LIGHTNING CRASH LANDING
IN THE SALTPAN AT PIMLICO
IN ABOUT SEPTEMBER 1942
F-4 Lightning #25 of the 8th
Photo Reconnaissance Squadron
at the Stock Route airfield
I remember when I was about 12 -15 years old, one of our neighbours, Jeff Neilsen, telling me about a "P-38 Lightning" having crash landed on the saltpan behind our house in Haig Street, Pimlico. I never knew whether it was true or not. In fact I never realised at the time how closely Townsville was involved in World War 2. Over 35 years later I read about this forced landing in the excellent book called "Wings Around Us" by Rodney G. Cardell. I'd love to find a photograph of the aircraft after it had crash landed. Can anyone help? Rodney's excellent book is centred around the Stock Route air strip which used to be located where Dalrymple Road goes beside the high voltage steel towers at Garbutt. There were many war times airfields around Townsville, including Aitkenvale Weir, Antil Plains, Mount St. John, Stock Route, Bohle River, Garbutt, Giru, Ross River, Upper Ross River, and Woodstock.
In September 1942, the Americans were assembling P-38 Lockheed Lightning in the igloos along Duckworth Street. Rod Cardell remembered two of these new blue P-38's taxing down Duckworth Street and parking on the other side of the Stock Route air strip near his home. Normally they would taxi them to Garbutt airfield to take off, as the Stock Route air strip was not really long enough at 3,660 feet long. Rod Cardell states in his book that the 2 aircraft were destined for the 39th Fighter Squadron of the 35th Fighter Group replacing their P-39 Airacobras.
Late one afternoon Rod Cardell was sitting on his front verandah when one of the P-38's started its engines and it taxied down the Stock Route air strip to the far end and then back again. The other pilot sat on the wing of the other aircraft watching proceedings. The P-38 then taxied to the western end of the strip and turned into the wind and accelerated down the strip for a few hundred yards, but then throttled back and coasted to the end of the runway. He then taxied back and applied his brakes and revved his engines for a few seconds and then repeated the procedure of roaring down the strip and then throttling back. He did this once or twice more in an endeavour to see if he could take off. Finally he went to the very western end of the strip and revved the engines loudly for 5 to 6 seconds and sped off down the strip and finally near the very end of the strip he took off.
Two P-38 Lightnings parked at Depot No. 2 near Garbutt at the foot of Mount Louisa. The aircraft are #122 and #132. Michael Claringbould confirmed that these numbers represent the last three digits of the CNs, 7122 and 7132 which are P-38Gs serials #42-12688 and #42-12698 respectively. These were applied by the 17th Pursuit Squadron (Provisional) which delivered the aircraft. They were replaced with 39th Fighter Squadron two-digit codes in January 1943.
The photo is a copy of one found at the RAAF Heritage Centre at Garbutt in Townsville.
Here is a much larger version of the above photograph (160Kbytes)
He flew a circuit and landed at Garbutt and taxied back along Duckworth Street to the Stock Route air strip and parked his aircraft beside his mate. Then later on another P-38 took off from the Stock Route air strip, however he had barely climbed to 300 feet when both engines stopped. The aircraft veered to the right to land in the salt pan in the approximate direction of what was later to be Keyatta Park. It ended up somewhere in the area where the Lakes redevelopment is now located.
The Americans experienced many early problems with the P-38's in our hot tropical climate. Their superchargers had to be continually synchronised. Their fuel tanks leaked when the wings expanded in the hot north Queensland sun and the humidity and tropical thunderstorms played havoc with electrical connections.
The saltpan full of water after Cyclone Althea - 24 Dec 1971
Can anyone help me with a
more precise location
of where the F-4 Lightning ended up, or better still a photograph?
The saltpan, again full of water after heavy rain in Dec 1965.
In October 1989, Rod Cardell was talking to a barber in Townsville who witnessed the emergency landing. He said the Yanks raced to the scene in their jeeps and went through the barbed wire fences and over the railway line, to see if the pilot had been injured. The barber thinks they refuelled the aircraft and later flew it out but wasn't sure. It is more likely it was moved by road transport or taxied back to Garbutt along Ingham Road as the salt pan would have been too small to allow a safe take-off.
It took 3 years to find the answer!
I started this home page on 3 May 1998 in the hope of finding out the details of a story told to me back in the late 1950's or early 1960's by one of my neighbours. At the time, I found it hard to believe that a P-38 Lightning would have crash landed on the salt pan that was my childhood play ground. I was certainly not aware that Townsville was so involved in wartime activities and was never aware of the existence of the Stock Route airfield.
Over 35 years later the fact that there was a forced landing of an F-4 Lightning on the salt pan was confirmed when I read Rod Cardell's book "Wings Around Us".
So it did happen! So I now needed to know the facts. When, where, why, who, etc? So I started this home page.
I then decided to create some other home pages to cover military aircraft crashes in the Townsville area. As time went by, I became so interested in the fact that there were so many military aircraft crashes, I decided to extend the coverage to all of Queensland and before I knew it I was covering all of Australia!!
On 15 May 2001, Larry Packard was able to confirm that this was a P-38 Lightning (actually it was an F-4, the Photo Recon version of the P-38) attached to the 8th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron of the 6th Photo Reconnaissance Group. Larry referred me to Jim McEwan who has provided me with more details.
I was told that the pilot was Lt. Ralph K. Watts of "A" Flight, who was still living in Oregon, USA in May 2001. Lt. Watts took off from the Stock Route airfield and landed wheels-down in the salt pan after the right engine failed due to a turbo charger over boost.
Lt. Ralph K. Watts of "A" Flight
On the salt pan, Jim McEwan helped drain the fuel sump, thinking that might be the problem. That did no good. Jim McEwan believes the F-4 ended up in the centre of the salt pan. Since the ground was hard and flat they towed the F-4 back to the the Stock Route airfield.
The aircraft took off from the Stock Route airfield and landed in the salt pan near Pimlico
Photo of F-4 tracks on saltpan sent
to me by Ralph Watts
Note Mount Louisa in the background
Another photo of F-4 tracks on saltpan sent to me by Ralph Watts
Lt. Ralph K. Watts in his F-4 Lightning
I rang Ralph Watts on 7 June 2001 to confirm whether he was the pilot who made a forced landing of his F-4 Lightning on the salt pan at Pimlico after taking off from the Stock Route airfield. He confirmed that he was indeed the pilot. He said that his right engine cut out when he got to about 150 feet and he landed about 3 to 4 miles away in a salt pan. He was also able to confirm that the aircraft were painted a light blue colour as described by Rod Cardell in his book "Wings around Us".
2nd Lt. Ralph Watts outside his
quarters at Port Moresby in New Guinea
I advised Rod Cardell that I had tracked down Ralph Watts and he also rang Ralph that same week. Ralph told Rod that they had been pumping what they had thought was fuel to his aircraft from 50 gallon drums at the Stock Route airfield. It turns out they had been pumping Carbon Tetrachloride (a cleaning agent) into the aircraft's fuel tanks.
Lt. Watts had also been involved in another more serious crash on 4 May 1942 when he was performing an altitude test in his F-4 Lightning. He could not remember the exact location of this earlier crash but guessed it may have been 100 miles north of Townsville. He said he crashed into a dry lake bed. Some time later he discovered that he had received a minor fracture of one of his vertebrae as a result of this first crash. Bill Groves told me, that when he rang Ralph on about 10 June 2001, Ralph said the first crash may have been at Toonpan just outside Townsville. He apparently dug the nose wheel in when he made the forced landing.
The 8th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron were flying out of the Stock Route airfield at the time. Jim McEwan described it as "a little dirt field that was located down a short road leading from the front of Garbutt field. It was farm land but later when I came down to Townsville from Port Moresby to have our B-17 repaired there were a few large hangars on that little road."
This F-4 was one of the first four that arrived in Australia on 8 April 8 42. They lost three F-4's in a very short period of time.
Lt. Ralph Watts was later transferred to the 435th Bomb Squadron of the 19th Bomb Group stationed in Townsville. The 435th Bomb Squadron had modified two B-17 Flying Fortresses into Photo Reconnaissance aircraft. Ralph indicated that the B-17's were far superior to the F-4 Lightnings as Photo Recon aircraft. He flew combat as a co-pilot in B-17's in the 435th Bomb Squadron and later went on to become an aircraft combat commander. Many years later, Colonel Ralph Watts retired from the Air Force as a Command Pilot. He had flown F-104 Starfighters at twice the speed of sound.
The following is an excerpt from page 45 of a book called "It was a Different Town" compiled by G. Copeman and D. Vance:-
As well as accidents with horses there were many with aeroplanes, as Blanche Sheehy remembers (on 8 July 1991):-
|There's a few crashed around, I think there's one up there where John Brabon is, young John. There's another one just out, you know where the rubbish dump is, the Thuringowa, there's one over there, there was wreckage there for a year. And another one came down in front of Vicker's old house down there, up along the Rugby Union (Pioneer Park) places are, and those huts, and he landed ... hit the ground there ... I always remember they called them a "Lightning" plane. Oh, they were fast fighter planes. And he hit the ground and just came over the house. They all ran out of the house, they thought he was going to hit the house, but he hit about ... oh ... half way between here and the school. And away he went across the flat, as we called it, and he hit the school fence, and that stopped him and damaged it pretty much. Course the boys, my brothers, were down there too, and they all got on their horses and raced down. He got out, and was holding up his ... he had a broken thumb. "Where's the nearest phone boys?" He didn't turn a hair, you know.|
Subject: P-38 Crash Landing
Date: Sat, 20 Nov 1999 19:50:53 -0600
From: "Walter A. Boyd, Jr." <email@example.com>
Sorry, but I can be of no help to you about the crash landing. My operational area was from southern Philippines to Bering Straight.
Try P-38 Nat'l. Assoc. president:
John E. Purdy
3453 Southdale Dr. #1
Kettering OH 45409
Bill McKinstry, Secretary/Treasurer of the 38th Bomb Group Association (WWII), offered to help me with some info on the P-38 crash. Click here to see his e-mails.
I'd like to thank Michael Claringbould for his assistance with this web page.
Some Photos of P-38's in Australia
"Australia @ War" WWII Research Products
© Peter Dunn OAM 2020
This page first produced 3 May 1998
This page last updated 3 April 1999