News Crew Spots Old Navy Aircraft on Chesapeake Island
It was Friday, Nov. 27, 1953. Fenwick Keyser and a few former college buddies were enjoying a Thanksgiving weekend hunt on Wroten Island, the low, marshy piece of land they owned in southern Dorchester County, Maryland.
Ducks were plentiful on the Chesapeake Bay island, and the hopeful hunters settled into their blinds, waiting for an opportunity—but the “bird” they encountered that day was a far cry from the species they were expecting.
Located only a few miles from Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, the presence of an aircraft, even at an uncommonly low altitude, was not unusual. It wasn’t until the small silver jet started chopping the tops off a stand of pine trees in the center of the island that the men realized they were witnessing a crash in progress.
“For an instant, large hunks of trees were tossed through the air like matchwood,” wrote Keyser, describing the incident in an article for the Baltimore County Union News, a newspaper he owned at the time. “Then there was a loud thud, and finally, silence.”
Rediscovering the Crash Site
In October 2018, while on assignment shooting footage for an aerial special, a helicopter news crew from the Eastern Shore spotted an old crashed aircraft on Wroten Island.
“We were flying over, going out to another island, when I saw the airplane,” said Taylor Rogers, a producer with WBOC-TV out of Salisbury, Maryland. “We went on to do what we had to do, and then I asked the pilot to go back so I could record it. We circled the island, and I got as many shots as I could with the HD [high-definition] helicopter camera.”
Rogers described the plane as sitting in shallow water in the middle of the island, surrounded by trees, and not visible to passing boats.
“I zoomed in on the tail to try to get any identifying markings so we could find out where the plane had come from,” he said. “We found three different pieces of it in the vicinity.”
Back at the station, the crew began reviewing the footage and were told by an older helicopter pilot it looked like a military airplane. WBOC reporter Brooke Reese called area military installations and learned from Dover Air Force Base’s military museum it was a training/testing type of aircraft.
Eventually, Reese spoke with the public affairs officer at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, who advised her to contact George Schwarz, an underwater archaeologist with Naval History and Heritage Command, whose team has been compiling a list of the potential locations of aircraft that crashed out of Pax River in the 1940s and 1950s.
Schwarz’s research indicated a TV-2 Shooting Star had crashed off the installation in the early ‘50s, and based on information garnered from archival records, pinpointed Wroten Island as one of its possible crash sites. Reese met with Schwarz in Washington, D.C., armed with Rogers’ overhead video footage.
The video showed the letters NATC—Naval Air Test Center—painted clearly on the aircraft’s tail, indicating it was a Navy wreck. But, before Schwarz could comment definitively on which aircraft it was, he explained he would need to physically visit the site, take measurements, look for features that are diagnostic of the TV-2 and attempt to find the Bureau Number, the ultimate piece of evidence. However, with other higher priorities, that likely wouldn’t happen any time soon.
Reese went on to question longtime business owners and watermen in the Wroten Island area, but found no one who knew anything about the plane. Channel 16 aired the story as it was—what they called their “mysterious discovery”—and shortly after it was televised, Reese received an email from Philip Iglehart telling her he and his friend, Michael Keyser, both later owners of the island, knew exactly what the aircraft was and the story behind how it got there.
The Aircraft and Pilot Revealed
Michael Keyser is Fenwick Keyser’s son, and he and Iglehart have been friends for years, ever since Philip moved from New York to Baltimore.
“One day Michael asked me if I’d like to learn to shoot, and the rest is history,” Iglehart noted.
Michael Keyser—who was only six at the time the incident occurred—shared his memories of the event.
“[My father and others] went running through the marsh with their hip boots on, and when they got there, the pilot was sitting there, making sure he was still alive,” he recalled.
In his newspaper article, Fenwick described the scene. Parts of the jet were strewn over a wide area along the glide path through the trees, and both the nose and tail had been twisted and partially torn away from the fuselage.
“But the cockpit was intact and there, crawling out of it, was a coverall-clad figure in a brilliant Mae West life jacket,” he wrote.
That pilot was Lt. Cmdr. Kenneth S. Smith with Service Test Division, Patuxent River. As reported in the Dec. 4, 1953, issue of Tester, Pax River’s base newspaper, the accident occurred at noon when Smith’s TV-2 jet trainer suffered a flame-out.
Keyser wrote the pilot explained his “$50,000 jet motor had cut out seven minutes after he took off from the Patuxent base and that gravity had done the rest of the job, despite his frantic efforts to get the engine started again as he hurtled toward the earth.”
Not long after the crash, a Navy helicopter circled the trees a few times, hovered 40 feet above them, and lowered a long steel cable dangling a yellow sling, which hauled Smith quickly up into its belly before returning to Pax River.
“The pilot had told us his plane was a special conversion job designed for the testing of new instruments, and two large panels bristling with gauges, switches and dials bore out his words,” Keyser wrote. “The commander, just before leaving, also intimated that the Navy would be extremely grateful if nobody pinched a large gadget, which was an experimental gyro-driven artificial horizon and the only one of its kind in existence.”
Approximately an hour later, two more helicopters deposited members of a salvage team on the ground.
“Equipped with the proper tools, skilled mechanics made short work of removing vital equipment,” Keyser wrote. “Both instrument panels and a variety of other mysterious gadgets were hauled up and stowed in the waiting helicopters, and by dark, the cockpit of the plane had been reduced to a few knobs, switches, and lengths of wire and tubing.”
Iglehart and Keyser no longer own Wroten Island but remember the crash site well, located near an area that has come to be known as Airplane Pond.
“We used to take a boat through the cove or go around on the south shore and walk in, but there was clearly nowhere near as much water on that end of the island as there is now,” Iglehart noted. “Adventurous members and guests [of the hunting lodge] would often go over there because it was excellent shooting, but in the most recent years, it got to be too treacherous, because you didn’t know if you’d step in a hole or not.”
A document signed by Fenwick Keyser on Dec. 1, 1953, gave the Navy permission to remove the plane from the island, but they never did.
“I remember the Navy building a wooden platform in the marsh, which served as a landing pad for a helicopter,” Michael said. “I’m not sure how they got the engine out of there, but I guess they took what they wanted and decided the rest was too much trouble [to remove.]”
And so the aircraft remained, largely forgotten for six decades, until Chopper 16 and WBOC revealed its history once again.
“I was very pleased to get that email from Mr. Iglehart,” Reese said.” The information [he and Keyser] had was beyond any expectation. To them, it was just something that happened, but to us, it was an interesting story to be retold.”
Benefits to the Navy
The Keyser family’s information, photos and documents have proven valuable to the Navy, and especially to Schwarz and his team, who now have a final resolution for another one of the unrecovered Pax River crashes they’re investigating.
Typically, when Schwarz hears about possible discoveries of naval aircraft wrecks from the public, he conducts archival research and combines that with field research or site documentation to determine whether the wrecks belong to the Navy.
“Sometimes, but rarely, we receive additional information, such as photographs or official contemporary correspondence from the public that confirms the identity of a site,” Schwarz said. “Often, the Navy doesn’t have complete copies of these records for each crash, and in this case, it was very helpful for us to have received this information, which helped confirm our determination that this was the aircraft we suspected it was. Since only abbreviated accident history reports were archived, the documents and photos provided contributed to our understanding of the crash event and final disposition of the aircraft.”
Schwarz also reiterated military aircraft wreck sites are protected under the Sunken Military Craft Act of 2004, which makes disturbing such sites without permission of the U.S. Navy a crime. The Underwater Archaeology Branch manages, researches, conserves and interprets Navy shipwrecks and aircraft wrecks worldwide.
Donna Cipolloni is editor of the Tester and a communications specialist supporting Naval Air Station Patuxent River Public Affairs.