|On 27 January, 1944, a USAF Lockheed Lightning P38 fighter took off for its last flight over the Mediterranean. Its pilot, Second Lieutenant Harry R Greenup, was to join another P38 and escort a formation of Flying Fortress bombers.|
At that time the Lightning was the fastest fighter in existence (485mph), and had the widest operational range. It could fly higher than the German Messerschmitt or Japanese Zero (to 13,000m), and was the only aircraft with five guns mounted together in the nose, which lent it great accuracy.
The Germans called it the Fork-Tailed Devil, the Japanese Two Aircraft with one Pilot. The design originated from a sketch made by Lockheeds chief engineer on a train journey, and the prototype flew in 1938. More than 10,000 were built.
Twelve metres long, with a wingspan of 17m, the Lightning was powered by two Allison V17 twelve-cylinder water-cooled engines, each developing 1475hp. It was armed with four 12mm Browning M2 machine-guns, and a 20mm AN-M2 cannon.
Above La Ciotat Bay, east of Marseilles, Greenups formation came under fire, either from anti-aircraft cannon from the German defences on Isle Verte, or from enemy aircraft. Greenup and his aircraft went missing.
In the mid-90s Marcel Camilleri, director of the Aquanaut Diving Centre at Les Lecques, heard from some old fishermen that at least three aircraft had gone down over La Ciotat Bay towards the end of the war. He began a systematic exploration that would continue for winter after winter - until the day of discovery.
There were four of us diving, says Marcel. After 20 minutes bottom time, we were swimming over a flat, sandy bed at 40m in the dim light of the evening. When pressure reached 60 bar, I gave the signal to ascend.
We were at about 30m when I saw a large school of small fish just above the seabed. So many fish gathering together at the same position on the sand had to be significant. My dive buddy Alain had reached the same conclusion. We had about 50 bar left but immediately dived to have a quick look.
Hazy at first but increasingly well-defined, the pair saw the blue-grey shape of an aircraft. Their excitement rapidly turned to consternation. What we had searched for for years was here in front of our eyes, but we had nothing to mark it!
Our companions had continued up, carrying the ropes and marker buoys. It was terrible!
The divers were running into long decompression stops, and their gauges already moving into the red zone. Then, what for a fisherman long before had been a bit of bad luck became a godsend. The net had tangled on the wreck and the rope, which had been cut, was ready for us to use, says Marcel.
He quickly tied his SMB to the rope and deployed it with a blast of his precious remaining air.
We were singing with joy inside, he says. Only the fact that we had little air left for adequate decompression brought us back to reality.
What the divers believed they had found was the P38 Lightning flown by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, fighter-pilot and famous author of The Little Prince. Millions of francs has been spent in vain to recover his aircraft, which had disappeared in 1944 during a reconnaissance flight between Corsica and Lyon. The search had concentrated on Hyeres and islands and mountains on the route; Les Lecques would represent only a small deviation, particularly for such a fast aircraft.
The trouble was, Saint-Exuperys aircraft had been equipped with cameras and only one cannon. This one had five.
Nothing about aerial combats in the area could be found in naval archives or period newspapers, but pilots who had once flown with the 367 Fighter Group contacted the divers on the Internet when news of the find emerged.
With the help of original drawings and technical details, information needed to identify the aircraft should have been available.
It was impossible to look inside the cockpit, because the Lightning was lying on its back, but Marcel and his companions needed to see the serial number stamped on the instrument panel. They began to remove the sand around the wreck.
Everyone was edgy when they were finally in position to lift the canopy, not knowing whether the pilot was still inside, but the seat was empty. The serial number, 43-2545, was found at once, and Marcel knew it was not St Exuperys aircraft, but Greenups.
A while later, I found myself 40m above the wreck, gripped as usual before this sort of dive by both expectation and nerves.
The sensation was particularly strong this time, as very few people had so far seen the Lightning. The water wasnt very clear but photography was feasible.
Theres a great difference between an airborne aircraft and a wreck. What I saw was no longer in perfect shape, but it was very much alive. The enormous engine cylinders were decorated by sponges and tubeworms. The aerodynamic fuselage, once perfectly smooth, was now home to various coral formations. I found a large lobster under one wing.
This machine of destruction, once embodying the USAFs leading-edge technology, had become an oasis in a desert of sand.
Hovering above the inverted Lightning, I had a perfect aerial view. The port engine had detached from the wing and was now close to the wreck. The fuselage was intact, right, left and centre, and extended back to the gigantic tail.
The front undercarriage was retracted and the front of the fuselage, from which the cannon projected, slightly buried.
The starboard engine remained fixed to the wing and two complete propellers rested on the sand, while the third rose vertically. I could see the providential fishing net hanging from the wrecked port engine.
The Lightning looked to have been placed delicately on the sand by a giant hand. I poked my head into the cockpit before ascending and found myself staring into the large eyes of a conger eel. The cockpit was tiny, and I wondered how a man could have remained in such a restricted space for hours.
And there, among the instruments, I saw the serial number that had eluded the discoverers for so long.
|The Lockheed P38 Lightning found at Les Lecques in France and dived by Kurt Amsler |
|propellers of the starboard engines rest upright in the sand |
|12mm cannon and ammunition |
|The well-colonised Lightning wreck at Les Lecques |