World War II plane found on ocean floor

One more piece of evidence that the military tribulations and trials of World War II took place much closer to home than previously thought has been nailed down.

Seattle-based OceanGate Inc. got a glimpse of an historic Grumman (Aircraft Engineering Corp,) F6F Hellcat last summer during a dive by its Antipodes submersible off the coast of Florida.

“It looked like the basic smudge of a ship wreck,” said Stockton Rush, the CEO and co-founder of OceanGate, which provides deep-sea manned solutions across the globe. “I was actually expecting it to be some sort of bridge debris, which has been the case with some of the other artificial reefs that we’ve found.”

12.13.12.sonarBut closer inspection through the use of high-definition video and photo equipment, as well as high-frequency sonar, revealed something different: a 28' WWII-era plane bogged at a depth of more than 240'. “To come across something as historic as this is really quite thrilling,” said Rush, who quickly made note of one distinctive feature of the plane — it possessed landing gear that could rotate 90°. “Very few planes had that kind of configuration,” Rush added.

The Hellcat was partly developed as a result of a chance conversation. Awarding the legendary naval aviator Edward “Butch” O’Hare the Medal of Honor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked what would be the best type of plane to do combat with the formidable Japanese air power. Without hesitation, O’Hare responded: “Something that will go upstairs faster.” Shortly thereafter, Grumman went to work, developing a plane that would be described in 1943 by a Milwaukee Journal reporter as a “Single-engine, single-seat, low-wing, all-metal, folding wing monoplane designed to operate either from carriers or land bases.”

12.13.12.hellcatThat plane would also significantly help the Navy wrest control of the Pacific from the Japanese, mounting 5,156 victories against that county’s famous Zero fighter aircraft, to only 270 losses.

At the same time, an estimated 70 Hellcats were lost or crashed into the ocean along the Atlantic coast of Florida during the final 24 months of the war.

Those sunken planes, according to Robert Neyland, director of the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Underwater Archaeology Branch, are officially regarded as graves and are protected from being disturbed as a result of the Sunken Military Craft Act of 2004.

In a statement released through OceanGate’s offices, Neyland emphasized: “It is important to preserve and document Navy and Marine Corps wreck sites as an outstanding part of our nation’s history.”

“This is something we are very careful about,” said Rush. “There could possibly be skeletal remains in some of those planes, although in most cases the pilots probably bailed out because they were close to the shore.”

“Our hope,” added Rush, “is to go back to the Navy and get some identifiable features with the goal of finding out whether or not the pilot was in fact rescued.”

OceanGate came across their Hellcat discovery by chance. The company was gathering information on artificial reefs in the waters off of Miami-Dade County, Florida. “We had earlier had discussions with Miami-Dade about their artificial reef and ended up collaborating with them,” explained Rush. “They provide us with data and we give data back to them.”

Rush, a trained pilot with experience building his own planes, added: “To navigate through the Gulf Stream and then pick up on our own sonar what this was, was really a very moving experience.”