P-51D Mustang from the sea

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North American Aviation P-51D Mustang 44-14574 ‘Little Zippie’ now resides in the East Essex Aviation Museum, Jaywick, Essex, after lying on the seabed for more than 30 years. The remains of the aircraft were recovered as a result of an ambitious piece of aviation archaeology in the 1980s. It now stands as a tribute both to the youthful aviators who escorted bombers for miles over open sea in single-engined aircraft, and the talented amateur historians who have pieced together the last moments of the aircraft and preserved its remains.

The remains of ‘Little Zippie’, showing the effects of saltwater immersion on the dural propeller blades and aluminium skin

‘Little Zippie’ was being flown by Flying Officer Raymond King of the 436th FS, 479th FG, on an escort mission on 13 January 1945, though it had been the regular aircraft of Captain Hans J. Grasshoff. The 436th had earlier converted from the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, which had been a popular aircraft with the unit’s pilots. The squadron was initially suspicious of the Mustang, which lacked the safety factor of a second engine so useful for long range escort fighters. In addition, the D-10 models the 436th were using at the time of King’s last mission were felt by the squadron to be rather ‘war weary’.

King had been shepherding a squadron mate, whose P-51D had been experiencing engine trouble, back to England. While escorting his comrade. King’s own P-51D itself developed engine trouble. The Packard Merlin V-1650-3 failed completely just before the two aircraft reached the Essex coast. King ditched half-a-mile to a mile off the seaside town of Clacton, and took to the water as his aircraft sank. The propeller blades, bent straight back, prove that the engine was not turning when the P-51D went into the water.

Another view of ‘Little Zippie’ in situ in the museum. The painted code number and perspex canopy are remarkably well preserved

There was a small boat already in the vicinity which made for the scene, and the lifeboat was called out – unfortunately, there were no fast Air-Sea Rescue launches in the area. King was reached by the first boat within ten minutes. However, it was still in the depths of winter, and the water was freezing. The young pilot could not be revived – he had probably died of hypothermia by the time he was recovered. (Quickly recovering pilots from the sea remained a problem despite great strides during the war years – see separate article on the birth of modern ASR.

His body was buried near Cambridge, and his body later repatriated to the US.

The cockpit interior of ‘Little Zippie’

The wreckage of ‘574 was discovered some 800 yards from the beach in the 1980s, and the largest remaining section was raised in 1987. Since then, a great number of fragments and components from the Mustang have also been found, recovered and preserved to be displayed alongside the aircraft. The East Essex Aviation Museum was set up to house the remains of ‘574 and other items relating to the area’s aviation history. The museum was created in building that was historic in its own right, the Napoleonic Martello tower at Point Clear.

A large section of the forward fuselage of ‘574 is preserved mostly intact, along with a great many components including tailwheel, undercarriage leg, guns and sundry items. Its permanent home is not far from the spot where it sat for three decades.

Browning 0.50in machine guns from the P-51D, with ammunition and feed chutes

The waters around the East of Essex are strongly tidal and the bottom is largely silt. This makes diving for wrecks very challenging, and makes the recovery of 44-14574 all the more remarkable. The divers associated with the museum have not stopped there, and the most recent project has been to recover parts from a Vickers Wellington lying some miles off the coast.

The volunteers present while the museum is open could not be more helpful and knowledgeable. A visit is thoroughly recommended

Many thanks to the volunteers of the East Essex Aviation Museum for the assistance and permission to take photographs

Visit the East Essex Aviation Museum website

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