New Tech Used in WWII Aircraft Wreck Find

An endeavor to employ a suite of oceanographic research instruments to find downed World War II aircraft and the remains of troops listed as missing in action for nearly 70 years are the subject of a film by camera maker GoPro and the CBS.

Supported by a grant from the Office of Naval Research, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, oceanographer Dr. Eric Terrill and colleagues from the University of Delaware have teamed up with the nonprofit group BentProp Project in a public-private partnership to bring closure to families that have waited for final word on the fate of their loved ones for several generations. At the same time, the project provides a test bed for developing underwater search technologies and methods, and is a platform for inspiring public interest in science and engineering.

Earlier this year, the groups logged a major success during a month-long expedition in the Republic of Palau, finding wreckage of two U.S. aircraft that were associated with airmen that have been listed as missing in action since World War II.

“This program has been a rewarding opportunity for the chance to recognize the sacrifices our servicemen have paid and give back to families who have lost loved ones,” said Terrill. “It is rare in scientific research to be involved in activities that will have direct personal impacts; our participation and successes in this effort have been humbling.”

BentProp’s effort is chronicled in a video released by GoPro, the camera company founded by UC San Diego alumnus Nick Woodman, and is scheduled to be profiled on the Nov. 16 airing of “60 Minutes.”

“I applaud Scripps’ efforts, in conjunction with the BentProp Project, University of Delaware, and GoPro, to help locate the remains of our missing airmen and sailors,” said U.S. Representative Susan Davis, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “We have a responsibility to locate those who are missing and remain unaccounted for, and return them home to their families and loved ones. As Congress and the Department of Defense identify ways to more effectively locate those who are missing in action, I hope we can look to creative partnerships like this to bring closure to the families of these service members.”

Terrill’s group since 2010 conducted oceanographic research in the waters around Palau. The islands that make up the small country were the locale of a Japanese airfield during World War II. The strategic Pacific position was also the site of several World War II dogfights, aerial bombing missions, and one of World War II’s bloodiest battles was the landing at Peleliu, a 1944 attack ordered by Gen. Douglas MacArthur that ended in the deaths of 10,000 Japanese and 1,700 American troops.

Terrill’s group, the Coastal Ocean Research and Development Center, has been deploying sensors in Palau to measure temperatures, waves, currents, and sea-level to better understand the influence of the complex terrain on circulation. The autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) equipped with high frequency sonar allowed rapid surveys of large areas and provided a means to map the distinctive seafloor’s contours that challenge modern forecast models. Before crossing paths with BentProp, Terrill’s initial interests had more to do with understanding mapping the reefs, ocean circulation and phenomena such as sea-level rise – a matter of special interest to low-lying western Pacific island nations.

Scattered among the lagoon waters and coral reefs surrounding Palau’s island chain, and concealed within its dense mangrove forests, are believed to be several dozen U.S. and Japanese aircraft and the remains of perhaps as many as 80 U.S. airmen.

The joint mission began in 2012 after an introduction by local scientist Pat Colin of the Coral Reef Research Foundation at a popular meeting spot in Koror, Palau’s main city, and brought together Terrill’s science mission with that of Pat Scannon, BentProp’s founder. Scannon had become interested in searching for MIAs after a 1993 dive trip through the country’s islands.

“I was told there’s a really cool guy over there with all these cool toys,” said Scannon in reference to Terrill. “This really is a partnership where there’s integration with our search mission with Eric’s technological and oceanographic capabilities. It’s a two way street. We’re able to advance what we’re trying to do in terms of our search and they’re learning more about the technology aspects of working in interesting and complex settings.”

After the chance meeting, Terrill and his colleague Mark Moline from the University of Delaware approached the Office of Naval Research to develop a two-year pilot program that would include both STEM outreach and demonstrate the utility of the Navy’s investment in unmanned underwater systems to the national mission of searching for MIAs.

Project RECOVER was formed as a means to formalize this partnership. STEM outreach was extended to include a high school robotics team from Stockbridge, Michigan who built their own remotely operated vehicle to survey wrecks.

BentProp and Terrill’s group have worked closely since the meeting, with the organization frequently visiting the Scripps campus to go over recently uncovered historical information that could aid future searches. Scannon describes a year of BentProp activity as one month of on-scene searching and 11 months of data collection, whether scientific or historic.

The instruments used by Terrill and Moline turned out to be perfect for the kind of seafloor surveys needed to search for missing aircraft in the lagoon waters of Palau and complemented BentProp’s exhaustive review of World War II text and photo archives. These historical records, along with interviews of veterans, have proven invaluable for providing clues to guide the searches.

“I couldn’t be prouder or more impressed with the Scripps team and the partnerships we established and traveled to Palau with. The diversity of skills we bring to this problem is unprecedented and spans almost all fields of science and engineering. The small team environment has allowed us to be remarkably nimble and productive in our field work, and the entire nation of Palau has been fantastic to work ” said Terrill. “Scripps participation in this effort is full circle to our institution’s research efforts to support Allied troops 70 years ago.”

The AUVs used by the groups, known as Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS (REMUS) were actually developed by colleagues of Terrill and Moline’s at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, but now commercially manufactured by a spin-off company called Hydroid. The systems are equipped with sidescan sonar which can image the seafloor with great detail. Scripps engineers Billy Middleton, Myles Syverud, and Andy Nager are experts at running the vehicles, and adept at rapidly analyzing the data for wrecks – distinguishing metal debris from natural seafloor relief. Multi-rotor aerial systems deployed by Terrill’s group are used to conduct aerial surveys over land and shorelines and also provide a bird’s eye view of dense island foliage that enables detection of wreckage. This year, Scripps engineer Evan Walsh integrated a infrared camera into the aerial system to provide aerial maps of temperature differences. A huge challenge to all the new technology is the fusing of information. Fortunately, said Terrill, computer scientist Paul Reuter remains at the cutting edge of handling and visualizing large data sets and integrating 70 year old reconnaissance photographs into the search analysis. Inexpensive GoPro cameras are mounted to nearly all the science instruments used by Terrill’s group, contributing directly to research and providing the raw material for video outreach, which have been incorporated into Project RECOVER. Scripps engineer Shannon Scott even integrates the cameras with the handheld diver sonar he uses when reconnoitering underwater targets revealed by the vehicle surveys.

Other UC San Diego researchers joined the search in different ways. Terrill collaborates with Mark Anderson of UC San Diego’s Department of Aeronautical Engineering. Anderson has a background in aeronautics, flight trajectories, and statistics and was asked by Terrill to help with developing a predictive model for a missing B-24 that remains to be found. A group of engineering students was enlisted to run what are known as Bayesian models using the best known historic information collected by BentProp over the last decade. During the most recent expedition, the probability maps for areas where the plane might be located were routinely updated by the students (during their Spring break) based upon data collected by Terrill’s group that was relayed to them in San Diego. The plane remains missing, and teams remain focused on planning for a 2015 mission to complete their search.

Further help comes from the Navy, which provided light detection and ranging (LIDAR) imagery for the search area. The data, originally created to create navigational maps, offer more detail on seafloor features to guide future search missions and was used previously by CORDC to assess sea level rise impacts. The raw data has been re-examined to look for topographic anomalies (wrecks), and has been invaluable in mission planning for the underwater systems.

In the case of the two planes found last spring, a TBM Avenger and an F6F Hellcat, BentProp had been searching for them for nearly 10 years. It took the REMUS-mounted instruments to see them at a depth of more than 100 feet, hidden from plain view by the persistent murk of the seafloor.

“There was the pre-Scripps era and the post-Scripps era,” said Scannon. “Our technology before Scripps was scuba gear and that has extreme limitations especially because what we’re looking for lies below 100 feet. We could have gone by those planes two or three times without even seeing them.”

In a story propelled in large part by chance, one of the two warplanes discovered earlier this year turned out to have personal connection to Terrill. The was constructed in a Tarrytown, N.Y. General Motors factory at which Terrill’s grandfather served as the paint and body manager. Terrill was unaware of the family connection to plane production until talking with his father a few days prior to departing for the last expedition, and learning that during the wartime effort, the Navy called upon General Motors to support Grumman in the production of the much-needed and versatile torpedo bomber. When he dived to the wreckage, he became the second person in his family to study the plane, separated by a span of more than seven decades.

“With details from the missing plane’s After Action Reports recorded during the war, we were able to place the planes production in the same plant that my grandfather worked as the paint and body manager, I learned he would have inspected all bodywork coming from the plant.”

BentProp gave detailed information about the two discovered planes and possible links to airmen listed as missing in action to the Department of Defense’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which may undertake recovery efforts next year. When JPAC’s work is complete, these will be the first successful recoveries involving this newly formed partnership. If remains are returned to loved ones, and if Scannon is present for the encounter, he has an idea of what to expect from his previous experiences.

“An MIA family never forgets,” he said. “When I walk into a home, there’s often still a shrine. A second- or third-generation family member can still feel the loss very strongly because they never knew them.”

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