Tyler and I had heard about a Hellcat that crashed off Laguna Beach but had never found it or dove it. It was originally located by Gary Fabian and the first divers on the wreck were Steve Lawson and Chris Gilmartin but the location was never published. It is a relatively unknown site and I believe I was only the third diver to see it.
Steve and I had been meaning to go diving together on his boat Deep Six for quite some time but the timing never worked out until this past Sunday. We scanned a bunch of targets and then I also dove the Hellcat.
On the afternoon of September 24, 1945 Second Lieutenant Edward Harrington left the Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro and was out for a training flight in his F6F-3 Hellcat (Bureau No 04956). According to another pilot in the area who witnessed the scene, Harrington had been “flat-hatting” around Laguna Beach and flew a little too close to the ocean. The propeller hit the water and Harrington was able to keep the aircraft aloft for about a half-mile but then had to ditch the plane. The plane nosed over almost immediately and Harrington was never seen or heard from again.
Below are some wartime documents that both Tyler Stalter and Steve Lawson supplied me which provide additional details on the crash. Steve Lawson was also able to obtain a picture of Lt Harrington.
When most people think about WW II air combat airplanes they generally think about the infamous F4U Corsair. However, according to the data, the F6F Hellcat was a far deadlier fighter.
“Data compiled by the Office of Naval Intelligence and released in May 1948 credit the Grumman F6F Hellcat with 5,155 Japanese aircraft shot down – well over half of the 9,258 shot down by all types of U.S. Navy aircraft. The Hellcat’s closest competitor, the F4U Corsair, is credited with 2,140 kills during World War Two.”Model Aircraft Universe website
The Hellcat had the same 18-cylinder Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engine that the Corsair had. The Corsair was smaller, lighter and faster than the Hellcat. The Hellcat was a much bigger and “stout” aircraft compared to the Corsair. It also had a greater fuel capacity and could also carry a bomb load in excess of 2,000 pounds.
The Hellcat was a carrier-based fighter aircraft and also had a very interesting design for rotating the wings for storage on the aircraft carrier. Below are a couple historical photos showing the mechanism.
As mentioned, the Hellcat was designed to withstand a pretty serious beating and still get the pilot back. A total of 200+ pounds of cockpit armor was used along with armor around the oil tank and oil cooler. It had a 250 gallon self-sealing fuel tank.
Armament consisted of six Browning air-cooled machine guns (three on each wing) with 400 rounds per gun.
Below are a couple schematics of the F6F:
Dive / Photos
The dive was easy. Steve had dropped the downline right next to the wreck. The visibility was really poor at the surface but started to clear up below about 130 feet. At the bottom, the visibility was pretty good but it was relatively dark. Below are photos of key parts of the wreck with notes in the captions.
The entire “front” of the wreck is there with the engine in front of the wreck, the port side wing flat in the sand and the starboard side wing twisted. You can also see what we believe is the parachute that the pilot would typically sit on. Also note on the engine the exhaust manifolds and the nice strawberry anemones.
The rear part of the wreck behind the cockpit is basically non-existent with one metal piece (rear landing wheel?) off in the sand.
I wasn’t planning or taking photos for a photogrammetry model so only about 45% of the photos aligned in Metashape but it was enough to give a sense of the front part of the wreck so I have included it.
Pratt & Whitney 18 cylinder Double WASP Radial Engine
Port Side Wing
Unfortunately, a paint bucket has found its way to the wreck site. I should have removed it but didn’t want to stir up the silt and ruin the photographs. Note the 3 machine guns and in the one photo, the “beefy” cockpit area.
Note how solid the structure of the cockpit is. Also, the parachute is shown in a few of the pictures along with a nice wolf eel that had made a home in the cockpit. The starboard side wheel is also visible.
Below are some screenshots and a link to the photogrammetry model which covers the front half of the wreck. The cockpit isn’t complete when looking from the rear.
Link to the on-line model is below:
A big thanks to Steve Lawson for not only taking me out on his boat and to this dive spot, but also for the background information on the wreck. Tyler also helped supply (as usual) some additional background.