Portmore Lough is now a bustling wildlife haven – an RSPB reserve that’s home to all manner of bird species – but 75 years ago another ‘winged wonder’ unexpectedly splashed down in the lough: a World War Two fighter plane.
On Christmas Eve in 1944, in the midst of the Second World War, 19-year-old Peter Lock, a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm pilot, took off in his Grumman Wildcat plane from Long Kesh airfield.
The London-born sub-lieutenant was making a practice flight and headed out towards Lough Neagh, but not long after take-off the engine exploded and caught fire. Looking down, he could see that he wouldn’t make it as far as Lough Neagh and knew that landing a plane full of fuel into a field would be a fatal move – but then he spotted Portmore Lough.
He ditched the plane in the lough and the shallowness of the water and the underlying mud saved his life. It was 12-year-old Seamus Kane, who still lives on the family homestead on the shore of the lough, who witnessed the dramatic plane crash and raised the alarm.
The Kane family got in a boat and rowed out to the plane to rescue the young pilot, who had only suffered minor injuries – burns to his arms - in the dramatic incident.
He had been due to attend a Christmas dinner back at the base. Under his flight suit, he was dressed in his brand new uniform ahead of the festivities. Despite his ordeal, he still made it to the dinner that evening.
The Wildcat lay half-submerged in Portmore Lough for 40 years, until the Ulster Aviation Society (UAS) enlisted the help of an expert engineer and an RAF Lynx helicopter to lift the plane out of the water.
Since 1984 to this day, it has been undergoing restoration by the UAS and it is now at their hangar at the Maze Long Kesh site. Ray Burrows, now chairman of the UAS, managed to make contact with Peter Lock in 1984 once the plane had been lifted out of the lough.
Peter had been living in Canada since the 1950s and had always assumed that his plane had sunk and slowly rotted away, so he was stunned to be contacted by Ray.
“I said to him, ‘I'm just phoning to tell you we've lifted your aircraft out of the lake that you crashed on Christmas Eve 1944’ and there was 30 seconds of stunned silence,” says Ray. “Then he said, ‘Would you repeat that?’ That was the start of a fantastic relationship.”
Seamus Kane also struck up a lasting friendship with Peter when the former pilot began visiting Northern Ireland over the years.
“I can remember the plane going down as if it just happened today. We were playing in the hay shed in the yard and heard the sound of a plane coming down. We ran out and we could see the smoke coming from the engine and then the pilot ditched the plane in the lough.
“We ran over to our house. It was Christmas Eve and I remember my sister putting up holly and I started to shout that there was a plane that had fallen in the lake. After the plane was lifted out 35 years ago, Peter and I became very great friends and we’d exchange Christmas cards right up until Peter passed away.”
Peter Lock visited Northern Ireland many times between 1984 and his death in 2017. He would meet Seamus and Ray and the UAS team to check the progress of ‘his’ plane’s restoration and made a few emotional returns to Portmore Lough, scene of the ‘splashdown’ that so could easily have proved fatal.
RSPB Portmore Lough is a free-to-visit nature reserve close to the south-east corner of Lough Neagh and four miles from Aghalee. It has a viewing platform offering panoramic views of the lough and a short accessible boardwalk that leads through woodland to a lough-side bird hide.
Robin Brown, a longstanding volunteer at Portmore Lough, has always had a keen interest in the story of the Wildcat and is happy to talk to visitors about the winged ‘Wildcat’ as well as the other bird species they will see on a visit to the reserve. At this time of year, people will see swans, teals, wigeons, pochards, tufted ducks and – on a good day – a hen harrier. And, of course, festive robins too.
“The wreckage of the aircraft was such a landmark on the lough and a real talking point in the area for many years, before it was lifted out in 1984. I’ve always been really fascinated by the story and especially that Peter Lock came back to Portmore and to see the Wildcat being restored over the years,” says Robin.
RSPB Portmore Lough will host ‘Portmore Lough, Peter Lock and the WW2 Wildcat’ - a free talk by Ray Burrows from the Ulster Aviation Society - on Thursday 13 February at 7pm. To register for tickets, visit https://portmorewildcat.eventbrite.co.uk
Last Updated: Thursday 2 January 2020