For the second day in a row I find myself thinking about ghost stories I read about as a boy that I’ve later debunked thanks to the internet. Aeroplanes, particularly very early ones, were almost my earliest enthusiasm, so when I was given a pulp book about strange events I was drawn to two stories that involved aviation. Both of them were nonsense, but each had grown from a kernel of truth, so they serve as perfect examples of how myths are created.

The first of these stories I encountered in this form: during the Second World War, pilots based at an airfield in Scotland began to report sightings of a strange biplane. It looked obsolete, but could always outrun their own machines. The mystery continued until one day the strange aircraft was spotted on the ground on a remote stretch of moorland. A ground party went to investigate and found an old Sopwith Camel that had clearly been parked there for years. At the controls was the pilot’s skeleton, his broken legs trapped under the rudder pedals in a forced landing. When the dead airman was removed, sightings of the ghostly intruder suddenly ceased.

No mention was made of which RAF station in Scotland was involved, the name of the missing airman or any other details that might have shed light on the story (a sure sign of an urban legend, but we’ve all been to Snopes). Fortunately, though, there weren’t that many Highland crashes that matched the decription, and eventually a discussion forum cleared up the whole issue without any effort from me at all. It seems that one or two details had got a little garbled: it was a Pup, not a Camel; the pilot was removed and buried in 1918 and the second discovery of the wreckage took place accidentally during the search for a different crashed aircraft in 1940. I notice no reference to spectral aviators plying the skies over Montrose. Perhaps this story became attached to one I heard once about a ghostly Spitfire that sometimes appears over Biggin Hill. The really interesting thing is that the wreckage wasn’t entirely removed. A lot of it was buried where it lay so that it couldn’t confuse future searches and a wooden cross was later placed as a marker. Somewhere in the hills above Montrose are the buried remains of a Sopwith Pup, waiting to be found.

The second story concerned a bizarre discovery in the Arctic. This one concerns the discovery of a whole formation of American warbirds buried in ice with their magneto switches on and all their controls set for flight. No mention was made in the version I saw of what makes they were, which unit they belonged to, their point of departure or their destination. Again, this is very suspicious, as it makes it very difficult to check the facts. There is, though, only one multiple crash site that even comes close to matching the story, and that’s the Greenland location from which the P-38 Glacier Girl was recovered in 1992. While it’s possible that some of the aircraft hadn’t been completely switched off after their mass forced landing in 1942. it’s more likely that this detail was just included to add mystery to this otherwise straightforward story of pilots being forced to ditch their planes in an inhospitable location.

This brings me to something that’s annoyed me for a long time. I’m prepared to accept that there may be things that science can’t explain, but it seems that people who make that claim rarely give the scientific method a fair chance to provide answers. They leap straight to the paranormal, because it makes for a good story. History is full of such leaps, I think because we prefer a good story to a messy one, a mystery to a prosaic solution.

Advertisements