Tyler has been doing a lot of research by reading through old newspaper archives looking for potential new wrecks to locate and dive. He recently came across some articles about a P-51 Mustang that crashed off the coast of Laguna Beach. He started looking through some bathymetry data and came across a small anomaly which looked interesting. I had booked a day on the Sundiver Express to go look for a Grumman Goose off Catalina but those plans got deferred so I decided to go investigate this target instead.
When Kyaa and I ran over the coordinates, we got a really small signature on the sonar, but it looked good enough to consider going for a quick look to see what was there.
The Dive & Photos
The surface was calm and a beautiful blue water. However, there was a pretty big ground swell and at depth the water was a bit murkier and a little more green. I got to the bottom of the down line and started to see some fish and shadows so I knew I had found something. I then noticed what was unmistakably an aircraft tire and landing gear. A little further away was an engine but no propeller. The site itself was really small — maybe 20-25 feet in diameter.
I knew it was an aircraft but didn’t know what type. There wasn’t really any wings, fuselage sections, or a prop so after taking pictures I spent some time looking for other parts of the aircraft but couldn’t find anything of substance.
Below are a few of the pictures that I took in hopes of having enough “evidence” to figure out the mystery plane.
The engine is probably the most significant way to identify an aircraft. Sometimes engines are used in multiple aircraft but it can at least narrow the search down. In this case, it was a pretty unique engine.
In the photo collage below, the top left picture is after I dusted away some of the debris. Also note the “bar” running across the top of the pistons. I’ve included a closeup of the joint between that bar and the vertical shaft that sticks up from the front of the cylinder heads. You can see the little gears on that shaft. Keep that in mind.
The P-51 had a V-12 engine with two rows of six cylinders. When we initially saw these pictures, we thought that maybe the other row of cylinders was on the under-side and that we just couldn’t see them. However, when you look at the photo closely (especially the one with the debris cleared away), you can see that the piston rods are directly below the cylinder heads which means it was a “straight 6” and couldn’t be a V type engine. It also doesn’t look “big enough” or “beefy enough” to be an engine for the powerful P-51 airplane.
So, we were pretty sure we were searching for an aircraft that had a straight in-line six cylinder engine.
Tires, along with the associated landing gear, can also provide clues. In this case, one of the large, main landing gear tires was still there along with a smaller rear (likely) tire. In the photos below, note that you can see a round piece of wood nearby to the small tire. I believe the object to the right of the main tire is the fuel tank. I’ve also included a close-up of the small tire showing the Firestone logo.
There were some other parts around the site include a long metal bar, a flimsy piece of material with possibly some paint on it, and the fuel tank and what might be a part of the rear body based upon the location at the site.
Now that we had a bunch of photographic evidence, the hard part was about to begin.
We were hopeful that we had found a P-51 Mustang given that we knew one had crashed in the general vicinity and that it had two rows of six cylinders which somewhat matched our engine. However, after closer examination, we ruled that out relatively quickly. For reference, here is a picture of a P-51 engine:
Here is a list of “clues” that we had:
- Straight in-line 6 cylinder engine with a “bar” across the top
- Also note that the engine is relatively “narrow”
- As Tyler says “it is older than <expletive>!”
- No prop attached to the engine
- No real sign of a fuselage or wings
- Multiple pieces of wood at the site
- Location and depth
Given some of the evidence, we started thinking that the plane probably didn’t have a metal fuselage. We started researching old planes with that type of engine and Tyler ran across a Curtiss Model F Seagull engine picture from the 1920s.
We thought this was a great find! It is really old and really rare 1920s biplane. There was one major problem: the Seagull was a float plane and didn’t have landing gears or tires. At this point, Tyler exclaimed that “this is going to be just like the helo” referring to the extensive work we had to do to identify the specific Sea King helicopter last year. Back to the searching…
We figured it was likely to be a wooden prop since there was no evidence of a prop at the site. Three landing gears. Likely was either made out of wood or had a lot of wood in the construction. Tyler found a few newspaper articles about a biplane that crashed in that same general area in 1935.
Then Tyler had a breakthrough and discovered another aircraft that matched our wreck: the Fairchild PT-19.
Below is a section of the Wikipedia article on the PT-19:
The cantilever low-wing monoplane with fixed landing gear and tailwheel design was based on a two-place, tandem-seat, open cockpit arrangement. The simple but rugged construction included a fabric-covered welded steel tube fuselage. The remainder of the aircraft used plywood construction, with a plywood-sheathed center section, outer wing panels and tail assembly. The use of an inline engine allowed for a narrow frontal area which was ideal for visibility while the widely set-apart fixed landing gear allowed for solid and stable ground handling.
Very interesting. Engine matches. Wooden propeller makes sense. Plywood construction matches. Fabric-covered steel tube frame.
We found some pictures of the landing gear and tire which seemed to match. I then located a “cutaway” version of the engine.
Note the gear and rod at the “bottom” of the engine on the left side. Below is a closeup of that section. Note how there is one rod that rises up past the piston heads and that it connects via a gear to the rod that is horizontal to the pistons. This matches exactly the engine that was at the wreck site.
At this point, we were pretty sure that we knew the type of aircraft. The next task was to see if we could find information about a PT-19 that had crashed in that area. Until we could find that, we still only had at theory.
Tyler spent hours and hours searching newspaper articles in vain for PT-19 crashes in Laguna Beach. One of the frustrating aspects of this type of search is that you never really know how they are going to reference the crash or whether they will even identify the type of airplane.
I then started searching general crash database information. There were 671 crashes in the database for the Fairchild PT-19/23/26. I started looking for anything in the US and then found one in Laguna Beach, California.
Looks like a good match. It notes that the location was Laguna Beach and that it was not recovered and it gives the date and registration number which makes searching newspapers and other databases a LOT easier. Another website had more detailed information about this specific airplane and had a link to the NTSB report.
The NTSB report doesn’t offer and additional clues but is here for reference:
Armed with more information, Tyler re-newed his newspaper archive search and was successful finding out some additional information about the crash. Below are three articles about the crash.
I’m guessing (pure speculation) that the pilot was out on a date and wanted to take his date up for a quick spin in a hot airplane and ran into some engine troubles. I’m not sure what happened after that, but at least they were both rescued.
At this point, we are relatively certain of the airplane type and identification. We cannot be 100% sure but given the location, the type of engine and other details, we are confident we have the right aircraft.
However, we now still have a P-51 to go locate.
Kyaa and Sundiver for putting me directly on the wreck. You can see how small the sonar return is for a wreck of this size. Finding the spot and getting the drop line on the target is no easy task.
As usual, a big thanks to Tyler. He was the one who originally identified the possibly P-51 crash and the anomaly in the data. He also worked with Steve Lawson in researching the evidence to identify the aircraft type. I simply went to the location, conducted the dive, and took the photos and helped out with the research. Another “virgin” wreck in the books….