William Stewart, a US Army Air Force Captain in World War II, tells about his flight across the English Channel on December 15, 1944. Enemy planes were a risk, yes, but so too was the weather.
I was standing back of the pilot in a B17 stripped down bomber with about 17 pilots on board. I was flight operations officer for our squadron. We all were riding as passengers, flying over the English Channel and back to our base in England.
I was not trying to tell the pilot how to fly the plane. He was a better pilot than I. But I wanted to see the weather ahead through the pilot’s window.
Fog and clouds were the major nemeses for countries surrounded by water. Most of the deaths in my squadron were caused by fog or poor weather and only a few by mechanical failure. I was surprised to have spent so many hours over France and Germany – flying gasoline, ammo and bombs in and wounded out – and not taken any gunfire to my airplane. But, while flying over Muenster in Germany one day, I struck a balloon cable between my fuselage and right engine. This ripped all the de-icing boot off my right wing but it didn’t bring me down. I was flying an old dependable DC3 or, as some call it, a C47.
Foggy English Channel
So, this December day, crossing the English Channel, I was looking out the front of the cockpit to see how bad it was ahead of us. The weather was terrible to say the least. Most think of the weather as moving from west to east. But it forms and changes all the time in place.
We were flying about 100 feet off the water in what looked like a tunnel. This tunnel obviously was made by the heat of aircraft engines ahead of us; there was no air movement.
Suddenly the pilot said “That looks like an airplane on the water down there.” I had not seen anything. Maybe we had met another plane or overtaken another. Things happen quickly when you meet head on, each going over 150 miles per hour.
The pilot continued to fly ahead. Soon we could see the cliffs of Dover or a similar place dead ahead. When we got close to the cliffs, the pilot turned north. The tide was out, thus we had a sandy beach if we had to crash. We all had to look up to see the church steeples and houses on top of the cliffs. The pilot was an excellent flyer and, by radio, the co-pilot somehow located a control tower and airfield close by. This was one of the most difficult situations I was ever in during my years of flying in England.
Glenn Miller, Air Force Major and band leader
We landed at some RAF base near the coast. Only a superb pilot could have found it and lined up with the runway in near zero visibility. Later the next morning we learned that a plane flying Glenn Miller had disappeared over the channel.
There may not be any air movement, yet fog just forms in still air. You don’t realize that, unless you are flying in it. Over water, fog is a real killer for pilots. The pilot has no horizons.
Bill Stewart (1915-2005) is my father-in-law. This is from an unpublished memoir he and his wife, Marji Smock Stewart, wrote. He never knew if the plane that pilot saw in the water was Glenn Miller’s plane. But it was that same day, same place.