Tuesday, April 25, 2017

New Mammal Sighting at Francis Beidler Forest

It is not often that the staff at Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest gets to say, "We've never seen that before." Granted, we recently wrote a blog describing the discovery of a crashed USAF RF-84F jet, but in this case we are referring to the plants and animals of the sanctuary.

On Sunday, visitor Jennifer LeGrand-O'Brien showed some images of a small mammal scampering on the boardwalk near #15. It looked like a weasel, but we had never seen one on our property. Initially, we thought it might be an escaped pet, but the Long-tailed Weasel (Mustela frenata) ranges throughout North America and on into South America. They simply do not present themselves often for easy viewing.
Long-tailed Weasel - Image by Jennifer LeGrand-O'Brien
Long-tailed Weasel - Image by Jennifer LeGrand-O'Brien
Long-tailed Weasel - Image by Jennifer LeGrand-O'Brien
After viewing the short video below, there is no doubt that a Long-tailed Weasel is living near the boardwalk at #15.

video
Long-tailed Weasel - Video by Jennifer LeGrand-O'Brien

For those keeping tabs on the Francis Beidler Forest Facebook page, #15 is also the location of the Barred Owl nest where both owlets died within days of each other. There are a number of possible reasons for the deaths, including disease, but the close proximity of an aggressive predator willing to attack prey larger than itself, adds intrigue to the situation. Additionally, Long-tailed Weasel young are born in the April-May timeframe and they too need to eat.

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 Canberra and died on 5/2/2008.)

http://www.ejection-history.org.uk/project/year_pages/1957.htm
From the report:
HISTORY OF FLIGHT:
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.

(Update: 4/13/2017 from Grant Mishoe, Flt. Lt. John West's description of his ejection.)

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 (Update: 4/13/2017, 2ndLt. Charles L. Lustig) 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.