|THE ALLURE OF DIVING ON PLANES comes about perhaps because, although designed to fly, they look quite at home under water. With a little imagination one could picture an aircraft on the seabed suddenly firing up its engines and taking off through the water. |
Ill never forget my first plane wreck, an intact Cessna 310, deliberately crashed for the film Jaws III. As I glided towards it, I felt like James Bond on a mission, to sneak past all the other divers, capture an image of the aircraft and escape!
As it happened, one of the best views was from above, and I caught the picture with the divers below unaware of my presence.
Perhaps Bond was on my mind because the plane is located off New Providence Island in the Bahamas, famous for Bond wrecks. Not that far away lie the Tears of Allah shipwreck and the Vulcan bomber used in the film Thunderball.
The bomber used in the underwater sequence was not a real plane but a metal frame covered in fabric. The fabric has long since rotted away, and the frame is now covered in gorgonians and looks more like a botanical water-garden than a plane.
Aircraft used in movies are one thing, but when you dive one located in the middle of nowhere, and with a fascinating story behind it, thats memorable.
A few years ago, while on a liveaboard exploring Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea, I dived on an intact Boeing B17 Flying Fortress bomber. It wasnt any old B17, but supposedly the most successful of Americas Pacific campaign of World War Two.
The bomber was discovered in 1986, lying on a sandy bottom beneath a steep drop-off. Diving it was challenging, not just because it was 50m down but because a strong current often runs there.
Affectionately nicknamed Blackjack (its serial number ended in 21), the B17 was on its way to bomb Rabaul airfield on 10 July, 1943 when it developed engine problems. The pilot, First Lieutenant Ralf De Loach, decided to complete the mission but on the journey home bad weather blew the plane off course. With too little fuel to reach Port Moresby, De Loach decided to ditch on a reef near the village of Boga Boga at Cape Vogel.
He landed Blackjack perfectly on the water. The great bomber came to a halt faster than expected, well short of the reef, but he and his nine crewmen had time to get clear before it sank, and were rescued by villagers.
The weather wasnt much better when we visited Cape Vogel. It was raining and the light was poor, but underwater visibility wasnt bad.
After spooking a bunch of humphead parrotfish at around 35m, the faint outline of the Flying Fortress appeared and my heart quickened. By 40m I could see its entire 30m wingspan brilliantly silhouetted against the sandy bottom. It was awesome.
Adrenalin flowing and narcosis setting in, by the time I reached the bottom I was as high as a kite. A week of solid diving was taking its toll. I wished I had been less narked and could have had more time on the bottom. Here was possibly the best plane wreck in the world and I had barely 10 minutes.
I had time to peer into the cockpit to see what was left of the controls and photograph the forward machine-gun turret, though forgot to check out the machine-gun in the tail, which apparently still swivelled in its mount.
Heading back up the steep drop-off, I glanced back and watched the B17 slowly disappear. I doubted whether Id ever get to see one again. Milne Bay is as remote a location as youll find.
However, on holiday last year I stumbled across another largely intact Flying Fortress, in just 27m of water, 100m off the port of Calvi on Corsicas rugged west coast.
The bomber had been discovered by local diveshop-owner Paul Valeani in the mid-60s. It still had two machine-guns, along with parachutes, oxygen bottles and, at the time, the remains of three of the crewmen.
Many divers have explored the bomber since, but despite a few signs of wear it is still in great condition.
Visibility is usually good off Corsica, and you can expect to see the entire plane as you descend. The round nose has been flattened and the tail section is missing, but body and wings are complete. The B17 resembles an old warrior resting on the seabed.
It had been carpet-bombing Verona in February 1944 when it was intercepted by Messerschmitt fighters and hit several times. Its upper turret and one engine were knocked out and, with two more engines badly damaged, the pilot turned for home.
Few planes could have taken half that punishment. The B17 was down to one engine over the Mediterranean and Corsica had no suitable airfield, so the pilot decided to ditch at sea. He and two other crewmen managed to escape.
Little marine life has been attracted to the wreck, apart from the odd moray eel and scorpionfish and a shoal of cardinalfish buzzing around the cockpit. This makes it appear to be in even better condition than it is, and from certain angles you get the impression that it is wholly intact.
In the Solomon Islands off Gizo lies a plane that is very much intact. The Grumman Hellcat fighter lies atop a reef on the edge of Blackett Strait in just 10m. Here I photographed my wife Eileen examining one of the six wing-mounted Browning machine-guns, beside which belts of up to 400 bullets remained beside the wing camera.
The Hellcat was shot down accidentally by a compatriot while taking on a group of Japanese Zeros, though pilot Dick Moore survived.
On the same trip I dived a Zero lying in only 7m off Gizo harbour. This was in less-good condition, as was a nearby B17, no longer recognisable as a plane.
While visiting another Pacific island, Vanuatu, I dived a plane very different to the Hellcat and Mitsubishi Zero fighters, and in contrasting conditions. The Qantas S26 Sandringham flying boat was discovered in 1978, totally intact on a silty bottom at 37m, near Port Villa harbour not far from Iriki island.
As we dropped down the mooring line, the available light quickly became unavailable, and we found ourselves in darkness before our torches went on. The line led to the huge tail, beside which Eileen looked tiny as I photographed her. As we swam along the body of the bulky giant, our eyes adjusted and we began to see just how enormous this old girl was.
It had taken four 1200hp Pratt & Whitney engines to get airborne, but as we swam alongside a wing it became obvious that parts had been salvaged. We could have swum through the cockpit and out the other side had we wanted, but we left penetration for our return route. Through a side door we found an amazing amount of room but nothing particularly exciting. A couple of bucket seats lay by the door.
Sandringhams were manufactured in the UK by Short Brothers just after the war. This one was a Tasman built in 1946, one of three sold to Qantas for Tasmanian runs.
It was the first plane to fly the Tasman Sea from Auckland to Sydney in under eight hours, which was quick then.
How did it end up at Port Villa Two Sandringhams were sold to Papua New Guinea to operate between there and Port Moresby. On 10 June, 1951 the Tasman hit an object in the water as it was taking off, having diverged from its route to avoid an outrigger canoe.
The 20 passengers and eight crew were uninjured. The plane was towed back to the harbour to await salvage, only sinking when a cyclone hit Vanuatu later that year.
I also have fond memories of another classic Pacific destination, Chuuk (formerly Truk). During the US Navy raid known as Operation Hailstorm, on 17 and 18 February, 1944, the Japanese lost more than 40 ships and an incredible 275 planes. Many of these were destroyed on the main airfield on Eten Island before take-off.
Today, to the east of the island, snorkellers duck-dive to touch the upturned body of an intact Zero. The broken remains of other Zeros lie close by, along with the two halves of a Tony Kawasaki Ki-1 Hien. The Tony was heavily protected, had excellent manoeuvrability and performance, and would have proved a formidable adversary to the US Hellcats had the Japanese been better trained to fly them.
I dived on several planes at Chuuk but my favourites were a Mitsubishi G4M Betty bomber and a Kawanishi H8K Emily flying boat. The Betty can be found straight out from Etens original runway in only 15m of water, looking as if it was coming into land when downed.
The first thing I noticed was its twisted nose section, bent back on itself towards the right wing. The plane must have hit the water with some force and with its engines still running, because they ripped free of the fuselage and ended up 100m further on.
Other than that, the aluminium-built Betty appeared almost like new, with little marine growth on it.
Inside I photographed Moorish idols as they swam over various artefacts, from a machine-gun and fire-extinguisher to a radio set and empty boxes.
Towards the rear of the plane on the sand I found three large gas cylinders, spare batteries, another machine-gun and the remains of a first-aid kit.
I enjoyed taking wide-angle shots of the bent nose and cockpit, showing the unusual shape and length of the Betty, which had the nickname the Flying Cigar. A twin-engined tactical bomber, this versatile plane could also be used for torpedo attacks.
I was diving with an American couple. Ruth, a nurse, wanted her picture taken reading her Medical Post, with its headline Northern Fighter. The pilots seat had been removed and placed in the sand and it made the perfect picture.
The Emily was the most interesting of all my plane-wreck dives. This enormous flying boat, also known as the Flying Porcupine, was heavily armed with defensive weapons, including five 20mm cannons and four machine-guns. Its range was a whopping 4500 miles.
It had self-sealing fuel tanks in wings and fuselage, a fire-extinguishing system and a body able to take heavy punishment. It was huge for its time, 28m long and with a 38m wingspan.
It was probably its strong frame which saved the lives of several senior Japanese naval officers, including Vice-Admiral Hara and his chief of staff, as they flew back from Palau to Chuuk from a military conference.
Their plane was attacked by US Hellcat fighters and took severe punishment. The pilot flew to 9000m in a bid to throw them off. Several officers and his co-pilot were dead and all looked lost until he managed to hide in a cloud long enough to shake off his pursuers.
He landed near the Dublong sea base and the badly damaged Emily hit the sea hard. Surviving passengers jumped clear to be rescued by boats standing by, and soon afterwards the plane sank, turning upside-down and breaking in three.
In average visibility, I found it hard to make out where the Emily was broken at first. It was a strange-looking plane anyway, and somehow upside-down it looked OK, a bit like a passenger plane but with its nose inverted!
The four engines, complete with propellers, were still attached to the plane but had come away from their mounting to rest on the undulating reef. Thick encrusting sponges had coloured the propeller blades bright red.
From the upturned cockpit, orange tube sponges grew like wiry hair on an old mans head. The cockpit windows were smashed; an instrument panel and large gear lay on the seabed.
Finning down the plane, I came across where the main break must have occurred, in front of the gunners and observer position. Beside the break on the right I found an old radio and a small compressor.
As I slowly explored, I began to discern how impressive it must once must have looked. If there is one aircraft Id love to see again, its the Emily.
|This well-preserved Boeing B17 Flying Fortress at Calvi in Corsica was found in the 60s |
|remains of the Vulcan bomber used in the James Bond movie Thunderball, at New Providence in the Bahamas |
|Gavin Andersons first plane wreck dive was on this Cessna 310, also at New Providence |
|Eileen Anderson beside the wing-mounted machine guns on a US Grumman Hellcat fighter in the Solomon Islands |
|Mitsubishi G4M |
|this Qantas Sandringham flying boat crashed on take-off at Port Villa, Vanuatu in 1951, though its 28 occupants escaped uninjured |
|Mitsubishi G4M |
|This Kawanishi |
|Also at Chuuk, this shot of the Betty gives an idea of its size |
OTHER AIRCRAFT TO DIVE
Republic P47 Thunderbolt, Bastia
Heinkel 111, Bastia
Vickers Viking, Mortoli
Douglas Canadair CL215, Sagone
Junkers JU88, Le Frioul
Messerschmitt BF109, Le Planier
Grumman F4F Wildcat, Le Lavandou
Bristol Blenheim, Xorb Il-Ghagin
Douglas DC3 Dakota, Majuro
Curtiss SB2C Helldivers, Saratoga wreck, Bikini
PAPAU NEW GUINEA
Lockheed Hudson, East Cape, Milne Bay
Lockheed P38 Lightning, Basilaki Bay, Milne Bay
Boston Havoc, Loloata Island, Port Moresby
Nakajima B5N Kate, Anelaua Island, Kavieng
Petes Biplane, Tawaui, Rabaul
Mitchell B25, Madang
Cessna 410, Madang
Dornier DO17, Shag Rock
Chance-Vought F4U Corsair, Apo Camino
Consolidated PBV Catalinas, Cumbrae and Oban
Short Sunderlands, Cromarty, Moray Firth
DeHavilland DH98 Mosquito, Skerries, Moray Firth
Armstrong Whitworth AW38 Whitley, Burgh Head, Moray Firth
Boeing B17 (Betty Japsmasher), Guadalcanal
Chance-Vought F4U Corsair, Gizo
Douglas SB8 Dauntless, Munda
Mitsubishi A6M Zeros, Gizo
Cessna, Aquarium dive site
Consolidated PBV Catalina, near airfield