Belfast Telegraph

Pilot's lucky escape after WWII plane crash is recalled

Ray Burrows, Ulster Aviation Society, beside the Wildcat
Ray Burrows, Ulster Aviation Society, beside the Wildcat
The Wildcat in the water
The Wildcat being lifted from the lough
The Wildcat before restoration
Pilot Peter Lock
Ralph Hewitt

By Ralph Hewitt

A wartime plane crash in Northern Ireland that almost ended in tragedy is to be marked almost 80 years on.

A special talk on the largely forgotten accident at Portmore Lough will take place in the new year.

On Christmas Eve in 1944, during the Second World War, 20-year-old Peter Lock, a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm pilot, took flight in his Grumman Wildcat plane from Long Kesh airfield on the outskirts of Lisburn.

The London-born sub-lieutenant was making a practice flight towards Lough Neagh, but not long after take-off the engine exploded and caught fire.

Looking down, he could see that 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.

Spotting Portmore Lough on the outskirts of Ballinderry, he ditched the plane in the water, and the shallowness of it and the underlying mud saved his life.

Seamus Kane, who still lives on the family homestead on the lough shore, witnessed the plane crash as a 12-year-old boy and raised the alarm.

The Kane family got in a boat and rowed out to the aircraft to rescue the young pilot, who had suffered only minor injuries.

Mr Lock had been due to attend a Christmas dinner back at base and, despite his ordeal, still made it to the festivities that evening.

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

From 1984 to this day, the aircraft has been undergoing restoration by the UAS and now sits in its hangar at the Maze Long Kesh site.

Ray Burrows, chairman of the UAS, managed to contact Mr Lock in 1984 once the plane had been lifted out of the lough.

The former pilot had been living in Canada since the 1950s and always assumed that his plane had sunk.

Mr Kane, who vividly remembers what happened that day, struck up a lasting friendship with Mr Lock after he began visiting Northern Ireland over the years. Recalling the crash, Mr Kane said: "We were playing in the hayshed in the yard and heard the sound of a plane coming down. 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," Mr Kane added. Mr Lock visited Northern Ireland many times from 1984 up until his death in 2017 to check the progress of the plane's restoration, as well as to pay a visit to Portmore Lough.

Robin Brown, a long-standing volunteer at the lough, has always had a keen interest in the story of the Wildcat and enjoys talking to visitors about the plane, as well as the bird species they will see on a visit to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) site.

"The wreckage of this 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," she said.

"I've always been really fascinated by the story and especially that Peter Lock came back to Portmore and to see the Wildcat being restored over the years."

RSPB Portmore Lough will host 'Portmore Lough, Peter Lock and the WW2 Wildcat' - a free talk by Mr Burrows - on Thursday, February 13, at 7pm.

To register for tickets, visit www.portmorewildcat.eventbrite.co.uk

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