Mustang III FX931 - High Bentham
 14th February 1945
Last updated: 20.11.2017

Mustang III (P-51-B)
RAF Mustang III (P-51-B)
TypeSerialUnitBaseDutyCrew Fate
Mustang III (P-51-B)FX931No. 61 O.T.U. SquadronRAF RednalCross Country ExerciseSgt. Pawel StruniewskiK.

This aircraft was an RAF Mustang III Serial No. FX 931 from No. 61 O.T.U. based at Rednal, near Oswestry, North Shropshire and on the 14th February 1945 was being flown by Polish Air Force pilot Sergeant Pawel Struniewski (P704960) on a high altitude cross-country training flight. The aircraft was built in 1943 as P-51B-1-NA Mustang 43-12226 by North American Aviation Inc. at Inglewood, California, USA as part of batch c/n 102-24541/24940. It was fitted with a Packard Merlin 61, V-1650-3 and a Hamilton Hydromatic four bladed propeller. At the time of its loss it was configured as a standard RAF Mustang III with no fuselage tank or drop tanks fitted and was armed with 4 x .50 calibre machine guns, but carried no ammunition on its last flight.  It was also noted that the aircraft was fitted with a Pioneer Type A12 oxygen economiser unit and that both the airframe and engine had only completed 82 hours flying time.

crash site of FX931
Crash Site of Mustang III FX931 - Shallow crater just about dicernable centre foreground.

On the 14th February 1945 the aircraft was one of five taking part in a six-stage cross country flight at 15,000 feet, the route being; Base – Preston – Derby – Base – Hereford – Lichfield – Base and oxygen was to be used throughout the flight. The aircraft took off at 15 minute intervals, with Sgt. Struniewski departing at 09:00 and his ETA over Preston was 09:42. At 09:45 he was asked if was over the first point by ground control and he replied he was "over cloud, couldn’t see and was going down". Another pilot stated that when he reached the first point, he had encountered 10/10th cloud cover at 15,000 feet. The pilots had been instructed not to descend through such cloud cover, but to find a gap before descending to ascertain their position and despite the adverse condition three of the pilots succeeded in completing the exercise.

On the ground near High Bentham a number of people heard the aircraft, which was hidden from sight by the cloud cover that prevailed over the area and alerted by the unusual sound of an aircraft diving, several looked up in time to see the aircraft break out of the cloud in a shallow dive. However, as they watched, the angle the aircraft almost immediately started to become steeper until it appeared to enter a vertical high speed dive. The witnesses saw the aircraft dive into the ground streaming white vapour as it fell, but accounts differed as to what happened to the aircraft immediately prior to and on impact – perhaps depending on how clear their view was. The aircraft crashed at approx. 09:45 hours, with the starboard wing breaking away from the fuselage immediately prior to impact and the remainder of the aircraft striking the ground with the port wing hitting first and disintegrating completely. The pilot was killed instantly and the Squadron’s ORB notes that RAF personnel from Cark recovered the pilot’s body and he is buried at Barrow-in-Furness Cemetery, Section 7, Grave 2619.

Search 1Search 2
Initial survey of the main crater using metal detectors and a Foerster Magetometer Mapping out signals across the main crater - Only selected shallow contacts were uncovered at this stage for identification purposes

Our initial research began with the RAF Form 1180, which contained the usual brief information and some indication of the sequence of events and location of the crash site including, unusually, the name of the farm and a grid reference.  However a check at the PRO revealed a transcript of a full AIB report, comprising some 15 pages and including several eyewitness accounts. The report highlighted a number of inaccuracies recorded on the Form 1180, including the time of the crash and some slightly misleading statements regarding the altitude of the flight and the wing breaking away during the descent. Talking to locals did not reveal any first-hand accounts of the crash, but a few individuals recalled a previous dig at the site and information probably given to them at that time. There did seem to be some evidence that the local assumption, at the time of the crash, was that oxygen failure was a probable cause. But from the documentary evidence, this was thoroughly investigated and discounted, though it does appear that the pilot was in some way incapacitated as there was no evidence that he made any attempt to save either the aircraft or himself.

The crash site was known to have been subject to a concerted post-crash recovery operation to locate the body of the pilot for burial and it is believed the bulk of the aircraft’s remains were also removed at this time. The site was later levelled by the landowner and then circa 1987 it was excavated by a group, who dug by hand with limited success - the largest part known to have been found was the snapped off base of a propeller blade. An initial visual survey of the field revealed a likely shallow depression feature - probably sinkage resulting from the previous excavation, rather than the crash and a metal detector grid search soon revealed a scatter of smaller non-ferrous signals with a concentration to one side and around the lip. A few sample signals were uncovered and proved to mostly originate from the aircraft, whilst a wider search, revealed no other likely areas. Further surveys using a Fisher Gemini III deep seeking detector and a Foerster magnetometer indicated two larger targets buried outside the depression and substantial buried metal targets, including ferrous indications within the feature. We concluded that partial remains, perhaps of the engine lay buried within the depression and unknown parts, that probably detached from the aircraft as it fell, lay outside this area.

Head rest 1

Head rest 2

Outlying contacts were recovered immediately before the main excavation took place. The recovered Pilots armoured headrest

After assessing the surveyed contacts, along with documentary evidence of a high energy impact, we believed further remains could lie buried and consulted with the landowner, who believed  that the aircraft could easily have penetrated to a depth of between eight to ten feet. Therefore it was decided to apply for an MOD permit and use a mechanical excavator for further investigation. Prior to the main excavation, the most significant targets outside the main feature were excavated by hand and proved to be the aircraft's oil cooler and the remains of the frame from behind the pilot's seat, with the armoured headrest still attached. A smaller signal proved to be a mounting for a .50 calibre machine gun and the remains of the gun's firing solenoid and a small group of signals to the opposite side of the main feature were found to be a hydraulic actuator and hydraulic pipe fittings believed to originate from the main undercarriage.

Oil Cooler
The recovery of the oil cooler was perhaps the clearest indication of the aircraft breaking up prior to impact – it was buried some three to four feet deep, to the northeast of the main impact area and apart from a few fragments of associated pipe work appeared to have fallen  there on its own. 

When the main excavation got underway, we found that, after the initial removal of the turf, a distinct darker outline of the "crater could be easily discerned, with the soil within the feature clearly containing fragments of broken glass and pottery as well as animal bones, but very few pieces that appeared to have come from the aircraft. This was not immediately a cause for concern, due to our knowledge of the earlier dig. However, as we continued, significant ferrous metal debris began to be uncovered, including; sash window weights, heavy pipe sections, remains of buckets and household wares, parts of an iron cooking range and the remains of a bicycle. A few aircraft remains were also found, though these were scattered with no evidence of any in-situ relationship to each other. At around three feet in depth, a darker area of subsoil could be discerned, indicating the path of the aircraft and parts found at this depth included smaller items from the engine, including; engine casing exhaust stubs, camshaft bearing caps and a camshaft drive gear. However, the clay subsoil also began to become noticeably more dense, with many small boulders and stones, until it became so hard at approx. five feet in depth, that further excavation proved difficult and it was clear that the aircraft had penetrated no further. Throughout the dig and during the reinstatement of the site, a number of team members were tasked with sifting through all the removed spoil by hand to ensure no items were missed and several small but interesting parts were found, including the fuel primer pump from the cockpit, both ultra-violet instrument panel lamps and the base of the radio antenna.

Dig 1Dig 2
The main excavation gets underway Darker subsoil to the centre of the excavation indicates where the engine originally lay.

Although the remains from the aircraft were somewhat sparse, especially within the "crater" feature, we were still satisfied that we had identified that this was the main impact point of the aircraft and that the darker area of subsoil that we noted, at around three to four feet below the surface, was probably oil contamination and indicated where the engine had become embedded and so was the deepest point of the aircraft's penetration. We concluded that the feature we observed equated to the two craters – one made by the engine and the other by the detached port wing, which are mentioned in the crash investigation report, but over time and due to past rubbish dumping, as well as the previous excavation, now appeared as one feature with no immediately obvious division. It was the parts found around the area were more useful in drawing any conclusions as to the nature of the impact and provided some definite tie-ins with the documentary evidence in the original crash investigation report. Finally the scatter of surface fragments revealed no really distinct pattern that would indicate that the aircraft had approached the impact from any particular direction. There was a general distribution around the main impact point with perhaps more fragments to the west and south than the other directions, but we felt this was more likely due to them being thrown in this direction by the asymmetrical nature of the impact. This would appear to bear out the description in the investigation report of the dive having been almost vertical immediately prior to impact.
      

Acknowledgements:

Mr K. Proctor, Mark Sheldon, Alan Clark, Gareth Brown, RAF Form 1180, Mustang III, Serial No. FX931 (PRO), Accident's Branch Investigator's Report, Investigation No. W.2092 (PRO), Flypast Magazine No.78 / January 1988

 
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