Final thoughts on The Lost Dakota

The last couple of days before leaving PNG where more hectic than usual, as things tend to be when there is an imminent departure to somewhere else. We ended up doing two days of three dives each day, the most intense days in the whole project. The atmosphere during these days was verging despair: first we had a couple of days of standstill due to technical issues. There have been quite a few technical issues along the way. Then we had a couple of days of diving, but we where running against the clock; we have gotten so far, and yet it still feels like a complete success of the project is so far: like a perfect, ripe fruit hanging on a three asking to be picked, but alas, just out of reach. If you only had a stair to stand on…

There is absolutely no doubt: we have found a plane. The twisted and mangled remains of the aluminum body looks very much like the type of plane we where looking for, at least to my limited knowledge of airplanes. Hopefully some of the material I shot could help the experts. But the positive ID, a piece of human bone, or an ID plate from an engine cowling, or a call sign from the cockpit, was not to be found anywhere. I should probably explain what we have seen at Site 6.

The main piece of wreckage is the tail-section. The way it looks, it is lying on its side, with the starboard (right) aft wing sticking up vertically from the sand. The wreckage lies in approx. -25m, with the tip of the aft right wing at approx.. -18m.

From the material I have shot, you can clearly make out what is the aft section of the aircraft body. About 10 meters in a northwesterly direction there was a propeller, initially used as our mooring, until one day during high winds we started dredging it through the mud. This was later recovered to deck in a hope that it could have some sort of identification numbering, but to no avail. It was later dumped back into the water at Site 6. Between this part and the tail section there where two more pieces of wreckage that leaves little to imagination: another propeller (so both propellers are accounted for), and a landing gear. The mooring was moved to this landing gear. To my knowledge, the way the landing gear was built was quite unique for this type of aircraft, so the footage that I shot should at least be proof of this being the right type of aircraft.

Searching for proof

Divers Kasper Sommer and Cecilie West searching through pieces of rubbel for ID plates.

To the south of the tail-section, about 2 meters off lies one of the engine blocks, half buried in the sand and mud. This engine is quite badly broken, and the engine cowling, which should have the engine identification plate, was not to be found. Five more meters to the south is a piece of wreckage that we where not able to identify, possibly part of the main aircraft body. I’ll get back to that point soon.

Below the right aft wing, there is a part of the body, creating a cavity about 2 meters high. It was really hard to search this part, as the visibility along the bottom was normally bad, even on the best of days, and I was weary to enter the cavity I was not too sure of the structural strength of the pieces directly above; having the section collapsing on top of you would be a certain death. There are quite a few pieces lying around the tail-section, small pieces of wreckage not easily identifiable. There was definitely a lot of metal buried under the sand as well; one of the things we planned to do was to set out a search-grid around the tail-section and water-blast the area. The malfunction of the pump serving our water-blasting system put and end to that idea, but when setting out the search grid, driving steel rods into the mud, there where many places where the rod would only go 20 cm into the sand and then hit something solid. So without a doubt, there is more to Site 6 than meets the eye. Also found at the tail-section, tucked away under the cavity, is the second main landing gear. Now that is slightly strange, as the landing gear is underneath the forward wings on this aircraft. Kasper also found and retreived the small aft landing gear on one of his dives prior to my arrival, but this was dropped back into the water as it did not contain anything that was of documenting value, and is still to be found somewhere within approx. 30 meters of the tail-section.

Swimming about 30 meters southeast from the tail-section, there is a large fairly flat piece of metal construction thought to be the inner part of one of the wings. Continue 30 meters further and you get to an even bigger piece of one of the wings. From there, it is a 10 meters swim south to the other engine block. This is the engine block that we unsuccessfully tried to recover to surface.

What we clearly have found is one forward wing, one aft wing, aft part of the body, two propellers, two engines, and all landing gears. What we cannot readily say we found was a main body and a cockpit. We have spent many moments discussing the subject and theorizing about what has happened, I will share these theories with you:

Aircraft propeller

One of the propellers of The Lost Dakota.

The main theory is that the aircraft has hit the water almost vertically; it would explain why everything is found within such a small area, and why one of the forward landing wheels is located underneath the what we know to be the tail-section!  The reason for one engine and one wing to be lying slightly further away could be attributed to one wingtip impacting the water first, breaking the wing off and spinning the aircraft around hitting the surface front first. Due to the high velocity of the impact and the shallow water, the cockpit and plane has completely disintegrated on impact with the water surface and the sea-bottom, burying much of the wreckage in the clay.  How things are laid out on the site, this makes sense. It does not, however, explain why both landing wheels are immediately around the tail-section.

The alternative theory is that the plane has split in several parts on impact, and the cockpit and body has floated away some distance. Bear in mind though, that the water in this area for quite some distance is shallow, between 20 and 30 meters. Furthermore, Rod and Kasper has scanned the whole area with side-scan sonar, and the only parts showing up in the scan files of interest are those on site 6. There was a small area northeast Rod’s and Kasper’s main focus area that did not appear to have been completely covered in the first scans, but this was later covered by Kasper and myself, and even though we did find an interesting echo on the scans, it turned out to be just a depression in the sand.

I still think the main theory is the most probable one. I should make a note now: these theories have been discussed between all those who have dived the site, and there is a general consensus that these are the options. I am not a professional accident site investigator nor a pilot or an aircraft specialist, and that goes for everyone else who have dived the site. There is a good chance that any or all of my speculations are wrong. I am however a fairly experienced diver and a professional ships officer with a very sound understating of the sea and physics and mathematics, so I do feel that I have some basis for stating these theories. I am also the third person to ever have dived this wreck. I can only imagine how exhilarating it must have been for Kasper first time he descended the anchor line to see what we have seen, for the first time in history. Rod’s constant reminders on the saltwater crocodiles known to be found in the area where probably not helping.

Wrangled pieces of wreckage from VH-CIJ

Wrangled pieces of metal under the tailsection.

The question remains: did we, or did we not, find the Dakota C-47, call sign VH-CIJ? We did find an airplane, in the area where the plane was expected to have gone down, and close to where pieces of debris and oil was spotted in the days following the disappearance of the aircraft. To my knowledge, it could look like the type of aircraft we where looking for. We did however not find anything that could positively ID this as VH-CIJ, but I reason the circumstantial evidence is proof enough.

So where do we go from here? I am back in Singapore and will go back to work next week; Kasper just left for Cairns and then Denmark. Rod will be back in Alotau in a week, but then has to slip the “Barbarian”. Rod has the competence to get the stuff working that we could not, like the water-blasting pump. Maybe there is someone in the area who could help out, but I am still not convinced that water-blasting the area is going to be any help. I think that the best way to literally dig a little deeper is to use an airlift with a suction hose and “vacuum-clean” the area around the site, and that might present it’s own difficulties, as the bottom is mainly made o

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