In 60 years after the crash of two navy Fairey Firefly aircraft over Jervis Bay, which cost the lives of two young flyers, North Nowra diver Greg Stubbs has found wreckage of one of the missing planes.
November 26 will mark the 60th anniversary of the crash and Stubbs wants to mark the occasion with a special ceremony and the placing of a plaque on one of the aircraft located in waters just off Callala Bay.
Since first diving on the wreck in 2005 Stubbs has been on a journey of discovery as to how the plane came to be on the bottom of Jervis Bay.
It is a quest that has led him to England and an incredible meeting with the surviving pilot.
The Firefly sits in 15 metres of water in Hare Bay. While some parts of the 13m plane have been souvenired by divers over the years, the grey colour of the plane is still visible as is the black on the propeller.
But few probably realise the story behind the plane, which has become a popular location for divers who explore the aircraft’s remains.
The Fireflies were a torpedo reconnaissance aircraft attached to the training wing, 851 Squadron at HMAS Albatross.
Around 3pm on November 26,1956 the two aircraft, flown by young British pilots, Sub Lieutenant David Eagles and Sub Lieutenant Arthur Arundel with trainee navigators Don Debus and Noel Fogarty were on navigational exercises.
I’ve always wondered who had flown the plane, what happened and how it ended up in Jervis Bay.Diver Greg Stubbs
Eagles was flying aircraft VX 381 and Arundel WD 887. They rendezvoused over Huskisson but as they entered the waters of Jervis Bay, they collided near the opening to Moona Moona Creek.
Eagles and Debus lost seven feet of the starboard wing and managed to limp the aircraft to Hare Bay off Callala.
Because they couldn’t gain enough height to clear the trees and get back to Albatross, they negotiated a water landing, coming in fast, hitting the water at 130 knots or about 182km/h.
They managed to get out of the aircraft and into a life raft. It only took 15 seconds for the plane to sink.
Rescue crews were scrambled from both Albatross and HMAS Creswell, with Eagles and Debus rescued by a Sycamore helicopter at 3.15pm and returned to the Naval Air Station.
The aircraft sunk in about 15 metres of water, and went largely undiscovered until 1983 when it was rediscovered by local diver Charlie Pickering, since becoming a popular dive location.
Arundel and Fogarty were not as lucky. Their aircraft speared into Jervis Bay at about 250 knots.
Despite extensive searches of the area, including by divers, the plane and the bodies were never recovered.
“You’ve got to remember back then in ’56 they were still using bell helmets to dive and didn’t have the gear we have now,” Mr Stubbs said.
Stubbs has been diving on the remaining Firefly since 2005, making numerous dives at the location with friends.
Why did it take 60 years for someone to contact me?Royal Navy pilot David Eagles
“I have always had a passion for historical military dives. Diving on this wreck sparked an interest and I wanted to find out more about it,” he said.
“I’ve always wondered who had flown the plane and what happened.
“I managed to track down reports and learned that two men died. I have wanted to put something on the plane that tells the story as to why it’s there and what happened.”
He always wondered what may have happened to the other aircraft and despite searches hadn’t been able to locate the crash site.
He wondered if the surviving pilot or navigator were still alive and tried to track down David Eagles but could find no trace of him in Britain.
Incredibly, it was a chance meeting with a couple of British backpackers who were having car trouble at North Nowra who helped solve the mystery.
“They came into the workshop the next day for me to try and help them with the car and we got talking and I told them the story of trying to track down David Eagles,” Stubbs said.
“Within five minutes one of the young girls had managed to track down an Eagles in the UK and where they lived. She found an Ann Eagles. The phone was listed under John David Eagles.
“There were no Davids in the phone book.”
Hoping against hope he made the call and asked the man who answered if he was David Eagles and if he’d served in Australian in 1956.
He answered yes and that started a whole new adventure.
At 81 years of age, Stubbs said the former pilot was still extremely sharp.
With Arundel and Ian O’Gilvey he was one of three young British pilots to come to Australia on loan to the RAN.
He arrived in early 1956 and went home in 1958. Within 13 months Eagles would be the only one alive, with Ian also killed over the Mediterranean.
He fondly remembers celebrating his 21st birthday in the Prince of Wales Hotel in Nowra.
“He went on to have an incredible career in the British Navy, was a test pilot of the Tornado Jet Fighter and worked with the British Aerospace Program,” Stubbs said.
“His response was simple ‘why did it take 60 years for someone to contact me?’
“I told him my intention to put a memorial plaque on the plane for the 60th anniversary.
We have been able to recover some debris and found a few items which identified it as wreckage of 887. We are 100 per cent certain we have the right plane.Diver Greg Stubbs
“And the rest as they say is history.”
The pair have struck up a great friendship and when David came to Australia in February they met face to face in Sydney.
“It was just incredible to meet this man I had read so much about,” Stubbs said.
“He told me openly about the accident, what actually happened and how he was ‘blessed’ to make it out.
“He provided me with more info than was available in the reports.
“From that, I was able to pinpoint the possible crash site better and narrow my search area.
“It gave me a whole new perspective on what I was looking for and where.”
In late March Stubbs located a debris field.
“It took about 10 years of searching to find it,” he said.
“The plane broke up on impact. And whatever may have been left has long been trolled over by the scalloping of the Bay. And the sand continually moves with the tides and swallows things up.
“But we have been able to recover some debris and in that found a few items which identified it as the right plane.
“Through Terry Hetherington at the Fleet Air Arm Museum, who has been a great help, we have been able to identify it as wreckage of 887.
“We are 100 per cent certain we have the right plane.
“Somewhere in there there has to be the big parts like an engine and gearbox. But it is a bit like a needle in a haystack.”
While not precisely giving the crash site away, he said it is located about 3.5km off Moona Moona Creek.
He also found navigator Don Debus, who lives in Canberra, with both men along with the Navy giving Stubbs their blessing to place a memorial on the remaining aircraft.
We all get a lot of enjoyment out of diving on it [the Firefly]. It is a wonderful experience but we must also remember how it came to being. It was a tragedy that has given us this opportunity. Two young men gave their lives.Diver Greg Stubbs
He plans to hold a ceremony over the crash site on November 26 and lay a wreath, before moving over to Callala where the Firefly rests where he will dive down and put a memorial plaque in place on the plane.
He hopes Mr Eagles may even make it out for the ceremony.
“Sure, we all get a lot of enjoyment out of diving on it [the Firefly]. It is a wonderful experience but we must also remember how it came to being. It was a tragedy that has given us this opportunity. Two young men gave their lives,” he said.