Mystery of the missing jet

RIVER RELIC: part of a crashed American fighter hauled from the river at Gorleston, pictured with th

RIVER RELIC: part of a crashed American fighter hauled from the river at Gorleston, pictured with the dredger crew which hauled it up in a bucketful of mud. In this 1998 picture are (L-R) Dean Dugdale, Peter Pugh, Colin Sharman, Mick Wilson and Michael Martins. - Credit: Archant

THE Mystery of the Missing Super Sabre Flap might not prove a challenge to the investigatory skills of fictional super-sleuths like Holmes, Morse, Lewis or Poirot but it is certainly baffling to lesser mortals.

WHERE’S THAT FLAP? Colin Sharman, who brought the riverbed discovery of the downed aircraft part to

WHERE’S THAT FLAP? Colin Sharman, who brought the riverbed discovery of the downed aircraft part to Peggotty’s attention, pictured in his days on the port dredger. - Credit: Archant

Where has it gone? Was it lost, stolen or strayed? A solution seems unlikely.

Chapter One was aired in this column recently although at the time there was nothing puzzling about it. The subject is the United States Air Force F100 Super Sabre jet from the Lakenheath base which plunged into Great Yarmouth harbour a half-century ago this year.

The pilot ejected safely, and there were no civilian casualties.

Reading my feature about the drama reminded Colin Sharman, of Oxford Avenue, Gorleston, about a linked occurrence more than three decades later when he was a member of Yarmouth Port and Haven Commissioners’ dredger crew, engaged in the routine yet essential task of keeping the harbour channel open.

DIVING IN: Yarmouth port diver James Sharman at the stern of his boat as a converted trawler – flyin

DIVING IN: Yarmouth port diver James Sharman at the stern of his boat as a converted trawler – flying the Royal Navy’s White Ensign – sails past. - Credit: Archant

As the dredger Admiral Day’s crew toiled away off Darby’s Hard on the Gorleston side of the river, crane driver Dean Dugdale deposited on to her gratings yet another bucketful of mud hauled up from the river bed, allowing the water to drain off before the rest was dumped in the hold, a practice followed countless times.

But this time, the bucket’s spoil was found to include a large piece of metal which, it was decided, warranted closer examination.

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“When it fell on the grating, we washed it down and saw it was a green colour – we thought at first it might be an old Land Rover door,” recalls Colin Sharman who is now aged 67 and retired.

“But then we spotted some serial numbers on it. I remembered that American jet aircraft crashing into the river at Darby’s Hard years earlier, and I had it in the back of my mind that this might be some of its wreckage.” So they kept it on one side while inquiries were pursued.

Colin, crane driver Mr Dugdale and their crew colleagues Peter Pugh, Mick Wilson and Michael Martins reckoned that an expert opinion was required, so the Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum at Flixton, near Bungay, was contacted.

“When the aviation museum was told about it, somebody came over to inspect the piece we dredged up,” continued Mr Sharman. “He said what it was and confirmed that it was a wing flap from the Super Sabre.

“I put it on a trailer behind my car and drove it to Flixton to deliver it.”

I telephoned the Flixton museum to inquire whether the relic - measuring about 6ft by 2ft - was still in its keeping and on display for the public to see...but was told: “It doesn’t ring a bell at all. I wonder whatever happened to it and where it went. If we had it here it would be on display.”

There was a fleeting suggestion that perhaps Colin was mistaken about Flixton and had delivered the relic closer to home – to the Fritton estate where there had been (and, perhaps, still is) a United States 8th Air Force Memorial Museum. But he produced for me the Flixton museum’s 1998 letter thanking him “for donating and transporting the piece of F100 Super Sabre to us.”

The then curator, the late Alan Hague, included in the acknowledgement letter details about the crash supplied by the museum’s historian at the time, Bob Collis: “The Super Sabre had engine trouble and the pilot, Captain James Chestnut, aged 35, heard and felt two explosions as the aircraft was returning from France, flying south at a point four miles north-east of Yarmouth.

“He turned the aircraft around and pointed it out to sea and ejected, but the aircraft turned back, flew low over Yarmouth, narrowly missing houses, crashing and exploding on Darby’s Hard boat slipway, destroying two boats, damaging others and windows nearby.

“The pilot parachuted down on to allotments behind Lawn Avenue and his ejector seat fell on to the beach at Yarmouth.”

Flixton passed me to its current archivist and librarian, Caister resident Paul Holmes, who reported back: “I have had an extensive search of the data-base and the areas of the museum where the flap unit may have been placed and, sad to say, I have been unable to find it.

“The only explanation I can give you is that it must either have been passed on to somewhere else, or was stored off-site, as happened in days past, due to lack of space for storage, and has not come back to us.

“This has happened before and, as you must realise, there is not much can be done about it, especially if the person in whose care it was lodged has passed away.”

There are two items in the museum from that stricken Super Sabre – a “petal” after-burner and a piece of metal, but both are small.

It is a pity that the dredged-up reminder of a potentially disastrous incident that miraculously passed without death or injury was entrusted into safe keeping at a museum but has now gone missing, unaccounted for except for the acknowledgement letter to Colin Sharman.

For years his grandfather, James Sharman, was the commissioners’ port diver. James Sharman? That name rings a bell! Was he a descendant of the local man of the same name who was press-ganged into the navy aged 14, served on HMS Victory under Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, is reckoned to have aided his mortally wounded admiral, and later became the official keeper of the 144ft monument commemorating England’s hero on Yarmouth’s South Denes?

“I’d love to know...” says Colin Sharman.

According to local historian and author Colin Tooke’s 2005 book Great Yarmouth and the Nelson Connection, commemorating the bicentenary of the admiral’s death, a cottage built near the foot of the monument was occupied by James Sharman who had worked at the Wrestlers Inn before being press-ganged into naval service.

“Sharman lived in the cottage for many years, meeting Charles Dickens and becoming the model for Ham Peggotty in the book David Copperfield.” James Sharman died in 1867.

Yes, my ears are figuratively burning...