Northern Ireland news

75 years since `winged wonder' splashed down at Portmore Lough

The Wildcat plan in Portmore Lough and pilot Peter Lock

A BUSTLING wildlife haven that is home to several bird species witnessed another `winged wonder' splash down 75 years ago - a World War Two fighter plane.

On Christmas Eve 1944, in the midst of the war, Navy pilot Peter Lock plunged into Portmore Lough during a practice flight.

RSPB Portmore Lough is a now free-to-visit nature reserve close to the south-east corner of Lough Neagh.

It has a viewing platform offering panoramic views and a short accessible boardwalk that leads through woodland to a lough-side bird hide.

In 1944, Mr Lock had taken off in his Grumman Wildcat plane from Long Kesh airfield.

He headed out towards Lough Neagh, but not long after take-off the engine exploded and caught fire. Looking down, he could see he would not make it as far as Lough Neagh and knew that landing a plane full of fuel into a field would be a fatal move - then he spotted Portmore Lough.

He ditched the plane in the lough and the shallowness of the water and underlying mud saved his life.

It was 12-year-old Seamus Kane, who still lives on the family homestead on the shore of the lough, who witnessed the crash and raised the alarm.

The Kane family got in a boat and rowed out to the plane to rescue the young pilot.

Mr Kane struck up a lasting friendship with Mr Lock.

"I can remember the plane going down as if it just happened today. We were playing in the hay shed in the yard and heard the sound of a plane coming down," Mr Kane said.

"We ran out and we could see the smoke coming from the engine and then the pilot ditched the plane in the lough.

"We ran over to our house. It was Christmas Eve and I remember my sister putting up holly and I started to shout that there was a plane that had fallen in the lake. After the plane was lifted out 35 years ago, Peter and I became very great friends and we'd exchange Christmas cards right up until Peter passed away."

The Wildcat lay half-submerged in the water for 40 years, until the Ulster Aviation Society (UAS) enlisted the help of an expert engineer and RAF Lynx helicopter to lift it out.

UAS Chairman Ray Burrows made contact with Mr Lock in 1984 once the plane had been removed.

He had been living in Canada since the 1950s and always assumed his plane had sunk and slowly rotted away, so was stunned to be contacted.

"I said to him, `I'm just phoning to tell you we've lifted your aircraft out of the lake that you crashed on Christmas Eve 1944' and there was 30 seconds of stunned silence," Mr Burrows said.

"Then he said, `Would you repeat that?' That was the start of a fantastic relationship."

Robin Brown, a longstanding volunteer at Portmore Lough, has always had a keen interest in the story and is happy to talk to visitors about the `winged wildcat' as well as the other bird species they will see on a visit.

At this time of year, people will see swans, teals, wigeons, pochards, tufted ducks and - on a good day – a hen harrier. And, festive robins too.

"The wreckage of his aircraft was such a landmark on the lough and a real talking point in the area for many years, before it was lifted out in 1984," Mr Brown said.

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Northern Ireland news