Once Above, Now Below: Archaeological Investigations of Two Early 1950s Naval Aircraft Wrecks off Pensacola

Jan. 27, 2022 | By Dr. George Schwarz (NHHC), Hunter Whitehead (CEI), Nicole Grinnan (FPAN)
For northwestern Florida, naval flight training began in 1914 with the arrival of the newly formed aviation unit consisting of nine officers, twenty-three enlisted men, and seven aircraft. Under the direction of Lt. John Towers and Lt. Commander Henry C. Mustin, the unit arrived at the Pensacola Navy Yard in January aboard the battleship Mississippi (No. 23) and collier Orion (AC-11) and quickly began establishing the first U.S. Naval Air Station (NAS). The officers took swift action in preparing the Navy Yard for aviation training and hired Pensacola locals to clear the beach for seaplane use and hangar installation. By February, Lt. Towers and Ensign Godfrey Chevalier made the first flight from the station.

The Navy’s decision to develop the station at Pensacola was based on practical reasons such as the warm weather and protected bays. Pensacola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico offered a large area for early aircraft carrier testing and training missions and as aviation technology and naval strategies developed, the launch and recovery of aircraft off the decks of marine vessels became more common. The station developed gradually and saw large influxes of aviation cadets during both the First and Second World War. The expanding installation and base community had a positive impact on Pensacola both socially and economically and remains to be a fundamental fixture today. Notable residents of NAS Pensacola include the Blue Angels Naval Flight Demonstration Squadron.
Wreck site plan of the F8F Bearcat
Wreck site plan of the F8F Bearcat.
Wreck site plan of the F8F Bearcat
Wreck site plan of the F8F Bearcat
Wreck site plan of the F8F Bearcat.
Photo By: NHHC Underwater Archaeology Branch
VIRIN: 220126-N-N0147-005

As with the First World War, NAS Pensacola was a center of US naval training activities during World War II and into the Korean War. During World War II, the bulk of carrier qualification training occurred in Lake Michigan, but in 1945 the training squadron moved to Pensacola forming Carrier Qualification Training Unit 4 (CQTU-4). In the late 1940s and early 1950s, this unit operated in the Gulf of Mexico on several aircraft carriers including USS Ranger (CV-4), USS Guadalcanal (CVE-60), USS Cabot (CVL-28), USS Monterey (CVL-26), and USS Saipan (CVL-48). The primary aircraft on which aviators were carrier-trained included Grumman’s F6F Hellcat and F8F Bearcat. Larger and more powerful, the Hellcat became the principal Grumman fighters that saw combat in WWII. A lighter, more agile craft with a faster climbing rate, the Bearcat was flown and tested at NAS Pensacola, but did not see combat until after WWII. Of the six known Hellcat losses and four known Bearcat losses in the waters off Pensacola, two Bearcats and two Hellcats have been located and visited by archaeologists over the past several years.    

Perspective view of F8F Bearcat wreck from photogrammetry model
Perspective view of F8F Bearcat wreck from photogrammetry model.
Perspective view of F8F Bearcat wreck from photogrammetry model
Perspective view of F8F Bearcat wreck from photogrammetry model
Perspective view of F8F Bearcat wreck from photogrammetry model.
Photo By: NHHC Underwater Archaeology Branch
VIRIN: 220126-N-N0147-006

During the week of December 13, 2021, Navy divers from Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) Underwater Archaeology Branch and Naval Oceanographic Office (NAVOCEANO) worked with archaeologists from Coastal Environments, Inc. and the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN) to further investigate two WWII-era Navy aircraft off the Pensacola coast. The two wrecks, an F8F Bearcat and an F6F Hellcat, were previously the subjects of Master’s theses at the University of West Florida (UWF) (one former student was a project co-lead this December), but had not previously been examined by the Navy. The F8F wreck was a production model of the prototype recently examined by NHHC at the bottom of the brackish Chesapeake Bay[SGRCNU10] , offering a comparative archaeological example in a saltwater environment. The NHHC and NAVOCEANO divers collected photographic documentation and feature measurements to verify the wrecks’ identities as Navy sunken military craft, assess their conditions, and develop site maps.
Dr. George Schwarz, NHHC Underwater Archaeologist, documents the F8F Bearcat wreck site off NAS Pensacola
Dr. George Schwarz, NHHC Underwater Archaeologist, documents the F8F Bearcat wreck site off NAS Pensacola.
Dr. George Schwarz, NHHC Underwater Archaeologist, documents the F8F Bearcat wreck site off NAS Pensacola
Dr. George Schwarz, NHHC Underwater Archaeologist, documents the F8F Bearcat wreck site off NAS Pensacola
Dr. George Schwarz, NHHC Underwater Archaeologist, documents the F8F Bearcat wreck site off NAS Pensacola.
Photo By: Billy Hauer
VIRIN: 220126-N-N0147-002
Divers noted that the two wreck sites have been altered by the environment in the past several years since the UWF graduate student research dives, with much more of the aircraft buried in the sandy bottom than when previously documented. The Bearcat’s wings are completely buried, and only the cockpit and part of the fuselage are now visible. A half-buried portion of a propeller and the radial engine, likely thrown from the aircraft during the wrecking event, was documented 20 feet off to the side of the main wreck. Unfortunately, the instrument panel appears to have been removed by souvenir hunters along with the identifying Bureau Number, which would have provided confirmation of the specific loss. Approximately 10 miles away and also on a flat, sandy bottom, the Hellcat is inverted and largely buried except for the struts, portions of the wheels, and the vestiges of a fuel compartment on the aircraft’s underbelly between the struts. As sunken naval aircraft, these wrecks are under NHHC’s management purview and protected under the Sunken Military Craft Act, and can be periodically assessed to document changes in their condition.

Navy dive team examining features of the existing F8F Bearcat on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum
Navy dive team examining features of the existing F8F Bearcat on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum.
Navy dive team examining features of the existing F8F Bearcat on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum
Navy dive team examining features of the existing F8F Bearcat on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum
Navy dive team examining features of the existing F8F Bearcat on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum.
Photo By: Blair Atcheson
VIRIN: 220126-N-N0147-001

The nearby National Naval Aviation Museum at NAS Pensacola has one production model F8F and one F6F Hellcat on display, and further tells the story of these two fighters and their role in naval history. In 2022, NHHC, NAVOCEANO, and Coastal Environments, Inc. plan to conduct further hydrographic surveys off the Florida coast to locate and document additional Navy aircraft lost during the training missions of the 1940s and 1950s but never recovered by the Navy. These projects further the mission of NHHC by helping the Navy to account for lost historic aircraft, and provide context to the individual losses during this segment of American naval history.