On Dec. 15, 1944, famed American bandleader Glenn Miller walked across Twinwood Farm airfield in southeast England, climbed into the passenger seat of a UC-64A Norseman light aircraft and set off for France.
With WWII still raging across Europe, Miller — the hottest recording artist of his era — was preparing to play a concert for weary Allied troops, performing his hits like “In the Mood” and “Moonlight Serenade.”
Tragically, it was a show he would never make. Somewhere between England and Northern France, Miller and the Norseman vanished. To date, not a single trace of the musician or the aircraft has ever been discovered. Alongside the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, it remains one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history.
However, the mystery may be solved thanks to a retired trawlerman from England who is “utterly convinced” he pulled up the wreck of Miller’s aircraft in his fishing nets 32 years ago.
What’s more, US-based historical aircraft researchers TIGHAR say his account is “totally credible.”
“He’s doing his best to remember something that happened a long time ago,” TIGHAR executive director Richard Gillespie tells PEOPLE, before adding a note of caution. “We know human memory is fallible and can be easily influenced.”
According to TIGHAR, the trawlerman — identified only as Mr. Fisher — was advised to drop his unusual catch back into the English Channel, where it has remained ever since. Thankfully, Fisher had the presence of mind to record the coordinates. It is this key piece of evidence that may lead to the site of Miller’s final resting place.
Yet it’s going to be far from easy. After 74 years on the sea floor, the missing Norseman aircraft will be largely deteriorated and likely unrecognizable to the untrained eye.
“Whatever the fisherman pulled up in 1987 is not going to look like that anymore,” explains Gillespie. “Miller’s airplane was not metal. It was a steel tube frame covered with fabric and it had some aluminum panels on it, plus of course, an engine and a propeller. By now all the fabric is almost certainly gone. The wings were wooden too, so they’re going to be gone. So, what you have got is a steel frame that very possibly has been encountered by other fishermen.”
He continues, “You have this mangled steel frame and an engine that may or may not be fully or partially buried in the sand. So, it’s not going to look like an airplane. It’s just going to look a mess.”
But the TIGHAR team does have an ace card up their sleeve. Amazingly, in 1944 Miller’s Norseman was the only plane in England that combined a steel-tubed fuselage with a very specific type of Pratt & Whitney engine, known as a Wasp.
So, if the team finds evidence of a steel-tubed fuselage — no matter how mangled — and a Pratt & Whitney Wasp, they’ll know they’ve got a Norseman. More crucially, they’ll know they’ve got Miller’s Norseman.
“The Miller aircraft is the only Norseman that’s unaccounted for,” adds Gillespie. “So, if you find that, you’ve found the Miller aircraft.”
The investigation is still very much in its early stages, however. TIGHAR — who are also searching for American aviator Amelia Earhart in the South Pacific — have conducted preliminary investigations in England and are now reaching a point where they’re able to decide if a physical search is warranted.
Should they conclude that it is — and can raise the funds — then TIGHAR will perform side-scan sonar research in the English Channel, before possibly using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to photograph anything of interest.
It is only after these steps are concluded that they will consider sending a diver 130 feet down to the murky seabed of the world’s busiest shipping lane to physically search for evidence.
“Once you say, ‘We’re going to go out and find the Glenn Miller airplane,’ everyone holds their breath,” says Gillespie. “But it’s a crapshoot. This stuff is really hard and there’s a good chance you’re going to get skunked! That’s what this game is like. You can’t find something if you don’t try to find it but that’s the call we’re going to have to make.”
For now, Gillespie and the TIGHAR team are content with simply busting some myths about Miller’s disappearance — particularly, the wild claims that he was downed by friendly fire or Allied aircraft ditching excess bombs on their return from raids over Nazi Germany.
“Right now, if you really look at the facts of the case, there really isn’t much doubt at all that the airplane went down in the English Channel,” says Gillespie. “They probably just iced up and went into the channel. But we don’t know. With a mystery as popular and iconic as the Miller disappearance, there will always be conspiracy theories and adherence to other theories. Finding the wreckage answers the question finally. You can say, ‘There it is. We can now put that to bed.’ That’s what we’re out to do: replace mystery with documented history.”