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Research team finds crashed US war bomber

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Search mission: Bios and University of Delaware staff and students out on the water off Castle Harbour (Photograph supplied)

The last resting place of a US World War Two bomber that crashed into the sea moments after take-off from Bermuda has been found by a research team.

The B-24 plummeted into Castle Harbour moments after it took off from the airport, then Kindley Field, in February 1945, with the loss of five of its nine-strong crew.

Now its wreck has been identified by a team from the University of Delaware and further work is expected to be carried out on the plane.

Art Trembanis, associate professor in the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, said: “The B-24 was one of the most widely produced planes ever, so this isn’t a huge historical find.

“What we’re really interested in is locating wreckage to help close cases of missing aircrew.”

A spokeswoman for the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences said the heavily loaded aircraft had taken off at about 10.20pm on what was expected to be a routine ferry flight from Bermuda to Lagens in Portugal.

Four of the flight’s nine crew members were rescued from the sea and the bodies of two others were recovered, but three more were never found.

Dr Trembanis, who teaches an environmental field robotics course, suggested that he and his students could test their skills in Bermuda with Bios.

He said: “With this technology, I was able to design a real-life educational experience for my students.

“I gave them the historical accounts on the bomber and had them work as a team to plan and execute a search-and-mapping mission in Castle Harbour.”

Dr Trembanis also contacted Philippe Rouja, custodian of Historic Wrecks for the Bermuda Government, to discuss the mission and get more information on the potential wreck location and surrounding environment.

Mr Rouja thought the area had been dredged several times, so the plane would have already been discovered if it was there.

He said: “Since Art was doing this as a fully funded field school component, it was hard to pass up the opportunity to search for this piece of history.”

Dr Trembanis and his students teamed up with Mr Rouja, researchers from Bios, and specialist divers Gretchen Goodbody-Gringley, Alex Chequer and Alex Hunter in January to map the sea floor with a side-scan sonar on an automated underwater vehicle.

A Bios spokeswoman said: “The team chose to search a dredged portion of the bottom located slightly deeper than the surrounding patch reefs on the assumption that the plane might have sunk out of view over time.

“By running the AUV back and forth over the search area in a lawnmower pattern, a fairly detailed map of sea floor topography was produced.

“Sure enough, there, in 50 feet of water, just a few hundred metres from the runway, was an aircraft propeller and a portion of the wing.”

The AUV also recorded long shadows, which suggested the aircraft might have come to rest “more vertically than if it was laying flat on the bottom”.

Dr Trembanis later obtained additional historical accounts from Mark Guishard, the director of corporate and community relations at Bios, on aircraft history in Bermuda.

He said: “These accounts indicated that a salvage effort was conducted shortly after the initial crash and explains why the exploration team only encountered a few propellers and a portion of the wing.

“They also helped inform the data-mapping process and provide information necessary to officially close the case.”

Dr Trembanis and his team will now work with his colleagues and the Bermuda and US Governments to report their findings and determine the next step.

University of Delaware doctoral degree candidate Stephanie Dohner and scientist Art Trembanis launch their autonomous underwater vehicle offshore of Bermuda (Photograph supplied)
Gretchen Goodbody-Gringley, left, Art Trembanis and his students, who were visiting Bios for a field course in geology and oceanography, used the AUV and a remotely operated vehicle to conduct a seafloor-mapping expedition in Castle Harbour (Photograph supplied)