Hi-tech search for Kitty Hawk
Durban - The decades-old search for a missing WW II Kitty Hawk fighter plane which went down in eMkhomazi (Umkomaas) in 1944, may soon go hi-tech with the use of a drone to try to pinpoint the wreckage site.
Since 2004, local history buff Donald Davies from Kloof and his brother Andrew (who now lives in Cape Town) have been searching for the plane.
Davies said their interest was sparked because their father flew a Consolidated B24 Liberator bomber during World War II.
The missing Kitty Hawk was one of two planes which collided on March30, 1944, during a training flight over eMkhomazi.
At that time South African forces were involved in the war effort, particularly in North Africa, and there was a military aerodrome at Reunion, close to Isipingo, which housed a squadron of Kitty Hawk fighter planes.
They were often seen flying over Durban during training exercises.
Davies said investigators into the crash found that one plane had clipped the wing of the other.
The pilots were Second Lieutenants DR Brown and FJ Smith.
“Brown tried to bale out, but he was too low and his parachute failed to open. He hit the ground and was killed,” said Davies.
He said the second plane, flown by Smith, came in from over the river, looking for flat ground on which to land. The plane crashed into the swamp just inland from eMkhomazi and within 24 hours had disappeared.
It is thought the remains of Smith may still be found in the wreckage - should it ever be located.
There have been two major attempts to find the missing plane - in 1986 and 2007 - but both were unsuccessful.
It was a chance meeting in Richards Bay which led Davies, a civil engineer by profession, to intensify his search for the lost Kitty Hawk.
“In 2007, the search was led by Rod Berry. I was working in Richards Bay and was chatting to another engineer who had been helping Berry. He told me Berry had flown a guy out from the UK with a ground-penetrating radar.
“Berry had already dug a pool where he believed the site of the missing plane could be and wanted to bring this guy from the UK out here for a second time
“But he refused to come, so the 2007 search ended. I called Berry and went down to the site and took photographs,” said Davies. He added that each person he had spoken to over the years had added to his now-substantial research.
Over the years, he and his brother have also worked on finding other wreckages, including a plane that crashed in the 1990s in Stettynskloof in the Cape, as well as working on locating old gold mines and tunnels around KwaZulu-Natal.
But the search for the Kitty Hawk remains a mystery which he would like to solve.
“The next step would be to get some footage from a drone to try to capture the same scene as in the original photograph. The Kitty Hawk is out there. As with any search, there’s always a lot of walking and field work, and the drone will be another tool in trying to find it.
“I think we’ll find most of the plane in the mud. It’s a swamp and doesn’t have a catchment area, so the water surface below it doesn’t move much,” said Davies, adding that mud contains less oxygen, which in turn results in a higher level of preservation of objects than dry soil.
He said as technology had changed over the decades, he now used social media and the internet to track down sources of information, a task previously done by landline.
He also gives many talks and presentations on his different projects.
“I enjoy engaging with people. I gave one talk to the military society, and a guy came up to me afterwards and he had a whole lot of articles on the missing Kitty Hawk. From those, I can pick up people’s names and search for them.”
Whether it’s a rumoured secret tunnel, disused gold mine or a missing plane, Davies said: “I just have a keen interest in establishing if things really exist.”
His next talk will be next Saturday, at 2pm, on “Searching For People - Resources available (KZN)”, as a result of his search for the missing Kitty Hawk. It will be hosted by the Durban branch of the Genealogical Society of SA at the Family History Centre (Church of The Latter Day Saints), Montgomery Avenue, Musgrave.
For more information, contact Gail at 0826701842.
The Independent on Saturday