Bookmark and Share Email this page Email Print this page Print

Secret elecronic nav aid saved WW II flight

Jan 1, 2003

Late in 1944, Capt. Daniel L. Boone and Navigator Willie Leveen were at Santa Maria in the Azores preparing their Douglas C-54 transport for a flight to Ayr (Prestwick), Scotland. Boone had flown the mail since the open-cockpit days of the early 1930s. Leveen had been a flight radio officer on the North Atlantic routes for several years but had recently switched to the position of navigator and was making his fifth North Atlantic flight in that capacity.

The standard flight plan route called for a great circle track from Santa Maria to 50 degrees N, 7 degrees 30' W. The flight would then alter course slightly to fly over St. George's Channel and across the Irish Sea toward Prestwick. The trip would be about 1,500 nautical miles and would require about nine hours' flying time. They knew a severe cold front was approaching Great Britain from the west, but the weather forecast did not call for the front's arrival at Prestwick until about one hour after the flight's ETA of 0100 GMT.

The flight departed Santa Maria about 1600 GMT with a flight crew of five, a purser, and 18 passengers. Shortly before 2200 GMT, Willie Leveen noticed a mass of clouds ahead - the forecast cold front was obviously moving faster than anticipated. He quickly shot a four-star fix while the C-54 was still in the clear. The fix showed the plane to be on course with a revised ETA of 0105.

Once the airplane entered the clouds, radio bearings and dead reckoning were the only navigation options. About 2300 GMT, Hoag, the radio operator, got a fix from a ground radio station at The Valley, Wales. When Leveen plotted the LOP it was just about at a right angle to the projected course. Willie scratched his head. If the fix were correct, the airplane's ground speed had been drastically reduced.

{About 2400 GMT, Leveen approached Capt. Boone and asked if he would climb out of the clouds so he could take a star shot.

"Not a chance," Boone reportedly responded. He was concerned that the clouds rose to extreme heights, and he didn't want to waste fuel. Leveen returned to his chart table. According to the flight plan it was time to catch the eastern leg of the Nutt's Corner (Belfast) LF radio range and ride it in to Prestwick but the radio signal could not be found.

Leveen pondered his predicament: no definite fix and fuel burning at a rate of 240 gallons per hour. Leveen again went to Boone and renewed his request. Boone again demurred, not only for the original reason but also because a celestial fix would be of little help in landing at Prestwick. Leveen and Hoag continued to monitor all radio frequencies. Occasionally signals could be heard, but none could provide an LOP.

The flight crew was aware of their predicament. Those in the passenger cabin, however, were unaware of the mounting problems. The safety of the aircraft rested in the hands of Daniel L. Boone. He consulted with Leveen and both reasoned that the Irish Sea must lie to the west of their current position. Boone suggested that the aircraft turn to a westerly heading and descend to the point where it would break out of the clouds over water. Perhaps from that point the plane could find its way to Prestwick visually. Boone pulled back the four throttles, turned to a heading of 270°, and watched as the altimeter unwound.

The altimeter's pressure setting had not been adjusted since reaching cruise altitude. Because the aircraft had entered a very strong low pressure area, there was the risk that the altimeter reading would be too high. As the altimeter's needle passed through 2,000 feet, Boone eased back on the yoke and slowed the rate of descent. There were no breaks in the clouds. At an indicated altitude of 1,500 feet, Boone turned to Leveen and said: "You win Willie!" The throttles were advanced and the plane began its reach for the stars. Passing through 10,000 feet, the flight crew donned their oxygen masks, but the passengers did not have that luxury. For them the only option was an occasional draw on a small tube hooked up to the plane's oxygen system. As the plane passed through 20,000 feet, the limited amount of oxygen available to the passengers was useful only to keep them alive. Perhaps it was better that their senses were dimmed.

In the thin air, the C-54's rate of climb slowed. The plane could go no higher. It wallowed along between 25,000 and 26,000 feet. Leveen stood on the navigator's stool in the astrodome looking for something to shoot with his octant. Every time he exhaled, frost would coat the inside of the Plexiglas dome. Toward the east, Leveen noticed a pale white glow. Thinking it was more frost, he tried to rub it away, but the glow remained. Then it came to Leveen: the moon! Leveen took off his oxygen mask and raised the octant to his eye. Shouting at Boone to keep the plane as level as possible, Leveen aimed the octant and pressed the button.

Several minutes passed before Leveen returned to his chart table, where he applied the readings from his octant to the sight-reduction tables. At first he thought the lack of oxygen had caused him to make a computational error, but he rechecked the figures several times and the answer came out the same each time: The plane and the 24 souls aboard were just off the coast of Norway.

Somehow the tremendous head wind calculated many hours before had turned into an equally tremendous tail wind. "Dan, do a 180!', Leveen yelled. Trusting the navigator implicitly, Boone turned the aircraft to a southwesterly heading and began to descend. The engines were leaned to the maximum, and the propeller revolutions slowed as well.

Boone took the airplane down to 500 feet, where occasional glimpses of the whitecaps below were used to reset airplane's altimeters. Boone then lowered the plane to 200 feet in order to minimize the head wind.

By now the flight was in peril. Boone turned to the flight engineer and gave the order: "Prepare to ditch." As the passengers put on their Mae Wests and the life rafts were readied for use, Leveen and Hoag continued to check the radios but could make no contacts. Almost 30 minutes went by before Boone exclaimed: "Land." The ball was now back in the captain's court. His plan was to fly inland for 30 minutes searching for an airfield or flat place on which to belly-land the airplane. If this failed, the plane would return to the coast and ditch as close as possible to the shore. In reality, this option provided no more chance for survival than did a ditching in the open sea.

The allotted 30 minutes was rapidly running out when Hoag shouted: "I've got Prestwick!" It was 0430 GMT. The plane had been in the air for more than 12 hours and without a good fix for 6 1/2 hours. Hoag's fist beat "QDL" into the code key - a request for a series of radio bearings. Then he held down the key for two minutes so that stations could orient their direction-finding antennas toward the plane's signal. Shortly, Hoag received a "QTF" (latitude and longitude) from Prestwick. He scribbled the figures on a scrap of paper and handed it to Leveen: 3° 35° W, 53° 20' N. For the second time that night, Leveen fumed toward Boone and yelled: "Make a 180!" The plane's position was near Colwyn Bay, Wales. Boone again complied without question.

During the time since Boone had first sighted land (probably near Grimsby), the plane had flown across England and was on the verge of heading out over the Irish Sea. There was no chance of making Prestwick. The plane had to land - now!

Leveen's mind had continued to work. From his days as a radio operator he remembered that the RAF had an emergency radio direction finding system called "Darkee" to help disabled bombers find landing areas. He said later that he was praying to God when the frequency came into his head: 4220 kilocycles. He dialed in 4220 on the command set, keyed the microphone and called: "Darkee! Darkee! Darkee!" Out of the ether came the reply: "This is Darkee. Circle. Circle."

Boone rolled the C-54 into a steep bank, picked up the 120° heading given by Darkee and reset the altimeter to the pressure provided. The plane was at 600 feet, but Darkee assured them that the highest obstruction in the area was "only" 400 feet. More vectors ensued as the plane worked its way toward the unseen landing area. Darkee finally radioed that the plane was directly above the airport, but the ground was still dark. Further instructions to descend to 500 feet, then 400 feet, and then 300 feet were complied with.

Darkee finally radioed that the airplane should circle to land. Even at 150 feet no runway lights were visible. Boone asked for the airfield to shoot off a flare and a green arc appeared in the sky. He banked the aircraft steeply, causing engine no. 4 to sputter for lack of fuel. Boone feathered the propeller and continued his approach.

Suddenly, two rows of lights appeared through the windshield of the C-54. In all of the excitement Darkee had forgotten to turn on the runway lights! Boone ordered the landing gear and flaps lowered and dove for the first of the lights. When the runway finally appeared Boone firmly planted the wheels and then applied the brakes. As the far end of the runway came closer, he triggered the emergency braking system and locked the main wheels. When the airplane came to a stop, Leveen noticed that engine no. 3 had also quit from lack of fuel.

The runway at the RAF fighter base was not very long, so the taxi back to the hardstand was quick. It was just as well, for the other two engines were suffering symptoms of fuel exhaustion as well. The local time was about 0700, six hours past the ETA for Prestwick. The plane had been in the air for 15 hours. As the airplane came to rest, nos. 1 and 2 engines quit - out of fuel.

What happened to Leveen, Boone, and company proves that sometimes you can do everything right but are still the victim of circumstance. Obviously, the cold front had moved in more quickly than predicted with winds stronger than anticipated. As for the radio problems, it seemed that Mother Nature had picked this moment in time to send forth a massive solar flare. The plane had actually flown over Prestwick, and their radio signals had been heard on the ground. Repeated warnings from Prestwick that the flight was heading over the North Sea went unheard.

Oh yes, one final note. The 18 passengers did arrive safely and went on to complete their duties. They were all generals of the U.S. Army returning from a conference in Washington. Had Willie Leveen not gotten his good moon shot and remembered the Darkee frequency, the Battle of the Bulge might well have had a different outcome.