Following the Clues to Identify a Submerged Wreck at the Bottom of the Chesapeake Bay
By Donna Cipolloni
On March 18, 1945, at 2:15 p.m., an XF8F-1 Bearcat sped down the runway and climbed into the sky above Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland. At that moment, no one could have imagined the propeller-driven fighter plane would disappear into the distance and become the focus of a naval underwater archaeological investigation more than 70 years later.
The Bearcat’s pilot, a 23-year-old with the Aircraft Armament Test Squadron, had logged 935 flight hours and received the Air Medal the previous June while participating in nine carrier-based operations in the Pacific.
With just under seven hours of flight time in the prototype Bearcat, which had only arrived at Pax River’s Naval Air Test Center in October 1944, the pilot was undertaking an authorized gunnery test flight to determine gun equipment function and retention of boresight and to test the new mounting brackets installed on one of the guns.
The wind was blowing out of the northeast at five knots; the cloud cover consisted of a high broken overcast at 7,000 feet. Armament Test personnel observed three firing runs on the pilot’s flight without incident, after which the airplane passed out of their field of view to the south.
At approximately 3:45 p.m., when the aircraft had not yet returned to Pax River and was determined to be overdue, the Station Operations Department was notified, and search operations were requested.
The final resting place of that Bearcat—or, more precisely, the attempt to verify its final resting place—was the reason an underwater archaeologist from Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) and three volunteer divers working with the Institute of Maritime History (IMH) found themselves on the Chesapeake Bay June 10, chugging toward the location where a known aircraft, suspected to be the Bearcat, lies submerged and relatively intact in the murky depths.
Discovering a Sunken Aircraft
Several years ago during a routine National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hydrographic survey of the Chesapeake, a submerged object was discovered and noted as “an obstruction or wreck,” with another “anomaly” reported lying approximately 90 feet to the north.
“One of our people, Dan Lynberg, took a good sidescan [sonar] image of it, and it was obviously an airplane, so we started going out to look at it,” said Dave Howe of IMH, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and documenting archaeological remains related to maritime history. The group works closely with the Navy, Marine Corps and the Maryland Historical Trust.
“When we first found it, we didn’t realize what type of aircraft it was because it was quite small. We were stuck until George came up with the idea of the Bearcat—and it fit,” Howe said.
Howe is referring to Dr. George Schwarz, an archaeologist with the Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) of NHHC in Washington, D.C. It is the UAB’s responsibility to manage, research, conserve and interpret the Navy’s collection of sunken and terrestrial military craft, which includes more than 2,500 shipwrecks and 14,000 aircraft wrecks distributed worldwide.
Over the past three years, after painstakingly researching accident history reports, archival records and numerous other sources, Schwarz and UAB staff have identified the potential locations of a number of submerged aircraft from the 1940s and 1950s that crashed off the shores of NAS Pax River—and one of those aircraft is likely the missing Bearcat.
“We know the Navy used to recover as much [of a crashed aircraft] as they could, but we’ve done quite a bit of research on those aircraft we believe the Navy did not recover at the time, and this is one of those,” Schwarz noted. “We looked at the NOAA data, and it actually correlated with the area we’d already identified as its possible location.”
The accident history card on the ill-fated test flight reveals the Navy sent three search planes to scour the water and adjacent land that bounded the air firing range the pilot had cleared for his flight.
Around 4:35 p.m., the planes sighted a large heavy slick, approximately 100 by 200 feet, still bubbling fresh oil. A crash boat arrived on the scene at 5:05 p.m. and picked up a seat back cushion, an oxygen bottle, two pieces of flap enclosure strip and a left glove inscribed with the pilot’s name.
On the following day, grappling operations recovered a section determined to be the upper left “V” log of the engine mount, which had been separated violently at each end. Though further extensive search operations located nothing else, the recovered parts were identified as belonging to the missing Bearcat.
With no witnesses and nothing unusual observed about the flight, no cause for the accident could be determined; however, the size of the oil slick and the separation of the engine indicated a violent crash.
“In the case of a high-impact collision into the water, you usually only get parts of the aircraft, maybe a wing or a fuselage; maybe it’s just basically a debris field,” Schwarz said. “This wreck is unique in that it’s fairly intact, so there are a lot of features and dimensions that will help us in identifying it.”
Information obtained from previous scans and dives indicates a small, all-metal, low-wing, bubble canopy aircraft with an approximate 33-foot wingspan—consistent with a Bearcat—sitting upright with a missing engine—also consistent with the flight’s accident history report.
With yet another follow-up visit to the site, Schwarz continued his quest to verify whether the sunken wreck at the bottom of the Chesapeake is the lost Bearcat and if the anomaly lying to the north of it could be its missing engine.
Divers Collect Data
As the team approached its target site, Howe maneuvered his boat close to the submerged aircraft and the team dropped a mushroom anchor attached to a buoy off to the side of the site. The first diver in the water, Polaris Luu, was tasked with finding the plane, laying a dive line from the buoy to a point near the aircraft, and noting its location with a marker sent to the surface.
Next overboard were Bill Isbell and Carolin McManus, the only one of the three who had dived the wreck before.
Below, conditions were disorienting as the divers attempted to acclimate themselves in darkness lit only by a single shaft of light from a handheld source. Visibility was no more than 18 inches ahead as silt particulates swirled around them in a sort of brown blizzard.
“The visibility was so poor it took a while to determine the orientation of the plane,” Isbell said. “Once we realized we were on the remains of the tail, we were able to navigate to the port side wing on the front.”
Luu described the cockpit as open, filled with mud and covered with marine plant life that completely obstructed their view of the instrument panels and flight controls.
“The cockpit was easily discernible but completely covered in growth,” Luu said. “The fuselage is in good shape but also completely covered in growth, which hides all markings.”
The divers had been instructed not to move, clean or disturb anything; and as their air depleted, they surfaced to regroup, share their initial observations, discuss their next action plan and prepare for another dive.
“The highest priority is to locate the four gun ports and the air scoops to obtain their measurements with respect to each other and the wing roots,” McManus explained, as she geared up one more time.
During their second descent, the team obtained a few of the desired measurements from Schwarz’s list.
The divers clearly observed the gun ports on the front of each wing—indicating a military aircraft—and measured them 10 inches apart, although the air scoops were too degraded to provide useful measurements. The cockpit bubble canopy appeared to be collapsed backward, and the cockpit width was measured at 3 feet 1 inch. Wing width was recorded as 7 feet.
Air consumption was the limiting factor in how much the divers could accomplish and, unfortunately, they ran out of time before completing all the measurements and investigating the separate anomaly that may be the Bearcat’s severed engine.
Nothing the divers observed that day rules out the possibility that this wreck is anything other than what the team thinks it is, but they are not nearly ready to call it.
“We rarely determine anything on the first, second or even fifth dive,” Schwarz said. “I think the presence and spacing of the gun ports is the most telling of a Navy aircraft. Also, the measurements that we do have from previous dives for wing span and length are generally consistent with the dimensions of a Bearcat—though not all diagnostic measurements were obtained to confirm that.”
If this wreck is indeed the aircraft in question, it would be protected legally from unauthorized disturbance under the Sunken Military Craft Act. It could also be the final resting place of a U.S. Sailor.
Schwarz noted additional visits to the site will be necessary to obtain further measurements to compare with schematics and plans of prototype Bearcats—such as the height of the windshield above the fuselage and wing length from tip to root, among others—and to make additional observations such as whether the craft’s wing tips may be missing.
A feature unique to the X8F8-1 was its wing tips, designed to break off when a specified load factor was obtained, thereby saving weight and increasing airplane efficiency. Missing wing tips would further verify the prototype aircraft since, according to the National Naval Aviation Museum website, the system was abandoned and never incorporated in production aircraft “because the wing tips could not be made to break off simultaneously.”
Schwarz is already looking for the next opportunity to dive the site, possibly this fall.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to return and have the opportunity to collect more side-scan sonar and possibly collect our own multi-beam echosounder survey over the wreck,” Schwarz added. “But that timing will depend on the availability of our boat and equipment. So, if not this fall, perhaps in spring 2018.”
Meanwhile, Schwarz and staff will continue to unravel archival research clues to help them identify the aircraft so the UAB can preserve and manage the site going forward.
“If this proves to be the Bearcat, it’s good for us to know where it is so if there are any activities going on in the region, the site can be avoided and protected,” he noted.
Donna Cipolloni is editor of the Naval Air Station Patuxent River’s “Tester” newspaper.
Note: The pilot’s name has been redacted until Naval History and Heritage Command can complete their investigation of the wreck and determine if the site is a final resting place.