This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 15, Issue 1, from 2002
The story of the missing airmen concerns the last flight of Pilot Officer Donald Ramsay Stewart and Flight-Lieutenant William Conway Day, both of whom went missing over the Persian desert on 24th July 1924. Seven days later their intact plane was found sitting on the Arabian sands, miles from civilisation. There was no sign of the airmen apart from two sets of footprints leading away from the aeroplane but which stopped abruptly after 40 yards. It was as if the two pilots had suddenly vanished into thin air in mid-stride. Fort remarks that no meteorological or mechanical reason could explain why the pilots needed to land in such a remote location and that their sudden disappearance was inexplicable to all. Their remains were never found.
Although not a classic in the annals of the paranormal, the case of the vanishing airmen has nonetheless been repeated a number of times, most notably by Frank Edwards in High Strangeness (his report is lifted entirely from Fort’s Wild Talents) and from a number of ufology web sites, most of whom cite Edwards as their source. Like most sudden disappearances, the case of the “vanishing airmen” is most commonly cited as an early example of alien abduction. One assumes this means that a UFO must have forced the plane to land before kidnapping the pilots as part of some dastardly intergalactic plot.
This case caught my attention a couple of years ago and for some reason remained at the back of my mind. I recently found myself at the British Newspaper Library and, having finished my own research, thought that it would be worth trying to track down the facts of the vanishing pilots’ case.
Charles Fort obtained his information from two articles in the Sunday Express (21st & 28th September 1924). These were easy enough to find, and sure enough there was the story of the “vanishing airmen” portrayed in such a way as to make their disappearance look highly unusual.
It was apparent that several weeks had passed between the incident itself, which occurred on 24th July, and the Sunday Express articles in late September. I felt that the next logical step was to look through the newspapers for the weeks after the disappearance itself for more contemporary accounts. Sure enough, The Times and Daily Mail (31st July 1924) both carried a small notice announcing the discovery of the plane and that the pilots had been missing for a week. It was from this that the first inconsistency became apparent.
The Sunday Express, Fort, Edwards and others were all keen to stress that there was no logical reason why the pilots had to land where they did. The plane was intact and there was no sign of injury to the pilots. The weather had been fine. The implication was that some mysterious power or incident had forced them from the sky.
However, both The Times and Daily Mail state clearly that the two pilots had had “…to make a forced landing during a sandstorm” and that their machine had been “…found in a damaged condition”. So there was no real mystery as to why they needed to land. Bad weather forced them to land during which process the plane probably became damaged and was unable to take off again.
Neither The Times nor Daily Mail make any mention of abruptly finishing footprints although they do report that both men appeared to have been trying to walk towards a railway track eighteen miles away. This suggests that footprints were probably found at the scene.
The next mention comes from the Daily Mail (8th August 1924) when the father of Flight-Lieutenant Day complains about the Royal Air Force’s lack of progress in tracing his son. The RAF issued a denial which was printed the next day. After this come the two aforementioned articles in the Sunday Express which firmly turn the case into a paranormal mystery by describing the suddenly finishing footprints, but neglect to mention the sandstorm or damaged plane. The Express acknowledges the enigma but suggests that Bedouin tribesmen might be to blame, kidnapping the officers and then sweeping away their footprints as they retreated.
Charles Fort dismisses this idea, while most later writers ignore it altogether, suggesting instead an explanation which centres on bug-eyed extraterrestrial beings bent on mischief. In this form the mystery has stood for over three quarters of a century, a potential classic in the annals of ufology. It was, however, a mystery that took less than five minutes to solve.
Having found some original articles relating to the disappearance, I then turned to the computerised Index for The Times 1905-1980. I typed the airmen’s surnames and within seconds was presented with an entry for 12th March 1925. It had the headline “Missing R.A.F. Officers’ Bodies Found”. I ordered up the microfilm and there was the solution to the mystery which had regrettably been missed by Fort, Edwards and others.
The Times article provided a detailed history of the whole case. The damaged aeroplane had been forced to land in a sandstorm, apparently injuring Flight-Lieutenant Day whose blood was found inside the cockpit. Although no written note was found, there was a set of footprints heading into the desert which became obscured by blown sand after 40 yards. An examination of the plane revealed that the pilots had taken food and water supplies and then set off in the direction of Jalibah railway station, 12 miles to the north. They did not reach it and after months of searching by RAF crews, their two bodies were eventually found together in the desert.
The Times says that “. . . from the positions where the remains were found it was obvious that the unfortunate officers had lost their way . . . in view of the time of day and the season during which they were subjected to exposure, there is no reason to doubt that death ensued from heat exhaustion.” Mystery solved and not an alien in sight . . .