Sisters of heroic pilot in emotional visit to city to walk in their father’s footsteps

A WHISTLESTOP tour of the north west, which culminated with the opening of an exhibition featuring a Spitfire buried in an Innishowen bog for the past 70 years, has brought an eventful year to a close for one American family.

Barbara Kucharczyk (Lt Colonel USAF, Ret’d), and her sister Betty Wolfe, travelled from the USA to view the plane their father had flown while in service with 133 Eagle Squadron, who ran missions out of Eglinton Airfield, protecting convoy ships. On Wednesday last, lost amid their emotions, the sisters accompanied by family, made the trip to Moneydarragh near Gleneely, where 70 years ago to the day their father, Pilot Officer Rowland L Wolfe suffered engine failure and bailed out, only to find himself interned for fear Ireland would be invaded by the Germans and used as a backdoor to the UK.

A simple service of commemoration took place at the crash site, and on Thursday the sisters finally got to see the recovered aircraft. A plaque to the memory of those who fought from the sky for the Allied Forces was unveiled at Eglinton Airport, where the ladies viewed the perfectly intact tail wheel from their airplane, which emerged from the bog still full of air now on show beside the wall plaque.

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At the foyer of the Workhouse Museum an hour later they came face-to-face with the Merlin engine that had powered their father’s craft, and on the first floor they were the guests of honour for the opening ceremony, sharing some recollections, poetry and offering sincere thanks to everyone involved in the recovery and restoration of the aircraft.

The Spitfire was rescued using specialist diggers that reached 15 meters under the earth to free the plane, which had hit the bog with an impact speed of 350mph.

Sadly, Pilot Officer Wolfe was not there to witness the excavation or the exhibition. He passed away 17 years ago, but as his proud daughters tearfully noted, he was with everyone in spirit, and would dearly have loved to spend quiet time, away from the glare of publicity, just to put his hand on the Merlin engine once more.

Head of Museum Services for the City Council, Roisin Doherty, was MC for the launch of the Spitfire exhibition, which will eventually go on permanent display in the Maritime Museum on the former Ebrington Barracks site.

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Speaking at the launch the Mayor, Alderman Maurice Devenney, described it as “a wonderful event”.

“It is a very memorable occasion for this family and I hope they had had time to see how the city has developed through history, and I hope you enjoying yourselves despite the hectic schedule. I also hope you take back fond memories of the city and pass it on to your friends and family in America,” he said, adding that he hoped in time that the excavation story would go on to be a much greater story for the city.

While Betty Wolfe offered an insight into her father’s determination to become a pilot, obtaining his pilot’s licence by the age of 19 or 20 from Lindberg Field and heading off when the first opportunity presented itself to fly a Spitfire, she added that despite internment her father had fought in Korea and Vietnam, but would not have wanted to be in the spotlight.

She said it had been overwhelming to stand on the runway, looking down the white line and seeing the countryside that would have been a familiar sight to her father. She also acknowledged the intertwining of her family’s story with the story of Londonderry.

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Barbara Kucharczyk, using poetry by Raymond carver (Waiting) and Seamus Heaney (Postscript) to illustrate her comments, spoke of the close bond between the members of the 133 Eagle Squadron and the deep and abiding love those men had for their aircraft.

Noting that her father would have shied away from publicity and instead wanted to spend time talking about the process of retrieving his aircraft with its rescue team, and touching the engine, she said it fell to the wider family including those involved with the excavation to discover how to carry the project forward in peaceful means, but also acknowledged: “This dig has allowed us another opportunity to honour those who served.”

Acknowledging the work done and hospitality shown, she added: “We thank you from open hearts”.

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