lauretta Ellen with a davit built and donated to the project by IMM Boat Lifts.

    Now, it's up to Aviation Propellers to shed light on the mystery, which, as a pilot, McGregor has a personal and professional desire to solve.

    "We've come a long way in aviation since 1942," McGregor said. "A lot of the stuff we've learned is on the backs of these guys who died. So why do we do this? Because we owe it to them."
     

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  2. Airframes

    Airframes Benevolens Magister

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    Very interesting, syscom. I've just been researching the Maruader for a model and a painting, and this article has added to my ever growing understanding of the type. Thanks a lot.
    Terry.
     
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