The fifty-year saga of the aircraft LA-9

Full text of the article reproduced in part in the 2017 Earth Sciences News, by Kent Brooks (1962, Linacre)

Prior to the Alumni Dinner on the 24th May 2016 David Bell showed a film, shot by the late Brian (Fred) Atkins one of the four Oxford participants of the British East Greenland Expedition of 1966 led by W. A. Deer, Cambridge. During this expedition this four-man team stumbled on a plane crash with 12 bodies was found, dating from 1962. Here Kent Brooks, one of the original participants tells the subsequent story of the wreckage and its victims.

David Bell and Kent Brooks in 2016

David Bell and Kent Brooks in 2016

“One day, when I was 6, we heard that my father’s plane had crashed, but I was not particularly worried except that it would take him a long time to get home as without the plane he would have to walk. Six months later we were told to move from the Naval Base in Jacksonville into town and I was worried because then he wouldn’t be able to find us.” These words were spoken by Mrs Patti Moscatone of Tampa, Florida – daughter of the Captain Norbert Kozak of her thoughts in 1962.

The crash was found in 1966 by a four-man party from the Department of Geology, Oxford, who were experiencing frustration in their attempts to reach the Lilloise Mountains on the opposite side of the mighty Kronborg Glacier. It quickly became apparent that there were 12 bodies on bord and although the crash had taken place more than 4 years earlier, the location at an inland elevation on the glaciermeant that they were well preserved: almost mummified.

The American authorities in Iceland were informed in September 1966, but it was pointed out that the season was too far advanced for a successful recovery mission. Great was the surprise therefore when David Bell, leader of the Oxford party, was informed in November that such a mission had in fact taken place and expressing thanks for the information. It was further stated that the crew members had been buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.

Helicopter pilots Göran Lindmark and Calle Brett examine the crash site in 1995

Helicopter pilots Göran Lindmark and Calle Brett examine the crash site in 1995

No more was thought of the matter until 30 years later. In 1995 Kent Brooks, one of the original party, happened to be flying in a helicopter in the Lilloise Mountains, and mentioned to the pilot the former aircraft wreck. Of course, the pilot was interested and flew over to look. Surprisingly, the surface of the glacier was strewn with debris (originally the fuselage had been in reasonable condition) and during a pass at low height, human body parts were spotted.

Again the authorities were informed: this time the police in Nuuk, the captal of Greenland. However, they replied that they lacked resources to do anything at this very remote location.

Bob Pettway awarded by USAF

Bob Pettway gets an award for his work in getting the bodies from the crash repatriated.

After a couple of years, Kent was contacted by ex-CIA agent Bob Pettway who had been in the crew of the crashed plane – a Neptune P-2V used for submarine surveillance – when it was stationed at Rota in Spain. He was there a comrade of the lost men and wished to recover any who had not been brought home. This proved to be a Herculean task and it was not until 2004 that he was able to convince the US Navy to take action and the bodies were eventually returned to the USA as a result of a major recovery operation in which “cadaver dogs” were used to find all the body parts now spread by the explosion from 1966.

In 2009, the Navy commemorated the lost men by placing an identical plane on display at the US Naval Base at Jacksonville, Florida, Bob Pettway and Kent Brooks were invited guests at this ceremony, along with the families of the deceased crew members.

What had happened to the plane?

Map showing intended route of LA-9 and actual route

Intended route of LA-9 and actual route.

This was the first flight of the plane from Keflavik, Iceland, after repositioning from Rota, Spain. Several of the crew were new including the navigator, Badger C. Smith. They took off at 0800 hours, January 12 1992 to fly the route shown in fig. 3. The weather was atrocious: gale force winds and heavy snow were reported from Kap Tobin, Greenland. The plane was to fly low – 2000ft- but even at this altitude visibility would have been zero for much of the time. After an hour a signal was received, but was thought to be in error as it lay to the west of the projected route. Between 1000 and 1100, weak and unreadable signals were received. These ceased at 1053Z (“Zulu” or Greenwich Time). At 1125Z the base issued an alert and at 1305Z a second Neptune was launched with orders to try to establish radio contact with LA-9. A further two aircraft took up the search without result and just after 2000 a distress signal was released. LA-9’s fuel was expected to be exhausted by 2200Z and the last of the search planes returned to Keflavik at five minutes past midnight.

The following day eight search aircraft were launched, but again their efforts were hampered by bad weather with poor visibility and low ceilings and their efforts were fruitless. The search was eventually called off on the 19th and in spite of improved weather conditions it had been fruitless.

We must conclude that for some reason the plane had flown on an incorrect heading. It is tempting to think that the error was the magnetic declination which is high here, but low in Spain. The poor visibility would not have allowed this mistake to be discovered. It impacted the glacier, which would not have shown up on the ground proximity device, and all personnel died on impact – there was no sign that anyone had moved after the crash. It was as well, considering what the site would have been like in a January snow storm with Polar darkness.

Site of the crash in the mountains

The crash site in Wiedemanns Fjord (red cross) at the height of summer. Lilloise Mountains – a Palaeocene intrusive centre-is seen in the background.

Why had the bodies not been returned in 1966 at the time of the first recovery mission? As the Oxford people warned, the time of year was too advanced and the crash site was covered with snow. A thorough search could not be carried out and the wreckage was blown up when as much as possible had been retrieved. This was the Cold War and the US Navy would not want their planes lying around to be examined by anyone. Respect for the bodies apparently came second.

This saga has spread over 50 years and has impacted strongly on many lives. For me, the ceremony in Jacksonville was a chance to meet many people I had heard about, not least, Captain Kozak’s daughter.

P-2V Neptune in the livery of the lost plane, LA-9, at the US Naval Base, Jacksonville, Florida.

P-2V Neptune in the livery of the lost plane, LA-9, at the US Naval Base, Jacksonville, Florida.