"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Pilots Who Walked Away: Answering a Fortean Riddle

The mystery involving Flight-Lieutenant William Conway Day (his name is usually erroneously given as "W.T. Day,") and Pilot Officer Douglas Ramsay Stewart retains a lasting fame largely through its inclusion in Charles Fort's influential book "Wild Talents."  In 1924, the two members of the Royal Air Force were stationed in Iraq, where their main duty was to make routine reconnaissance flights.

On July 24, the two men set out on one of these missions, which was to take about three hours. They never returned.

When a search party set out for them, their plane was easily found. It had been parked—not crashed—on the desert floor. There was gas in the tank, and the plane was undamaged. Extra clothing and water supplies were still in the plane. The only things missing from the craft were its pilots.

No reason could be found why the men should have landed. The weather had been good, and there were no signs of any attack. Footprints of both men could be clearly seen around the plane. They had evidently walked side by side for about forty yards away from their plane. Then, the prints abruptly ceased.

All anyone could imagine was that the pilots had been kidnapped by Bedouins, who then used implements to carefully wipe out their tracks. It was pointed out at the time that this made little sense. If they wished to remove footprints, why not destroy all of them? Since they could not keep up this erasing technique indefinitely, why were no other prints found anywhere in the area? And this theory still failed to answer the initial mystery: Why did the men land in the first place?

Still, that was the only relatively sane explanation anyone could concoct for the disappearance of the men, so they stubbornly stuck to it. An extensive search was made in the region, and the local tribesmen were offered a reward for any information about the vanished pilots, but it all proved to be an utter waste of time. The men, or any clues to their fate, could not be found.

When I wrote the first draft of this post, I assumed that Fort was correct when he described Day and Stewart's disappearance as an unsolved mystery.  However, while searching through old newspaper databases, I discovered that in March of 1925, British papers reported that the Air Ministry had received "official intimation" that the skeletons of Day and Stewart had been found in the desert. As the Lanarkshire, Scotland "Sunday Post" commented on March 8, "This only adds to the baffling mystery of the officers' deaths, and to-day the Air Ministry could offer no theory as to how the officers met their fate."

It was suggested that the men had been forced to land their plane because of a sudden sandstorm. Contrary to the earlier reports about the disappearances, it was now said that when their plane had been discovered, it was "slightly damaged" and repairs had to be made on it before it could be flown back to where their squadron was stationed.

The newspapers stated that the bones of Flight-Lieutenant Day had been found in February. Stewart's were discovered some days later, at a spot five or six miles distant. After the bodies were identified as the missing pilots through dental records, they were buried in Basra with military honors.

It was theorized that Day had been slightly injured in the landing, (traces of blood were found on the plane,) and that when the two men set out to hike to safety, he collapsed and died. "Then possibly Stewart pushed on in the hope that he might find help for his injured comrade, only himself to be overcome by the heat...The failure earlier to discover the remains was probably due to the ever shifting sands, swept in storms across the desert."  There was an official military inquiry into the deaths, which evidently came to this same conclusion.

It seems that this near-legendary Fortean tragedy, which has spawned speculation about everything from underground caverns to UFO abductions, had a simple, if somewhat curious explanation, which was well-known at the time, but has since been forgotten and overlooked.

[Note: Cf. this previous post about another pair of disappearing pilots.]


  1. As interesting as Fortean mysteries are - and I suspect many truly are strange and, as yet, unsolved - I imagine many gather the patina of inexplicability through embellishment. The facts that made this mystery less mysterious were probably available at the time but simply not reported because they were too mundane. But why did the air crew walk away from their aeroplane when they should have known their comrades would search for them soon? Many people who are lost figure they'll just walk for help instead of waiting. It usually has the same unfortunate results each time.

    1. There was a railroad station about 10 miles from where their plane was found. I suppose they figured it was better to try and reach that station themselves rather than wait to be found. We'll never know.

      What also puzzles me is how Fort missed that the pilots had been found. It was a fairly big story at the time.


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