The Disappearance of Navy Flight 86
The Beginning of a Long Trip
It was the end of May as Jay Fisher, loaded up his car for a thousand-mile journey from Grand Heaven, Michigan to Pensacola, Florida. Fisher, a long time postal carrier, was headed south to see his only son Richard graduate from flight school at Naval Air Station Pensacola.
In the time before highways, the trip would be a long and arduous one to say the least. But Jay was proud of his son and wanted to be there to share the special day with him.
Growing up on the Great Lakes, Richard had always been fascinated with the Coast Guard. Then as it still is today, Grand Haven was a hub of Coast Guard activities so Richard had a lot to see. In 1938, at the age of 20, he joined the service.
After a few years, Richard decided he wanted to fly and in 1941, while stationed at Elizabeth City, Richard put in for flight school. That was where Paul Smith met Richard. "We underwent flight elimination together," said Smith. "That was where they separated those who had the skills and ability to complete flight training from those who didn't."
In December, Fisher and Smith, along with eight other Coast Guardsmen, arrived in Pensacola to begin their training. "In our class there were 20 from the Navy, 15 Marines and 10 Coast Guardsmen," said Smith.
"Richard and I got along great," said Smith. "We were all doing terrific in our Final Squadron and I remember that we sent a lot of time at the beach."
A few days before graduation, during a review of his flight training requirements, it was discovered that Fisher was short four hours of flight navigation training needed for graduation. The problem could be solved easily. Fisher was to be scheduled to fly a training flight the day before graduation. That would get him the needed time and he could graduate with his classmates.
It was about that time that Fisher's father completed his journey from Michigan. "Richard's dad arrived and fortunately they we able to send time together," said Smith
That evening the name R.L. Fisher appeared on the roster to fly a training mission the next day.
June 5, 1942
On the morning of June 5, 1942, U.S. Navy PBY-5A #05023 was readied for a regular 8-hour flight. It would be a combination training and antisubmarine patrol out over the Gulf of Mexico, and as such had four 325-pound depth charges attached to its wings. The PBY was also loaded with 1200 rounds of 30-caliber ammunition along with 700 rounds of 50-caliber ammo. For the day, the PBY would be designated Flight 86 assigned to patrol Sector 5.
At 7:10, the PBY-5A departed NAS Pensacola, piloted by Ensign Malcolm W. Bird, with the flight crew made up of AMM1 William D. Price, AOM3 Allen W. Shepherd, AMM2 Earl D. Barnard, ARM3 Thomas S. Holleran and ARM3 John M. Ernst. Flying. Flying along as students were AMM1 Leverne E. Shaffstall, AMM1 Forrest E. Bruce, AMM2 Johnnie E. Boyett and AMM2 Richard L. Fisher the only Coast Guardsmen aboard.
According to testimony given by Executive Officer of Squadron 4, Lt Justin A. Miller, all was proceeding well with the flight until they missed their 11 a.m. position report. "No action was taken at that time because it was considered likely that the plane had experienced radio trouble and having such a problem would return to the base, which was standard squadron doctrine," he said. Although contact had not been established with Flight 86, at noon, a message was sent to them to investigate a report by a Honduran ship, the SS Granada, that they were being followed by a sub. There was no response from Flight 86.
As the day worn on, the communications center tried repeatedly to contact Flight 86. At 2:45 pm, another PBY, Flight 97, which was patrolling Sector 3, was ordered to search Sector 5, fuel permitting.
If the flight had continued as planned it would have returned to the NAS Pensacola shortly after 3 p.m. The time came and went with no sign of Flight 86. Late in the day, three planes were sent out to search for Flight 86. As the planes searched, Jay Fisher waited for his son's return at the seaplane ramp, some of Richard's classmates waiting with him. Soon, the sun set and night fell, and still Richard's father waited.
The next day, as Richard's father continued his vigil, 40 planes from Squadron's 4 and 5 searched the Gulf. In addition, Army and Coast Guard planes searched along with Navy destroyers. Although one of the search planes reported what appeared to be a submerged wing, it appeared to have a yellow tip, something the missing PBY did not have.
The search was expanded on the 7th and continued through the 8th until it was finally suspended, with no sign of Flight 86 being found.
Jay Fisher waited and waited. For three days we waited at the seaplane ramp for the return of his son. Some on Richard's friends kept watch with him. But, finally, he gave up waiting. With Richard's personal affects loaded in his car he began the long, painful journey home.
Board of Inquire Convened
On June 9th a Board of Inquiry was convened to investigate the probable cause for the disappearance of Flight 86.
During the five days of the inquiry, a number of interesting facts were uncovered, among them were:
Ensign Bird, while considered a competent pilot, did have an event of vertigo while flying. LTjg Bryan D. Sheedy reported that while flying with Ensign Bird three months earlier on a very dark and hazy night, Ensign Bird's eyes froze on the instrument panel and the plane started into a spiral, losing altitude. "He didn't seem to realize what he was doing," said Sheedy. "I let him stay in it for about a 180 degree turn. At that point the speed was picking up rapidly, and the spiral was tightening. I had to take the controls away from him. He told me afterwards that he was just fascinated by the instruments, and that he just couldn't seem to correct. He told me he was glad I was there because he didn't know what he would do."
The pilot of the PBY, Flight 97, the plane sent from Sector 3 to search Sector 5, reported weather conditions in Sector 5 as very poor. Clouds were down to 100 feet in some places, with heavy rain and squalls, and visibility varying from only 200 years to 800 yards. The weather was so bad that at times he had to fly on instruments.
That a few weeks earlier, in early May, a PBY from Squadron 4 reported being fired on. The pilot reportedly saw what looked like machine gun tracer bullets coming at them. The incident happened in the same sector that Flight 86 had been patrolling near the mouth of the Mississippi River.
The Board was unable to determine an exact cause for the disappearance of Flight 86, only that in the board's opinion the disappearance of PBY-5A #05023, was not caused by the intent, fault, negligence or inefficiency of any person or persons in the naval service or connected therewith.
However, LTjg Sheedy was issued a letter of reprimand for not reporting his earlier experience with Ensign Bird to superior officers.
On June 20th, fifteen days after Flight 86 disappeared, the Coast Guard picked up a tail wheel assembly and two unused rubber rafts, off Grand Isle, Louisiana. Further investigation revealed that they had indeed come from Flight 86.
|Although some wreckage of the craft had been found, it shed no light on what occurred and the mystery of what happened still remained. After the war, he was listed as "Missing in Action" on the 'Tablets of the Missing' at East Coast World War II Memorial in New York City.|
Looking for Unanswered Questions
Larry Whatcott, the nephew of Richard Fisher, has been researching the disappearance of his uncle's PBY for several years. During that time he's amassed boxes full of news clips, personnel records and reports.
"My family didn't know for 54 years what happened and I suspect it's the same with the other families," said Whatcott. "I'd like very much to share what I know with the family members of the other crewmen so we all can have some closure. An MIA is hard to live with."
But while Whatcott has amassed a lot of information, the answers have been hard to come by. "My investigation has stalled trying to find and contact the surviving family members of the crew," he said.
The Case of two R. L. Fishers
While doing his research, Whatcott uncovered another mystery. "In some of the news clips one of the missing crewmen was identified as Ralph L. Fisher," said Whatcott. "I had always thought that is was just a mistake the newspapers had made."
But, as turned out it was not a mistake. In fact there had been two R.L. Fishers undergoing training that spring at NAS Pensacola. One Richard L. Fisher, U.S. Coast Guard and the other Ralph L. Fisher, U.S. Navy.
Larry Whatcott tracked Ralph Fisher down 60 years after his uncle's disappearance and discovered the extraordinary tale of how he and his uncle had been mistaken for one another.
Ralph Fisher was undergoing training at NAS Pensacola the same time as his uncle. But there was just one problem. According to the Navy, Ralph Fisher was dead! And if that wasn't bad enough, because the Navy thought he was dead, he was not getting a paycheck either. So after a couple weeks of trying to unravel the paperwork snafu, Fisher was told to go ahead and go home for two weeks until things could be straighten out.
That night Fisher saw his name, R.L. Fisher, scheduled to fly the next day. He was told to ignore it, and he did.
When Flight 87 disappeared, and it became evident that the plane and crew would not be returning, a telegram was sent to the parents of Ralph Fisher in Miami telling them he was missing. Fisher's parent got on the next train for Pensacola.
Being dead once didn't seem to be good enough. Now the Navy thought Ralph Fisher was dead a second time.
Meanwhile, Ralph was still in Pensacola and writing letters home. As his parents were on a train headed for Pensacola, his sister was opening up one of his letters that had arrived in Miami, written after he was supposed to have disappeared on Flight 87.
For over 60 years Ralph L. Fisher thought that we had somehow cheated death. That he was supposed to have been on the flight that day. Until he was contacted by Whatcott, he never knew that the R.L Fisher listed for that flight was not him but Richard L. Fisher.
Disappearance Still a Mystery
Today, more than 60 years after the disappearance of Flight 86, the incident is still a mystery. Was Flight 86 hit by enemy fire? Perhaps it succumbed to a mechanical malfunction or weather. Or did the pilot become mesmerized as he looked down at the instrument panel? We may never know. Just as we can only imagine just how painfully long the thousand-mile drive back to Grand Haven was for Jay Fisher.