by Blair Atcheson, Naval History and Heritage Command, UAB Historic Preservation & Outreach Coordinator
Did you know there are U.S. Navy craft in the Patuxent River and Chesapeake Bay? Recently, NHHC’s Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) team got a well-deserved break from our desk work and went out into the field to investigate submerged aircraft in the Chesapeake Bay near NAS Patuxent River.
To see the craft, we partnered with Phoenix International Holdings, Inc. and Navy’s Supervisor of Diving and Salvage (SUPSALV) from Aug. 19 – 25, to locate and potentially identify several aircraft wreck sites in the Patuxent River and Chesapeake Bay. Following archival research at NHHC and the National Archives, we identified naval aircraft lost during testing missions from NAS Patuxent River in the 1940s that, according to the historical record, were not fully recovered at the time of the crash.
Since the records rarely have exact coordinates and tend to have limited locational information, such as ‘lost two miles north of Pax River’, conducting surveys like this is extremely important. They allow us to confirm the exact location of these sites in order to manage, protect, and preserve them more effectively. Aircraft wrecks can contain human remains, hazardous material, and unexploded ordnance, which may be sensitive to human and natural disturbance.
Based on information gathered from the archives, we developed a search plan for three USN aircraft lost off NAS Pax River, including a SNC-1 Falcon, XF8F-1 Bearcat, and FJ-1 Fury. A survey box was developed around the presumed location of each wreck site and survey lanes within the box spaced in a manner to provide sufficient overlap, ensuring full coverage of the area. Prior to searching the survey boxes, we used sound wave based technology to record – or, as the archaeologists would say, ‘insonified’ – known targets that had been previously detected by the Institute of Maritime History. This allowed the team to test the side scan sonar system and obtain data on S-49 and the tail section of a presumed Skyraider that was discovered just last year.
Overall, the survey was a success and provided a great starting point to conduct future surveys in the area. We collected a significant amount of data that will be processed and analyzed over the next several weeks.
This survey is just the first step, though. Ultimately, the data collected will serve as a starting point to plan future surveys and, after reviewing the data, we plan to head back to the archives to expand the search to losses from the 1950s-60s.
One of UAB’s missions is to manage the Navy’s submerged cultural resources. And there are a lot of them. From waters surrounding the Indonesian archipelago to the Californian Coast, and from the waters off South America to the North Sea, they truly span the globe.
As a continuation of that mission, UAB also interprets those resources. With this survey in the Chesapeake, the resulting data will supplement the NHHC historic aircraft database, and it will also help us better understand and manage Navy aircraft losses near NAS Pax River.
Not to mention, we get to play with really cool equipment!