Tuesday, January 31, 2017

USAF Wreckage in the Swamp

Last August, we were in the swamp checking for damage caused by wild pigs. Over the years of Audubon ownership, the area of the sanctuary in which we were stomping had been frequently visited. However, a portion of less than half of an acre had apparently avoided visitation or someone would surely have told this story by now.

At some point in the trek, what appeared to be the tail section of a military jet rested ahead on a small piece of higher ground. Fallen trees and logs at a distance can look like many things, but a closer look was warranted. As seen below, it was indeed the tail section of a military jet.

RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
Scattered about the tail section, which was the largest piece of wreckage, were various smaller pieces of the aircraft.

A wheel...
RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
A bomb rack...
RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
A  pedal control...
RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
A fuel bladder...
RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
...and various bits of steel and aluminum.

RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
Inside the tail section was the first clue as to the origins of the wreckage. The identification plate showed the aircraft to be a RF-84F.

RF-84F, 51-1895 wreckage - Image by Mark Musselman
RF-84F - Image USAF
Having never heard the story of a crashed jet in the swamp, we checked with Norman Brunswig, the original sanctuary manager, who arrived in 1972. He had heard a story, though it appeared to be a tall tale told to the newly posted out-of-towner, of a jet crash occurring in the few years before his arrival. Norman never encountered the wreckage during his tenure, which ended in 2014. With that information, we contacted the Air Force at Joint Base Charleston.

After initially being told that we would need to contact the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) office, three members of the flight safety office came out to the swamp to satisfy their curiosity. After their initial excitement at seeing the older USAF insignia, they examined what could be seen of the debris field and concluded that the aircraft had impacted at a low angle generally from the east and that the crash investigation team likely took portions of the aircraft (engine, cockpit, and sensitive equipment like cameras). As Joint Base Charleston had no records of the incident, we sent our request for information to the FOIA office.

Upon returning from Christmas break, we found a letter from the FOIA office stating that they had no records of the incident in question. After a brief consultation with Fox Mulder, we were confident that there was no coverup involving the 1950s-era reconnaissance aircraft possibly encountering alien craft over Four Holes Swamp. However, we were also confident that the aircraft had not disappeared without someone in the USAF noticing (extra parking space on the runway apron; missed scheduled-maintenance appointments; extra set of keys on the sign-out board; inspectors pointing to serial number on an inventory list). Therefore, just like the movies, we went to the Internet for answers.

Unlike the movies, the detailed information we sought, including ventilation schematics for the aircraft hangers, did not immediately pop up on our computer screen. Earlier searches for military aircraft crashes in South Carolina had produced only a few high-profile crashes and mainly recent incidents. We searched for any military aircraft crashes and found a webpage showing all significant crashes from the 1940s until the present, but were overwhelmed by the volume of losses by the United States alone. We narrowed the search to simply F-84 models and once again were overwhelmed by the number of crashes, including eight flying together when ice formed on intake screens and all the engines flamed out. All of the USAF F-84 crashes occurred prior to the time frame we expected based on our local story, though F-84s flown by foreign governments continued to crash throughout the 1970s. After a rainy Saturday of searching, we found one webpage that showed numerous RF-84F aircraft crashes listed as impacting in South Carolina. Ignoring the Edisto Beach, Aiken and other non-local crash sites, we focused on the handful of crash locations listed as Shaw, AFB.

Looking back at the image showing the tail section of the aircraft wreckage, portions of the buzz number could still be seen. The buzz number was a large alphanumeric designation on the side of the aircraft to help those on the ground identify aircraft that buzzed low over their house, town, or facility. For the F-84 models, FS was the alpha- portion of the buzz number and the last three digits of the aircraft's serial number was the numeric portion of the buzz number. As the wreckage showed FS-89?, we looked at the two aircraft listed on the webpage that had 89* in their serial number. One aircraft was 51-1897 and one aircraft was 51-1895. Although the wreckage does not allow a full identification of the final number of the buzz number, it was clear that the number was not a 7, but could certainly be a 5. The RF-84F (serial #51-1895) was listed as possibly crashing in December 1956. With a specific aircraft and a more precise date for the crash, we emailed the FOIA office.

Before the end of the day, we received a call that, given the updated time frame, they had located the aircraft crash report and would be sending the releasable portions to us. They stated that the aircraft had crashed on January 7, 1957 in a dense swamp northeast of Dorchester, SC. Yep, that would be her.

Opening the manila envelope that arrived revealed photocopies of microfilm records with all names (pilot, maintenance crews, investigation officers, etc.) redacted. Reading the "Report of AF Aircraft Accident" was pretty straightforward: Dorchester, SC; 7 Jan 57; 1509 EST; Shaw, AFB, SC; flight duration 0:29; 21,000 feet; RF-84F-10RE; FltLt; British...what? We do not know the identity of the 168-lb, 71-3/4" Brit, but here is how his half hour went after taking off from TAC, 9AF, 363D TACRECONWG, 363D TACRRECONGRU, 18th TRS stationed at Shaw, AFB over 60 years ago. (Update: from my USMC roommate, 1/31/2017 - He found a webpage showing ejections from aircraft, which identifies the British pilot as Flt. Lt. John West. Update: from Grant Mishoe, 2/1/2017 - John West went on to be a RAF wing commander, flew the AV-8 Harrier and died on 5/2/2008.)

From the report:
At 1330 hours, 7 January 1957, FLT LT XX briefed 2NDLT XX on a formation flight, during which close and tactical formation, oblique photography, and instrument flying were to be practiced. Flight conditions were VFR and the flight was to be conducted in the local area.

Engines were started at 1425 EST. The start of FLT LT XX aircraft, RF-84F NR 51-1895, was normal, with no indication of engine malfunction or over-temperature. Formation take-off was accomplished on Runway 22 at 1440 hours, FLT LT XX leading with 97 percent power for take-off.

Level off was accomplished at 23,000 feet and power reduced to 95 percent. After approximately 10 minutes of tactical formation, FLT LT XX was maneuvering and taking oblique photographs of LT XX aircraft, and after a turn of some 60 to 90 degrees while pulling a slight "G" force (2 to 2-1/2 "G's"), FLT LT XX heard a loud explosion in his aircraft, and the aircraft started to vibrate violently. Power setting was 95 percent, altitude approximately 21,000 feet, and airspeed 340 knots.

The wingman noticed a ball of fire come from the tailpipe, immediately followed by what appeared to be fuel pouring from the underside of the fuselage and sabre drain. The aircraft itself did not catch fire.

FLT LT XX retarded the throttle and turned the fuel valve off. As the airspeed slowed down to 270 knots, the vibration smoothed out and FLT LT XX had satisfactory control of the aircraft. FLT LT XX continued to decrease the airspeed, and at 230 knots the vibration increased again and he decided to eject.

FLT LT XX blew the canopy at 7,000 feet and ejected. The lap belt released automatically and FLT LT XX manually pulled the "D" ring. He retained his P-4 helmet and oxygen mask and landed, without injury, in a large pine tree.

The aircraft continued on in a westerly direction for 4 miles and crashed in a swamp area.

Elsewhere, the report states that the $665,162 aircraft was destroyed primarily by an engine explosion and secondarily by being abandoned in flight. The primary cause of the engine failure "was materiel failure in the first stage of the engine compressor rotor blades," which was caused by "metal fatigue in the compressor rotor blade serrations." The engine was a Buick J65-B3, serial number B-641288.

Annotations on an area map (I-26 and I-95 are conspicuously absent) shows the pilot landing in a tree in the area of the new Volvo plant northeast of Ridgeville. The sketches below show the flight of the aircraft before impact and the resulting debris field. The flight safety team from Joint Base Charleston was correct in their assessment of the crash.

RF-84F, 51-1895 accident report sketch - USAF

RF-84F, 51-1895 accident report sketch - USAF
The other pilot in aircraft 51-1879 landed at Shaw, AFB without incident. That aircraft went on to serve in 1958 with the Iowa ANG 174th TRS and in 1962 with the Michigan ANG 107th TRS.

A few black-and-white/microfilmed/photocopied images were included showing various aspects of the crash site. There was the engine, which was removed from the swamp and studied as part of the investigation.

RF-84F, 51-1895 accident report image - USAF
There was the wheel, which remains in the swamp and is shown earlier in this blog.

RF-84F, 51-1895 accident report image - USAF
There was the tail section with a much brighter USAF insignia, which also remains in the swamp.

RF-84F, 51-1895 accident report image - USAF
Finally, there was an image of the "negligible damage" caused by the aircraft as it impacted the swamp.
RF-84F, 51-1895 accident report image - USAF
With over 17,300 acres in the Francis Beidler Forest, we are going to keep stomping. We will let you know what we find.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Grassland Burning

In the previous post, we showed the grasslands that Audubon South Carolina established in the fields across from the driveway at the Francis Beidler Forest. Earlier this month, we were able to burn all three fields.

Grassland burn - Image by Mark Musselman

Grassland burn - Image by Mark Musselman

Grassland burn - Image by Mark Musselman

Grassland burn - Image by Mark Musselman

Burning the fields reduces the fuels on site by consuming the dead plant material, returns nutrients to the soil, and invigorates plant growth. New growth is more palatable to wildlife, including seeds and fruits. We look forward to what will emerge during the spring flush. We are also hopeful that the habitat improvements will attract Northern Bobwhite Quail as there are a few in the neighborhood.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Grassland Restoration

Grassland bird species are in decline, mainly from loss of habitat, which is why grassland conservation and restoration are part of the National Audubon Society's strategic plan.

With a cost-share grant from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Audubon South Carolina committed to convert recently purchased agricultural fields to grasslands. These fields are adjacent to Mims Road across from the driveway entrance to the Francis Beidler Forest.

After decades of use for agriculture, the fields held few desirable plant species in the soil seed bank. Most of what volunteered was dog fennel (Eupatorium capillifolium), which would form a dense, sun-blocking thicket having little wildlife value. Therefore, the first step in the conversion was to herbicide the emerging vegetation in order to clear the site for the introduction of desirable grassland plant species.

Plants referred to as "ag weeds" in fallow field - Image by Mark Musselman
The fields one month after planting.

Field across from driveway - Image by Mark Musselman
Field across and right from driveway - Image by Mark Musselman
Field right from driveway across Cantley Rd. - Image by Mark Musselman
The first two fields shown above were planted in grassland mixes (Showy Wildflower and Mixed Meadow). The third field will receive longleaf pine seedlings this winter, so it was planted in a longleaf pine understory mix. The plantings were accomplished through the use of the USFWS seed drill, which was towed behind our tractor. Seeds are placed in the hopper where agitators feed seed into separate tubes leading to the seed drills. A harrow disturbs the soil ahead of the seed drills. The seed drills place the seed at the proper depth below the soil surface before a set of compacting wheels ensure the seeds are covered and in good contact with the soil.

Seed drill on transport trailer - Image by Mark Musselman
Seed mix prior to loading into seed drill - Image by Mark Musselman
After three month, the fields showed green with a mix of wildflower colors vying for attention.

Field across from driveway - Image by Mark Musselman
Field across from driveway - Image by Mark Musselman
Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) - Image by Mark Musselman
False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) - Image by Mark Musselman
Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) - Image by Mark Musselman
Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella) - Image by Mark Musselman
The grasslands will be burned annually to prevent trees from becoming established, to reduce fuel (dead plant material), and to invigorate new plant growth. Due to the dry weather since Hurricane Matthew, we have been waiting for some precipitation to fall before conducting a prescribed burn. The rain over the last week certainly fits that bill, so now we wait for the next day with winds out of the south or southwest to ensure any smoke blows toward the swamp and away from neighbors' homes.

Ready for winter burn - Image by Mark Musselman

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Hurricane Matthew Boardwalk Repair

In our previous post regarding Hurricane Matthew, we showed the three boardwalk issues related to the storm. Yesterday, with the water finally low enough to use the chainsaw on the oak's trunk, we began the final repair.
Oak tip-up damage - Image Mark Musselman
For the beginners out there, the first rule of boardwalk repair is to avoid the venomous Eastern Cottonmouth. If you cannot see the snake, we will remove you from the boardwalk repair volunteer list and you can scroll down to the bottom of the blog for a helpful image.

Eastern Cottonmouth supervising repairs - Image Mark Musselman
With the oak resting in two places against separate trees as well as on a branch impaled in the earth, calculating the direction in which the tension would release was the largest concern. Not only did we not want to pinch a saw, we wanted the root ball to drop back in place and remove itself as an obstacle.
Crown of oak - Image Mark Musselman
Mike Dawson cutting trunk - Image Mark Musselman

With some scrap lumber supporting the trunk on the crown side of the cut, the root side of the cut stood up and dropped the root ball back in its hole clearing the way for the boardwalk repair.

Root ball dropped in place - Image Mark Musselman
Supported boardwalk - Image Mark Musselman
Mighty oak - Image Mark Musselman
Only one mid-rail was broken by the uplifting. However, the intact section of boardwalk was too heavy for two men to move as a unit.
Boardwalk in the breach - Image Mark Musselman
Therefore, the railings and deck boards needed to be removed...
Removing deck boards - Image Mark Musselman
...and reassembled once the supporting boards were lifted back in place.
Attaching stringers - Image Mark Musselman
Decking complete - Image Mark Musselman
This morning, we returned to ram the lifted 4x4s back to level and reattach the mid-rails and handrails. All sections of the boardwalk are now repaired and open! After some repairs to a nearby rest stop, the boardwalk will be back to pre-Matthew form.
Final touches - Image Mark Musselman
For those who missed the snake earlier:
Cottonmouth revealed - Image Mark Musselman

Monday, October 24, 2016

Hurricane Matthew

The wind and rain of Hurricane Matthew visited the Francis Beidler Forest October 7-8, 2016. In preparation for the storm, we put shutters on the windows, unplugged the electronics and went home.

Shuttered windows - Image Mark Musselman
Neither the wind nor the rain alone would have caused much damage to the swamp. However, in combination they brought down some mighty trees, mainly oaks. It rained through the night of October 7th, which saturated the ground and set up the shallow-rooted oaks for the morning winds of October 8th.

We knew there would be trees along driveway that would need to be cleared before we could access the buildings and boardwalk. There were twenty-one trees across the driveway and all but two simply tipped over.
Trees across driveway - Image Mark Musselman
The vast majority of the trees across the driveway fell adjacent to the recent clear-cut on our neighbor's property to the north. With absolutely nothing to slow the wind, the narrow strip of trees in the drainage along the north side of the driveway took the full brunt of the storm's winds.
Neighboring clear-cut visible in background - Image Mark Musselman
With help from the staff of the Silver Bluff Audubon Center and Sanctuary, the driveway was clear the day after the storm. No buildings sustained damage. The boardwalk had three damaged sections along the backside.
Driveway after clearing - Image Mark Musselman
The boardwalk damage spanned the spectrum from major to minor to emotional. One section sustained only damage to a few deck boards and was quickly repaired. Another portion of the boardwalk (image below) had an oak destroy the entire 12-foot section, but the repair was straightforward.
Damaged boardwalk - Image Richard Covey
Major damage was inflicted upon the boardwalk by an oak tipping from alongside the boardwalk with the root ball uplifting an entire section like a drawbridge. Full of soil, the root ball cannot be chainsawed without damage to the saw nor can the root ball be easily dismantled by other means. The crown end of the heavy tree is still supported by at least one other tree upon which it fell, so cutting through the trunk without pinching a saw will be tricky. This repair has yet to be attempted as the water level, which rose over the boardwalk after this image was taken, is only now receding below the fallen tree.
Damaged boardwalk - Image Richard Covey
Finally, the emotional damage occurred when the living-yet-hollow bald cypress, into which visitors could step, folded over upon itself. Search a visitor's photo library and they likely have an image of someone in their group peering out from "the hollow tree."
The Hollow Tree - Image Richard Covey
After the storm and most of the cleanup, the water continued to rise. In the image below, a sign on the boardwalk rail shows the water level from last October's historic rain. Just beyond that sign at the base of the hickory tree is a nail denoting the high-water level from 1979's Hurricane David. Hurricane Matthew's water level crept slightly higher than what can be seen in the background, but fell short of Hurricane David's mark.
High-water levels - Image Mark Musselman
The next two images show the boardwalk before the rising water came up over the deck boards.
Rising water - Image Mark Musselman
Rising water - Image Mark Musselman
The following images show the high water from last October's historic rain. Although slightly higher than the Hurricane Matthew water level, the images give an idea of how the boardwalk appeared.
Boardwalk directly behind nature center - Image Mark Musselman
Boardwalk at #1 - Image Mark Musselman
Boardwalk near #2 - Image Mark Musselman
Boardwalk at fork near #3 - Image Mark Musselman
Boardwalk near #4 - Image Mark Musselman
Boardwalk back to #14 - Image Mark Musselman
Boardwalk at #18 - Image Mark Musselman
Boardwalk at #19 hollow tree - Image Mark Musselman
Boardwalk at #11 Goodson Lake - Image Mark Musselman
Beyond some road erosion, the only other damage yet detected occurred in our young longleaf pine stands. Seedlings that may have been planted in wet areas or areas with poorly consolidated soils after logging operations were unable to stand up to the storm's winds as 12-15' trees.

Fallen longleaf pine - Image Mark Musselman
Leaning longleaf pine - Image Mark Musselman