A World War II mystery:Why is a Navy fighter plane submerged off Miami Beach?

George Winston
 
 
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Randy Jordan took his boat, Emerald Diver, out in the middle of December, 2010. The weather was good, and the visibility was good underwater, so the dive charter operator took a small group to an area he hadn’t explored before just north of Palm Beach, Florida. Jordan saw something underwater and swam over to check it out. When he got close enough, he recognized the fuselage of a plane with the wings and tail attached, sitting upside-down on the ocean floor. “Here is was, just sitting there, yet it was the last thing I would ever expect to find out here!” Jordan said.

The next day, Jordan returned and filmed several minutes of video. He posted the footage online, hoping that someone would be able to identify the make and model of the aircraft. Kevin Knebel, a vintage aircraft aficionado, saw the film and confirmed that the plane was from the World War II era.

Knebel said, “It’s not really that surprising that a WWII plane would be found off Florida.” He pointed out that the US Navy had training facilities for pilots at Witham Field, just north of Jupiter, Florida, and another in Fort Lauderdale. A third facility in Key West is still active today. There are many planes in the ocean around Florida, mostly from mechanical issues during training exercises.

With its large tail and broad, rounded wings, Jordan’s discovery was identified as a Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. But even with this answer, a lot of questions remained. Why was the plane there? Who was flying it when it crashed? Was anyone killed in the crash?

Typically, a routine check of the plane’s Bureau of Aeronautics Navy Department (BuAer) number (similar to a car’s VIN) would give all the details on the plane and when it was decommissioned, crashed, or shot down. The BuAer on the Hellcat though is located in the cockpit by the pilot’s right elbow. Even if it survived years of being under water, it was next to impossible to reach with the plane upside down on the ocean floor.

The next place to check is the Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) of the Naval History & Heritage Command (NHHC). The Sunken Military Craft Act makes it illegal to disturb, remove or damage sunken military craft, including naval wreckage. The UAB keeps a database of more than 3,000 ships and 14,000 aircraft wrecks for management and to prepare nominations for the National Register of Historic Places.

The plane is lying in a difficult area to dive. The current can be very strong, making it vital that the ship captain to begin the divers’ drop at the perfect time. Too early and the divers waste time getting to the wreck. Too soon and the divers overshoot the wreck. Visibility also can be trouble as it ranges from over 100 feet on a good day to less than 30 feet on a bad one.

The plane itself is remarkably intact with the engine and propeller in one place and the rest of the fuselage off to the side. It seems that weight of the engine likely marks the landing spot of the plane and that corrosion and the constant current have worked to separate the fuselage and push it to its current location.

Without the BuAer number, researchers were forced to retrieve accident reports from the US Naval Archives. There were three potential accidents that could have involved the Helldiver that Jordan found. The first involved two Curtiss SBC-3s that collided over the ocean. The two pilots parachuted to safety, but their planes were out of control as they crashed. Given that the plane on the ocean floor is a single-wing plane (the SBC-3 was a biplane) and that it was too intact to have suffered a mid-air collision, experts ruled that accident out.

The second potential accident involved an SBC2C-1C that clipped a tree shortly after takeoff in the dark. The plane then banked sharply and cartwheeled into a neighboring orange grove. Again, the plane on the ocean floor is too intact to have been involved in this accident, X-Ray Mag reported.

An accident report filed on April 3, 1945, describes a “wheels up, flaps up” landing on the water. This lines up with the wreck that Jordan found. The landing gear has not been retracted in that plane. Also, the propeller is bent, consistent with contact with something like water.

While that is a promising lead, it is also known that the Air Force dumped several derelict aircraft offshore of the Palm Beach inlet. It would be necessary to get the BuAer number to solve the mystery of this plane.