The year is 1939 and summer has come to England. Sheep are grazing lazily on the hills and crops ripen in the Midlands. Gentle breezes blow and soft rains fall from low cumulus clouds to water the land. The songs of meadowlarks in mating flight echo with the melodies of other birds.
But a threatening new sound has come to invade this idyllic pastoral setting. Air raid sirens wail their strident warnings in the cities and towns and the rumble of German bombers is heard high overhead, enroute to their targets of RAF airfields and industrial centers. One also can hear the howl of the Merlin engines of Spitfires and Hurricanes rising from small grass airfields to meet the German attackers in deadly combat.
England is at war and has embarked on the great air conflict that will in time be known as the Battle of Britain, the outcome of which will determine whether she will be conquered by Axis forces or will remain free to fight in an even greater battle yet to come, allied with the might of America and many other countries, yet this great air battle she must fight alone.
The day is cloudy, with a low, gray overcast, heavy with the promise of
rain. Over the Channel a lone Spitfire, engine sputtering, trails a streamer of coolant and
smoke and struggles in a vain attempt to maintain altitude. Badly shot up, the
British aircraft has come off second best in a fight with two Messerschmitt
109s. The young pilot has shot down one of his foes, but in doing so has
inadvertently allowed the other to get on his tail, he and his aircraft absorbing burst after burst of fire from the enemies guns. He has finally eluded the German by diving into the clouds, climbing back into the clear only after he is certain the enemy fighter has turned for home.
Once he breaks out on top he finds that he has no clear idea of where he is
or what direction to fly for home. His compass has been destroyed by the
Enemy bullets that have smashed his instrument panel, along with his radio.
His engine has begun to miss and he watches in apprehension as his coolant
temperature gauge begins to climb toward the redline, indicating that his
radiator has been holed and that he has a limited amount of time before his
Bleeding profusely from a fragment of a 20mm cannon shell that has broken his leg, he is unable to open his canopy to bail out and in near panic, looks around, desperate to find the direction back to England. He looks down, but sees only cloud with an occasional break that shows nothing but a gray, angry sea. He spots a buildup of cloud rising from the undercast and turns toward it thinking that it must be cloud building over the Dover coast. In reality it is only rising air over a warm patch of water and he is headed directly for the North Sea.
He is about to throttle back and descend through the undercast when suddenly another Spitfire appears, seemingly out of nowhere, just on his right wing tip.
Our young Flying Officer is momentarily puzzled. Judging from the fuselage markings, the other Spitfire is not from his squadron. However, three other squadrons have been scrambled that afternoon and it is not unusual for aircraft from different squadrons to meet over the channel. It is rare though, to see a lone aircraft not in the company of the four other members of his flight.
The other pilot wags his wings and pulling slightly ahead, gestures for the wounded Spitfire to follow him. His face is invisible behind the oxygen mask and helmet but his meaning is clear and our pilot gladly falls in to his left and slightly behind, keeping close formation. The two aircraft make a ninety-degree turn to the left and after flying for fifteen minutes or so, begin
a descent into the clouds. Maintaining close contact with his rescuer the injured pilot follows him
down through the undercast until they begin to break out. There, directly ahead are the white chalk cliffs of Dover welcoming him home. At that moment his engine gives a final gasp and expires. Setting up for an emergency landing on the narrow stretch of beach, our pilot does not notice that his guide has suddenly disappeared.
He turns parallel to the beach and finds a relatively smooth stretch of sand.
Using best glide speed he approaches with landing gear up and touches down nose high, the Spitfire coming to rest in a spray of sand and water. Our pilot is knocked unconscious and has no recollection of being gently removed from the cockpit by Home Guard volunteers who have witnessed the crash, or the trip by ambulance to the hospital.
When he awakens he finds himself in bed, with a cast on his right leg, a bandage around his head covering a large, stitched gash in his forehead and numerous smaller wounds. His Squadron Leader is sitting by his bedside wearing a concerned look.
“Hallo there, awake at last I see,” he says. “You’ve had quite a time of it lad. I really don’t see how you managed to get an aircraft that badly damaged home, especially in the condition you were in, Well done.”
“I almost didn’t Sir.” Our pilot confesses. “I had help though, a chap from another squadron led me through the clouds. Put me right on the coast he did. I’ve got to find him and give him my thanks. He really saved my life.”
Our pilot tells the Squadron Leader the entire tale and quite amazed, the Squadron leader promises to find the mysterious pilot and put him in touch so our Flying Officer can properly thank him.
Several days later the Squadron Leader enters the pilots room with a strange expression on his face. “Well, my lad,” he says. “We found your mystery Spitfire. He was from a squadron based at Tangmere. The pilot was a youngish chap by the name of Flight Leftenant George Brown. Very
experienced and an excellent pilot who had a number of Jerries to his credit. The problem is that Brown was shot down about two weeks ago. He went down in flames into the Channel and his squadron mates didn’t see him get out. He’s listed as missing in action and presumed dead. Are you sure that you gave me the right aircraft numbers?”
Our pilot confirms the numbers with a sudden chill running down his spine. There had been something odd about the other Spitfire; it hadn’t looked quite solid, as if he could see the clouds through it. He had put it down to his being about to pass out from his wounds. On the other hand, was it just an illusion, or had he been rescued by a ghost?
The same aircraft was subsequently seen many other times over the Channel, leading wounded British aircraft and pilots home. Always, the squadron numbers on the mystery aircraft were the same as those on George Brown’s downed Spitfire. At the end of the Battle of Britain the sightings ceased and the “Angel of the Channel,” as the pilot of the phantom Spitfire was by then known was never seen again.
Was it in truth a ghost, an apparition from the past of a young pilot who had a mission to complete? Was it hallucination, brought on by injury and fear in pilots in trouble who had heard of the legend? Or was it something else entirely? We shall never know.
As pilots we operate in a wonderful, beautiful and sometimes mysterious environment where we see and experience things that the ground-bound shall never know. If we fly long enough we see all sorts of strange things, from unexplained weather phenomena like Saint Elmo’s fire, ball lightning, and sprites, to incidents of seeing other aircraft that aren’t really there. For example, some years ago a Convair 440 airliner was observed by another aircraft to fly into a small cloud. It never came out the other side. When the observer reported the incident he found that a Convair had crashed in heavy weather in that area several months before, killing all on board. Even UFOs have presented themselves to some airmen.
Some phenomena can be explained naturally, such as the corona of rainbow surrounding an aircraft’s shadow on a cloud, but some, especially observed in times of violence and stress, such as wartime, defy explanation.
We are now engaged in ventures into an even more unknown realm, that of outer space. We have traveled to the moon, sent unmanned emissaries such as Voyager into deep space and are now in the process of remotely exploring Mars and the other bodies in our Solar System. Who knows what new mysteries we will find to puzzle and amaze us?