The ‘flying helmet’ worn by the pilot of the Spitfire planes recovered from bogland in County Donegal has gone on public display for the first time.
The headgear was worn by World War II fighter pilot Roland ‘Bud’ Wolfe from Nebraska, whose plane crashed into Cnoc an Uininn hill in Moneydarragh townland between Redcastle and Gleneely in Inishowen on November 30, 1941.
The long lost crash site was discovered by Claudy man Jonny McNee and his daughter Grace back in 2011, and both were present at the Guildhall in Derry on Saturday to take part in the unveiling, as part of a day of genealogy and archeology events.
Over the past four years, a team of experts have undertaken a major project to conserve the wreckage recovered from the excavation.
The Rolls Royce Merlin engine from Bud’s Spitfire- which was also remarkably intact- has also been put on display in the nearby Tower Museum at the weekend.
The council yesterday confirmed the helmet will now go on display alongside the engine of the plane in the Tower Museum.
Jonny McNee has also published a book ‘The Story of the Donegal Spitfire’ in 2012, which details how he finally tracked down the Spitfire.
Bud was an American volunteer pilot flying with 133 Eagle Squadron (RAF) who were based for a short period in 1941 at RAF Eglinton.
On the day of the crash he had been part of a routine convoy patrol flight off the Donegal coast when his engine began to seriously overheat.
He managed to bail out from his aircraft and landed safely near Gleneely, abut half a mile away, where he was spotted trailing his parachute.
He was interned and released in 1943 and would go on to transfer to the US Army Air Force. He flew with the 78th Fighter Group until the end of the war and later served in Korea and Vietnam.
Bud Wolfe passed away in Miami in 1994.
In 2011 Jonny and Grace managed to find local eyewitnesses who assisted in narrowing down the location of the crash site.
Further detailed studies with detection equipment finally pinpointed the exact spot and Jonny was given the necessary permissions by the archaeological authorities in the Republic of Ireland and the MOD (UK) to attempt the first licensed excavation of a WW2 aircraft anywhere on the island of Ireland.
The recovery was filmed by the BBC NI as part of the groundbreaking series ‘Dig WW2” and transmitted in 2012.
Jonny recalls: “There were many highs and lows and sleepless nights in undertaking this project. The remote location of the crash site, the waterlogged nature of the deep peat and the endless red tape of form filling often made me wonder was I wise to attempt this.
“However those dark hours are easily forgotten when I look back on my memories of being able to meet Bud’s two daughters, Betty and Barbara and their extended family circle, who travelled from the US to Derry to launch the museum display in 2011.
“My personal highlight was firing the last burst of ammunition through one of the Browning machine guns I recovered during the dig.
“The weapons were cleaned and restored under the expert care of the Irish Defence Force. To witness and hear this weapon fire after all it had been through was incredible - archaeology doesn’t get much better than that.”
Curator with Derry City and Strabane District Council’s Museums Services, Roisin Doherty, said the team at the Museum were thrilled to be able to unveil the piece to the public.
“When the Donegal Spitfire first hit the headlines a few years ago it really caught the imagination of the public, and drew attention to the North West’s strategic military role during the Second World War.
“The unveiling of the helmet is another chapter in this fascinating story, and we are delighted to be able to show it to the public.”