A ROGUE pilot, an alleged official cover-up and the wreckage of a plane somewhere at the bottom of the English Channel. It sounds like the set-up for a low-grade thriller, but in fact it's the latest project of history society Deeper Dorset - which is calling for donations to help it decipher one of last century's least publicised mysteries.

On May 23 1969, US Air Force mechanic Paul Meyer, then aged 23, stole a transport aircraft from his base in Mildenhall in Suffolk, apparently intending to fly it home to his wife and family in the US.

What happened subsequently remains shrouded in the fog of time and official secrecy. What is known is that Sgt. Meyer flew for over an hour before the Hercules C-130 disappeared from radar over the English Channel, around 40 miles off Portland Bill. Partial wreckage was discovered during a search and rescue mission, but neither the bulk of the aircraft nor Sgt. Meyer were ever located. He is presumed dead.

Sgt. Meyer's stepson, Henry Ayer, told the Echo that 50 years on, the incident remained 'very fresh' in his mind.

"Even though I was barely seven years old, I remember it as if it were yesterday," said Mr Ayer.

"I remember having great concern for my mother, who was distraught at the fact that Paul had taken the aircraft," he said. He recalled his stepfather as the man who taught him all he knew, including hunting and personal responsibility. "I learned a lot from Paul in the very short time he was in my life," he added.

Now Deeper Dorset, a maritime history and discovery society, is plunging into the mystery, with the support of Mr Ayer.

Deeper Dorset's Grahame Knott, a diver and local history enthusiast, is preparing a search project to scour the area where Sgt. Meyer's Hercules is suspected to have gone down; he hopes that by locating the crash site, he can help determine the details of what transpired.

Mr. Knott said he suspected the plane had been shot down by USAF planes to ensure no harm was caused by the rogue pilot, and that the incident was covered up in order to minimise the embarrassment caused to the force.

In order to carry out the audacious theft, Sgt. Meyer impersonated an officer, evaded interception and deceived support workers into fuelling the plane - all in the wake of a reported heavy drinking session the night before.

"It wouldn't happen now, and to be honest it's amazing it happened then. said Mr. Knott, adding that it was difficult to piece together what happened subsequently. "The whole story is surrounded by rumour," he said. "Some say he was shot down, some say he was trying to fly to the Eastern Bloc. Some say it was pilot error.

"But somebody, somewhere, knows what happened."

Mr Ayer meanwhile said he was hopeful that the endeavour would prove or disprove whether the aircraft was shot down.

"We may never get that answer, but we are grateful this team is making the attempt to bring us the possibility of closure," he said.

Deeper Dorset is hoping to raise £6000 towards the search project; most of the funds raised will go towards fuel costs. "We have all the equipment we need," Mr Knott explained. "But fuel can cost £200 or £250 a day."

The project constitutes a divergence from Deeper Dorset's usual focus on shipwrecks, but Mr Knott stressed that the mission was only to locate the aircraft wreckage, and not in any way to interfere with it.

USAF's official report into the incident found that Sgt. Meyer had crashed the plane. "Assistant Crew Chief [Meyer] made an unauthorized taxi and take-off, subsequently lost control of the aircraft and crashed into the English Channel. Sgt. Meyer acted alone in committing this highly irrational act and was not intentionally assisted by any other individual, " the report reads.

It goes on to state that Sgt. Meyer, who had previously served in Vietnam, was under 'considerable emotional stress' at the time of the incident.

Donations can be made to the fund at Kickstarter - search for Finding Meyer's Hercules.