Sunday, January 01, 2006

F-106 Delta Dart fighter plane found in North Dakota lake


October 01, 2004

BISMARCK, N.D. -- Members of a North Dakota surveyors' group say they used their math skills to find parts of an Air Force fighter plane that crashed in Lake Sakakawea more than 35 years ago.

The members of the state's Professional Society of Land Surveyors found the wreckage of the F-106 Delta Dart interceptor fighter last Saturday, ending a 13-year search.

The plane crashed in the lake on March 10, 1969. Its pilot, Capt. Merlin Riley, who was on a training mission from the Minot Air Force Base, parachuted safely to the ground.

The plane cost $3.3 million when it was built in 1959, the military said. It plunged through the ice and sank to the bottom of the lake. Military officials said the ice was too unstable to attempt recovery at the time.

Larry Smith of Bismarck, a surveyor society's former president, suggested in 1991 that the group try to find the plane based on the Air Force's original survey notes.

"It was a mystery and a challenge," Smith said. "Putting a challenge in front of a bunch of surveyors is like waving a red flag in front of a bull."

Smith said the original notes were not easy to follow, and the mystery of the missing plane was solved through research and good calculations.

"When I talk about this, I can say, 'Here's what math does. Geometry and trigonometry is how we solved this thing,'" Smith said.

For now, the surveyors are not revealing the exact location of the wrecked plane. They plan to return next summer and map it.

"Then, anybody who wants to dive on it, can," Smith said.

The surveyors had detected something earlier with a depth finder on the lake bottom. Last Saturday, a group of divers went in, on an autumn day when boat traffic was virtually nonexistent. They anchored a dive boat over a spot 4 miles northwest of the 4 Bears Bridge at New Town.

A diver went down 35 feet and found nothing. He went back down with a metal detector, and it started to make noise. The diver groped in the silt and muck, grabbed a solid object and surfaced.

From the boat, what he was holding up looked like a muddy stick. Once the silt and clay were rubbed off, the long object turned out to be a fuel line with an attached valve. It still smelled like jet fuel.Divers eventually brought some 30 pieces of the plane to the surface.

Smith along with surveyors Ken Link of Hazen and Greg Johnson of Bismarck, had gone to the area several times to try to retrace the original survey lines.

The original surveyor said he planted a wooden stake on a very sharp ridge and wrote, "I left a tomato juice can here also," Link said.

Another point of reference was a "white rock on a windy hill," Link said.

Some of the observation points had washed into the lake.Last year, Johnson reviewed the survey notes again and realized the surveyor was referring to a bridge pier out in the water.

With new calculations, the three men went out last summer and set buoys. A depth finder revealed a sonar image of very likely "hump" on the lake bottom 80 feet from one of the buoys.

Smith, who is a member of the Morton County Sheriff's Department's Dive and Rescue Team, got permission to use the county's dive boat and equipment and solicited volunteers to make the dive. Last Saturday was possibly the last best chance for the season, so they grabbed it.

They looked for a point on the water based on last summer's survey calculations and depth soundings, and it turned out "we were right over the debris point," Smith said.

The debris probably is spread out in a 100-foot radius from the center, Smith said. The plane measured 70 feet long, with a 38-foot wingspan.

When it crashed in 1969, it was in 68 feet of water. The lake is lower now, and it was easier to dive 35 feet to the wreck, Smith said.

When the first diver came up with a piece of fuel line, one of his diving buddies told him, I've never seen you beam like that,'" Smith said. "It was fantastic."

SOURCE - Bismarck Tribune



Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home