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  • McConnel’s Passing: An At Death Encounter? March 2, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    Sopwith F-1 Camel

    11 December 1918 was a sad day in the McConnel family. Eighteen-year-old David McConnel (aka M’Connel in some publications) had perished four days before in a plane crash: just three months after the end of the worst war in history, at a time when his family might reasonably have hoped that he would be safe. Flying from Doncaster he had come down just outside Tadcaster in fog at about 3.30 pm. The plane had slipped from side to side and then made a nose-dive into the ground, throwing the young pilot against his gun and killing him, we must hope, instantly. However, at the funeral the McConnel family were shocked to learn from a Lieut. Hillman that David’s apparition had been seen at the base at Tadcaster at the moment of his death. The father naturally wanted to find out more and so wrote to David’s room-mate Lieut. Larkin (who had been visited). Larkin replied with a letter that has become a classic in psychic literature. It contains a series of unusual elements: an apparently reliable witness (in the RAF no less!), who reported the meeting with the ‘spirit’ almost immediately after it had happened but before he had determined it was a ‘spirit’. What is more the witness defined himself as a sceptic.

    David [McConnel], in his flying clothes, about 11 a.m. went to the hangars intending to take a machine to the ‘Aerial Range’ for machine-gun practice. He came into the room again at 11:30 and told me that he  did not go to the range, but that he was taking a ‘camel’ to Tadcaster  drome. He said, ‘I expect to be back in time for tea. Cheero.’ He walked  out and half a minute later knocked at the window and asked me to hand  him his map, which he had forgotten. After I had lunch, I spent the afternoon writing letters and reading, sitting in front of the stove fire…. I was sitting as I have said, in front of the fire, the door of the room being about eight feet away at my back. I heard someone walking up the  passage; the door opened with the usual noise and clatter which David  always made; I heard his ‘Hello, boy!’ and I turned half round in my  chair and saw him standing in the doorway, half in and half out of the room, holding the door-knob in his hand. He was dressed in his full  flying clothes, but wearing his naval cap, there being nothing unusual in his appearance. His cap was pushed back on his head and he was smiling,  as he always was when he came into the room and greeted us. In reply to his ‘Hello, boy!’ I remarked, ‘Hello! Back already?’ He replied, ‘Yes,  got there all right, had a good trip.’ I am not positively sure of the exact words he used, but he said, ‘Had a good trip,’ or ‘Had a fine trip,’ or  words to that effect. I was looking at him the whole time he was speaking.  He said, ‘Well, cheero!’ closed the door noisily and went out. I went on with my reading and thought he had gone to visit some friends in one  of the other rooms, or perhaps had gone back to the hangars for some of his flying-gear, helmet, goggles, etc., which he may have forgotten. I did not have a watch, so could not be sure of the time, but was certain it was between a quarter and half-past three, because shortly afterwards Lieutenant Garner-Smith came into the room and it was a quarter to four.  He said, ‘I hope Mac (David) gets back early, we are going to Lincoln  this evening.’ I replied, ‘He is back, he was in the room a few minutes  ago.’ He said, ‘Is he having tea?’ and I replied that I did not think so,  as he (Mac) had not changed his clothes, but that he was probably in some other room. Garner -Smith then said, ‘I’ll try and find him.’ I then went into the room, had tea, and afterwards dressed and went to Lincoln.  In the smoking-room of the Albion Hotel I heard a group of officers talking, and overheard their conversation and the words ‘crashed,’ ‘Tadcaster,’ and ‘McConnel.’ I joined them, and they told me that just before they had left Scampton, word came through that McConnel had crashed and been killed, taking the ‘camel’ to Tadcaster. At that moment I did not believe it, that he had been killed on the Tadcaster journey. My impression was that he had gone up again after I had seen him, as I felt positive that I had at 3:30. Naturally I was eager to hear something more definite, and later in the evening I heard that he had been killed on the Tadcaster journey…

    Whether sceptic or ‘enlightened’ you will understand, having read this, why the Society for Psychic Research became so excited and why, indeed, they made follow up inquiries with both Larkin (who answered their letters) and David’s father. From these inquiries we have a sense of the confusion of Larkin, who was convinced, perhaps relunctantly by his own experience, and who assured the SPR that the light had been good in the room. David’s father, meanwhile, understandably enjoying his son’s immortality, noted that confusion with other pilots was not a serious possibility, as there were only two other fliers with naval caps and both were entirely unlike his son. What is more David’s watch had come to a stop at 3.25, which corresponds with the arc of time when Larkin had this unusual and yet entirely pedestrian encounter.

    What are we to make of this? Four possible explanations jump to mind:

    (1) Larkin lied. This might not be something sinister. He may have had his reasons for lying to Garner-Smith and then found himself caught in the lie by the tragic crash.

    (2) Larkin had actually seen someone else in the door but thought it was DM. Larkin may have been worried about his roommate, who had been out late at a dance and skipped breakfast and projected his anxiety (and his wish to resolve it) onto someone else. I’ve sometimes been jolted by students walking late into a the lecture hall because I was convinced they were already there. But that is on a far shorter encounter (a grazing gaze across a crowded room) rather than the 40 second (?) meeting described above.

    (3) Larkin had imagined the entire episode. I’ve heard the phrase ”brain fart” bandied around… However, in a lifetime of relative incompetence and mental indiscipline I don’t think I’ve lived through anything similar.

    (4) Something else happened… Gulp.

    As one with a sentimental attachment to Newtonian physics and material facts I would hope (1), (2) or (3) took place, but it is a striking account and would make a good short story. Any more pointed skeptical thoughts: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Or is this that rarest of things: a 60% convincing case of some form of paranormal activity? Also if anyone has the full SPR report i will gladly type up and put on line.

    ***

    2 March 2014: Massive thanks to Southern Man who sent the SPR article in and did the typing! Two thoughts. It would be good to know Larkin’s age. David’s flight, apart from the obvious smash up at the end, seems to have been particularly traumatic. It is strange that any apparition should have talked of a good flight: but stiff upper lip and all that?

    L. 1226. APPARITION AT THE TIME of DEATH. The following case of an apparition seen at the time of death has reached us through Sir Oliver Lodge, to whom a report was sent in the first instance. The apparition was that of Lieut. David E. M’Connel, R.A.F., who was killed in a flying accident on December 7, 1918, and the percipient was one of his fellow-officers, Lieut. J. J. Larkin, R.A.F. The earliest report of the occurrence was contained in a letter to Sir Oliver Lodge from Lieut. M’Connel’s father, Mr. D. E. M’Connel, who writes thus:

    January 16, 1919. Knowing your interest in psychical affairs, I take the liberty of giving you the particulars of the reported appearance of my son at the time of his death through an accident while flying. I enclose the copy of the written statement of Lieut. Jas. J. Larkin of Scampton Aerodrome, to whom the appearance was made. I heard of the occurrence at my son’s funeral on the 11 December (he was killed on the 7 December) and wrote as soon as I could to Lieut. Larkin, who replied on the 22 December. The statement made to me on the 11 by Lieut. Hillman, who has attested the correctness of the account given, corresponds accurately with the account itself. Lieut. Hillman had not been back to Scampton, or seen Lieut. Larkin, between the time of the funeral and the writing of the account. Lieut. Hillman wrote his attestation on reading the account in my house. The event seems to have made a very vivid impression on the two or three of my son’s friends who heard of it. … One other matter of fact I may mention. My son was fully dressed for flying, with helmet, when he started. We happen to have a snapshot of him taken by a fellow-officer just before he climbed into the ‘camel’ which he flew. The account states that he ‘appeared’ with his naval cap on. My son began his flying career in March last, entering through the R.N.A.S, before the amalgamation of the K.N.A.S. with the R.F.C. His elder brother had entered the R.N.A.S. and my son David was proud of his connection with the earlier service. Having a complete kit of the naval flying service, he always wore the naval flying uniform about the aerodrome, and was one of only three at the drome who had followed the same course in entering. His naval uniform was therefore well known. It would not be at all an unusual thing that he should have taken off his uncomfortable helmet on arriving back at the hangar, and exchanged it for his naval cap. Under the circumstances, however, it is to be remarked that he wore his helmet at the time of the accident ; and in the appearance to Lieut. Larkin wore the naval cap. His mother informs me that he was dressed, as usual, in his naval uniform below his flying things, and that he had his naval cap with him in the fusilage to wear on reaching Tadcaster—the usual action. The O.C. states that my son left Scampton for Tadcaster at 11.35 a.m. December 7.18. The circumstances of the flight were as follows. My son, with other officers, had been to a dance at Lincoln on the night of the 6 December. He got up rather late on the morning of the 7, missed parade, and also had no breakfast. The formal completion of all his tests for ‘getting his wings’ were to take place on the 7. As the account states, he was on his way to start for the Aerial Range to shoot off those final tests when he was asked by the O.C. to take one of two ‘camels’ to Tadcaster. He went therefore unexpectedly, rather fatigued, and without food. I may say here that his O.C. considered him a ‘born flyer’, and that he was a very cautious and careful flyer, though not shirking necessary risks. By most unusual favour, he had been accepted for permanent service before he had won his ‘wings’— had been nominated for an instructorship in flying, and was to have left for the Camp of Instructors on the Monday following Saturday, 7 December. The weather was fair when he left Scampton to fly to Tadcaster, a distance of 60 miles. He was accompanied by another ‘Avro’ plane—a two-seater—which was to have brought him back to Scampton after delivery of the ‘camel’. You are probably aware that a ‘camel’ scout plane is a notoriously difficult and sensitive one, and requires continued strain and effort to keep it down. At Doncaster the two planes ran into fog. My son and his Avro companion descended, and my son described the situation to his flight commander and asked for instructions by telephone. The reply was ‘Use your own discretion.’ We suppose that my son’s anxiety to finish his tests prompted him to continue. His companion states that neither of them lunched at Doncaster. Between Doncaster and Tadcaster the fog became very thick. The Avro man had to come down, and made a forced landing, successfully. My son circled round him to see that he was all right and continued his flight to Tadcaster. Sixty miles is not a long flight. But the fog was very dense. In order to keep touch with the solid a flyer has to keep his plane under such circumstances about 150 ft. above the surface of the ground—a feat in a camel of considerable difficulty. My son must have encountered difficulty, as he did not approach Tadcaster till nearly 3.30. Allowing for half of an hour for the descent at Doncaster, he must have been flying for about [illegible!] hours on this occasion. I am told that it is as much as an ordinary flyer can do to fly a camel for 2 hours. The strain on the arms is intense. In fact, his mother, who saw his. body on Monday the 9 at midday, observed that his hands were tightly clenched and his forearms swollen. As he at last approached the Tadcaster Aerodrome, the machine was seen approaching by a man on the road about a mile distant from the camp, who reported the fog to be extremely dense. During the evidence at the inquest a girl, or young woman, said she was watching the plane, and saw it apparently ‘side-slip,’ then right itself. It flew steadily for a minute or two, then mounted suddenly and immediately ‘nosedived’ and crashed. The engine was full on when the crash occurred. My son was thrown violently forward—his head striking the gun before him, which was not hooded. One arm was broken, one leg was torn. The girl ran to the spot and ‘found the officer dead.’ The violence of contact seems to have stopped his watch, which registered 3.25 p.m. His cigarette case was almost doubled up. These are the circumstances of the accident, so far as I am aware of them. I am informed by flying men that the reaction on reaching safety after a difficult flight is so ‘terrible,’ that fainting is not unknown. My son, it is thought, may have fainted; hence the crash, and his inability to save himself. Or there was possibly engine trouble. I am told also that when shot, or in danger, the immediate thought of the flyer is usually a quite trivial one, such as the sudden desire for a cup of cocoa, or to get undressed at camp, etc. I mention, this because the ‘appearance’ was not made at my son’s home,, or to his mother, who was there at the time, but in his own camp-room, and to a person who was a comparative stranger. However, his mother did have a strange impression at the hour of his death, of which she is writing an account herewith enclosed. My son had a happy, even joyous disposition. He had a brisk step and manner which would account for the ‘noise and clatter,’ which Lieut. Larkin remarked and reports in his account. My son was 18 on the 15 April, 1918, having left Bedales School, Hants, before military age, to enter the R.N.A.S. He had been headboy at Bedales during that winter term. He was the youngest headboy Bedales had had. … At Scampton, as at school, his conduct, character, and disposition made him as much loved as respected. His friends and his O.C. report that, though they are all accustomed to the sudden deaths which repeatedly occur, when the news of David’s death reached camp, the camp was completely ‘broken up’.

    I write these words to you that you may see what bearing his character may have had on the ‘appearance’, if indeed character has any influence in such things.

    DAVID E. M’CONNEL.

    Enclosed with Mr. M’Connel’s letter was an account by Lieut. Larkin of his experience, together with, two corroborative statements from fellow-officers, thus :

    34 T.D.S., ROYAL Am FORCE,
    SCAMPTON, LINCOLN, December 22, 1918.

    David [M’Connel], in his flying clothes, about 11 a.m. went to the hangars intending to take a machine to the ‘Aerial Range’ for machine gun practice. He came into the room again at 11.30 and told me that he did not go to the range, but that he was taking a ‘camel’ to Tadcaster drome. He said, ‘I expect to get back in time for tea. Cheero.’ He walked out and half a minute later, knocked at the window and asked me to hand him out his map, which he had forgotten. After I had lunch, I spent the afternoon writing letters and reading, sitting in front of the stove fire. What I am about to say now is extraordinary to say the least, but it happened so naturally that at the time I did not give it a second thought. I have heard and read of ;similar happenings and I must say that I always disbelieved them absolutely. My opinion had always been that the persons to whom these appearances were given were people of a nervous, highly-strung, imaginative temperament, but I had always been among the incredulous ones and had been only too ready to pooh-pooh the idea. I was certainly awake at the time, reading and smoking. I was sitting, as I have said, in front of the fire, the door of the room being about eight feet away at my back. I heard someone walking up the passage ; the door opened with the usual noise and clatter which David always made ; I heard his ‘Hello boy !’ and I turned half round in my chair and saw him standing in the doorway, half in and half out of the room, holding the door knob in his hand. He was dressed in his full flying clothes but wearing his naval cap, there being nothing unusual in his appearance. His cap was pushed back on his head and he was ;smiling, as he always was when he came into the rooms and greeted us. In reply to his ‘Hello boy!’ I remarked, ‘Hello! Back already!’ He replied, ‘Yes. Got there all right, had a good trip.’ I am not positively sure of the exact words he used, but he said, ‘Had a good trip,’ or ‘Had a fine trip,’ or words to that effect. I was looking at him the whole time he was speaking. He said, ‘Well, cheero!’”, closed the door noisily and went out. I went on with my reading and thought he had gone to visit some friends in one of the other rooms, or perhaps had gone back to the hangars for some of his flying gear, helmet, goggles, etc., which he may have forgotten. I did not have a watch, so could not be sure of the time, but was certain it was between a quarter and half-past three, because shortly afterwards Lieut. Garner-Smith came into the room and it was a quarter to four. He said, ‘I hope Mac (David) gets back early, we are going to Lincoln this evening.’ I replied ‘He is back, he was in the room a few minutes ago!’ He said, ‘Is he having tea?’ and I replied that I did not think so, as he (Mac) had not changed his clothes, but that he was probably in some other room. Garner-Smith said, ‘I’ll try and find him!’ I then went into the mess, had tea, and afterwards dressed and went to Lincoln. In the smoking room of the Albion Hotel I heard a group of officers talking, and overheard their conversation and the words ‘crashed’ ‘Tadcaster’ and ‘M’Connel.’ I joined them and they told me that just before they had left Scampton, word had come through that M’Connel had ‘crashed’ and had been killed taking the ‘Camel’ to Tadcaster. At that moment I did not believe it, that he had been killed on the Tadcaster journey. My impression was that he had gone up again after I had seen .him, as I felt positive that I had at 3.30. Naturally I was eager to hear something more definite, and later in the evening I heard that he had been killed on the Tadcaster journey. Next morning, Garner-Smith and I had a long discussion about my experience. He tried to persuade me that I must have been mistaken, that I had not actually seen Mac on the previous afternoon about 3.30, but I insisted that I had seen him. As you can understand, Mr. M’Connel, I was at a loss to solve the problem. There was no disputing the fact that he had been killed whilst flying to Tadcaster, presumably at 3.25, as we ascertained afterwards that his watch had stopped at that time. I tried to persuade myself that I had not seen him or spoken to him in this room, but I could not make myself believe otherwise, as I was undeniably awake and his appearance, voice, manner had all been so natural. I am of such a sceptical nature regarding things of this kind that even now I wish to think otherwise, that I did not see him, but I am unable to do so.

    The foregoing are just the plain facts of the case. Would you please give me your opinion? I have given you every detail· and described easily and naturally just as it happened. I must thank you very much for David’s photograph. I shall always treasure it. We had been very good friends though not intimate friends in the true sense of the word, as though I had known him for about four months, we had been room-mates for about six weeks only. We had lots of discussions, political, social, and educational, but not once did we discuss anything bordering on the occult or spiritual. Had we done so, I would perhaps have been able to account, in a measure, for his appearance in this room at the time of his death. As it is, I have no explanation whatever to offer.

    JAS. J. LARKIN, 2nd Lt. R.A.F.

    CORROBOKATIVE STATEMENTS.

    Mr. Larkin has related almost word for word what he told me on the afternoon of the 7 [December, 1918], at about a quarter to four. Knowing the type of man he is, I most certainly believe· this strange occurrence, but am at a loss to explain it.

    GERARD GARNER-SMITH, Lt. R.A.F.

    On Sunday morning, December 8th [1918], Mr. Larkin told me-the story exactly as he has written it down here. I have known Larkin rather intimately for some time, and although at any other time I would have been inclined to disbelieve a story of this nature, knowing Larkin as I do and as he is, I am convinced of his story as he has told it.

    R. MOWAT HILLMAN, Lt. R.A.F.

    3.20 and 3.30 p.m. The room was quite small, about 12 feet square, and at the time the electric light was on and also a good fire burning in an open stove. I may mention that the light was particularly good and bright, and there were no shadows or half shadows in the room. Outside it was still quite light, but being a foggy, cold day, I had my door closed and the light on and the fire going. I think that is all the additional information you require, as I understand from Mr. M’Connel’s letter.

    JAS. J. LARKIN, 2nd Lt. R.A.F.

    Lieut. Garner-Smith’s corroborative statement supplies evidence that Lieut. Larkin had identified the man who entered his room on December 7, 1918. as Lieut. M’Connel before he could have had any normal knowledge of the accident which had only just occurred. The identification cannot therefore be due to any trick of memory consequent on the news of the accident. That being so, the only normal explanation which could be made to cover the facts would be one of mistaken identity. It was with this possibility in mind that we questioned Lieut. Larkin concerning the lighting of the room. Obviously such a mistake would be far more likely to occur in a dim light. Lieut. Larkin’s reply on this point is satisfactory. The light, he tells us, was good, and under these circumstances it is very difficult to suppose that Lieut. Larkin could mistake a man, with whom he actually had conversation at a distance of only a few feet, for another man with whose voice and appearance he was perfectly familiar. A further argument against the theory of mistaken identity is that Lieut. Larkin observed that the man who entered his room was wearing a naval cap. This was worn by only two other men at the aerodrome besides Lieut. M’Connel, neither of whom, as we are assured by Mr. M’Connel, who is personally acquainted with them, ‘could either in height, or build, or manner, or voice, have been mistaken for my son.’