Monday, January 30, 2006

US jet crashes off Queensland


ABC News Online
January 30, 2005

United States officials have confirmed an FA-18 Hornet strike fighter plane has ditched into the sea while attempting a night landing near Brisbane.

The aircraft was attempting to land on the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan during a training exercise early yesterday morning about 120 nautical miles south-east of Brisbane.

Lieutenant Commander Gary Ross says the pilot ejected safely but the $37 million aircraft was lost. The pilot was rescued from the sea.

Lieutenant Commander Ross says five other jets were forced to fly in to Brisbane because they were short on fuel.

"There were five aircraft that were sent into Brisbane International Airport. The reason why they went into Brisbane was because of their fuel state," he said.

The USS Ronald Reagan is the world's largest aircraft carrier. It left Brisbane on Friday after a five-day visit.

"It should be noted that there was no damage or impact in the operational capability of the USS Ronald Reagan during the incident," Lieutenant Commander Ross said.

The US Navy is investigating the accident.


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

B.C. divers sink Boeing 737 as artificial reef


January 14, 2006

CHEMAINUS, British Columbia -- A Boeing 737 made its final descent on Saturday – 20 metres deep into the waters off the east coast of Vancouver Island.

Cranes slowly lowered the decommissioned plane into the ocean off Chemainus, about 70 kilometres north of Victoria, slightly more than a month after Environment Canada gave final approval to a plan dreamed up by diving fans.

The Artificial Reef Society of B.C. sunk the plane to create an artificial reef in an area that doesn't have much marine life.

The society expects the new reef to be home to dozens of species of sea life within a couple of years, which it hopes will, in turn, lure more divers.

Boaters were on hand to watch the lowering of the plane, a 1970s-era Boeing that had not flown since 2001.

The plane, which had been stripped down, weighs 15 tonnes and measures 30 metres long.
It was to be placed on 4.5-metre high stands on the ocean bottom so divers could swim under it.

The diving society, which began work on the project in 2002, has used ships to create six other artificial reefs in the province.

For the latest project, it received approval from six local First Nations groups as well as Environment Canada.

The group said the plane's resting place was chosen for its lack of sea life, blaming a century of forest-industry debris.


Sunday, January 01, 2006

Diver finds warplane wreck

By Jade Bilowol
December 21, 2005

A MYSTERY warplane wreck has been found in a watery grave off the tip of far north Queensland.

Diver and underwater filmmaker Ben Cropp today said he discovered the wreck under 6m of water "about half a mile" off the tip of Cape York last month.

The wreck, that took up to 10 passengers to their deaths during World War II, was either an B24 Liberator bomber, a B17 Fortress or even a Japanese Emily flying boat, Mr Cropp said.

Mr Cropp said he was determined return to the site, near Albany Passage, next year to unravel the mystery.

"It's intriguing – there were no survivors, unless it was a Japanese plane and they would want to sneak away," Mr Cropp said.

"I'll identify it by counting the pistons, and they should still be intact, or by finding the name of the engine on the cowling."

He found the wing tip and three engines of the war plane, as well as its coral-covered fuselage, while filming the documentary The Silent Warriors.

"It is a huge, huge bomber – it has a wing span of more than 30m," he said.

"I would say it is the largest plane to crash in Australia. There would be others of the same size but there hasn't been a larger one to crash on land or in the sea here."

However, he doubted any human remains would be recovered from the wreck.

"The sea just eats up everything," Mr Cropp said.

He said the discovery was one of 231 warplane wrecks that crashed in the far north Queensland region during World War II.

Mr Cropp believed the plane crashed because it ran out of fuel.


Lost Patrol might not have lived up to name with today's technology


The State
By Robert Nolin
December 04, 2005

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Sixty years ago Monday, 14 men in five Navy planes took off from Fort Lauderdale on a routine practice mission. Then the "Lost Patrol" vanished into mystery - and the myth of the Bermuda Triangle.

Aviation experts and historians figure Flight 19 soared off course, perhaps due to a malfunction in old-fangled navigational equipment, and ditched in the Atlantic.

"I don't know where we are," the commander radioed at one point.

But with today's sophisticated aviation technology, it's unlikely the Lost Patrol would ever have lived up to its name. Aids like the Global Positioning System make it nearly impossible for aviators to steer astray.

"There's no excuse to get lost," aviation consultant Bob Baron said from his Savannah office. "You have to purposely try."

Flight 19, consisting of five, single-engine Avenger torpedo bombers, rumbled out of what is now Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on the afternoon of Dec. 5, 1945. The squadron was to fly to a bombing range in the Bahamas, then continue on a triangular path back to base.

Within 90 minutes, flight commander Lt. Charles C. Taylor reported compass trouble. Taylor thought he was over the Keys, and directed the gunmetal blue planes northeast, toward what he thought was the Florida Peninsula. Based on radio transmissions, investigators think the aircraft flew far out to sea, then west toward land, crashing before reaching Florida's East Coast.

One of aviation's greatest mysteries deepened later that night, when a seaplane searching for the doomed flight also crashed, killing 13. A total of 27 men were lost for what Navy investigators later labeled "causes unknown."

But theorists on the Bermuda Triangle, which stretches from Fort Lauderdale to Bermuda to Puerto Rico, have a smorgasbord of causes why the Lost Patrol, and other vessels and aircraft, vanish there: Interdimensional wormholes, the lost continent of Atlantis, electromagnetic windstorms, time portals, military experimentation, lunar gravitation, alien kidnapping.

Other observers - either less imaginative or less starry-eyed, depending on your point of view - simply see the triangle's peculiar disappearances as resulting from high air and sea traffic in an area notorious for unpredictable storms and unforgiving seas.

Baron speculated the planes' compasses could have gone haywire because of electromagnetic activity, the "chaff" that sometimes shows up on radar screens.

And the compass was the main navigation tool in those days. Flight 19's pilots relied solely on it and dead reckoning - determining position by calculating distance, speed and time. "Pilotage," or looking out the window and studying landmarks, was also common.

"It's a very crude way of navigating," Navy Cmdr. Pat Buckley, an expert on aviation technology, said from his base at Patuxent River, Md.

"It just amazes me to think they could go out on a mission to some remote island and turn around and go back and find an aircraft carrier or a flotilla of ships using the navigation that existed at the time," said Walt Houghton, 64, assistant to the director of aviation at Fort Lauderdale's airport.

Scant years after Flight 19 winged into legend, navigation technology took a baby step forward with non-directional beacons. A pilot could adjust course by tuning to a radio signal that would rotate his compass card in the direction of the signal. The '50s brought a more sophisticated version, the VOR, or VHF omnidirectional range system. That instrument also homed into radio signals, even standard AM ones, and displayed arrows for the pilot to set course.

Later came LORAN, the long-range navigation system. Also radio based, it is used by pilots to determine position by tracking signals from two or more ground-based stations. Trouble was, the system was of little use to cross-country aviation, since LORAN was mainly used by ships and its stations were along the coast.

The real sea change in navigation came with the advent of GPS, a system created and owned by the U.S. Defense Department, which became fully operational in 1995. Pilots seized on the system, which uses satellites to pinpoint one's position to within feet.

Today GPS receivers are common among hikers, boaters, motorists and especially aviators. "It's easy to use - just hit the `Where the hell am I?' button," said Alan Rifkin, who from his Hadley, Mass., home operates a Web site that tracks interesting GPS landmarks.

"You can go anywhere in the world without getting lost," said Houghton.

Had Flight 19 been equipped with current technology, there would never be a monument to its passing at the Fort Lauderdale airport - and the myth of the Bermuda Triangle would have lost much of its oomph.

"With all the navigational systems we have aboard our aircraft today, I can't imagine ever being in a position where I didn't know where I was," said the Navy's Buckley.

But all that high-tech wizardry still requires one essential element: A human to tell it what to do. And humans are ever prone to mistakes.

"There's a lot of examples where people fly for years and years and one day they forget to do something," Baron said, "and that's what gets them in trouble."


Science Trumps Lore In Secrets

November 23, 2005

Nautical researcher David Bright, whose efforts to find an infamous missing plane in the Bermuda Triangle are chronicled in the upcoming SCI FI Channel investigative news special The Bermuda Triangle: Startling New Secrets, told SCI FI Wire that he did not go into the project with any preconceived notions about what he would or would not find. "Absolutely not," Bright said in an interview. "I think the beauty of what we were doing is because we all had varying backgrounds on the project. They all came into play. What we did is before we even went out we did a bit of what we call 'What if?' scenarios. So in order to get to that point, what we really needed to do was to essentially do an awful lot of research."

The special documents Bright's expedition—which included a team of more than 20 scientists and technological experts—as they searched for the truth behind the Bermuda Triangle's most famous incidents. In 1945, a squadron of bombers called Flight 19 was lost during a training mission off the coast of Florida. The rescue plane sent to find them a few hours later also disappeared. None of the planes has ever been found.

Based on all the scientific data currently available, Bright and his team used a methodical approach to finding the missing search plane. "We built in a scenario, or a search pattern, that was predicated on currents and tides and weather and taking also into account the fact that there could be certain scenarios where the ship exploded in midair and pieces would come down," Bright said. "Or the ship exploded as it hit the water after it came down. Or the fact that it may have hit the water and parts of it could have essentially blown up, but yet the remainder part of it could have gone on a little further with the tides. ... We came up with all these different scenarios and then developed search pattens based upon all of the different scenarios."

Bright would not reveal what his team uncovered during their seven days at sea, but he did say that he came away from the project satisfied. "What we were doing scientifically, especially with the game plan, was very strategically aligned with what we expected to see," he said. "And it actually worked out quite well for us. So, although I can't tell you what we found, I can tell you we were very excited about the science that we did out there, and that none of us would have done anything differently."

The Bermuda Triangle: Startling New Secrets airs Nov. 27 at 9 p.m. PT/ET. The special, from NBC News Productions, is hosted by NBC/MSNBC news anchor Lester Holt.


Lake Mead's sunken treasures to be protected from scuba diving thieves

By Chuck Frederick
November 16, 2005

Archaeologists and historial preservation groups worldwide are struggling to protect wrecks from infamous shipwreck looters such as Brad Sheard and Leigh Bishop who boast about their private collections of artifacts they claim to have "legally" stolen from shipwrecks around the world.

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The National Park Service is drafting a plan to protect cultural resources submerged below Lake Mead and public access to the often hidden treasures.
"We're talking about hundreds of sites that might be of interest to someone," said Dan Lenihan, who helped found the National Park Service's Submerged Resources Center in Santa Fe, N.M.

As water levels receded in recent years because of drought, some sites swallowed when Hoover Dam was constructed six decades ago are now in shallow water - or soon could be.

Others are above the surface, including an old cement tank in the Boulder Basin left over from the construction of the dam, and the abandoned St. Thomas town site near the lake's northern tip.

The cockpit of the B-29 bomber at the bottom of Lake Mead.
Divers in the area who want to see the wreck protected are
concerned it could be further damaged by scuba diving looters
who steal artifacts for private collections, bragging rights and
profits from eBay sales.

"They're physical touchstones to the past," said Lenihan, who retired in 2000 but still works part time with the Park Service's archaeological dive team.

Of the three options being considered for Lake Mead, park officials prefer the one that calls for managed recreational use and access to submerged sites.

The other options are unrestricted access to all sites, or making all sites off-limits to underwater explorers unless they are accompanied by a Park Service employee.

Dive shop owner Jay Gundy said he thinks most local divers will agree with the agency's preference.

"We certainly don't want to see them closed, but if you don't have managed access, the sites will be gone. It's been proven time and time again," Gundy said. "We like having that stuff down there. It's a reason to get in the lake."

The management plan evolved from a legal battle over a B-29 bomber that crashed and sank in Lake Mead's Overton Arm in 1948.

A federal court awarded the Park Service custody of the wreckage earlier this year, but the bomber has been looted and damaged in the five years since it was found, even though it is too deep to be reached by all but a small fraction of divers.

Inspecting engine #1, the only one still
attached to the plane.

Gundy, who has conducted about 350 dives in Lake Mead over the past 12 years, said many of the lake's sunken treasures can only be reached by "technical divers" who are trained and equipped to use mixed gases that allow them to descend below 130 feet.

"A lot of the history that's at the bottom of Lake Mead is along the old channel of the Colorado River, and those are the deepest parts of the lake," he said. "They're at 200 feet or better, well below the reach of a recreational diver."

Eventually, though, some of those sites could be within the reach of even the most casual divers, should the lake continue to shrink, Gundy said.

Public comments on the Park Service proposal will be accepted through Dec. 15. Officials said they hope to have a final management strategy in place by next spring.


Bomber wreckage beckons divers


By Henry Brean
October 10, 2005

National Park Service tries to protect B-29 from plundering, damage while still allowing access
After two years of litigation, the National Park Service has won its custody fight for a B-29 bomber that crashed and sank to the bottom of Lake Mead's Overton Arm in 1948.

Now the man who discovered the wreckage is calling on the agency's officials to do more to protect the aircraft before it is carted off or destroyed by unscrupulous divers.

Already, parts have been plundered and damage done to the B-29, said Gregg Mikolasek, the one-time Henderson dive instructor who led the team that found the wreckage in 2001.

"It's very discouraging," said Mikolasek, who returned to the aircraft during a dive permitted by the agency in May. "This wreck was pristine when we left it in 2002."

The service has launched an investigation into the damage and who might have caused it, said Roxanne Dey, spokeswoman for Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

"We will aggressively prosecute the people who are responsible. It's a priority for us," she said.

In the meantime, Dey said, park officials are working with "the local dive community" to brainstorm ways to better protect the sunken bomber.

The remote site poses a challenge for the agency, which lacks the resources to post someone there all of the time.

Dey said park officials rely on help from boaters, divers and other visitors to report any suspicious activity in the area.

To make that work, however, the park has marked a wide zone around the wreckage with buoys so visitors know where to look.

Some argue the buoys needlessly draw attention to the B-29.

Others argue that those who are plundering the wreck already know where it is, and the only way to stop them is to catch them in the act.

"I feel we're doing as much as humanly possible," Dey said. "We can't be there every minute of every day, and unfortunately there is a segment of the population that will engage in this kind of activity."

The agency currently prohibits diving and the use of anchors in a 14-square-mile area around the bomber without permission from the chief ranger for the park. That could change now that the court battle over the B-29 has ended.

In 2003, U.S. District Judge Kent Dawson blocked California-based Historical Aircraft Recovery Corp. from salvaging the bomber. Dawson ruled that the Park Service had not abandoned the wreckage.

Dawson's decision left the door open for the company to seek a "salvage award" from the federal government as compensation for finding the aircraft and "contributing to its rescue."

No financial reimbursement was ever sought by the company, and in May the judge granted a government motion to close the case. That move became official in mid-August when the deadline for appeal came and went.

"I don't have any intention of pursuing it any further," said Mikolasek, who transferred his rights to the wreckage to Historical Aircraft Recovery Corp. and had no direct involvement in the custody fight.

"I just hope the management will improve to actually preserve the site ... and allow for future exploration by responsible divers," Mikolasek said.

Recreation Area Superintendant William K. Dickinson promised as much in a statement released by the park a week ago.

"Now that the court case is over, we will continue to meet with members of the local dive community to work collaboratively on a management plan that will allow the public to experience the site while protecting it for future generations as part of a comprehensive site stewardship plan," Dickinson said in the statement.

"We are moving forward to open the site to permitted diving as soon as possible."

On July 21, 1948, the B-29 Superfortress crashed while on a high-altitude, atmospheric research mission.

Three of the four engines tore off when the 99-foot aircraft hit the water and skipped like a stone for more than a quarter of a mile.

The plane's pilot, Capt. Robert Madison, scientist John Simeroth and three others escaped through cockpit hatches as the B-29 submerged in 12 minutes.

The aircraft was lost in the cold, dark water of the lake until a team of local divers found it again in 2001.

Barring an enormous drop in the water level at Lake Mead, the B-29 should remain out of reach of recreational divers.

It currently rests in about 170 feet of open water.

"It's still an advanced dive," Mikolasek said. "It can best be described as cold, dark, deep and scary."

Dey said that is exactly why permits will be required once the service opens the wreck to diving: to make sure those allowed to explore the wreck are qualified to do so.

Dey said there also has been talk of building a floating dive platform above the aircraft.

Now the plan calls for the installation of moorings at the site, however, so boats have something to tie onto during dive operations.

Park officials could not say when the moorings might be built or the first permits issued to divers wanting to explore the wreckage.

Dey hopes it happens soon.

"We get several requests a week from people who want to dive the B-29," she said.

"The park service doesn't like to keep people away from resources. But we want to make sure we have a plan in place for stewardship of the B-29 first."


B-25 WWII plane retrieved from depths of Lake Murray


Columbia Star
By Bill Vartorella
September 16, 2005

A model of the B-25 was created to assist
in the recovery.

Sixty–two years after plunging into Lake Murray, one of the last remaining Army Air Corps war planes has been rescued from 150 feet beneath the lake’s surface.

According to the expedition’s leader, Dr. Robert Seigler, the retrieval of the now rare B–25C bomber took several days. Divers worked on mixed gases, at depth, to attach special straps on the aircraft.

The technical team is being led by internationally–known aviation salver, Gary Larkins, who expects the entire operation (which includes the spray–down and disassembly of the aircraft) to take about two weeks. Larkins disassembled, rigged, and raised a P–38 Lightning from beneath 270 feet of a Greenland ice cap several years ago. He is regarded as the premier salver of historic airplanes, with some 68 to his credit worldwide.

Seigler, who has written a history of the Lake Murray B–25s for Warbirds International , has spent two decades researching, locating, videotaping, and securing sidescan radar images of the aircraft. Divers have been quietly examining and documenting the airplane for the past several years in preparation for the retrieval.

The final day of the airplane is well–known. After flying out of the Columbia Army Air Base on April 4, 1943, the now–rare B–25C Bomber crashed and sank in the man–made lake during a skip–bombing training mission. The military crew escaped the aircraft, which had lost power, and brought it to rest upright, with damage to only the right engine. The crew survived and were rescued.

The US Army Air Corps was unable to salvage the aircraft during WWII because of water depth. It was finally located in 1990, virtually intact, under silt.

During the past decade, Seigler, head of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Greenville Hospital System, and John Adams Hodge, an aviation and environmental attorney at Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, P.A. in Columbia, have dedicated time, energy, and resources to the effort.

William “Bill” Vartorella, Ph.D. of Camden has helped guide the project. His firm, Craig and Vartorella, Inc. has been involved in exotic projects worldwide in the fields of archaeology, motor sports, and history.

The Seigler–Hodge– Vartorella team has continuously sought support in SC and the region from philanthropic foundations, state legislators, museum and airport officials, and corporations as they searched for a permanent site to house the vintage plane.

However, no SC venues were prepared to preserve such an aircraft in an indoor setting that met the need for painstaking restoration and ongoing public interpretation.

The project has received recognition by The Explorers Club and is designated as an Explorers Flag Expedition. The Explorers Club flag will be flown at the site. Seigler, Hodge, and Vartorella are members of the Greater Piedmont Chapter of the Explorers Club. Vartorella is a past chair of the club.

With a commitment to keeping the airplane in the South, Seigler’s nonprofit Lake Murray B–25 Rescue Project (501–c–3) has found an appropriate home for the airplane at the Southern Museum of Flight in Birmingham, Alabama. There, the plane will be restored, conserved, and displayed in its public museum.

Hodge, an attorney, registered geologist, and airline pilot, and Seigler and Vartorella have collaborated with SCE&G, the SC Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, the US military, historians, and numerous others to prepare for the final stages of this quest.

The upcoming retrieval has not been announced previously due to curiosity–seekers who might disturb the plane’s safe resting area.

The heroism of the pilot, who is deceased, prevented the aircraft’s loss of life. One of the crewmen who escaped is still alive and lives on the West Coast. Due to his health, he may not be able to attend; however, his family may send a representative.

Hodge said, “This is about preserving our history and heritage. The aircraft is WWII authentic as it has only been seen by a handful of people since it sank more than 60 years ago. It is in incredibly good shape. Dr. Seigler has expended countless hours and dollars to preserve our history, and I hope South Carolinians will assist him in this noble project.”

According to Vartorella, donations and in–kind contributions to help defray the estimated retrieval costs of $150,000 are appreciated. “We’ve had some excellent past support from the Arcadia Foundation, and companies such as Boozer Lumber have stepped up recently, as well as anonymous individual donors,” he said. “This project is likely to get global coverage and this is an excellent opportunity for companies and individuals to let the world know that SC is committed to its heritage and, frankly, is a great place to live and do business.”

For additional information, contact the nonprofit Lake Murray B–25 Rescue Project, 106 Highland Drive, Greenville, SC 29605 or Bill Vartorella at (803) 432–4353.


Sunken Navy plane found after 60 years in Clear Lake

September 02, 2005

NEWELL, Calif. - A dive team has found a Navy plane that crashed into Clear Lake more than 60 years ago.
After a search that lasted for two years, several pieces of the torpedo bomber from World War-Two were pulled from the lake Wednesday.
The T-B-F-One Avenger crashed into Clear Lake during a training mission in December of 1944, killing the pilot and radioman on board.
The cause of the crash was never determined.
During the search, crews combed the area where witnesses to the crash said the plane had sunk and located a debris field that's about two-thousand feet wide.


Divers Recover Plane That Crashed in 1958


AP Wire
August 13, 2005

Divers on Saturday recovered a single engine military plane that crashed into Green Lake during fog nearly 47 years ago, killing a Minnesota National Guard pilot.

More than 50 boats filled with curious spectators circled the site where the recovery operation was taking place, and dozens of people lined the shoreline nearly a mile way for the chance to watch as the Cessna L-19 "Birddog" was pulled from water 40 feet deep.

The daylong recovery effort included volunteers with the Kandiyohi County dive team, Emergency Support Services Association and the Midwest Technical Rescue Training Association, both of Minneapolis.

"Actually, things went excellent," said Mike Roe, recently retired water patrol director with the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's office who oversaw the operations.

Divers used a large winch mounted on a pontoon boat to hoist the airplane from the bottom. They kept the aircraft submerged below a second pontoon boat which they used to tow it to shore.

The crash on Oct. 14, 1958, took the life of Captain Richard P. Carey, 36, who was returning to the Willmar airfield from Rochester when his plane went down at 12:30 a.m.

Along with recovering the plane, divers were able to retrieve some of the items carried by Carey, along with the flight log, parachutes and headphones.

Carey had been in radio contact with the Willmar air field and warned about the foggy conditions, but said he was low on fuel and needed to land.

In his last radio call, he reported that he hit something, later believed to have been seagulls. His body was recovered 13 days later.

After that, countless unsuccessful searches for the plane were made. The plane was discovered by accident on July 4, 2004 by Corey Fladeboe of Willmar and Brett Almquist of Maple Lake as they scanned the bottom with an underwater camera is search of walleyes.

The Spicer American Legion Post and the City of Spicer are planning to restore the airplane and place it on permanent display as a memorial to its pilot and all of those who have served in the Armed Forces, said Spicer Mayor Bill Taylor.


Ghost Ship


Monterey County Weekly
By Ryan Masters
August 04, 2005

Macon History: Unfortunately, the legacy of the USS Macon
and its rigid airship siblings is one of disaster and tragedy.
Monterey History and Art Association.

More than a half a century ago, the US’s largest dirigible sunk off the Big Sur coast. In the fall, researchers will attempt to photograph the wreck.

“SOS—falling,” the radioman coolly typed.

Without a sound, the great airship fell slowly out of the clouds and towards the cold green sea and jagged cliffs of Big Sur.

“Let go all ballast and ship tanks aft of midships,” Lt. Cmdr. Herbert V. Wiley ordered from the control car, which hung beneath the dirigible’s huge helium-filled belly. “Slow all engines.”

Most of the crew’s 83 officers and men scrambled through the 785-foot silver air cruiser’s internal cavern of girders, cables and catwalks, dumping fuel and ballast, and preparing for the worst.

Commander Wiley glanced down at the white-capped sea below, where a wave of unpleasant memories surfaced. He forced himself to focus. The ship’s tail was still sinking towards the ocean, but now the vessel seemed to be gathering altitude thanks to the quick work of his men.

Perhaps they would still be able to limp back to the barn at Moffett Field, near Mountain View, after all.

A whistle sounded in the voice tube and Wiley’s right-hand man, Lt. E.K. Van Swearingen, retrieved the message. It was a full damage report. The top stabilizing fin had been completely torn free—only the rudder was standing now. As a result, the number one cell was deflated and numbers zero and two were rapidly following suit.

Wiley knew it was the end. The USS Macon, the nation’s largest rigid airship, was doomed.He ordered the vessel to be turned away from the sharp marine terraces of Big Sur and out to sea, towards the rescue ships that were closing in on his distress signals. Despite his tragic history, he was going to opt for the water landing.

Two years earlier, in 1933, Wiley had been serving aboard the USS Akron when the rigid dirigible had crashed in a storm off the New Jersey coast. The disaster had killed 78 of 81 men, including Admiral William Moffett, the father of Naval aviation. The only surviving officer of the Akron, Wiley was determined to avoid a similar tragedy by performing a controlled crash into the sea.

He ordered the crew to begin preparing to abandon ship. Throughout the mortally-wounded airship, the men leapt to it: unpacking rubber life rafts, opening hatches, cutting holes in the silver outer cover of the airship, and rigging lines to lower away.

The ship fell from the darkening sky at 600 feet per minute. It was 5:30pm on February 12, 1935. Soon, it would be night. To make matters worse, a storm had blown in, rain was falling and a significant northwest swell was chopping the frigid sea up into a frenzy below. Yet these were Navy seamen and a plunge into the cold, dark sea was part of the job.

The USS Macon had left its base at Moffett Field the day before to reconnoiter with the Pacific Fleet off the Southern California coast for training maneuvers. Eager to prove the embattled airship program’s versatility and effectiveness, Navy officials had performed a slapdash repair job on two tail fins which had sustained damage on the previous mission.

More modern and slightly faster than the Akron, her doomed sister ship, the Macon had a top speed of about 87 miles per hour and had cost $2.5 million to build in 1933. She had a stronger, improved internal design, which consisted of a hollow steel hull with three interior keels.

This strong internal spine was a direct result of another airship tragedy. In 1925, the USS Shenandoah had failed spectacularly by breaking in half over an Ohio valley and killing 14 crew members. As the Navy’s inaugural rigid airship, the Shenandoah proved to be just the first in a decade-long series of dirigible disasters.

As a result of this tremendously spotted history, the Navy’s rigid airship program had a great many detractors. Most considered the giant dirigibles to be too unwieldy, expensive and unreliable. The USS Macon was supposed to change that perception.

Kept aloft by non-flammable helium contained in 12 large, gelatin-latex cells, the Macon was considered faster and safer than her predecessors. Inside the hull, the ship had eight large 560-horsepower engines, which drove external propellers.Amazingly, the Macon also carried its own protection—six Sparrowhawk fighter biplanes that the dirigible stored in its belly. The airplanes were slowly lowered on a trapeze and harness through a T-shaped hole in the dirigible’s underside. The pilots simply revved up their RPMs, yanked a release lever and dropped into the air in mid-flight.

Retrieving the planes, however, was a wild and white-knuckled ordeal. Each Sparrowhawk had a hook welded to its upper wing. The pilots had to match their speed to that of the dirigible and then gently set the tiny hook back on to the trapeze. The harness would then be attached to the fuselage, and the aircraft would be hoisted back up into the dirigible.

These daredevil pilots, known as “the men on the flying trapeze,” boasted a flawless record on both the Akron and the Macon. Unfortunately, the dirigibles themselves were quite a bit more accident prone.Lt. Cmdr. Wiley and the USS Macon were returning from their successful maneuvers with the Pacific Fleet when they encountered severe storm winds off Point Sur.

A few minutes after 5pm, the great airship lurched sickeningly to port and then rolled slightly back towards starboard. The ship dove slightly, turned to starboard again and then stabilized. A crosswind had struck the ship with such force that the upper fins of the previously damaged tail were completely severed, sending shards of metal into the rear gas cells.

Wiley learned the extent of the damage and ordered all hands to abandon ship as the dirigible drifted slowly down through the cold, hard rain and into the ocean. As she came down, the Macon’s nose was inclined up between five and 10 degrees, plunging the lower fin into the water first.

In the nose, still 100 feet above the surface of the water, Radioman 1st class Ernest Dailey was panicking. He looked down at the dark stormy seas through a hole he’d cut in the shiny outer material of the dirigible, then without warning, leaped into the void. Witnesses say he did a flip in the air and landed on his back in the water below, never to be seen again.

As the airship began to settle into the water, the rest of the crew methodically abandoned her.

They shimmied down lines or leapt into the water and boarded the rubber life rafts which dotted the dark seas around the dying dirigible.

Only one crewman, a Filipino mess steward named Florentino Edquiba, refused to abandon ship.

According to reports, he was last seen trying to scramble up the material of the airship, perhaps looking for another way down. Like Dailey, he was never seen again.

Thankfully, the crew could already see the spotlights of rescue ships slicing through the dark rain. Within an hour the USS Richmond was on the scene, plucking survivors out of the water. In the end, Wiley did, in fact, manage to avoid another Akron disaster.

Of his 83 men, only Dailey and Edquiba lost their lives.Although Wiley and his crew didn’t know it at the time, the US Navy’s entire rigid airship program sank with the Macon into oblivion that night. The crash effectively marked the end of the military’s romance with long-range dirigibles.

More than half a century later, Wiley’s daughter was eating in a Moss Landing restaurant when she recognized a small piece of a rigid airship’s structural girder hanging on the wall. Beside it someone had hung an article about the crash of the USS Macon.

When she asked the owner of the restaurant where he’d gotten it, the man was cagey and less than forthcoming. It was a secret, he said. Yet after some explanation of the artifact’s personal significance, the restaurateur coughed up the name of fisherman who’d recently retired and moved to Richmond.

David Canepa had a magic fishing spot down in Big Sur. It couldn’t miss. And he thought he knew why. In addition to big rock cod, Canepa was also pulling up weird pieces of wreckage.

There was something down there. Some big wreck, which had long ago formed an artificial reef and spawned lots of marine life.

Canepa had discovered the final resting spot of the USS Macon in 1,500 feet of water. But he was loathe to give up the numbers on his prime fishing spot, so he kept the coordinates secret and, instead, gave away the odd pieces of wreckage to his friends as gifts.

Long retired from fishing but still curious about the Macon, Canepa agreed to show scientists from the Monterey Bay Research Institute (MBARI) where the airship rested.

Because of the wreck’s bone-crushing depth, however, a traditional salvage operation was impossible. When the Navy became interested in recovering one of the rare Sparrowhawks, they called on MBARI to help them. So in 1990 and 1991, the Navy and MBARI teamed up to explore and document the crash site, sending first a manned vehicle and then an unmanned remotely operated vehicle (ROV), Ventana, down to photograph the site and to capture some of the wreckage with its robotic arm.

After the initial survey, Navy officials concluded any recovery of the Sparrowhawks would be impossible. Regardless, the expedition dredged up stunning images of the wreckage, including pictures of the intact—if green and ghostly—Sparrowhawks surrounded by huge, brightly colored fish.

The Macon had been rediscovered, but 15 years more years would pass before another significant research effort could be mounted.

In May, a team of researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Marine Sanctuary Program (NMSP), the US Geological Survey (USGS), Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (MLML) and Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) joined forces to further map the debris fields associated with the wreck site. Building upon information gathered by the US Navy and MBARI’s expeditions in 1990 and ‘91, the researchers generated a new map that not only documents the extent of the primary debris fields but also suggests the existence of a debris trail not previously recorded. The ongoing research efforts are currently on display at the Monterey Maritime Museum.

The research marked the fruits of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s first maritime heritage cruise within the sanctuary’s boundaries, and represents the first phase of a two-phase research effort to inventory and characterize the USS Macon’s wreck site. Phase II is slated for fall 2006. It will consist of photo documentation using an ROV. Ultimately, the researchers want to create a detailed photo mosaic of the wreck.

Like a whistle through the voice tube of history, the rediscovery of the USS Macon provides a fascinating and mysterious sounding of America’s short-lived love affair with the long-range rigid airship. As the final exclamation point on a romantic era of aviation history, the Macon is both a rich cultural heritage site and a solemn memorial to the men who lost their lives flying these magnificent airships.



The Mysterious 1950 Crash of Flight 2501

By Linda Paige
June 20, 2005

Holland - In 1950, commercial aviation was still not a common way to travel.

That year on Friday, June 23rd, Northwest Airlines flight 2501 left New York on its way to Seattle. There were thunderstorms in the area when they reached the West Michigan shoreline. The crew made a radio call, asking to fly lower. That was the last anyone heard from the plane.

Newly married Jackie and Muryl Eldred remember that night. “The storm was really brewing when that plane went over the thunder and lightning it was terrible,” says Muryl.

Jackie says, “it sounded like he was having trouble, motor, it just kept a coming and coming and it seemed like it was getting lower and then all the sudden the motor stopped.”

By dawn the next morning it was clear that the plane had crashed, and an intense search of the lake began.

Larry Otto was a young ensign with the coast guard who helped with the search. He talks about his experience, “we were off Benton Harbor and we didn't find anything." After a couple of days, Larry says, "it came up it bubbled up and what we saw were seat cushions.”

Search teams only recovered small pieces of wreckage. There were no survivors.

At the time, this was the worst airplane disaster in history. Yet amazingly, it did not receive much press coverage. No one from West Michigan was on board, and it happened at the same time President Truman committed the country to fight in the Korean War.

By July 4, 1950, most people in west Michigan had put the crash behind them. But interest in the crash is now increasing.

Solving the mystery of a commercial plane crash in Lake Michigan has become the mission of one prominent shipwreck researcher. Author Clive Cussler and sonar expert Ralph Wilbanks are famous for finding a submarine from the civil war off the coast of South Carolina.

Craig Rich, with the Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates says, "he keeps his eyes open for mysteries around the world that he can help solve.” And he sent Wilbanks to West Michigan to help.

Valerie van Heest, with the Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates says "in the month long time that Ralph Wilbanks was here searching we've covered about 20 square miles of bottom land off south haven.

As of now, so far no airplane."

So the mystery of the lost airliner continues. Clive Cussler will send Ralph Wilbanks back for another month-long search next spring.


Archaeology and the Fate of Amelia Earhart

from Thomas F. King, TIGHAR

The Loss of an Aviation PioneerOn July 2, 1937, aviation pioneers Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan vanished into legend. The two explorers--Earhart piloting, Noonan navigating--were trying to be the first to circumnavigate the globe at the equator, and they’d made it all the way around from Oakland, California eastward to Lae, New Guinea.

On the morning of the 2nd their fuel-heavy Lockheed Electra 10E took off from Lae heading for Howland Island, a tiny speck of coral in the mid-Pacific, where they were to refuel and fly to Honolulu, and thence back to Oakland.

They didn’t make it. The US Coast Guard Cutter Itasca, lying off Howland, received messages from them--the last saying that they were flying “on the line 157-337”--but couldn’t establish two-way communication or a radio direction-finding fix. Earhart and Noonan couldn’t see the island, or communicate with Itasca.

The messages ended, and that was that.The U.S. didn’t give Earhart up easily. She was a tremendous celebrity--a heroine at a time when people badly needed heroines. First woman across the Atlantic, first woman to fly nonstop across the U.S. First to fly to the mainland from Hawaii. Women’s altitude record holder. She was an inspiration to young women everywhere. You, she insisted and demonstrated, can do anything a man can do.

So the nation wasn’t ready to shrug its shoulders and accept that she was gone. Nor was her husband and partner George Putnam, who had been her supporter and agent from the start. Putnam did everything but break down doors at the War Department, the State Department, and the White House, insisting that the Navy, the Coast Guard, the British in the nearby Crown Colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands turn the Pacific upside down looking for her.

They tried; the aircraft carrier Lexington, the battleship Colorado, and other Navy and Coast Guard ships and planes criss-crossed the area where she’d last been heard. The British deployed island residents to search the shores of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands for debris, and sent a chartered boat out to investigate a location where Putnam--possibly on the advice of a medium--thought Earhart might be. But everyone came up empty-handed. Earhart’s fate, Noonan’s fate, remain a mystery.

Mysteries demand solutions, and many answers to the Earhart/Noonan mystery have been proposed over the years. They ran out of gas and crashed at sea. They were captured by the Japanese and executed. They were involved in an elaborate espionage operation against the Japanese, and were secreted in other countries, or in the U.S. under assumed names. They were seized by aliens, or blundered through a Bermuda Triangle-type rip in the time-space continuum. Books have been written, television shows produced, archives searched, islanders and World War II GIs and Japanese officials interviewed. Lots of assertions have been made, lots of allegations have been confidently stated but lightly substantiated.

Proponents of the various “theories” typically ignore or dismiss all others but their own, though there are some vituperative arguments behind the scenes. But no one has proved anything. In the late 1980s, a tiny non-profit group in Wilmington, Delaware--The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery or TIGHAR (pronounced “tiger”)--entered the fray. Organized by the dynamic husband-wife team of Ric Gillespie and Pat Thrasher, who continue to oversee its operations today, one of TIGHAR’s purposes is to apply scientific techniques to investigating aviation historical mysteries.

TIGHAR had avoided the Earhart arguments because none of the hypotheses put forward seemed testable using available methods, but then two retired navigators, Tom Gannon and Tom Willi, approached Gillespie with a “new” idea that was testable--using, among others, the methods of archaeology.

As an archaeologist with Pacific island experience and a dearth of common sense, I got involved in TIGHAR’s work, and we’ve been at it ever since. Our adventures in pursuit of Earhart and Noonan are recounted in a book that several of my colleagues and I published a few years ago, and republished in 2004 in updated, expanded form, called Amelia Earhart’s Shoes (AltaMira Press, 2004).

Ric Gillespie is finishing work on a more exhaustive book about the disappearance, the search, and our studies--particularly a study of the many radio messages received after Earhart’s disappearance that were at first thought to have come from her and later were dismissed as mistakes and hoaxes.

We hope that book, tentatively titled The Suitcase in My Closet, will be in bookstores within the next year or so. Our project is an interdisciplinary one--our all-volunteer research team includes oceanographers, meteorologists, experts in navigation, radio science, island geology and ecology, forensic anthropology, and a host of other fields. In this article I’d like to focus on how my own science--archaeology--is contributing to the study.


Groups team up to find long-lost plane


Detroit Free Press
May 2, 2005

Nearly 55 years after a passenger airplane with 58 people aboard disappeared over Lake Michigan, a local and an international group are teaming up to search for the wreckage.

For two weeks after the June 23, 1950, disappearance of Northwest Airlines Flight 2501, body parts, clothing, personal effects and debris washed ashore all along Allegan County's coastline.

But the wreckage wasn't found, and the cause of the crash remains a mystery.

The local group, Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates, and an international organization, National Underwater and Marine Agency, which is underwriting the project, have renewed interest in finding the wreckage of the DC4.

"Our goal is to determine what happened to the plane and offer closure to the families," said Valerie van Heest, a member of the Holland-based Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates, which works to preserve submerged maritime history.

Adventure author Clive Cussler is offering to bankroll the project by providing the assistance of Ralph Wilbanks, the same sonar expert who helped him discover the Confederate submarine C.S.S. Hunley off the coast of South Carolina.

South Haven officials closed the popular South Beach for nine days following the crash. John Fleming, who was a Van Buren County health inspector in 1950 and involved in the recovery, recalled the search.

"We never found any whole bodies," said Fleming, who now is 86 and lives in Big Rapids. "And we never found any large pieces of the plane."

By the Associated Press


Navy divers search for remains of downed WW II fliers


Navy Times
By Christopher Munsey
April 20, 2005

Seventeen members of Hawaii-based Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit One are using their diving skills to help find remains of American fliers lost in a World War II bombing raid in the Pacific.

The recovery team is searching the wreckage of a B-24J Liberator bomber lost to Japanese anti-aircraft fire during a raid Sept. 1, 1944, in the Palau island chain.

The recovery team was sent out by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, said spokeswoman Army Maj. Rumi Nielson-Green.

The four-engine bomber was shot down with 11 crew members, crashing offshore between the islands of Koror and Babelthuap. Three crew members were captured and later executed by the Japanese, while it’s believed that eight went down with the aircraft, Nielson-Green said.

Wreckage of the aircraft is strewn across an area offshore in water ranging from 34 to 54 feet deep, she said.

“If we didn’t have the MDSU guys involved, it’d be difficult for us to run this operation,” she said.

The work will run until late May, she said.

MDSU-1 previously assisted with a recovery off the coast of Vietnam, she said.


VideoRay Swimming Robot Records Video of Crash Site of DC-3 Plane Shot Down in 1952


Video Ray
Press Release
March 19, 2005

Internal and External Assessment Handled by 8-Pound MicroROV Before Wreck is Raised By Swedish Navy.

Exton, PA - A VideoRay ROV (remotely operated vehicle) was the tool of choice when the Swedish Navy equipped the Belos vessel to investigate the crash scene of a Douglas DC-3 airplane that disappeared without a trace in June 1952 over the Baltic Sea. Deployed directly from the Belos, despite sea conditions too rough to deploy other ROVs, the VideoRay successfully video recorded the inside and outside of the wreck at depths over 400 feet.

Replacing divers in tight, fragile, and dangerous conditions, the VideoRay camera eye gathered details and clues that will help the Swedish Navy piece together the final moments of the aircraft downed by Russian gunfire.

Bob Christ of VideoRay and Daniel Karlsson of Wildland Fire International AB of Sweden returned to the wreck in mid-October 2003, following discovery of the DC-3 by a commercial diving company the previous summer. Christ, an ATP rated aircraft pilot, was the operator of the VideoRay and ATP rated aircraft pilot. Daniel Karlsson heads up the fire and rescue division of Wildland Fire and oversaw six dives by the VideoRay aboard the Belos in rough waters east of Gotska Sandon Island, Sweden.

The 8-pound VideoRay II submersible was equipped with an Imagenex 851 scanning sonar used to initially locate the wreck. The tiny, yellow VideoRay submersible was launched by hand through the ship’s moon pool. Lighting and recording the scene, the propeller-operated VideoRay gathered crisp video of the fuselage, cabin, panels, hatches, and wings.

The sub, about the size of a boot box, slipped through an opening of the cargo door above the mud line. A tether attached the sub to a portable control box in the boat and the ROV operator, who watches the video live on a screen. Among other details, the VideoRay captured images of the bullet holes throughout the fuselage and sheared hinges on the exit door

“This mission couldn’t have been completed any other way,” said Karlsson, who has used the VideoRay in different other missions. “Divers can’t sustain at these depths, and the motion of their fins would disturb the fragile scene. The VideoRay is the only ROV that could document places essential to the investigation.” VideoRay microROVs have been used to assess other historic wrecks, including the USS Arizona battleship in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and a B-29 bomber found in Lake Mead, Nevada.

Bob Christ added, “While I’ve worked over 10 different wreck sites throughout the world with ROVs, these are the most extreme conditions I’ve experienced. The VideoRay is the only vehicle that could accomplish the mission.” Since this expedition, Christ’s services have become available for hire on his new company – see .


Memory assists in the search for lost plane


Daily Breeze
By Ian Gregor
February 27, 2005

Frank Jacobs was 12 when he saw an aircraft plunge near LAX. Could it have been WWII pilot Gertrude Tompkins and her P-51D?

Far out on the Manhattan Beach Pier, Frank Jacobs squinted into the bright afternoon light, his hands framing an imaginary spot in the dark blue water off LAX as he willed his mind to replay images that he saw more than 60 years ago.

"What I observed probably was right out there," Jacobs announced after scrutinizing the ocean for a short while, pointing to an area perhaps half a mile offshore. "I can picture it in my mind."

A few feet away from Jacobs, Pat Macha held a compass and got a rough heading on the area.

Macha, an aviation archaeology expert and retired Hawthorne High School history teacher, has hunted since 1996 for a P-51D Mustang fighter plane that he believes crashed and sank off LAX on Oct. 26, 1944, sucking its pilot, Gertrude Tompkins, to a watery grave. Jacobs thinks he witnessed the crash while fishing off the Manhattan Beach Pier for halibut when he was 12 years old.

Macha believes Jacobs' recollections confirm that he is searching in the right place for the plane.

"That's within the area where we're looking," Macha said after taking the compass reading.

Tompkins was a member of an elite group of about 1,100 Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) who served during World War II, primarily ferrying planes for shipment overseas. The day she disappeared, she was among a trio of WASPs who were to fly brand-new P-51Ds from their manufacturing site to Palm Springs, where they would spend the night before continuing on a three-day journey to Newark, N.J.

Her takeoff was delayed by a canopy that wouldn't close properly; witnesses later reported seeing two P-51Ds buzzing east above Imperial Highway but never a third. She wasn't reported missing until the other pilots got to Newark because they had assumed that she had been unable to take off because of the mechanical problem.

Early next month, divers from a 40-foot San Pedro-based boat called the Ranger are scheduled to make the latest -- and quite possibly last -- in a series of searches for Tompkins' plane. Descending to the ocean bottom just off LAX, they'll examine and photograph two masses of metal that crews found during the last hunt for the wreckage in 2002.
Jacobs, a retired aerospace engineer from Redondo Beach, came forward after reading an account of the search two weeks ago in the Daily Breeze.

He said he had just arrived at the pier on a cloudy day in October 1944 when a loud engine noise prompted him to look north. He watched a fighter plane climb after taking off over the ocean from what is now Los Angeles International Airport's southern runway complex.

Suddenly, there was a sharp drop in the noise level and the plane's engine began sputtering. Then the plane angled over into a shallow, controlled dive that became steeper before it disappeared into the cloud bank that hung low just offshore.

Jacobs said he remembers that one of two adults nearby said something about a P-51 Mustang.

"This event left a very strong, vivid impression on me as a 12-year-old boy," Jacobs said. "I sensed that someone must have died."

Jacobs said he heard no sirens after the crash and was surprised to see nothing about it in the next day's newspaper.
Macha is certain that Jacobs witnessed Tompkins' plane go down, the only P-51 to crash into Santa Monica Bay.
Jacobs' description of the plane's sounds and movements mirror what a half-dozen P-51D pilots have told him could happen if the aircraft went into a low-speed stall, Macha said.

The area where Jacobs believes the plane hit the water is within the area where Macha is searching. Nobody realized Tompkins was missing for four days, which explains the lack of next-day newspaper coverage of the crash. And his memory of the weather matches the actual conditions on the afternoon of Oct. 26, 1944.

"It's certainly something we've been hoping for, to have another source that would indicate or say they saw the plane go in the bay at that time frame," Macha said. "What he described is completely consistent with what every P-51 pilot I talked to said."

Jacobs hopes his memories help.

"I hope that's what I saw," Jacobs said. "It was definitely that year. Definitely that month."


Dive may solve mystery of airplane that vanished


Daily Breeze
By Ian Gregor
February 13, 2005

Member of elite Women's Air Force Service Pilots, Gertrude Tompkins, is believed to have crashed into the ocean off LAX 60 years ago.

Late in the afternoon of Oct. 26, 1944, Gertrude Tompkins Silver piloted a sleek new P-51D Mustang fighter plane into thick fog that hung just west of the airfield that is now Los Angeles International Airport.

She was never seen again. Her disappearance has remained a mystery for more than six decades.

That mystery could soon be solved if years of research, planning and hard work are blessed with a little luck.

Early next month, divers from a 40-foot San Pedro-based boat called the Ranger are scheduled to make the latest -- and quite possibly last -- in a series of searches for Tompkins' plane. Descending to the ocean bottom just off LAX, they'll examine and photograph two masses of metal that crews found during the last hunt for the wreckage in 2002.

If the wreckage is indeed a plane, it should be fairly easy to determine if it's a P-51D, said Pat Macha, an aviation archaeology expert and retired Hawthorne High School history teacher who's been investigating Tompkins' fate since 1996. The P-51D's manufacturer, North American Aviation, stamped more parts than most other airplane builders. And only one P-51D crashed into Santa Monica Bay west of the former Mines Field, Macha said.

At the same time, it's far from certain that the debris is an airplane. "It's still a long shot," said Macha, who has written three books on aircraft archaeology and has visited more than 800 crash sites during the past 40 years.

"I'm not overly optimistic but it's in a suspect location and it's metal so we have to check it out."

Macha believes this may be the last chance to find the plane flown by Tompkins, who had been married just one month when she disappeared and was still listed in military records as Tompkins. Further searches to the south -- which is the direction she would have turned after taking off -- are precluded by buoys and underwater obstacles from the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant, Macha said.

"I think at that point we'd have to take a large step back" if the debris turns out not to be Tompkins' plane, Macha said.
Gertrude Tompkins Silver was a member of an elite group of about 1,100 Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) who served during World War II, primarily ferrying planes for shipment overseas and pulling along aerial gunnery targets used by the military for target practice.

Tompkins became a WASP in 1943 and, at 32, was one of the older female pilots when she vanished, said her grandniece, Laura Whittall-Scherfee of Sacramento. According to Macha, she was one of 38 to 43 WASPS who were killed in crashes.

The day Tompkins disappeared, she was among a trio of WASPs who were to fly brand new P-51Ds from their manufacturing site to Palm Springs, where they would spend the night before continuing on a three-day journey to Newark, N.J.

Tompkins' takeoff was delayed by a canopy that wouldn't close properly; witnesses later reported seeing two P-51Ds buzzing east above Imperial Highway but never a third, Macha said. She wasn't reported missing until the other pilots got to Newark because they had assumed that she had been unable to take off due to the mechanical problem, he said.

"She had slipped through the cracks," Macha said.

Macha believes Tompkins went down almost immediately after takeoff. His leading theory is that the plane stalled -- possibly because Tompkins wasn't expecting that its center of gravity would be shifted by the full fuel tank directly behind the cockpit -- and went into a low altitude dive from which Tompkins could not recover. Fighters often left no debris on the ocean surface if they sliced almost vertically into the water, he said.

Macha said he had been aware of Tomkins' disappearance but got personally involved in the mystery in 1996, when he was contacted by Whittall-Scherfee.

Whittall-Scherfee said she had heard of her great-aunt as a child, but only delved into her disappearance after she and her husband, who is an aviation and history buff, moved to California. She called Macha after her husband picked up one of his books at an airplane museum.

Pilot's family gets involved
"He said if you're interested, I'm interested in running with it," recalled Whittall-Scherfee, 44. "It's a personal search and one my husband and I are very committed to."

The couple and Macha pieced together facts and a timeline by assembling information from articles, military records and witness statements. Macha organized a series of all-volunteer searches of increasing sophistication, culminating with a 2002 effort that turned up two mounds of debris close together in relatively shallow water less than a mile off Dockweiler State Beach.

The Ranger -- the San Pedro-based boat -- entered the picture because Eric Rosado was watching TV at just the right time.

Rosado was a member of the aerospace club that Macha ran at Hawthorne High School. Now 29 and a commercial diver, he stumbled upon a History Channel documentary called "Broken Wings," which profiled Macha's efforts to find Tompkins' plane.

"I said, 'Hey, I know that guy!' " Rosado said.

Soon after, Rosado volunteered his services to Macha. Five divers he works with also signed up for the endeavor, including Tyler Fenton, the 21-year-old owner and captain of the Ranger.

"All the guys have a love for the ocean," said Rosado, standing in the Ranger's cabin next to a table covered in a large depth chart of Santa Monica Bay. "We want to give back to veterans who gave to us."

Debris covered in sediment
The debris is 25 to 30 feet down, and the last search in 2002 indicated it was covered in six to 12 feet of sediment, which shifts constantly, Fenton said. Visibility in that area is anywhere from zero to 20 feet, depending on weather conditions, he said.

Wearing $5,000 diving helmets and thick black wet suits with Kevlar knee and elbow pads, divers will mark the search area with buoys and rope it off, Rosado said. They'll do a quick swim-by to see if they can spot anything right off. Then they'll stick a camera mounted on a long pipe into the sand, and use an air hose to blow away sediment so they'll be able to photograph what's underneath, he said.

Although a two-day search is planned, Rosado said the divers are willing to work as long as it takes to determine what lurks underneath the ocean floor.

Earlier this week, the crew of the Ranger visited the Western Museum of Flight at Hawthorne Municipal Airport to inspect a P-51D Mustang to get a better idea of what they might be finding under water.

Perhaps luck will be on their side. Last Sunday, while visiting the site near Victorville where a B-25 bomber went down on Oct. 4, 1944, Macha found the insignia of a WASP pilot named Marie Mitchell Robinson, who was killed in the crash along with two other crew members.

He's trying to find her next of kin to return the insignia.


1940s prop a unique discovery


Milton Ulladulla Times
by Anne Duffy
February 02, 2005

Arakiwa owner Joe Batagliolo and his son
Santino with the propeller Mr Batagliolo
and his crew dredged up from the ocean
floor off Ulladulla on Australia Day.

The crew of the Ulladulla-based trawler Arakiwa dredged up a piece of history on Australia Day when the propeller from a 1940s naval plane caught in their nets.

The amazing discovery was a huge shock for Arakiwa owner and operator Joe Batagliolo who has been trawling the same area for more than 15 years.

Determined not to leave their unique find out at sea the crew towed the huge tangle of metal back to Ulladulla Harbour where a crane was brought in to lift the more than 60-year-old plane part out of its watery grave.

"It was definitely a surprise to see the propeller in the net," Mr Batagliolo said.

"We were trawling about 14 miles off Ulladulla where the water is about 130 metres deep when we found it at around 11:30am.

"Towing the propeller behind, we didn't get back into harbour until 3pm. "We've trawled there so many times before and never found the propeller.

"Mr Batagliolo and his crew immediately contacted the Australian Navy and a representative was sent from HMAS Albatross to identify the propeller.

The five-blade propeller is at least four metres wide and has rusted significantly. It appears as if the plane, to which the propeller was once attached, hit the ocean with some force as the blades are curled on the ends. "The propellers are warped so it looks like the plane crashed or was ditched.

"We were told it could be one of three planes that have five blades," Mr Batagliolo said.

"It is definitely a Navy plane and could be from the early 1940s."It is one of the most interesting catches we've had.

"We would really like to find out as much about the plane and how it got to be off Ulladulla.

"Despite the excitement the find has also been costly. The tangled net was completely destroyed costing more than $8,000.

"It also wasn't cheap to get a crane on Australia Day to get it out of the water," Mr Batagliolo said.

"But it is still a very rare find. "It would be good it to see the propeller find a home somewhere like the Australian War Museum or with an RSL Club.

"For the moment the propeller is being kept at Costa Engineering until a suitable home can be found.


Convite ao mergulho em avião e galeão em Faro


Correio da Manhã
December 21, 2004

Os vestígios de um galeão afundado há 300 anos e de um bombardeiro da II Guerra Mundial são as duas ‘jóias’ subaquáticas que os amantes do mergulho podem descobrir ao largo de Faro, no Algarve, a troco de 50 euros.

Estes ‘mergulhos’ são organizados pela Hidroespaço, uma das poucas entidades privadas que, a nível nacional, explora circuitos arqueólogicos subaquáticos, através de um protocolo formado com o Centro Nacional de Arqueologia Náutica e Subaquática (CNANS).

As visitas, possíveis desde Agosto de 2003, ao que resta do avião e do navio – descoberto por acaso há oito anos por dois mergulhadores em lazer – são as mais procuradas da panóplia de locais para onde aquele centro de mergulho organiza saídas.

Os destroços do avião mantêm-se relativamente intactos. No entanto, o mesmo não se pode dizer do navio, do qual ainda só foi descoberto o que se julga ser a carga – peças de artilharia, canhões e ferro.

Os vestígios encontram-se em frente à Barrinha (extremo Oeste da Praia de Faro), a uma milha da costa – cerca de dois quilómetros –, mas a estrutura do galeão em si ainda está por descobrir.

De acordo com Fátima Noronha, sócia da Hidroespaço, o navio faria parte de uma frota de 400 embarcações inglesas e holandesas atacadas por espanhóis no Cabo de São Vicente.

“Supõe-se que os destroços do navio estejam enterrados na areia mas o Governo diz que não há dinheiro para mais campanhas arqueológicas”, lamentou-se a bióloga marinha.

O avião – um B-24 com 36 metros de envergadura e quatro motores – caiu no mar a 30 de Novembro de 1942, em plena II Guerra Mundial. Seis dos seus onze tripulantes acabariam por ser salvos por três pescadores algarvios, um dos quais ainda está vivo.

Os destroços encontram-se em frente à Praia de Faro, a uma milha e meia da costa. As asas e os motores ainda estão relativamente intactos – falta apenas a carlinga –, e já foram encontradas partes da cauda, hélices, peças de metralhadoras, balas.

“Estamos a tentar fazer um pouco de arqueólogos e a fazer buscas para encontrar mais peças, para depois ligá-las todas e fazer um roteiro. Mas está tudo muito disperso”, declarou Fátima Noronha.

Mas nem toda a gente está apta a ‘mergulhar’ nas profundezas da História, principalmente na zona onde está o navio, a cerca de 30 metros de profundidade, cujo mergulho é orientado por um guia certificado.



5,000 meters deep? Searching for Amelia Earhart's plane


by Stephen Manning
December 18, 2004

Neta Snook with Earhart.

MAINE, USA -- At 5,000 meters beneath the surface, the temperature of ocean water is just above freezing, oxygen is sparse and currents are relatively calm. In other words, ideal conditions for preserving an airplane that might have crashed into the depths nearly 70 years ago, according to marine explorer David Jourdan, who hopes to answer one of aviation's greatest mysteries _ the fate of famed pilot Amelia Earhart.

Jourdan and his Maine-based company, Nauticos, plan to launch an expedition in the spring using sonar to sweep a 1,000-square-mile swath of ocean bottom west of tiny Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean.

It is the latest in a string of missions to learn what happened to Earhart when she, her navigator and their Lockheed Electra plane disappeared on a flight around the world.

"Things tend to last a time" in the deep ocean, said Jourdan. "Our expectation is the plane will be largely, if not completely, intact."

That is, if the plane is even in the ocean.

There is a host of theories about what befell Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan in 1937 as they made one of the final legs of their widely heralded flight.

Some have searched the sea, believing the plane ran out of gas. Others think she survived a crash landing but died on a deserted island. Another theory is that the Japanese captured and executed her. The conspiracy-minded claim Earhart survived and lived out her life under an assumed name as a New Jersey housewife.

This much is agreed on _ Earhart and Noonan vanished July 2, 1937, as they approached an air strip on Howland Island, roughly midway between Australia and Hawaii. They had taken off from Papua New Guinea, just 7,000 miles short of their goal to make Earhart the first woman to fly around the world.

A fearless flyer, Earhart set a string of altitude, distance and endurance records in the 1920s and 1930s, proving the still-young world of flying wasn't reserved for men. She captivated a Depression-era America eager for heroes, was feted by presidents and was compared to Charles Lindbergh. The press dubbed her "Lady Lindy."

The Navy launched a weeks-long search of 250,000 square miles of ocean around Howland and a nearby chain of small islands. No trace was ever found of the plane.

One of those going along on the Nauticos mission is Elgen Long, a former commercial pilot who has spent 30 years researching the mystery.

Long, 77, of Reno, Nev., believes the answer to Earhart and Noonan's fate lies in their radio communications with a U.S. Coast Guard cutter that was tracking their course near Howland Island. Using Coast Guard radio operator's logs, Long concluded Earhart was perilously low on gas because a headwind was much stronger than she had anticipated.

One of her last radio calls said she had only a half hour of fuel left and couldn't see land.

"We can follow her all the way across the Pacific," he said of the radio records. "She ran out of gas just when she said she was going to."

This is Jourdan's second search of the area west of Howland; a 2002 mission was aborted because of technical problems.

The same general area was searched in 1999 by another mission that found nothing conclusive, but Jourdan said his new expedition, costing about $1.5 million, will use better sonar technology and more accurate information on where the plane may have crashed.

The shortage of oxygen and the fairly still water means a metal airplane likely would not have completely corroded, he said.

Any human remains would have long vanished, but Jourdan hopes to find clues such as Earhart's jewelry in the pilot's seat, or perhaps even Earhart's leather jacket.

"That would be eerie," he said.

If he finds it, Nauticos would plan another mission to raise the plane, which would become the centerpiece of a traveling exhibit on Earhart's life, Jourdan said.

Earhart's stepson, George Putnam, was 16 years old when her plane disappeared. Putnam, now 83 and living in Florida, said he supports the mission partly because it could end the wild speculation about what happened to her. He doesn't mind if Nauticos salvages the plane.

"Let's see what happens," he said.

To Long, it could be his last chance to solve one of the 20th-century's biggest mysteries.

"We need the true story of what happened," he said. "The history we read needs to be correct."



Aircraft litter seafloor off S. O'ahu


Honolulu Advertiser
By Jan TenBruggencate
December 15, 2004

An undersea aircraft museum lies on the ocean floor off South O'ahu, and it includes representatives of virtually the entire era of the flying boats — from early post-World War I biplanes to World War II PBY Catalinas and a postwar behemoth that sank in 1950, the Martin Marshall Mars.

A University of Hawai'i deep-submersible vehicle,
right, approaches the hulk of an old Navy PD-1
flying boat in waters off Pearl Harbor, where a
virtual undersea aircraft museum has been found.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration yesterday announced a series of discoveries made last week and said agencies are mapping the sea-floor to document the area's collection of ships, planes and other maritime archaeological finds.

"Flying boats had a special significance for Hawai'i and the Pacific islands. They were the only way to get between the islands by air before the development of airports," said marine archaeologist Hans Van Tilburg, of the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary program. "The first interisland air transportation in Hawai'i was in flying boats."

The seafloor region off Pearl Harbor may be better known for its ships, like the Japanese miniature submarine that was sunk an hour before the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. The sub's wreckage was found in 2002.

But there's lots more on a bottom of silt and rock in water 1,000 feet deep and extending several miles from the entrance to Pearl Harbor. The deep water has currents but not a lot of turbulence, and many of the aircraft are in remarkable shape, Van Tilburg said.

Some planes have been wrecked. Some have been taken out and dumped, including at least six former PD-1 Navy bi-plane flying boats. The giant Marshall Mars flying boat sank April 5, 1950, after it landed safely with an engine fire and offloaded its crew before the plane exploded.

Between them, they represent the earliest years of flying boats, and what some might term the pinnacle of the genre.
The twin-wing PD-1 designs date to the 1920s. Van Tilburg said a squadron of them flew as patrol craft out of Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. He has found no records of their disposal, but the fact that their fuselages are complete and that wheels are attached suggest they did not fly to their watery ends and were probably dumped, he said.

PBY Catalinas, which served as Navy patrol, rescue and bombing workhorses during World War II, have also been spotted on the bottom off Pearl Harbor.

During the war, the government was looking for ways to get lots of soldiers and gear long distances to places without airports. Size mattered, and new designs dwarfed the little patrol planes.

The Marshall Mars was one of a half-dozen huge flying boats built by the Martin aircraft firm as cargo and personnel carriers after World War II. It was the same era when Howard Hughes was building his famed Spruce Goose. The Mars planes had 200-foot wingspans — roughly the same as that of a 747.

They were named for the Pacific island groups they served: the Marshalls, Carolines, Marianas, Philippines and Hawai'i. Two Hawai'i Mars planes were built. The second is still flying, hauling water to forest fires in the Pacific Northwest.

George Hutton, of Chipley, Fla., who worked on the planes as a radioman in the mid-1940s, said they were comfortable and roomy.

"It was a big, big, monstrous plane, but it was a good plane. You felt very safe in it. There were several decks and you could go up and down circular stairways," Hutton said.

He said he flew one long mission across the Pacific on the Marshall Mars before its fatal flight, in which it landed in the ocean off Honolulu with its No. 3 engine afire. The crew got off in rubber boats, but the fire spread, and the plane exploded, in full view of folks from Waikiki to Pearl Harbor, Van Tilburg said. The plane sank and was lost until a few pieces were located in an undersea survey in August this year. The main wreckage was found in dives on Thursday and Friday.

The history of the region off Pearl Harbor is being prized from the ocean floor by a collaboration of NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program, the National Park Service and the University of Hawai'i's Hawai'i Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL), which operates the twin deep-diving submersibles Pisces IV and V.


"Mars" is found in seafloor survey around Japanese Mini-Submarine


December 14, 2004

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy.
View of Marshall Mars showing the size of
the “flying boat” aircraft. Credit “NOAA/HURL".

A watery grave off the Hawaiian coast is yielding answers about World War II-era aircraft and ships. Explorer-researchers from NOAA and the University of Hawaii joined with colleagues from the National Park Service on an ocean mission off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii, to document sites where historic seaplanes, or flying boats, rest on the ocean floor. The joint-agency team surveyed an area around the site of a Japanese mini-submarine that was discovered by NOAA and the University of Hawaii in 2002.

NOAA marine archaeologists conducted two days of survey dives, December 9 and 10, outside of Pearl Harbor. Hans Van Tilburg and Kelly Gleason of the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program and LT. Jeremy Weirich of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration conducted non-invasive documentation of known underwater shipwreck and aircraft crash sites of U.S. Navy flying boats dating from as early as the 1920s. They were joined by Jon Jarvis, regional director of the National Park Service and Doug Lentz, Pearl Harbor National Park Service superintendent.

"To create an inventory of historic items, we're using Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory submersibles to systematically explore the ocean off Pearl Harbor," said Weirich. "That inventory will help us make better management decisions."

One seaplane site documented was the Navy's Marshall Mars, a giant flying boat with a 200-foot wingspan that was forced by an engine fire to land at sea off Oahu in 1950, where the seaplane exploded, burned, broke into pieces and sank with no loss of life. The Mars series of aircraft was built to move cargo, primarily between California and Hawaii, and Marshall Mars once carried more than 308 people aloft, a record at the time.

"We really value the partnership between NOAA, the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory and the National Park Service," said Jarvis, "because it combines our expertise in documenting these important underwater resources."

"This survey means a lot," added Lentz. "We're working with NOAA to survey a wider area around the site of the Japanese mini-submarine to determine if there are other resources in the area we want to protect."

When the mini-submarine was discovered in 2002, the four-inch hole in its conning tower was evidence that crewmembers of the U.S. destroyer Ward were right when they claimed to have fired the nation's first shot of World War II, more than a hour before the air attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In February 2004, the Government of Japan agreed that the mini-submarine was now the property of the U.S. government.

"Submerged historic wreck sites are like time capsules from our maritime past," said NOAA National Marine Sanctuary maritime archaeologist Hans Van Tilburg. "In this case, naval aircraft sites shed light on our technological capabilities both before and during World War II. Seaplanes and flying boats played a critical role in Hawaii and the Pacific."

Larger view of the nose of the Marshall Mars resting
upside down on the seafloor. Credit “NOAA/HURL".

George Hutton was a Navy aviation radioman who flew in four of the five Mars seaplanes, including the Marshall Mars. "She was a fine flying boat," he said, "but take off and landing could be a little hairy, depending on the seas." During one port visit, he walked on the Mars wing. "It was like a football field," he said. Hutton was in the Marshall Mars on the first flight of a Mars aircraft west of Hawaii, opening what would become regular routes to the Philippines, and he was thrilled to be in the first Mars seaplane to make a jet-assisted takeoff. In the 1940s and 50s, stories about the Mars seaplanes referred to crewmembers as "Men from Mars," and when an aircraft set a new record for persons aloft, media reported "Mars is Well-Inhabited."

The seafloor survey mission used HURL’s Pisces IV and V research submersibles and at a depth of about 1,400 feet, researchers recorded images of the crash sites, using digital video and still cameras. The three-man submersibles, capable of diving to 6,000 feet, were piloted by HURL's senior pilot Terry Kerby and Pilot Max Cremer. Chris Kelley of HURL used sonar to assist in mapping the sites and in searching for other heritage resources.

Marshall Mars artifacts were first discovered during HURL dives in August 2004. Earlier naval aviation sites in the area have been located, but their identities have yet to be confirmed.

In August, when Kerby and others discovered the nose and keel of what appeared to be a seaplane, Kerby maneuvered the submersible close to the aircraft's nose where the explorers could clearly read the painted word "Marshall." They didn't know what they had until HURL's Steve Price did some research. "Steve showed me the great photo of sailors standing on the wing of Marshall Mars, and the word "Marshall," on the seaplane's nose was exciting to see, and took my memory back to that first day of discovery."

Kerby's excitement was intact on December 9 after a day of exploring. He had just brought the Pisces submersible back to the research ship, and he had new discoveries to describe. "We maneuvered near aircraft debris that was bent and corroded aluminum with traces of dark blue paint. Then we came upon a huge engine, nose in to the bottom. Further on, we saw propellers sticking up, some straight, some twisted, and as we turned the sub, we saw the propellers were attached to a second huge engine that was still on the wing. And then we discovered a third engine. We knew we'd found the main body of Marshall Mars."

The mission results will aid in documentation of aviation crash sites and shipwrecks that will yield information about loss events and site interaction with the marine environment. They will also help confirm the identity and location of submerged cultural resources located within Hawaii's protected marine areas.

"Preservation legislation supports the survey and inventory of these types of sites," Van Tilburg said. "Navy ships and aircraft are specifically protected as state vessels and often as potential wargraves."

The NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program seeks to increase public awareness of America's maritime heritage by conducting scientific research, monitoring, exploration and educational programs. Today, the sanctuary program manages 13 national marine sanctuaries and one coral reef ecosystem reserve that encompass more than 150,000 square miles of America's ocean and Great Lakes natural and cultural resources.

NOAA's mission includes exploration of the oceans for the purpose of discovery and the advancement of knowledge. Ocean Exploration benefits NOAA and the nation by supporting a program of exploration across many scientific, cultural and technological disciplines, and among many participants. The NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration promotes discovery-based science, collaboration, education and outreach.

The Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory, or HURL, was established by NOAA and the University of Hawaii. Its mission is to study deep water marine processes in the Pacific Ocean.NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of the nation’s coastal and marine resources.

NOAA is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Relevant Web SitesNOAA Office of Ocean Exploration

NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program

NOAA Reports Discovery of Japanese World War II Submarine

Media Contact:Fred Gorell, NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration, (301) 713-9444 ext. 181