The mystery surrounding an old downed naval aircraft, observed in late October 2018 by a helicopter news crew from the Eastern Shore, has been solved.
As previously published in the Nov. 15, 2018 issue of Tester, while on assignment shooting footage for an aerial special, a member of the WBOC Chopper 16 news crew spotted a small crashed aircraft sitting in shallow water in the middle of Wroten Island, just offshore from Dorchester County.
“We were flying over going out to another island when I saw the airplane,” said Taylor Rogers, a producer with WBOC-TV out of Salisbury, Maryland. “We went on to do what we had to do and then I asked the pilot to go back so I could record it. We circled the island and I got as many shots as I could with the HD helicopter camera.”
Back at the station, WBOC reporter Brooke Reese made a series of phone calls to military bases in the area and learned from Dover Air Force Base’s military museum that it was definitely a mid-century era training/testing type of aircraft. Eventually, Reese spoke with the public affairs officer at NAS Patuxent River who advised her to contact George Schwarz, an underwater archaeologist with Naval History and Heritage Command, whose team has been compiling a list of the potential locations of aircraft that crashed out of Pax River in the 1940s and 1950s.
Schwarz’s research did indicate a TV-2 Shooting Star had crashed off the installation in the early 50s and based on archival records, had pinpointed Wroten Island as one of its possible crash sites. Reese traveled to visit Schwarz in Washington, D.C., armed with the video footage shot overhead by Rogers.
“Initially, Dr. Schwarz had said he might not be able to confirm it was a naval aircraft, what type of aircraft it was, or where it was from,” Reese said. “He said the details we were looking for would probably not happen.”
Schwarz was pleased when the high-definition video clearly showed the letters NATC – Naval Air Test Center – painted on the tail of the aircraft, indicating it was a Navy wreck. But, before Schwarz could definitively comment on which aircraft it was, he would need to physically visit the site, take measurements, look for features that are diagnostic of the TV-2 and attempt to find the Bureau Number, the ultimate piece of evidence. However, with other higher priorities, that likely wouldn’t happen any time soon.
The aircraft and pilot revealed
Fortunately, not long after Channel 16 aired the story on the news about what they called their “mysterious discovery,” Reese received an email from Philip Iglehart, a previous owner of the island, telling her that he and his friend, Michael Keyser, knew exactly what that aircraft was and the story behind how it got there.
“I was very pleased to get that email from Mr. Iglehart,” Reese said.” The information [he and Keyser] had was beyond any expectation. To them it was just something that happened, but to us it was an interesting story to be retold.”
Tester contacted Michael Keyser to hear the story firsthand.
“It happened on Nov. 27, 1953,” Keyser noted. “My father, Fenwick Keyser, and some old college buddies of his owned the hunting club on Wroten Island back then. They were sitting in a [duck] blind hunting not far from where the plane came down. They went running through the marsh with their hip boots on and when they got there, the pilot was sitting there making sure he was still alive.”
Fenwick Keyser, who at the time also owned the Baltimore County Union News, wrote an article about the event in which he described seeing a silvery jet plane drop suddenly out of the overcast and head directly for their blind.
“Situated as we were, only a few miles from the Patuxent Naval Air Station, the presence of the plane, even at an extremely low altitude, was not unusual,” Keyser wrote. “It was not until the jet swerved slightly, zoomed rapidly over the marsh in the rear of the blind and started chopping the tops out of a stand of tall pine trees in the center of the island that the two of us realized we were eyewitnesses to a crack-up. For an instant, large hunks of trees were tossed through the air like matchwood. Then there was a loud thud and finally silence.”
When Keyser arrived on scene, he described seeing parts of the jet strewn over a wide area along the glide path through the trees, and both the nose and tail had been twisted and partially torn away from the fuselage.
“But the cockpit was intact and there, crawling out of it, was a coverall-clad figure in a brilliant Mae West life jacket,” he wrote.
That pilot was Lt. Cmdr. Kenneth S. Smith with Service Test Division, Pax River. As reported in the Dec. 4, 1953 issue of Tester news, the accident occurred at noon when his TV-2 Shooting Star jet trainer suffered a flame-out.
Keyser wrote that, on scene, the pilot explained his “$50,000 jet motor had cut out seven minutes after he took off from the Patuxent base and that gravity had done the rest of the job, despite his frantic efforts to get the engine started again as he hurtled toward the earth.”
Not long after the crash, Keyser reported a Navy helicopter circled the trees a few times, hovered 40 feet above them, and lowered a long steel cable dangling a yellow sling which quickly hauled Smith up into its belly before returning to Pax.
“The pilot had told us his plane was a special conversion job designed for the testing of new instruments and two large panels bristling with gauges, switches and dials bore out his words,” he wrote. “The commander, just before leaving, also intimated that the Navy would be extremely grateful if nobody pinched a large gadget which was an experimental gyro-driven artificial horizon and the only one of its kind in existence.”
About an hour later, two more helicopters deposited members of a salvage team on the ground.
“Equipped with the proper tools, skilled mechanics made short work of removing vital equipment,” Keyser wrote. “Both instrument panels and a variety of other mysterious gadgets were hauled up and stowed in the waiting helicopters, and by dark, the cockpit of the plane had been reduced to a few knobs, switches, and lengths of wire and tubing.”
A document, signed by Fenwick Keyser on Dec. 1 of that year, gave the Navy permission to remove the plane from the island, although for reasons unknown, they never did.
Michael Keyser, who was only six years old at the time of the crash, remembers the Navy building a wooden platform in the marsh which served as a landing pad for a helicopter.
“There wasn’t as much water as there is today, but the ground was marshy,” Keyser said. “I’m not sure how they got the engine out of there, but I guess they took what they wanted and decided the rest was too much trouble [to remove.]”
And so the aircraft remained, largely forgotten over the passing decades, until Chopper 16 and WBOC uncovered its history once again.