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Cockpit door the top find as Spitfire excavation completed

By Cate McCurry

Parts of an RAF Spitfire which have lain buried since World War Two after the fighter crashed into a field in Co Monaghan have been unearthed.

Archaeologists recovered remnants of the wreckage at the weekend, including the cockpit door the pilot escaped through.

It had been thought the Irish Army had cleared all pieces from the site at the time of the crash in November 1942.

However, recent examinations revealed a number of parts had been left behind.

Queen's University surveyors, aviation historians and archaeologists took part in the intricate excavation process that involved digging by hand some seven feet below ground level.

The pilot, Lieutenant Gordan Hayter Proctor, had bailed out safely on the Northern Ireland side of the border before the plane glided and crashed near Emyvale.

The Spitfire, which had fought in the Battle of Britain, came to grief due to engine failure.

The team arrived at the site on Saturday and used a digger and many pairs of hands to search through the soil.

Project manager Jonny McNee from Derry City and Strabane District Council said once they removed the grass level, they found lighter bits of the plane.

"We used a toothless bucket to scrape the soil inch by inch to show the discolouration that the engine and the aircraft made as it punched its way down through the soil," he explained.

"We then quickly found bigger parts of the plane.

"A nice early surprise was finding the cockpit door, which is what the pilot would have bolted open and slid the hood back and jumped out the sides.

"It's a very poignant piece to find, as the pilot would have been the last person to go through that door when he was bailing.

"It's a nice little piece about him."

Further searches uncovered broken outer parts of the engine, indicating the rough impact area of the crash.

The team was licensed by the Museum of Ireland to remove, clean and catalogue the remains before a select number of items will be put on display at Monaghan County Museum.

"At one stage we came down into a really dark, gooey sandy soil which was half soil, half aviation fuel and oil. The smell really permeates the whole field, so you knew you were in the right area," he added.

"Then we came on to the remains of the fuel tank, which is like a big, thick rubbery balloon.

"As we continued down the smell got worse until we got seven foot down and we found another cylinder block and after more scraping and hand-digging around with trowels we exposed the remains of the engine."

Josie McCusker, who witnessed the crash, was there on the day to see the process unfold.

She and other locals were leaving Mass on a Sunday morning when the plane came down, and rushed to the scene.

Robinson's Quarry in Claudy will assist the team to steam clean the recovered items, which will help give a clear indication of their former function in the legendary fighter.

Pupils from three schools, including Foyle College in Derry, were invited to watch the dig.

"Lots of the community came out to watch, it was a really big event," Mr McNee added.

"The next stage is to sort all the parts and report what we have found and all the big sizeable bits will be washed.

"The vast majority will be displayed in the museum.

"The jewel in the crown was finding the cockpit door."

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