P-MAN XVI Update # 16 - The team eats another bear: an F6F Hellcat we've been seeking for over a decade

28 March 2014

Can you say Hellcat?

The day started out innocently enough.

Casey left the hotel early to catch a ride down to Peleliu with the Go Pro guys. He was going to help them get some shots and he was going to make some arrangements for a visit down there in April. He said if for some reason he couldn't go on the flight down to Peleliu, he would load the boat with all of our scuba gear and be ready to push off the dock at 0900. Win-Win, if you ask me.

Eric from Scripps called and asked for an extra deckhand from us to help with the REMUS vehicles (AUVs). Derek volunteered to help beam the bottom with Andy from Scripps and Megan from UDel. Their target area was Western Lagoon. And he got to help launch and manage three vehicles at the same time.

Eric, Mark, and Shannon, along with the Alien Finder, went to investigate three specific targets that looked "interesting" on the SSS.

Eric and Mark gave the rest of us from BentProp (Pat, Dan, Flip, Sean, and Joe) another wall assignment. Nell came along to round off the group and keep working on her drawings of airplanes.

Casey had indeed loaded the boat and was waiting for us. Twice. The first boat he loaded had a malfunction so he moved all of our gear and tanks to the next boat. Then he got a call saying a slot had opened up on the flight to Peleliu. Again, Win-Win.

Our assignment: off the shore of Arakabesan, there is a drop off from about 20-30 feet down to 80-90 feet. The AUVs cannot get close to the wall so we non-techie BentProppers got that assignment, again. It felt a bit like being picked last in the sandlot baseball game and being assigned to right field, long. In the last inning. The cool kids had all the infield assignments.

We dropped in and Dan led the way. We set up a line-abreast search pattern with Dan being closest to the wall, then Pat, Sean and me. Joe had his normal independent roaming duties (like a free safety...).

We estimated there was a half mile of wall to check out and that we would need two dives to do it. We started at the furthest western point and started swimming. Sometimes, the visibility went down to just a couple of feet due to the silt suspended in the water. We would swim into and out of these white-out areas. When we consumed our air supplies, we surfaced. I think Sean found a takeout food container top and we all saw brown coral in murky water.

As we were waiting out our surface interval between dives, we saw the Scripps/UDel team farther out in the water setting up for their first dive. We had lunch and wondered what the cool kids with the magnificent tools were doing. We thought about driving over to them to chat, but just sat where we were, munching on our lunches.

After a goodly amount of time, they came over to us. We chatted a bit about what each team saw: nothing by us and nothing by them. When we all had enough surface time, we parted company and they went to dive another target. We went to the eastern point of our swim path and this time headed west. If we were good, we would get to where we left off from the first dive and would have completed our assignment.

We dropped in with Dan along the wall and the rest of us in line abreast. We started into the same kind of bad visibility we had before. Then Joe crossed in front of me and was swimming away from the wall. I looked out and saw what appeared to be a coral mound but angled towards it. Joe got to it and then I did. This was man made. Metal. Pretty flat and crushed whatever it was. I was looking for ribs with flash holes or anything aircraft looking. As I swam around it, I found a wheel. A tail wheel. A very distinctive F6F Hellcat tailwheel.


Hellcat tailwheel

 
Hellcat tailwheel (photos courtesy Squadron/Signal Publications)

I started banging the side of my tank with a brass shackle to get everyone to stop and come over. Sean heard it and he started investigating with me and Joe.


Flap/aileron parts


One prop blade in the murk.


The first part of the airplane I saw


More airplane in murk.

I tied my signaling buoy to the wreck so the boat would know where we were and so we could find this easily again. I swam out on a heading, arced around a bit and came back in. More wreckage away from this big piece. All in all, between both dives we did, we've seen a lot of the airplane including empennage, wing, prop, motor, flap, landing gear, 50 cal machine gun and more metal. It's spread out approximately 50 meters across.

We all headed up, did our safety stops and got on the boat. Now there was no debate. We drove over to the Scripps boat and told them the good news. This is truly a mark of our partnership. We started looking for this plane in 2003 or 2004. We did a lot of snorkeling closer to shore. Scuba a bit farther out. Trolling for sharks (being towed around the water with snorkeling gear) and use of our SSS equipment. Even though the area is challenging for the AUVs, Mark Moline said that they should do an AUV search. They got the "interesting' targets and we got the void spaces. And today the void spaces had the prize.


Dan and Sean during their safety stop

We did one more dive. Scripps/UDel went back down first to use their technologies to map out the debris field. Then we went down to stir up the sediment and swap out marking buoys. Each dive reveals more about the site.

We did notice an unusual coincidence. On all of the sites we've found, if an MIA is associated with the site, there's been at least one lion fish in residence. For the sites that do not have an MIA associated with them, no lion fish. Call us crazy but we see it as a sign.

Back to the dock. We had a meeting scheduled with the Governor of Peleliu at 1700. Pat raced off so one of us wouldn't be late while the rest of us put up our gear.

Met with the Governor to chat about our Peleliu outing. You'll get details of that excursion when it happens.

Out to Krämers for a celebratory dinner with Scripps/UDel. It was going to be a short dinner for me and Casey - we were going to meet the Stockbridge High School students at the airport for their scheduled arrival of 2005. However, Lori from Coral Reef checked and the flight wouldn't get in until 2115. WooHooo! Didn't have to rush dinner.


Nice shirts! Flip and Eric Terrill at dinner.


A Marine in action. YOU. WILL. Pick up the student team.

When we left for the airport Derek came along with us. The rest of the team went to Coral Reef to review data with Scripps/UDel.

The kids looked ready to go when they arrived. However, we had one stop for them first. Our traditional welcome to Palau Bem Ermii milkshakes. The student team consists of three returnee students and five first-timers, along with two faculty returnees and a first-visit teacher.


Bob Richards and happy students rounding the corner from customs
at Palau International Airport .

Back at the hotel the kids went to work unpacking their gear and assembling their vehicles. They've brought the ROV that they built, and they also brought a small, compact manufactured unit that looks like a bowling ball with two propellors on it. But I hear it swims really well.

Pat looked at all of us and said "Sleep in! And meet at 0900." I guess we're all a bit tired from being out on the water so much.

So the story for today: An F6F-3 Hellcat has been found and now the process of locating and bringing home another fallen warrior can really commence.

- Flip

Unless otherwise noted, photos © Flip Colmer 2014

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