Sunday, December 4, 2011

Exploring underwater wreckage off the beach

There's a lot of wreckage under the waters of Lake Washington, almost all which arrived there accidentally. Though at least one vessel was intentionally scuttled in the Lake, much of the underwater debris consists of commercial boats or ferries that sank (usually during storms) and were not recovered.  Some of the wreckage, however, is the remains of military aircraft that took flight from the old Sand Point Naval Air Station.

Until KUOW aired a story on the subject last Friday, we were unaware that one of theses airplane wrecks actually sits on the Lake bottom just off the shore of Madison Park.  The plane in question is a Korean War vintage propeller-driven fighter plane known as the Corsair.  One of these was recovered in fairly good condition from Lake Washington a few years ago and rehabilitated.  It now resides in the Museum of Flight:

The Corsair resting in our part of the Lake is not in very good condition, now more than 60 years after it took off from Sand Point---never to return. KUOW producer Ann Dornfeld last month accompanied four wetsuited divers, several of them members of The Maritime Documentation Society, as they entered the Lake at Madison Park Beach in search of the wreckage site.  Her story (the audio feed and a transcript of which is available in full here) follows the scuba divers as they rediscover the site of the wreckage:

"The plane is a tangle of pieces; broken wings over here, crumpled fuselage over there. The divers' lights pierce the black water, golden beams panning over rusted gears and ammo boxes. Pale little sculpins and blue and orange crayfish dart amid the wreckage. After about half an hour on the wreck, we head toward shore."  Once back on land, one of the divers, Ben Giner of Puget Sound Divers, comments, "Can you imagine the force that was required to twist that plane like that and shatter it going into the water? The water is hard at that speed, but still, even the internal components of the plane that should've protected by the fuselage are just ripped to pieces."

The wreckage resulted from a mid-air collision with another Navy Corsair, the very one that was later pulled from the Lake and restored. The accident occurred on the morning of July 29, 1950 when the two planes, part of a larger formation executing an "x-under" maneuver, collided.  According to the Navy investigation, as reported by the Seattle Times, the propeller of one of the planes chopped off the fuselage of the other plane.  While one pilot was able to take his plane to a soft water landing near Sand Point, the other pilot elected to ditch his badly damaged plane, ejecting over the Lake.  Fortunately, his plane did not land on the beach but hit the water hard, two hundred yards from shore, and sank immediately.  Both pilots were rescued from the Lake.  The full story, with pictures of the pilots is available here on a site that also provides this great video of the wreckage:

There are a lot of other interesting wrecks in Lake Washington, though most are far removed from Madison Park.  A great site for further exploring this subject is operated by the Submerged Cultural Resources Exploration Team (SCRET), which provides the history and underwater shots of ten Lake Washington wreckage sites here.

[Thanks to DCS Films for the embedded video. Pictures of the underwater wreck were culled from this site. There is another video of a different dive to the Corsair wreckage on the Puget Sound Divers site here.]

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