OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, several news outlets have misreported that I “discovered” the Airplane Graveyard. Obviously, I did no such thing. The site has been well-known to people living on Kwaj since the planes were dumped in 1945, and divers have visited at least as far back as the 1960s.
True, the difficulty of gaining access to the diving in Kwajalein Atoll has kept many away. But the graveyard is not a secret.
While I never claimed to have discovered the Airplane Graveyard, there is one plane there to which I might have a discovery claim. I may not have been the first to see it – I don’t know – but it was not recorded on the extensive GPS listing maintained by the Roi Dolphins Scuba Club.
My friend Dan and I came across it when we were diving between my scheduled ferry runs. My shift schedule imposed a hard limit on how long we could be out.
It was a little windier than we’d have liked. In fact, a smarter pair would probably not have been diving that area in those conditions, because the wind made the water choppy.
Some fish life and coral around the upright Avenger.
As the graveyard area is mostly sand, anchoring the boat securely can be iffy, particularly on choppy days.
Dan and I had been on a mission to dive all spots in the GPS-listed graveyard, and that day we chose a mark neither of us had been to.
I was driving the boat, pulled up to the spot, and Dan threw the anchor. Then we waited. And waited.
We watched the GPS to see if our distance from the target moved, indicating that we had not hooked the anchor and were being dragged by the wind. Most of the airplanes are very close to the shallow barrier reef encircling the lagoon. If the boat drifted while the divers were under water and ran aground on the reef, that would be a bad thing for many reasons.
In this case, the most significant peril I could think of was not getting back to the ferry on time.
According to the GPS, we were slowly moving farther away from our target, 30m, 45m … 60m. The GPS kept going.
I had Dan hoist the anchor, and I drove back to the GPS mark. He threw the anchor again, and we waited.
And, again, the GPS moved. Time was ticking. The more time we spent hooking up, the less of it we had to dive.
Not wanting to haul up the anchor again, we kept waiting. At about 120m, the GPS stopped. We both looked at it and looked at each other. Well, we could swim 120m, right? That wasn’t too far.
In fact, it was quite far, especially where we were going to dive, an area subject to strong currents during tidal changes – something we hadn’t checked before coming out.
Impatience, however, is a powerful driver. Frustrated with the sand, frustrated with the wind, we were also frustrated with one another. The decision? Just go for it.
We took a compass heading on the direction toward where the plane was supposed to be, 120m behind us, and we jumped in. Maybe we would find it. Maybe not. Either way, we were finally diving, and diving is always better than working.
Being a boat captain – and having signed my name to the reservation for this rented boat – I felt a slight twinge of nerves about leaving it alone in the wind. But these dives were usually around 30m, so we’d be under water for 18-20 minutes tops before our bottom time ran out. It didn’t seem like too much could go wrong in that span.
Generally, the air temperature on Kwaj stays constant at 29°C, but the wind that day made it slightly chilly, and the water, at 28°, actually felt warmer than the air as we began our descent.
We started out facing each other, and even though we needed to start swimming south-east we also needed, first thing, to check that the anchors were secure at the bottom.
Following the anchor-lines down, we were at about 9m, still right under the boat, when I saw a shadow. A plane!
But, clearly, it wasn’t the plane, the one we were looking for – unless the GPS co-ordinates we had were incorrect.
Either way, it was a plane we had never seen. So we quickly checked the anchors, repositioned them securely, and headed to the plane.
This dive was still quite early in my graveyard adventures, so I wasn’t up on my aircraft recognition. I had no idea what type of plane I was looking at, but I did know that I really liked the look of it, sitting upright in the sand on the slope down from the reef.
The nose was broken off and lay in the sand in front of the plane.
The engine was broken off, positioned just in front of the fuselage, although mostly buried in the sand. The tips of the wings were also buried, but I could see that the wings were partly folded, so it had to be a carrier-based aircraft.
There was nothing but white sand all around. The cockpit was so thickly filled with glassfish that you couldn’t see the instrument panel without shooing them away. Whip corals, long, thin, and greenish, looking like long pipe-cleaners, grew off the aircraft.
There were crinoids, too, one of those sea animals that look like plants – or, in this case, like featherdusters, which is what most people call them. Their feather-like leaves ball up into a sphere and can be black, yellow or many other colours besides green.
Moorish idols, in bold white, black, and yellow, and emperor angelfish, vibrant in yellow horizontal pinstripes on a blue background, swam around the plane along with many other less showy fish species.
We also swam around this plane a few times, and when we’d seen enough we still had some bottom time left.
So we signalled to each other that we should swim further in hopes of finding the plane we were looking for – or maybe something else. We used our compasses to swim in the direction we had originally intended.
After a while, having come across nothing and with our bottom time running out, it was time to start heading to shallower waters. The current had also picked up, moving us farther away from the boat, so we started kicking harder to get back to the anchor-line.
Reaching the line, we ascended, did our three-minute safety stop, and returned to the surface.
Thankfully, the boat was still there. Our excitement – especially after that rough start – was hard to hold back. We were still unsure if what we had seen was the plane we were after or something else altogether. Either way, we were happy we had found something.
I told Dan we should mark the GPS, and jokingly suggested we call it “Brandi’s Plane.” He protested mildly, saying that he was sure it had to be on the list somewhere and that we must have just drifted over to another spot.
But in the end, grudgingly, he put the co-ordinates in, and, bringing the boat back to shore, we were all smiles.
I did my ferry run and then scurried back to my room to download the photos. I posted one on Facebook.
The plane Brandi saw.
Minutes – and I mean minutes – after I posted, the undisputed “WW2 Airplane Guru” of Kwajalein posted a comment in response. He identified the aircraft as a Grumman TBF Avenger, a torpedo bomber developed for the US Navy and Marine Corps.
Like the other warbirds in the graveyard, the Avenger was a hero of WW2. It first flew on 7 August, 1941 and made its combat debut at the Battle of Midway (4-7 June, 1942).
Five of the six that flew during that fight were lost. But Midway turned the tide against Japan in the Pacific war, and the Avenger went on to become the premier torpedo-bomber of the war.
As for me, the Guru commented that the only other Graveyard Avenger he knew about was upside-down in the sand. This really got me excited, and Dan and I asked every diver on Roi if they had ever seen or heard about an upright Avenger. No one had.
Did this mean that Dan and I were the first human beings to dive it? Common sense tells me that someone at some time saw it but just didn’t mark it.
Well, we marked it. So, if I can take credit for finding anything, I’ll take it for this plane.