High-flying find

JONNY McNee has an unusual piece of ‘sculpture’ in his garden. It’s a Spitfire, to scale and a third the size of the real thing, only it is made of willow...

Back in the early 1990s he was involved in a dig for a crashed Spitfire at the former site of the RAF base on the edge of Eglinton, but could not find it, but through a contact with feelers in the BBC, Jonny found out a production team from ‘Aunty’ were coming over to find it and he made contact offering to ‘pool resources. However, it proved equally fruitless in terms of what it turned up.

Asked if he knew of any other crashed wartime aircraft he mentioned the crashed Spitfire in Donegal which had flown from Eglinton with a tremendous story behind it which had lain lost for many years.

“Nobobody had ever found it, but I promised the producer I would go out and look for it, and I went out with my daughter Graceand we found it within a couple of minutes. It was very bizarre the way we found it. A lot of people think the story is waffle but I am delighed to say it isn’t, and we then went back with our special metal detectors and magnetometers that can see 30 feet down into the peat and we were getting readings that there was substantial wreckage there,” he said.

When that failed he recalled that one had also crashed shortly after takeoff and had nose-dived into the bogland of Innishowen. One day in January he went out to see if he could find it, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The aviation enthusiast from Claudy not only found the site of the crash, but it soon became apparent that the bogland had preserved the aircraft and it became a major focus for the team behind the forthcoming BBC NI series, entitled Dig WW2. In June he became involved in the first licenced excavation and recovery of a WW2 aircraft to be undertaken in Ireland which involved a a team of specialists.

Among the iconic pieces of the P8074 Spitfire were its tail rudder and landing wheel, the guns which were restored and much of the metal parts of the engine as well as the pilot’s helmet, oxygen mask, safety harness and paperwork.

“It has been a tremendous opportunity to participate in a project where as soon as you rang everyone up and said ‘I am looking to dog a Spitfire out of a bog, are you in?’ I cannot recall one person who said ‘no, yo uare not doing it’ or ‘That sounds dull’. Everyone was in, even in the most complicated issues, I mean can you imagine trying to organise the licencing to get six machine guns brought from Donegal into Northern Ireland?” said Mr McNee gleefully.

He laughs as he muses about that fact that in January he had gone out to find a location for a crash site, which should have led to a five-minute slot in a three-hour series on World War II being done by 360 Productions, and “things got slightly out of hand”.

One of those one-hour programmes, to be screened next year, has ended up being devoted to the story of US Pilot Officer Rowland L (Bud) Wolfe who was forced to bail out of his aircraft on November 30, 1941.

In his comments at the opening of the exhibition, Mr McNee paid tribute to his wife, Andree, for her patience with him, saying he had gone out in January to find a Spitfire, and that journey had taken him almost a year to complete, only for him to find that there were two Spitfires in his life - he was married to the other one.

He proposed a vote of thanks to Alderman Maurice Devenney, who opened the exhibition in his capacity as Mayor, and thanked ‘The Wolfe pack’ for travelling from America to be a part of the occasion.

He also thanked his dig team, the staff and crew at 360 Productions, his friends at Gleneely, the local museum team who worked on the artefacts, and paid tribute to them all saying: “Never in the field of Museum displays was so much owed by so many to so few”.

He saved his final tribute to the men like Pilot officer Wolfe, who fought to keep Europe free from opression, saying: “I think we should stand in absolute awe of their unconditional willingness to put their lives on the line in the defence of liberty. This I believe is what we must remember.”

Dig WW2 will be shown in February.