In 1965, two aircraft mechanics without any flying experience stole a dutch navy plane. They managed to get it airborne, but must have known that there was no way they could ever get it back on the ground safely. They crashed at sea, only a few hundred feet out of a sleeping fishing town. Katwijk threaded the eye of the needle. What drove these young men?
It is Friday night, January 22th 1965. It is the middle of the Cold War. Twelve Lockheed Neptunes SP-2H submarine hunters are based on the dutch military airbase of Valkenburg, near The Hague. Five of them are parked on the platform, standby to take-off for emergencies. Aircraft mechanic Ad Meulenberg is on duty, together with his mate Tom Boel. More than half a century later he still remembers that night: “It was cold and rainy.” Just before midnight, Boel comes running towards him, asking him if he knows anything about an emergency: “I answered that I was not aware of that. Boel said that two mechanics, Frans Bolk and Huib van Oostende, had just arrived at the platform, saying that they were told to prepare one of the Neptunes for take-off to assist a perishing ship on the North Sea.”
Meulenberg calls his supervisor, who has no clue either but promises to inquire. Ad returns to the platform, finding Bolk and Van Oostende on the wings, removing the covers from the engines. He asks where the pilots are, Bolk answers that they are on their way.
That makes Boel and Meulenberg supersticious. Unlike regular emergencies, the runway lights are off. “I returned to my supervisor, only to learn that he had no answer yet,” Meuelberg says. Back at the platform, he sees Bolk sitting in the cockpit, starting engine 1. Now he knows something is definately wrong: “That was the pilot’s job.”
Once more, Meulenberg hurries to his superior, who knows more this time: there is no such thing as an emergency. Meulenberg rushes back to the platform, where the Neptune is rolling. Both surveillants run to their superior, who orders them to halt the plane whatever it takes. Meulenberg crosses the field towards the plane, that is heading for the runway.
Once there, Meulenberg stares right into the headlights of the plane. Since he has no ammunition, he realises that all there is left to do is trying to pierce the tires of the plane, so he mounts the bayonet on his rifle. While doing so, he hears the engines revving and by the swinging of the lightbeams he knows the hijackers have released the brakes.
The accellerating plane runs towards Meulenberg, who jumps in the wet grass to save his life, gazing at the Neptune running by. His sits up, only to watch the plane taking off.
Meulenberg notices that the plane is climbing far too steep, so it doesn’t take long before it stalls. For a moment it seems frozen in the air, next it faces downwards, commencing a fatal dive. Meulenberg realises that the Neptune might crash on the sleeping town of Katwijk within seconds. Next there is a flash on the horizon, followed by the sound of an explosion and a ghostly lit mushroom cloud.
That night, Katwijk threaded the eye of the needle. It was midnight, everyone was at home asleep and the Neptune, filled with 10,000 liters of fuel a flying molotov cocktail that just missed the village. Hitting it would have killed hundreds, but the plane crashed in the North Sea, less than half a mile out.
The following days the beach of Katwijk is crowded. Rescue boats, helicopters and planes are searching for the wreck and the bodies, while the navy are wondering what got into these guys. Bolk and Van Oostende were reliable men. Being mechanics, they must have known that without any flying experience they had no chance whatsoever to land the plane safe and sound. Besides to fly a Neptune it takesthree men in the cockpit. And the starting procedure costs about 45 minutes for warming up the engines; this time it took only six minutes.
Leader of the investigations is captain Jo Petschi, who believes the answer is obvious: alcohol. The aftermath, he states to a reporter that a witness declared that the hijackers had drunk about six glasses of beer in the airbase canteen before their deed. Also, he says that they might have drunk before arriving at the canteen. “I won’t say that they were completely drunk, but they had enough alcohol to eliminate a part of their common sense.”
Petschi also wonders why the men did not go home. It was Friday night and they were off duty that weekend. By 11 PM, they had left the canteen to go to the sleeping barrack instead, where they chatted with other guys. A witness later stated that one had said to the other something like ‘Well, let’s do it then?’. Next thing, both men left the place to be never seen again.
Two young men, drunk, hijacking a plane for a nightly joyflight. Two lives and a fife million dollar plane lost: case closed.
Reading the official report, one might believe it all seems clear enough. But is it really? I talked with people who were there that fatal night and dicovered that the offical report is questionable, to say the least. Some of the witnesses claim they had noticed that Bolk and Van Oostende were acting weird during the day before they died. Gijs Eversen was Van Oostende’s sleeping neighbour, he says: “Something was going on that day. I still remember that after more than fifty years.” According to Eversen, Bolk was changing a cockpit windshield on the Neptune 212, the very plane that crashed: “His mate Van Oostende dropped by several times. After the job was done, the plane was towed to the platform.”
Later that day, in the barrack where marines were getting ready to return home for the weekend, Evertsen noticed that Van Oostende was behaving in a rather unusual way. He gave away personal belongings or sold them for little. Evertsen himself paid 25 cents for a book titled Famous Combat Aircraft of the World, featuring a dutch Lockheed Neptune that crashed earlier. Van Oostende had marked the picture with a black cross. “When I asked him what that meant, he answered that the navy was about to lose yet another Neptune.”
After half a century that is not much of a clue. But the official statement of the navy is, to say the least, as weak. The waiter in the canteen had strict instructions not to serve more than three bottles of beer per person per day. Even if Bolk and Van Oostende had drunk before arriving there, people would have noticed. All witnesses say that both men made a sober impression, which is also stated in the official report. Both knew that there was no way they could ever land a Neptune safely and unhurt. From the barrack it was a more than two miles a walk to the platform. The cold and rain would have sobered them up more than enough to realise their mission was impossible and doomed.
Also, the investigation is doubtable. Captain Petschi was in charge of security at the airbase. The same man was commissioned with the inquiries and press communication. That is weird, but it does explain why Petschi was so sure about the innocense of the guards. They had acted precisely according to his protocol. Also, the fact that Petschi, even before the bodies were recovered, declared that drunkenness was the cause, makes his conclusion hard to believe.
What if it was not a drunk man’s stunt, but Bolk and Van Oostende got on that plane completely sober and aware of their fate, what made them still do it? A double suicide is hard to believe, but that counts for any other explanation. Gijs Evertsen thinks that the men were paid by some foreign power to steal the plane, together with a skilled pilot that didn’t show up, forcing them to flee in panic. Others find that hard to believe. Why these two fine young men really died, is still a mystery after more than fifty years. Their death nightflight is long forgotten, but if their plane had stalled seconds earlier, the town of Katwijk would have been swallowed by an inferno with hundreds of fatalties.
Tuesday evening January 16th the wreckage of the plane is located at the bottom of the sea. The following days it is lifted in pieces. That same morning, Van Oostende’s body washes ashore at the beach between Katwijk and The Hague. Wednesday morrning, Bolk’s corpse drifts ashore in Scheveningen.
The weird stunt by Bolk en Van Oostende was even more embarassing for the dutch navy since it was not the first time that they saw an unqualified person fly off with one of their planes. Less than a year before, a 21 year mechanic named Theo van Eijck had hijacked a Grumman S-2 Tracker from their base on Malta, to fly it to Lybia. Van Eijck had failed the enttrance test to become a pilot and wanted to prove that he was capable of flying anyway. Likewise, Frans Bolk had the ambition to become a pilot. Perhaps he took a bad example from Van Eijk.
This article was published in the dutch magazine Quest Historie, issue 3/2017