Late in 1944, Capt. Daniel L. Boone and
Navigator Willie Leveen were at Santa Maria in the Azores preparing
their Douglas C-54 transport for a flight to Ayr (Prestwick), Scotland.
Boone had flown the mail since the open-cockpit days of the early 1930s.
Leveen had been a flight radio officer on the North Atlantic routes
for several years but had recently switched to the position of navigator
and was making his fifth North Atlantic flight in that capacity.
The standard flight plan route called for a great circle track from
Santa Maria to 50'N, 7'30"W. The flight would then alter course slightly
to fly over St. George's Channel and across the Irish Sea toward Prestwick.
The trip would be about 1500 nautical miles and would require about
nine hours' flying time. They knew a cold front was approaching Great
Britain from the west, but the weather forecast did not call for the
front's arrival at Prestwick until about one hour after the flight's
ETA of 0100 GMT.
The flight departed Santa Maria about 1600 GMT with a flight crew of
five, a purser and 18 passengers. Shortly before 2200 GMT, Willie Leveen
noticed a mass of clouds ahead - the forecast cold front was obviously
moving faster than anticipated. He quickly shot a four-star fix while
the C-54 was still in the clear. The fix showed the plane to be on course
with a revised ETA of 0105.
Once the plane entered the clouds, radio bearings and dead reckoning
were the only navigational options. About 2300 GMT, Hoag, the radio
operator, got a fix from a ground radio station at The Valley, Wales.
When Leveen plotted the LOP, it was just about at a right angle to the
projected course. Willie scratched his head, if the fix were correct,
the airplane's ground speed had been drastically reduced.
About 2400 GMT, Leveen approached Capt. Boone and asked if he would
climb out of the clouds so he could take a star shot.
"Not a chance," Boone reportedly responded. He was concerned that the
clouds rose to extreme heights, and he didn't want to waste fuel.
Leveen returned to his chart table. According to the flight plan it
was time to catch the eastern leg of the Nutt's Corner (Belfast) LF
radio range and ride it in to Prestwick, but the radio signal could
not be found. Leveen pondered his predicament: no definite fix and fuel
burning at a rate of 240 gallons per hour. Leveen went again to Boone
and renewed his request. Boone again demurred, not only for the original
reason but also a celestial fix would be of little help in landing at
Prestwick. Leveen and Hoag continued to monitor all radio frequencies.
Occasionally signals could be heard, but none could provide an LOP.
The flight crew was aware of their predicament. Those in the passenger
cabin, however, were unaware of the mounting problems. The safety of
the aircraft rested in the hands of Daniel L. Boone. He consulted with
Leveen and both reasoned that the Irish Sea must lie to the west of
their current position. Boone suggested that the aircraft turn to a
westerly heading and descend to the point where it would break out of
the clouds over water. Perhaps from that point the plane could find
its way to Prestwick visually. Boone pulled back the four throttles,
turned to a heading of 270, and watched as the altimeter unwound.
The altimeter's pressure setting had not been adjusted since reaching
cruise altitude. Because the aircraft had entered a very strong low-pressure
area, there was a risk that the altimeter reading would be too high.
As the altimeter's needle passed through 2000 feet, Boone eased back
on the yoke and slowed the rate of decent. There were no breaks in the
clouds. At an indicated altitude of 1500 feet, Boone turned to Leveen
and said: "You win Willie!" The throttles were advanced, and the plane
began its reach for the stars. Passing through 19,000 feet, the crew
donned their oxygen masks, but the passengers did not have that luxury.
For them the only option was an occasional draw on a small tube hooked
up to the plane's oxygen system. As the plane passed through 20,000
feet, the limited amount of oxygen available to the passengers was useful
only to keep them alive. Perhaps it was better that their senses were
In the thin air, the C-54's rate of climb slowed. The plane could go
no higher. It wallowed along between 25,000 and 26,000 feet. Leveen
stood on the navigator's stool in the astrodome looking for something
to shoot with his octant. Every time he exhaled frost would coat the
inside of the Plexiglass dome. Toward the east, Leveen noticed a pale
white glow. Thinking it was more frost, he tried to rub it away, but
the glow remained. Then it came to Leveen: the moon! Leveen took off
his oxygen mask and raised the octant to his eye. Shouting at Boone
to keep the plane level as possible, Leveen aimed the oxtant and pressed
Several minutes passed before Leveen returned to his chart table, where
he applied the readings from his oxtant to the sight-reduction tables.
At first he thought the lack of oxygen had caused him to make a computational
error, but he rechecked the figures several times and the answer came
out the same each time: The plane and the 24 souls aboard were just
off the coast of Norway.
Somehow the tremendous head wind calculated many hours before had turned
into an equally tremendous tail wind. "Dan, do a 180!", Leveen yelled.
the navigator implicitly, Boone turned the aircraft to a
southwesterly heading and began to descend. The engines were leaned
to the maximum, and the propeller revolutions slowed as well.
Boone took the plane down to 500 feet, where occasional glimpses of
whitecaps below were used to reset the airplane's altimeter. Boone then
lowered the plane to 200 feet in order to minimize the head wind. By
now the flight was in peril. Boone turned to the flight engineer and
gave the order: "Prepare to ditch!"
As the passengers put on their Mae Wests and the life
jackets were readied for use, Leveen and Hoag continued to check radios
but could not make any contacts. Almost 30 minutes went by before Boone
exclaimed: "Land." The ball was now back in the captain’s court. His
plan was to fly inland for 30 minutes searching for an airfield or flat
place on which to belly-land the airplane. If this failed, the plane
would return to the coast and ditch as close as possible to shore. In
reality, this option provided no more chance for survival than did a
ditching in the open sea.
The allotted 30 minutes was rapidly running out when Hoag shouted:
‘I've got Prestwick!' It was 0430 GMT. The plane had been in the air
for more than 12 hours and without a fix for 6 ˝ hours.
Hoag's fist beat a "QDL" into the code key, a request for a series
of radio bearings. Then he held the key down for two minutes so that
stations could orient their direction-finding antennas toward the plane's
signal. Shortly, Haag received a "QTF" (latitude and longitude) from
Prestwick. He scribbled the figures on a scrap of paper and handed it
to Leveen: 3' 35"W, 53' 20"N. For the second time that night, Leveen
turned toward Boone and yelled: "Make a 180!" The plane's position was
near Colwyn Bay, Wales. Boone again complied without question.
During the time since Boone had first sighted land (probably near Grimsby),
the plane had flown across England and was on the verge of heading out
over the Irish Sea. There was no chance of making Prestwick. The plane
had to land - now!
Leveen mind continued to work. From his days as a
radio operator he remembered that the RAF had an emergency radio direction
finding system called "Darkee" to help disabled bombers find landing
areas. He said later that he was praying to God when the frequency came
into his head: 4220 kilocycles> He dialed in 4220 on the command set,
keyed the microphone and called: "Darkee! Darkee! Darkee!" Out of the
ether came the reply: " This is Darkee. Circle. Circle."
Boone rolled the C-54 into a steep bank, picked up
the 120-degree heading given by Darkee and reset the altimeter to the
pressure provided. The plane was at 600 feet, but Darkee assured them
that the highest obstruction in the area was "only" 400 feet. More vectors
ensued as the plane worked its way toward the unseen landing area. Darkee
finally radioed that the plane was directly above the airport, but the
ground was still dark. Further instructions to descend to 500 feet,
then 400 feet, and then 300 feet were complied with.
Durkee finally radioed that the airplane should circle to land. Even
at 150 feet no runway lights were visible. Boone asked for the airfield
to shoot off a flare and a green arc appeared in the sky. He banked
the aircraft sharply, causing engine no. 4 to sputter for lack of fuel.
Boone feathered the prop and continued his approach. Suddenly, two rows
of lights appeared through the windshield of the C-54. In all the excitement
Darkee had forgotten to turn on the runway lights!. Boone ordered the
landing gear and flaps lowered and dove for the first of the lights.
When the runway finally appeared Boone firmly planted the wheels and
then applied the brakes. As the far end of the runway came closer, he
triggered the emergency braking system and locked the main wheels. When
the plane came to a stop, Leveen noticed that engine no. 3 had also
quit from lack of fuel.
The runway at the RAF fighter base was not very long so the taxi back
to the hardstand was quick. It was just as well, for the other two engines
were suffering symptoms of fuel exhaustion as well. The local time was
0700 GMT, six hours past the ETA for Prestwick. The plane had been in
the air for 15 hours. As the airplane came to a rest, nos. 1 and 2 engines
quit out of fuel.
What happened to Boone, Leveen and company proves that sometimes you
can do everything right but still are the victim of circumstances. Obviously,
the cold front had moved in more quickly than predicted with winds stronger
than anticipated. As for the radio problems, it seemed that Mother Nature
had picked this moment in time to send forth a massive solar flare.
The plane had actually flown over Prestwick, and their radio signals
had been heard on the ground. Repeated warnings from Prestwick that
the flight was heading over the North Sea went unheard.
Oh yes, one final note. The 18 passengers did arrive safely and went
on to complete their duties. They were all generals of the U. S. Army
returning from a conference in Washington. Had Willie Leveen not gotten
his good moon shot and remembered the Darkee frequency, the Battle of
the Bulge might well have had a different outcome.