OUR RECONNAISSANCE DIVE on this wreck is worth every bit of effort the team has put into the project. We have all spent so many months researching the history, schematics and layout of this plane that to see it in the flesh is surreal.
I descend the shotline with Brendan Foley, lead man behind the project, and we see the wreckage of the Tulsamerican appear beneath us for the first time. Despite seeing numerous photos and video footage, I’m still surprised by how relatively intact it is.
The Tulsamerican in flight during WW2.
The aircraft was turned upside down by the impact of the crash, sustaining serious damage, but it is still obviously a plane, and not just a heap of unidentifiable broken metal.
The four radial engines are very broken up, but stand up proudly from the seabed, one with the propellers still attached.
The wings reach out eagerly to each side, and poking from beneath some twisted metal are the flimsy remains of the parachutes that were never deployed.
Dipping our heads under the wings, we see two huge oxygen cylinders that were used for supplying a breathable gas to the crew when at high altitudes.
Ammunition litters the seabed, and the control wheels of the pilot and co-pilot can be seen thrown brutally to one side, where the cockpit was ripped off at a 90° angle. The Tulsamerican will never fly again, but despite the damage it remains something to be admired.
The first week of the excavation goes smoothly. Long days consist of multiple dive rotations followed by wet-sieving on the boat of everything dredged from the seafloor. Two- or three-man teams go in shifts to excavate and carefully water-dredge around the plane, where we believe the airmen might still be.
Each working team contains at least one archaeologist and one professional diver to oversee the scientists as they work. It’s a slow process.
The remains we seek could be tiny, and it’s imperative that nothing is missed.
Although no osseous remains are immediately obvious, we do slowly begin to unearth personal equipment. The co-pilot’s oxygen mask is uncovered for the first time in more than 70 years, and the next day we find the pilot’s headphones, buried in the sediment surrounding the mangled cockpit.
Although this plane was discovered and identified only within the past decade, it is now dived fairly regularly by recreational divers, who have unfortunately begun to slowly strip away the plane. All we hope is that what we seek is deep enough beneath the sediment to remain undisturbed.
After our first week of perfect weather, the wind changes direction and denies us access to our site for eight days. It’s a frustration that all divers have experienced at one time or another, but it never gets any easier.
Everyone is keen and motivated to work, but all we can do is watch the waves crashing and the wind howling, and wait it out.
Three of the dive-team do get the chance during this time to dive on another aircraft wreck, a B-17 lying at 72m, which the DPAA believes might also contain remains of a crew-member.
We carry out only one reconnaissance dive, but this is without doubt the most incredible plane wreck I’ve ever seen. It is almost totally intact, down to propellers still being attached to all four engines. It looks ready to take off from the seabed and start flying again at any moment.