Thursday, January 08, 2015

Good story, but it doesn't survive acid test

By  Chris Schultz

The story seemed to have all the right elements.

It had mystery, romance and local color. 

And, later, I learned, an extraordinary coincidence. A reporter doesn’t get many stories like this. 

But, in the newspaper business, the rules say: Verify everything. Those rules are like acid, intended to etch away anything that is lie, rumor or wishful thinking.

It helps preserve our credibility and sometimes saves us from lawsuits. And sometimes that acid eats away the story to nothing.

The story, as it was first relayed to my eager ears, went like this: 

A longtime resident from the Greatest Generation recently passed away. The December burial was in a Lake Geneva area cemetery.

As the burial service came to an end, and as the funeral director was reminding everyone that a light lunch would be served afterward, the sound of a piston-driven aircraft could be heard. Some mourners looked up to see a World War II vintage Corsair fighter-bomber streak overhead. Some estimated the altitude at 500 feet.

Now it gets good. A friend of the family relayed that the recently-deceased had a loved one who went overseas and was, reportedly, a Navy pilot who may have flown Corsairs. One day he took off and never came back.

And then, just as the casket was in the ground, over the grave flew a Corsair, as if to carry a tired soul to a long-lost loved one.

Those who were at the funeral that I talked to said they didn’t know that anyone had arranged a flyover and were mystified as to where the World War II warbird had come from. 

Some said they never even saw the plane.

But the plane had been identified as a specific type. My first thought was to check out the mystery Corsair. Online sources said that only 24 to 30 of the prop-driven fighters are still flying as civilian craft. And that’s worldwide.

However, a call to the Experimental Aircraft Association, Oshkosh, turned up a Corsair in the Midwest. Chris Henry of the EAA gave me the number of a contact, John Marshall of Chicago. it was Marshall who told me that funeral flyovers are always announced in advance, and almost everyone is aware of it.

He then gave me the number of Frank Kimmel of Greenwood, Mississippi. Kimmel is one of four owners of a Corsair which is based in Michigan during the summer. The plane winters in Mississippi.

For the record, this Corsair was built after World War II and was used as a trainer during the Korean War, followed by a stint in the Honduran Air Force. But the post-WWII Corsairs look very much like the war-era Corsairs, and in flight, they are indistinguishable, Kimmel said.

Usually, the Corsair is in Mississippi by October, he said. In fall, it’s taken to a repair shop in East Troy for a tune-up. But this year, the plane had engine trouble. Spare parts were ordered, but they came late, Kimmel said. It wasn’t until the first week of December that the engine was reassembled.

Then the weather interfered.

“It was foggy, foggy, foggy,” Kimmel said. He said he was finally able to take the plane up for a test flight on Dec. 10, but the engine developed a stutter. Mechanics went over the engine, but found nothing.

“We could not find a reason why that engine ran rough,” Kimmel said.

Kimmel had to leave East Troy, but arranged for his friend and Chicago-area warbird pilot Vlado Lenoch to fly the Corsair the 564 nautical miles from East Troy to Greenwood.

Lenoch confirmed that on the day of the funeral, he had the Corsair in the air, taking it on a test flight from East Troy to an airfield in Illinois, and then back to East Troy.

Lenoch confirmed that sometime between noon and 1 p.m., he flew over the Lake Geneva area, heading to Illinois. His altitude was 1,500 feet to stay under cloud cover.

He had no idea that he had passed over a cemetery, he said. Kimmel was almost as excited about the story as I was.

That the plane was not ready to fly until that day in December, nearly two months later than usual, and that Lenoch’s test flight route, chosen completely at random, took it over the burial ceremony at the precise time it did, was a coincidence beyond explanation, Kimmel said.

A flight plan drawn up by a power from above?

“I would not discount that theory,” said Kimmel.

But that theory came crashing down when I located a relative of the deceased.

No, there was no long-lost loved one from World War II, the relative said. 

It was just a rumor, and no known facts would support it.

What’s more, the relative requested I not name the decedent.

Since this is not a bonafide news story, I decided to comply.

And so there it is, from real-life romantic mystery to just an astonishing coincidence, the acid of verification wears down another story.

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