Merkel, Lee J. (P2, C3, L26)
Lieutenant Colonel Lee Joseph Merkel, 37, of Louisville, Jefferson County, perished on 31 January 1956 when the F-51 Mustang, aircraft 44-73091, he was piloting crashed near Salt Creek about ten miles south of Bedford, Indiana. Merkel was in technician status at the time of the incident and test flying the aircraft after repairs as part of his full-time technician duties.
Merkel had served as wing commander, air technician and first base detachment commander as well as commander of the 123rd Fighter Interceptor Group.
Merkel was a graduate of Du Pont Manual High School and attended the University of Louisville for two years in pre-law.
Merkel joined the United States Army in August 1940 serving at Godman Field with the 12th Observation Squadron. In January 1942 he began training as an aviation cadet. A year later he earned his wings as a military pilot. During World War II he served as squadron flight leader in six campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and France. Merkel flew a total of 143 missions and on 1 occasion was shot down in Italy behind enemy lines. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with 5 Oak Leaf clusters, and 2 Distinguished Unit Citations.
Merkel accumulated some 400 combat flying hours during World War II with the 346th Fighter Squadron. Merkel left active duty in January 1946 but soon joined the Kentucky Air National Guard in February 1947 and served as a squadron commander, executive officers and wing commander in addition to base detachment commander. He was qualified in the F-51D, C-47 and F-84E with more than 3,000 flying hours in his career. He was also rated as a test pilot and instructor pilot.
In 1948 Merkel became base commander for the 123d Fighter-Interceptor Group. This unit was called to active duty in October 1950 and served in England as a fighter-bomber wing. It was returned to its Kentucky base in 1952. Lieutenant Colonel Merkel was widely recognized as one of the best pilots in the Air National Guard. As base detachment commander, a full-time job, he worked hard to persuade the State legislature to grant funds for lengthening runways to accommodate jet aircraft at Standiford. Prior to accepting full-time duties as base commander in 1948, Merkel was training officer in the Vocational Rehabilitation Service in the Veterans' Administration regional office.
Merkel took off from Standiford Field, Louisville, Kentucky at 2:50 p.m. CST to perform a maintenance test flight for a carburetor and propeller change. The flight was planned for one hour duration with 2½ hours fuel aboard. Merkel flew to 20,000 feet and established contact with the Oak Hill Air Defense Command Radar Station. A course was set for Terre Haute, Indiana, and the pilot informed Oak Hill he was at 20,000' at 3:01 p.m. CST. The flight was continued and several minutes later Oak Hill informed the pilot his blip was fading on the scope.
The pilot replied he had Terre Haute in sight. At 3:24 p.m. Oak Hill received another call from ANG 75091, this error, i.e., ANG 75091 instead of ANG 73091 is believed to be an error of the pilot or of the radar operator at Oak Hill, and the pilot stated he was returning to Louisville, heading 135° at 34,000' climbing to 35,000'. The pilot was informed of an aircraft approaching from the right. The pilot stated he did not have the aircraft in sight and the blip faded from the radar scope. Communication between Oak Hill and ANG 73091 was lost at 3:35 p.m. CST. The pilot's last communication was given in a normal voice. The next information was a telephone call by an unidentified civilian to an Air Defense Command Aircraft Control and Warning Station north of Terre Haute, Indiana, stating that an Air Force aircraft had crashed and the approximate location. The Control and Warning Station immediately notified the Bakalar Air Force Base (near Columbus, Indiana) Provost Marshal at approximately 4:25 p.m. CST. It was determined that the aircraft ANG 73091M crashed at approximately 3:35 p.m. CST, 31 January 1956.
Witnesses said they thought the pilot was trying to make a forced landing. They said the plane came down at a 60-degree angle, struck in a field in the Salt Creek bottoms, plowed a furrow and buried itself to its tail. There was no fire or explosion. The identification was based on papers found near the wreckage.
Newspaper accounts in late February (see Lexington Herald 27 February 1956 Page 2) suggest that officials believed that obsolete oxygen equipment was blamed in the crash. Brig. Gen, Philip Ardery, wing commander, said Merkel had been flying at 34,000 to 35,000 feet and may have blacked out because of a lack of oxygen. “We have evidence to indicate that the oxygen regulator might not have been functioning properly on. Col. Merkel’s plane,'' Ardery said.
Following his death the Kentucky Air National Guard established the “Colonel Lee J. Merkel Award For Outstanding Leadership.” This annual award was presented to deserving Air Force ROTC Cadets at both the University of Louisville (U of L) and University of Kentucky (UK). Over the years the award fell into disuse and stopped being presented. In 2010 efforts were made to re-establish the award with the University of Louisville.
Lieutenant Colonel Merkel was promoted to the rank of colonel on State orders issued by the military department, Commonwealth of Kentucky, on July 24, 1955. A freeze of promotions was put in place by DoD on August 2, 1955. Merkel perished before his promotion was approved at the federal level.
Legislation was introduced in Congress to give him federal recognition for the rank of Colonel posthumously, bill S. 4003, by Senator Earle C. Clements and House H.R. 10921 by Representative John Marshall Robsion, Jr. The Senate bill passed the Senate in July 1956 and went to the House of Representatives and was referred to House Committee on Armed Services. The 84th Session of Congress ended on January 3, 1957 without the legislation receiving final passage. No further legislative action in this regard has been found.
Merkel was laid to rest in Section F, Site 311 of Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Louisville.
Frozen Wheel Beats Pilot
Till He Tries Power Dive
Crash Crews Standing By
The Courier-Journal, Louisville, 19 Dec 1953, Page 15
For a tense hour yesterday a National Guard plane piloted by Lt. Col. Lee J. Merkel frantically circled Standiford Field.
On the Ground, crash crews stood by. Above them Merkel worked desperately to free a frozen landing wheel.
Merkel, base commander of the Kentucky Air National Guard, had taken off from the field about 1:30 p.m. Just then a man in Standiford tower radioed him that the left landing wheel had not completely pulled up.
Flies Around for Hour
So, for an hour, Merkel flew his F-51 Mustang around the field, trying to get the wheel up. Then he tried to get it down so he could land. The other wheel wend down, but the frozen one didn't move.
Once Merkel “bounced” the plan on Standiford’s runway to jar the stuck wheel loose. But it didn't work.
Then something worse happened. The trap door that encloses each wheel became wedged against the balky wheel and locked there.
Merkel decided to try another plan. He flew to an artillery range at Fort Knox, climbed to 10,000 feet, and went into a 400-mile-an-hour dive.
“My Lucky Day, I Guess’
The force of pulling out of the dive knocked the wheel loose. Merkel flew back to Standiford and landed safely.
“It was my lucky day, I guess,” he said.
He explained that he went to Knox range to make the dive so that if the wheel or the trap door fell off it would not hit a person or a house.
If the plan hadn't worked, he said he would have tried to land anyway to save the plane if he could. But there was always the chance that the plane would flip over and catch fire if he landed on one wheel.
Merkel, 33, has been the guard’s base commander since 1948. He lives at 1104 Manning Road. He was taking off for Frankfort yesterday when his trouble began.
CAPTION: Lt. COL LEE MERKEL After landing yesterday