By Naval History and Heritage Command Underwater Archaeology Branch
From July 25 to Aug. 3 2016, Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) underwater archaeologists conducted side-scan sonar operations in the Chesapeake Bay and Patuxent River to locate U.S. Navy aircraft lost near Naval Air Station Patuxent River (NAS Pax River) as a continuation of research started in 2015.
The focus of the survey is to locate aircraft lost during training exercises in the 1940s and 1950s to supplement the Navy’s data on submerged cultural resources off NAS Pax River and as part of the Navy’s overall management responsibilities for its sunken military craft.
During World War II, the U.S. was in need of an all-purpose naval aircraft installation that would be able to evaluate, test, build and fly aircraft, but also facilitate aircraft operations. Naval Air facilities from around the East Coast were consolidated at NAS Pax River by 1943. Navy, Marine Corps, Army Air Corps, and Coast Guard personnel flew and tested Allied and captured enemy aircraft (such as a Japanese Zero, German ME- 109E fighter, and ME- 262 Messerschmitt Jet) to evaluate different craft’s strengths and weaknesses for operational knowledge and use. The variety of aircraft added to the Navy’s inventory during WWII allowed for unprecedented opportunity in the development and testing of new technology, but also correlated in an increase of lost aircraft due to accidents and equipment failure in the 1940s and 50s.
In 2015, NHHC’s Underwater Archaeology Branch (UA), in coordination with NAS Pax River’s cultural resource manager, began conducting intensive archival research and site surveys to determine the approximate location and condition of sunken military aircraft lost off Pax River as part of NHHC’s management of Navy’s submerged cultural resources. In addition, the proximity of the site to the NHHC headquarters, offers on-site archaeology interns hands on training with maritime survey technology and techniques.
Building on the previous year’s research in the field and the NHHC archives, the mission of the 2016 survey was to re-investigate targets from 2015 and to conduct searches for other losses from the 1950s that the Navy did not wholly salvage or find after its initial loss. The aircraft under investigation include a HOK-1 Huskei helicopter, a TV-2 Shooting Star, F9F-5P Panther, SNC-1 Falcon, XF8F-1 Bearcat, and an FJ-1 Fury.
Part of the difficulty in locating the crash sites are that the accident reports often provide only vague locational information. In order to narrow the search area, UA compiles information gleaned from the archival records, eyewitness accounts, and previous survey data to refine and narrow developed search areas.
Working this year in collaboration with the Institute of Maritime History (IMH), NHHC utilized sonar equipment to search the predetermined survey areas. Using a combination of short and long range side-scanning sonar devices with real-time GPS receivers, the archaeologists can survey the areas with 200 percent overlap, giving 100 percent coverage of each survey grid. In addition to the remote sensing equipment, IMH volunteers conducted non-intrusive dives to groundtruth any promising targets to determine if they represent submerged cultural resources.
While survey work concludes this week for the 2016 field season, UA will head back to the office to begin post-processing and analysis of the data. Archaeological surveys are a multi-faceted and multi-phases process that often requires years of archival research and several stages of field work. But with each survey and trip to the Navy archives, the resulting data provides UA vital information needed to protect and preserve these sites more effectively.
The U.S. Navy’s sunken military craft represent a unique collection of submerged cultural resources that, in addition to their historical relevance, often serve as war graves, contain hazardous materials, such as oil or unexploded ordnance, that may be an environmental or safety hazard if disturbed. As such, the Navy’ sunken military craft remain government property and are protected from unauthorized disturbance under the Sunken Military Craft Act.
The aircraft off NAS Pax River also serve as a particular reminder of the risk and sacrifice made by those in the development and research of new technology to improve the Navy’s fighting capabilities then and today.
The Naval History and Heritage Command, located at the Washington Navy Yard, is responsible for the preservation, analysis, and dissemination of U.S. naval history and heritage. It provides the knowledge foundation for the Navy by maintaining historically relevant resources and products that reflect the Navy’s unique and enduring contributions through our nation’s history, and supports the fleet by assisting with and delivering professional research, analysis, and interpretive services. NHHC is composed of several branches including the Navy Department Library, the Navy Operational Archives, the Navy art and artifact collections, underwater archeology, Navy histories, nine museums, USS Constitution repair facility and the historic ship Nautilus.
For more news from Naval History and Heritage Command, visit http://www.history.navy.mil/news-and-events.html