We’re open Monday to Friday from 10am-4:30pm and EVERY Saturday from 12pm-4pm. Free admission, no booking required.

Blog

/

Blog

Aviation Archaeology in Ulster - A Personal Overview

The origins of aviation archaeology date back to the 1960s when bands of diggers, often described as 'aviation enthusiasts', 'relic-hunters' and 'grave-robbers' travelled across the southeast of England in search for fallen aircraft from the Battle of Britain or the Blitz. Digs were generally focused on recovering prime items like engines, cockpit equipment, and personal effects.


Aviation Archaeology in Northern Ireland - The Law

Due to the Troubles, our Second World War aviation heritage was forgotten by most. However, a few local community groups and the enthusiasts of the fledgling Ulster Aviation Society endeavoured to safeguard and document our important wartime and general aviation history during this time.

Legislation was introduced in the mid-1980s to control such digging. The recovery of Second World War aircraft is tightly controlled by the Ministry of Defence under the Protection of Military Remains Act (PMRA) 1986. In Northern Ireland, there is a further requirement to comply with the Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects (NI) Order 1995.

Archaeological legislation in Northern Ireland works in conjunction with the UK-wide PMRA and elevates all buried aircraft remains to the status of 'archaeological objects'. If you want to dig a plane out of the ground in Northern Ireland you need both these licences.

In 2010, the BCC asked me to licence several Northern Ireland related aviation digs for the BBC NI series Dig WW2. Below is a summary of some of the recent excavations.

P8074 - The Donegal Spitfire (2011)

On 30 November 1941, an American pilot, Pilot Officer Roland 'Bud' Wolfe (a member of one of the famed 'Eagle Squadrons' of US volunteers serving with the RAF), abandoned his stricken aircraft which then nose-dived and buried itself deep beneath the peat on Glenshinny mountain on the Inishowen Peninsula, Co. Donegal.

NIWM-Blog-Rolls-Royce-Merlin-Engine
The scale of the operation required to safely retrieve Spitfire P8074 from deep beneath the Donegal peat and clay

The story of P8074 was catapulted onto a global stage due to the iconic fighter's wartime donation by noted Canadian businessman Garfield Weston, its incredible state of preservation, and the firing of one of its recovered Browning machine guns which was watched by over a million people on the BBC website: Spitfire redux: The WWII guns firing after 70 years buried in peat. The wreckage was incredibly well preserved thanks to the soft peat and clay and the preservative effect of the aviation fuel and oil. The iconic Rolls Royce Merlin engine was recovered from a depth of 33 feet.

NIWM-Blog-Final-Checks-Spitfire-P8074
Final checks are made before the firing of one of the Spitfire P8074 Browning machine-guns by Irish Defence Force soldiers on their Athlone firing range

The project culminated in the emotional visit to Derry/Londonderry by the pilot's two daughters and other members of their extended family, to commemorate their father's wartime career and launch the museum exhibition of recovered items. Aviation archaeology isn't and shouldn't be all about the big physical finds. It's about the re-discovery, the re-connection, and the re-uniting.

NIWM-Blog-Rolls-Royce-Merlin-Engine
The Rolls Royce Merlin engine from Spitfire P8074 is retrieved from 33ft down
R6992 - The Monaghan Spitfire (2017)

On 20 September 1942, the quiet Sunday stillness of the Monaghan countryside was shattered by the screaming roar of Spitfire R6992, (a veteran of the Battle of Britain), as it dived pilotless from the clouds. Slightly to the North, descending safely under his parachute, its RAF pilot Flight Lieutenant Gordon Hayter Proctor, heard the aircraft's last moments.

Almost 75 years later, in May 2017, pupils from St Macartan's College and Beech Hill College in Monaghan, and Foyle College in Derry, used Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) to detect the presence of several large metallic objects buried 4.5 meters down in the thick clay beneath a field in Emyvale. We were joined on the day by local resident Josie McCusker, who witnessed the crash in September 1942.

Working through the impact craters layers, the pupils initially found small pieces of the very badly damaged Merlin engine and other burnt finds. However, using the GPR equipment, the team was able to detect larger engine components that were buried a further 6 feet down. The pupils were delighted to eventually recover these from a dept of 8 feet. Over the following months, all the recovered pieces were carefully cleaned, identified, and preserved as part of Monaghan County Museum's award-winning exhibition - 'Life on the Border with a World at War'. The pilot's niece attended the launch of the exhibition.

42- 12814 - P38 Lightning (2019)

On 17th December 1942, an American P38 Lightning crashed near Corrintra, Castleblaney after the pilot, 2nd Lt Milo E Rundall bailed out of his twin-engined fighter aircraft. He had become lost while flying back to RAF Eglinton from Langford Lodge airfield, which is on the eastern shores of Lough Neagh. The pilot landed safely near Keady in Northern Ireland.

Irish military personnel recovered most of the wreckage in 1942. However, licensed surveys undertaken by the project team along with pupils from Foyle College, Derry in Northern Ireland, and Ballybay Community College in Co. Monaghan revealed that small amounts of wreckage remained.

In June 2019, the team undertook the excavation of this iconic US fighter. The pupils liaised with a P38 restoration company in Colorado in the US to learn about parts identification. The team also traced the daughter of 2nd Lt Rundall in Iowa and participated in a BBC radio interview with her. The dig was featured in an episode of BBC Digging for Britain, where the team uncovered bullets, cockpit instruments, data plates, and engine components which were all added to the Monaghan County Museum exhibition.

NIWM-Blog-Drone-Image-Monaghan-Lightning
Drone shot taken by the pupils over the dig site of the Monaghan Lightning
AW 271 Ballykelly Beaufort (2021)

I was granted a very rare licence to excavate a fatal plane crash because of a request from the families of the crew. Logistics were further complicated by the Covid pandemic. The aircraft was a rare Coastal Command Bristol Beaufort aircraft.

The twin engine aircraft crashed on 30 April 1942 just outside Ballykelly, killing its three crew - Flight Lt Archibald Duncan Livingstone (22), Flight Lt Richard William Gilbert Holdsworth (31) and Flight Sgt Stanley Frederick Chadwick (22).

The Foyle College Aviation Team (FCAT) pupils worked closely with the relatives of each of the crew to keep them fully informed of the dig project. Our excavation revealed the burnt soil surface and many pieces of molten aluminium. Key items found were parts of a propellor blade, the fuselage ballast weights, and much piping and cabling. The FCAT pupils secured funding to place a memorial to the crew at the crash site, as well as arranging a very emotional commemoration event later in the year, which included a Spitfire fly-by. This very poignant excavation was also filmed for the BCC Digging for Britain archaeology series.

NIWM-Blog-303-Bullets
303 bullets exploded by the heat of the fire that followed the crash of Beaufort AW271
In conclusion

As a new discipline, aviation archaeology is understandably prone to the kind of mistakes and teething troubles made in other parts of archaeology in earlier times. Nonetheless, without the enthusiasm of the private input of aviation archaeologists we would have little to discuss with respect to the archaeological evidence for aircraft and our wider aviation heritage.

Aviation archaeology deals with the material culture of an extremely well-documented period. Nevertheless, its discoveries are a pathway for the wider population to engage with the Second World War and access the intensity and complexity of human experiences in a manner that is often beyond the scope of traditional archaeology or history.

As a personal observation, for firing up the excitement of school pupils and possibly shaping their future careers, there is no better classroom than an 8 feet deep hole and the smell of aviation fuel.

About the author:

Jonny McNee is the author of The Story of the Donegal Spitfire (2012) and currently works as Senior Marine Planner within the Marine and Fisheries Division in the Department of Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs.

Outside of work, he is an amateur aviation archaeologist and has worked as a contributor to many television series on WW2 history and archaeology. He has undertaken licensed aviation digs in Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, England and Europe, working with local communities and schools to reconnect them with their local Second World War history.

You May Also Like

Card image cap
Biography: Brigadier General Leroy P Collins
Guest author Clive Moore looks at the role and impact of Brigadier General Leroy P Collins (pictured in his Officers Blue Dress uniform in 1941) during the fourteen months he spent in Northern Ireland over two separate postings: a longer period than any other commanding officer, or possibly any other person in the United States military that served in Northern Ireland.
Card image cap
Wartime Bomb Disposal
Author Chris Ranstead writes on the dangers posed by unexploded bombs known as UXBs and the men of 27 Bomb Disposal Company that made them safe long after the Belfast Blitz in 1941.
Card image cap
Polish Squadrons in Northern Ireland Part 1: No. 315 (City of Deblin) Polish Fighter Squadron
Its common knowledge that No. 315 and No. 303 (Polish) Squadrons were based at RAF Ballyhalbert, County Down during the Second World War but what was their role here?
Card image cap
Polish Squadrons in Northern Ireland Part 2: No. 303 (Kosciuszko) Polish Fighter Squadron
Its common knowledge that No. 315 and No. 303 (Polish) Squadrons were based at RAF Ballyhalbert, County Down during the Second World War but what was their role here?
Card image cap
The Epic of the Empire Patrol
On 29 September 1945, the SS Empire Patrol caught fire shortly after leaving Port Said. On board were hundreds of Greek refugees who were returning home to Castellorizo. Within the NIWM collection is an eyewtness account from Ordinary Seaman Stanley Scott of their rescue by the escort carrier, HMS Trouncer.
Card image cap
The US 'Technicians who won't talk'
American forces officially arrived in Northern Ireland on 26 January 1942 with PFC Milburn Henke being selected to be the 'first' to walk down the gangplank. However, hundreds of American technicians had already spent much of 1941 in Northern Ireland, well before the US entry into the war, building US Naval Operating Base Londonderry and a seaplane base at Lough Erne. Discover more about their time in Northern Ireland here:
Card image cap
Queer Life during the Second World War
To mark LGBT+ History Month, NIWM Outreach Officer, Michael Fryer, explores queer life during the Second World War. Please note that this article contains sexual references and may be inappropriate for younger readers.
Card image cap
‘As welcome as the Germans in Norway’: Irish Nationalism and the American presence in Northern Ireland
Dr Simon Topping, author of 'Northern Ireland, the United States and the Second World War' provides an overview of how the leaders of Irish Nationalism regarded the arrival of thousands of American soldiers in Northern Ireland in 1942.
Card image cap
Clothing Rationing
The Board of Trade introduced the immediate rationing of clothing and footwear on 1st June 1941. Read on to find out more.
Card image cap
Sweet Rationing
#DidYouKnow? That on 26th July in 1942 sweets were rationed! The initial allowance was 8 oz per person for a 4 week period… that’s only 2 oz per week! Read on to find out more.
Card image cap
The Last Man’s Club of Battery B
As well as being the first US division to land in Europe during the Second World War, the 34th 'Red Bull' Infantry Division also fired the first American artillery at German forces. This shell was fired by B Battery, 175th Field Artillery Battalion at Medjez-El-Bab, Tunisia, on 19 November, 1942. Although B Battery of the 175th was first to fire in combat, the very first American artillery fire in the European Theatre was delivered by B Battery of the 151st Field Artillery Battalion whilst based in Northern Ireland during 1942. This is the story of how a group of men became bonded for the rest of their lives by a spent shell casing and a bottle of good Irish whiskey.
Card image cap
Coastal Crusts and Stop Lines
In Coastal Crusts and Stop Lines, Dr James O'Neill highlights the anti-invasion defences of Northern Ireland during the Second World War. Pictured is a coastal pillbox emerging from the sands at Magilligan Strand (Co. Londonderry). The dune system swallowed it up again soon after this photo was taken.
Card image cap
Royal Air Force Marine Craft
Much has been written about Northern Ireland’s role in helping to bring about the Allied victory in the Second World War. One aspect however has been overlooked and does not get the attention it deserves - the Royal Air Force Marine Service. In this article, Guy Warner shines a light on its role as a vital enabler not only with regard to the Battle of the Atlantic but also Air Sea Rescue.
Card image cap
Still Over Here Part 1: The archaeology of the United States military in Northern Ireland, 1941-45
'Over There' was a patriotic song about GIs coming to Europe to aid the allied cause. 'Still Over Here' looks at the physical remains of the structures left behind by the hundreds of thousands of US personnel who passed through Northern Ireland during the Second World War. In Part 1 we look at the traces of the US Navy, Army and the structures that remain hidden in the landscape.
Card image cap
Still Over Here Part 2: The archaeology of the United States military in Northern Ireland, 1941-45 - The United States Army Airforce
In Part 2 of 'Still Over Here', Dr James O'Neill examines the remains of the largest remaining sites relating to the US presence in Northern Ireland during the Second World War: the USAAF airfields. As the conflict escalated and losses mounted, six airfields were handed over to the USAAF, training crews and modifying aircraft for the battles in the air over Europe. With each airfield covering hundreds of acres, they are often hidden in plain sight, but many features remain to tell their story.
Card image cap
The War for Industrial Production
In 'The War for Industrial Production', Dr Christopher Loughlin takes a look at industrial relations in Northern Ireland during the Second World War. Often overlooked in official accounts of the conflict, Dr Loughlin explores how organised labour surged during the war years, and how relations between employers were often fractious, leading to industrial disputes and strikes.
Card image cap
Diamonds in the Emerald Isle; The 5th Infantry Division in Northern Ireland
Often overlooked for more famous military formations like the 82nd Airborne and 1st Armored Division, the 5th Infantry Division was one of four American infantry divisions stationed in Northern Ireland during the Second World War. Reactivated in October 1939, the division spent nine months intensively training in the north before setting sail for battlefields in Europe.
Card image cap
Love In War
To mark #ValentinesDay 2024, we're sharing a story from our new blog series #LoveInWar; a collection of blog posts highlighting love stories from our Oral History Collection.

Subscribe To Our Mailing List For Updates