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Aviation history in Ballinrobe

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Members of the Ballinrobe community, who have an interest in or association with the story of the Lithuanian plane crash near the town
LOOKING BACK Members of the Ballinrobe community, who have an interest in or association with the story of the Lithuanian plane crash near the town, from left: Patsy Murphy, Anthony McCormack, Patrick Murphy, Jim Walsh, David Walsh and Monsignor Tom Shannon, PP. 

Aviation history in Ballinrobe

FEATURE
Rob Murphy


OU can probably count on one hand the number of times the town of Ballinrobe has been mentioned in the New York Times. There’s no doubting the most notable and prominent reference to the south Mayo town, however.
It was on Monday, September 23, 1935, when the paper reported on the crash landing of a Lockheed Vega plane, flown by American-born Lithuania pilot Felix Waitkus, in a small field in Cloongowla, just outside the town.
The crash brought to an end an incredible 22-and-a-half hour journey from New York across the Atlantic ocean to the west coast of Ireland.
Today, over 71 years later, moves are afoot in the town to commemorate this little piece of aviation history in south Mayo and recognise the important part the people of Ballinrobe and the surrounding area played in this remarkable story.
The 28-year-old pilot’s goal had been to break the aviation distance record of the time, and in so doing, bring great pride to the small nation of Lithuania. 
Waitkus had become the sixth man to fly solo across the Atlantic, but his ultimate dream of landing triumphantly in his native country could not be realised after his plane was badly damaged on landing in a field outside Ballinrobe.
Strong head winds and non-stop rain had made the trip arduous and forced him to use more fuel than had been anticipated. His re-adjusted plan was to land in Ireland, refuel and continue east towards the Baltic state where a crowd of over 10,000 people were awaiting his arrival.

Felix Waitkus chatting with some of the crowd that gathered when he landedPILOT Felix Waitkus chatting with some of the crowd that gathered when he landed

A specially-arranged radio broadcast from Athlone played a crucial role in guiding him towards Ireland and his flight path took him in over Connemara where he most probably veered north at Lough Corrib towards Ballinrobe. He circled the town for quite a while looking for a suitable landing spot. It was 10am on a cloudy autumn Sunday morning and the commotion caused quite a stir in the quiet town.
Josie Murphy (nee Flannery) was aged 27 at the time of the crash and is one of the oldest surviving witnesses. Her future husband, Christy Murphy, was the rare owner of a camera at the time and his pictures of the crashed plane and locals who had visited the landing site are what sparked a renewed interest in the story today.
At the age of 98 she can still recall hearing the plane.
“It circled the town a number of times.  Everyone rushed out to their doors to have a look. It was a strange site in those days.
I remember driving out to where it came down and passing the throngs of people making their way out to the field on the road,” recalled Josie.
Willie Hughes, now 97 years old, together with Oggie McDermott (deceased) made his way to the plane by bike and was among the first to reach the crash site. He recalls helping the pilot emerge from the cockpit, which, by a stroke of good fortune, had not been damaged in the accident. 
Waitkus had been looking for a flat field suitable for landing for some time and finally settled on a large field about a mile north of the town. He recalled in a later article how he flew low over the grazing cattle in order to create space to put the plane down.
On his approach, witnesses suggest he may have clipped a tree  (which still stands there today) at the edge of the field, damaging his plane slightly. Waitkus himself noted how a gust of wind lifted one of the wings as he was about to land, causing the other wing to dip, hit the ground and the plane to spin around on impact. It was a freak manoeuvre that may well have saved his life.
People from all over south Mayo came to the site, such as Austin Flannery from Creevagh, aged 16 at the time, and John McGee (diseased) from Beachgrove, who cycled from The Neale. There were many more who travelled long distances to catch a glimpse of the plane that was making headlines across the world.
Amid the excitement, at least three more planes flew into the town over the course of the day. Two planes from Dublin landed at the Racecourse Aerodrome where the Guinness family had a hanger and landing strip. One was carrying members of the Irish Air Corps and the other carrying photographers and journalists. A third, flown by the well-known Irish aviator, Lady Heath, landed in the same field as Waitkus, damaging the undercarriage of her craft in the process.  
Retired Ballinrobe solicitor and former county registrar, Patsy Murphy, is another living witness to the crash. He was nine years of age at the time and remembers fondly the excitement that enveloped Ballinrobe on that September morning. Having seen the plane circle from outside his home in Abbey Street, he realised that it was attempting to land.
   “Planes were an odd site at the time. Any we would have seen would have been small in size. It was clear he was looking to land and we followed his path out to where we felt he had come down,” recalled Patsy.
After emerging from the plane, Waitkus proved to be an engaging character, who chatted openly with the gathering of local spectators that greeted him. His disappointment at not being able to complete his journey was very evident, but he was also well aware of how lucky he was to walk away alive.
The young Patsy Murphy quizzed him and got plenty of answers.
“I remember asking him why he had not landed in the Racecourse Airstrip. He told me he circled around it and felt there was too much livestock. He then noted with a smile that he hadn’t the money to compensate the local farmers if any animals were killed in the process of landing!”
The young pilot signed autographs and posed for photographs, handing out sticks of chewing gum to the many kids who had surrounded the plane. A complete novelty at the time, chewing gum didn’t hit the shops in Ireland for at least another 20 years. Patsy Murphy kept his stick of gum unopened as a souvenir, along with a piece of the fuselage that Waitkus personally signed.
Considering his incredible voyage and its dramatic conclusion, Waitkus was relaxed and full of life in the hours after the crash. He was invited into a local farmhouse, home of the Walshes, where Mamie served him a boiled egg and some caiscín bread.
His next port of call was the local Garda station to send a telegram home to report his safe landing.
The Irish Air Corps arranged for the plane and its pilot to be transferred to Dublin later that week. The night before he left, Waitkus was a guest of Dean D’Alton, Parish Priest in the town at the time, and he received a hero’s send-off the next morning as he left to begin the last leg of his journey.
Father Norman Fitzgerald, who was eleven years old at the time, remembers the recovered plane being brought through the town on the back of an army truck with numerous on-lookers and well-wishers. 
It was the photos taken by Christy and Josie Murphy on the day of the crash that sparked a re-emergence of the story this year, when their son Patsy Murphy of Cornmarket – no relation to his namesake who witnessed the crash – decided to find out more about Waitkus’ journey and what happened to him after his brief, but memorable, visit to Ballinrobe.
Over the past year Murphy, along with John Meehan, has undertook a considerable amount of research through the internet, old newspapers and interviews with witnesses of the crash. One such witness was Jim Walsh, formerly of Cloongowla, who was able to identify the precise landing spot.
The research opened up a huge well of information on Waitkus’ journey, especially from Lithuania, where to this day the pilot is still a hero. During the summer, Murphy was invited by Ambassador Izolda Brickovskiene to visit the Lithuanian embassy, and the Ambassador herself has shown a keen interest in visiting Ballinrobe at some point in the near future.
In October contact was made with Felix Waitkus’ son, Phillip Waitkus, who has a large collection of memorabilia from his father’s flight and has expressed an interest in donating some of the material to a possible exhibition. 
That is the next step for the interested parties, and the hope is that at some point in the next year a permanent collection of pictures and other documents will be put on display somewhere in the town ahead of the 75th anniversary of this piece of aviation history in Ballinrobe.

* If you have stories or pieces of relevant information pertaining to the 1935 crash landing of Lituanica 2 in Cloongowla, please contact Patsy Murphy at murphypatsy@gmail.com or phone 086 2117300.