OceanGate Inc. announced recently the discovery of a World War II-era Grumman F6F Hellcat located 240 feet beneath the waves off the coast of Miami Beach. The plane was discovered quite by accident while the underwater exploration company was gathering data on the health of artificial reefs in the waters of Miami-Dade County.
Findings from initial surface-sonar side scans, provided by NOAA, had displayed a 100 foot long object, which led the OceanGate team to assume it was a sunken vessel. However, during the initial dive to the site, the sonar technology on OceanGate’s submersible produced the first-ever, close-range, underwater scans of the 28-foot long plane. Recognizing the potential historical and military significance of the find, OceanGate contacted officials at both the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Navy, who upon reviewing the photographs and scans of the site identified the wreck as a Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter aircraft. “The discovery of this artifact is significant because it helps us reflect on and learn more about our country’s heritage” said Stockton Rush, CEO of OceanGate. Since the first dive, the OceanGate team has returned for additional observation and data collection on eight missions including a recent long-duration dive of eight hours.
OceanGate will donate its collection of photographs, videos, and technical scans of the Hellcat to the Naval History & Heritage Command (NHHC) in Washington, D.C. The files will be used in the preservation of this federally-protected site and in possible future research on this particular plane. “Sunken U.S. Navy ships and aircraft are protected from unauthorized disturbance under the Sunken Military Craft Act,” said Dr. Robert Neyland, head of NHHC’s Underwater Archaeology Branch. “It is important to preserve and document Navy and Marine Corps wreck sites as an outstanding part of our nation’s heritage. It is critical to remember that many of these wreck sites are also graves. NHHC, with more than 17,000 ship and aircraft wrecks lost worldwide, welcomes cooperation and partnership with responsible private companies like OceanGate to assist us with our mission.”
During World War II, the Grumman Hellcat was flown by both the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps and was a mainstay of the air war in the Pacific. The state of Florida was an active training center for military fighter pilots during World War II, and records from NHHC indicate that 79 Hellcats were lost off of Florida’s Atlantic coast between 1943 and 1952, with only eight of these losses occurring after 1945. Not all of these losses involved fatalities, as the Command has documentation of many successful water landings and bailouts.
“In the course of its production run, 12,275 Hellcats were delivered to the Navy,” added Bob Rasmussen , director of the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida. “During peak production one each hour, 24 hours per day, rolled off the Grumman line. Of these only a handful exist today and the discovery of one more, even under 240 feet of Atlantic Ocean, is important to Naval Aviation History.”