1 MAY 1942
CRASH LANDING OF SIX AIRACOBRAS

ON CAPE YORK PENINSULA

 

Six USAAF P-39 Airacobras of "D" Flight of the 36th Squadron of the 8th Fighter Group left Antill Plains airstrip near Townsville headed for Port Moresby on 1 May 1942. They refuelled at Cooktown and then flew into an intense storm close to Horn Island, their next scheduled stop.

 

cape01.jpg (46572 bytes) As four of the pilots were inexperienced in "Instrument Flying", Lieutenant Charles Falletta decided to lead the group  towards the mainland to find a suitable place to land.  Falletta in #41-6951 and Lieutenant Walter Harvey in #41-7215 became lost in thick cloud and crash landed 13-16 kilometres inland from Cape Orford Ness, near the Escape River, at the top of Cape York Peninsula. 

Lt Walter Harvey brought P-39 #41-7215 in wheels-up and Lt Falletta landed #41-6951 wheels-down.

Lieutenant Bob Yundt made a successful wheels-up landing south of Orford Bay. He skidded and pulled up in a creek bed behind the main beach.

The other aircraft cartwheeled when he did a wheels-down forced landing nearby, killing Lieutenant Bob Love. His P-39's wingtip hit a snag causing the cartwheel. Lt. Yundt pulled Love's body from the aircraft wreckage and buried him nearby. Love's body was recovered much later and was reburied at the US Cemetery in Townsville on 7 November 1942. 

 

Love's P-39 was rediscovered in the year 2000 by Dave Bertolisio.

The other two Airacobras flown by Taylor and Cook made it to the beaches and landed north of Logan Jack Creek.

Falletta and Harvey made a two day trek to the nearest beach, where they were eventually rescued.

Falletta's Airacobra (#41-6951) and Harvey's (#41-7215) were both recovered in 1972 by the Cairns Aircraft Recovery Team (CART). Ian Mullins had visited the aircaft in 1963. During the recovery process a light aircraft actually landed beside the recovery team for a "sticky beak" at proceedings. 

Two teams went to dismantle the aircraft. The four members of the Cairns Aircraft Recovery Team are:-

Ian Mullins
Nick Watling
John White
David "Taffy" Jones

The two aircraft were repositioned to Escape River (near the Comalco airstrip). It was initially planned to use a Bristol Freighter to move the aircraft to Cairns. CASA would not let them land at Escape Rive because it was a dirt runway. The two recovered aircraft were then relocated to Bamaga.

Falletta's Airacobra has been restored and is now on display in a large hangar at Syd Beck's Military Aviation Museum on the Kennedy Highway near Mareeba. The nose section of Falletta's P-39 had been seriously damaged by the RAAF when they blew up the live ammunition.

 

faleta02.jpg (25573 bytes)

Falletta's Airacobra in about 1963. This aircraft
was later recovered by CART and restored by Syd Beck

 


Photo:- Ken Pittman

Photo of Falletta's Airacobra before the RAAF Armourers did their job

 


Photo:- Ken Pittman

Inspecting the intact P-39 Airacobra

 

When the RAAF team inspected the aircraft to make it safe the only damage apart from the undercarriage was to the canvas fabric on the ailerons and the Perspex of the canopy - that was due to being in the open for 30 odd years. Colonel Falletta's log book, gloves, and leather helmet were located still under his seat.

When Ken Pittman was in north Queensland in 1975 flying Caribous with 35 Squadron RAAF he became very interested in looking for the WW11 aircraft that went missing. On one trip he flew low level along the coast from Cairns to Weipa and back - on the beach abeam where Falleta's aircraft was located there were the skeletons of the other 4 Airacobras. On that trip they also saw an anchor lying off Iron Range. Royal Australian Navy subsequently salvaged it. It apparently pre-dated Capt Cook and is now mounted outside the Naval Base In Cairns.

 


Photo:- Ken Pittman

Before the armourers let off their demolition charges!

 


Photo:- Ken Pittman

It's a shame it had to be blown up and damaged so badly.

 


Photo:- Ken Pittman

Inspecting the damage!!

 

faleta01.jpg (25014 bytes)

Captain Charles Falletta who later attempted to shoot down a Japanese flying boat on an air raid over Townsville.

 

Walter Harvey's Airacobra (#7215) was recovered at the same time. The fuselage was being restored and went into storage on John White's sugar cane farm near Mossman in 1988.

Walter Harvey revisted Australia in 1992 and was reunited with his old aircraft. By war's end, Harvey had flown 131 combat missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Air Medals. Walter Harvey passed away in 1998.

 

41-7215.jpg (29611 bytes)

P-39F #41-7215 was recovered by a Mr. Ian Mullins and restored in Mount Isa.

 

Ian Mullins later moved to Condon in Townsville where the obligatory "retirement" shed was used to store his Airacobra wings (the fuselage was still in Mossman). I was advised by a friend in April 2001, that Ian Mullins' Airacobra had been sold to a Melbourne syndicate and was possibly being prepared for airworthiness with an anticipated finish date of early 2001.

 

41-7215a.jpg (34560 bytes)

As with the Falletta aircraft, the RAAF did considerable damage to airframe of #41-7215 when disposing of the ammunition.

 

The copy of the "Aircraft Crash Sites - Australia" list that I have a copy of, refers to two of the aircraft which force landed on 1 May 1942 as follows:-

P-39F at Mt. Isa Serial No. 41-7215
P-39D at Townsville * Serial No. 41-6951

           They were two of 6 lost in the Orford Bay area on 1 May 1942.

 

* Faletta's aircraft which is now at Mareeba in Syd Beck's museum.

Many people have gone looking for missing Airacobras in this area over the years. Dave Bertolissio from Sydney took a helicopter and a "deep ground seeker" to a beach in this general area. After a few hours he found a possible "hit" and after some furious digging he found some wreckage and an upside down Airacobra. He was looking for an upright Airacobra. In 1998 Richard Rudd returned to the same site and after digging a 2 metre deep hole he refound the upside down Airacobra.

In 1999 Dave Bertolissio spoke to Lt. Yundt about the events of that tragic day. Richard Rudd was able to confirm that the upside down Airacobra was Lt. Love's aircraft as it wheels were in the wheels-down position. For more details and photos see Volume 7, No.1, Issue 26, page 20 & 21 of Classic Wings Downunder, Jan/Feb 2000.

 


 

Brigadier General Bob Clements USAF ret <p38bob@deepwell.com> advised that Major Faletta was director of gunnery training when he graduated from Williams Army Air Force Base in Chandler AZ, on April 15th 1944. Bob Clements was supposed to have joined the 8th in New Guinea in Dec 44 but never made it. Bob Clements is interested in information on the restoration of Major Falleta's P-39

 

REFERENCE BOOKS

Eagle Farm 1942 - Airacobra Assembly
by Brian Creer
(note these Airacobra's were actually assembled at Amberley airfield)

"Attack & Conquer"
"The 8th Fighter Group in World War II"
by John C. Stanaway & Lawrence J. Hickey

 

Can anyone help me with more information?

 

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This page first produced 7 February 1999

This page last updated 13 January 2017