We have located the wreck of a rare F8F-1 Bearcat airplane deep in the waters off of Point Loma, California. This post details the discovery of the wreck, identifying the type of airplane, and background information on the F8F Bearcat. While we haven’t yet conducted a follow-up dive to confirm the identity via a bureau number on the tail, we have a high confidence level, based on the evidence and research, that we have identified the specific airplane.
While Tyler has been slaving away in Northern California on a work/training assignment, I have been diving with Chris and Lora on the Marissa. Tyler has given us a long list of new targets to run through and sometimes we find something “meh” and sometimes we find something great.
Recently, as part of the research and exploratory diving, we found the wreck of the Hustler and pipe section full of crabs.
I haven’t published a post yet, but we have also discovered at least three more dumped airplanes like the others we detailed in the WW II Airplane Junk Yard post back in September 2021. The area of the dumped planes is much larger than what we had initially thought and it also complicates finding new “real” wrecks because you generally cannot tell the difference on a sonar system. I also dove a sailboat about 200 feet deep that I will post about at some point.
During one of those days, we were scanning other targets for future dives.
One of them looked particularly “odd” and had a different signature on both the sonar (less dense fish than usual) and the sidescan showed a bunch of white marks. We spent quite some time looking and marking areas until we found what we figured was the “center” of a debris field and put it on the “need to dive” list.
Below is a sonar image showing the “sparse” fish cloud along with a small change in the color / texture of the bottom. On the right is a side scan image on top of the sonar return. You can see the different white marks on the left side of the side scan and the different waypoints we marked to find the “center” of the area.
When we arrived at the site, we re-scanned and then dropped a downline and I geared up. I had invited a few other divers along but they already had other plans (a lot of these dives are planned somewhat last minute) so I was jumping in alone. I wasn’t sure what I would find and, given the data from the sonar, I figured it would be a scattered debris field.
I got to the bottom of the downline and saw …. sand. Nothing but sand.
Nothing but sand. I put a strobe on the line and was getting ready to run a line from the downline and start a search pattern when I saw a very large animal swimming towards me. At first I thought it was a sea lion that had come to check me out and it turns out it was a massive sea bass! Soon enough, a few friends showed up and I knew that fish generally mean structure so I literally followed them — hoping they would know the way to a wreck!
Soon enough, after maybe 35-40 feet, I stated to see a shadow and then I ran straight into a propeller and realized that we had found a completely intact aircraft!
Below is a 45 second video clip of me heading towards the shadow and running into the front of the wreck. It gives a sense of how hard it is to find wrecks underwater sometimes. Also remember that this was after I had already left the downline and had been swimming for a little bit AND I didn’t even know what I was looking for.
I spent about 20-25 minutes on the wreck. I first took a lot of still photos and then decided to incur the extra deco time to shoot what I hoped was enough pictures to make a good photogrammetry model. I did about 45-50 minutes of deco and then surfaced with a big smile.
Aircraft Type Identification
As I’ve discussed in the past, the first step in unraveling the mystery of an airplane wreck is to identify the type of airplane.
During the dive, I noticed what I thought was two cockpits. I later realized that it was only one with part of the engine compartment ripped out in front of the cockpit. I also noted a four-blade propeller and a relatively large radial engine. The photo below shows the cockpit and the area in front of the cockpit and behind the engine. The forward leaning piece on the far right is the headrest for the pilot.
Other than a missing tail, the airplane was almost completely intact.
Our first guess was that it was a Douglas A-1 Skyraider. However, when reviewing the photos, one thing stood out: an air duct on the inside leading edge of the wing (see photo below):
This one photo made us quickly rule out the Skyraider.
I started researching other planes that had the same engine as the Skyraider (still thinking this was a Wright R-3350 engine). I ran across an article about a F8F Bearcat having that engine so I started looking into it. Coincidently, there was only one Bearcat that was essentially retrofitted with that larger engine. All the other Bearcats had the Wright R-2800 Double Wasp engine. Of course, that engine had been used in a very large number of single- and multi-engine airframes including the Corsair, the Hellcat, etc.
However, guess what the Bearcat did have? A four-blade prop, a single seat, and an air intake on the leading edge at the base of the wing as shown in the photo below. Also note that the vertical bar in the middle of the duct that matches the photo from the wreck.
We were pretty confident that we had found a Bearcat. We matched quite a few other photos including the engine exhaust ducting, the engine type, the cockpit configuration, etc. A few other photos are below that show key areas of the wreck.
I had one other source of data to check.
I thought I had enough photos to build a reasonable photogrammetry model — which I did. Below is a “top-down” screenshot of the model:
This offers us several clues including the general shape of the aircraft, wings, rear horizontal stabilizer, etc. However, it also allows us to make relative measurements. I didn’t conduct any hard measurements, but the model will be accurate on relative measurements such as wingspan to length ratios.
I printed a copy of the model and used digital calipers to measure the wingspan (9.76 inches) and the length (7.45 inches) for a model wingspan/length ratio of 1.31. According to Wikipedia, the F8F Bearcat had an actual wingspan of 35 feet, 10 inches and a length of 28 feet, 3 inches for an actual wingspan/length ratio of 1.27.
Close enough! We all felt comfortable enough at this point to declare that we had found a F8F Bearcat. Now the real question: which one?
It had been a while since I had done a lot of photography in deep, dark Southern California water and so my photos were all under-exposed.
I was a bit lazy and instead of increasing the exposure of all the photos before running them through the photogrammetry software, I just dumped them in and ran through the process. On “low quality” alignment, the photos aligned but resulted in a “ghosted” model with two fuselage sections. I then used “medium” quality alignment and everything worked great. Below are screenshots of the model and a link to the online Sketchfab model. Note that the online version had to be artificially lighted and that changed the coloring a bit but it works.
Two specific notes : (1) I love the fish inside the cockpit (screen cap in the lower left) and (2) take particular note of the exhaust area from the starboard side in the lower right screen capture.
Here is a link to the online photogrammetry model on Sketchfab:
Grumman F8F Bearcat
Before we get to the identification of the specific aircraft, it is worth a detour to talk about the Bearcat because it is a remarkable airplane with an interesting history.
The goal of the Bearcat was to design and build an aircraft that could be used from “escort carriers” (smaller aircraft carriers) but that also had a high “climb rate” which was useful in fighter airplanes. Grumman was designing the F6F Hellcat which was powered by the most powerful American made engine at the time – the Write R-2800.
The only way to make an airplane have a better climb rate using the same engine is to make a lighter airframe.
Therefore, the design of the F8F fuselage was 5 feet shorter than the F6F and was cut down vertically to reduce drag and introduced the bubble canopy which was a first for a Navy fighter. The wingspan was a full 7 feet less than the F6F Hellcat. The Bearcat also used a slight smaller 4-blade prop instead of the 3 blade Hamilton Standard on a F6F. The end result was that the Bearcat was 20% lighter than the Hellcat and had a 30% better climb rate and was 50 mph faster.
Production began in 1944 with the first deliveries in May 1945. The end of the war resulted in fewer aircraft being made and the cancelation altogether of a contract with GM to build Bearcats. The F8F-2 was introduced in 1948 during the production run and it used a slightly more powerful engine and 293 of the -2 version were built and a few other variants. Production ended in 1949.
Less than 1,000 Bearcats were manufactured in total.
Almost 200 of those were delivered to the French during the French Indochina Ware (1946-1954). The Bearcat was late to the WW II party and never saw combat while under a US flag. In fact, “not a single Bearcat ever performed the mission for which it had been designed — air-to-air combat — whether in the hands of the U.S. Navy and Marines, the French, the South Vietnamese or the Royal Thai Air Force.”
But, the Bearcat was loved by pilots. According to one article:
Neil Armstrong famously once said that it was favorite airplaneF8F Bearcat : An Engine With a Saddle
The Bearcat was definitely fast and could climb like no other. A F8F-1 “set a 1946 time-to-climb record and held that record … of 10,000 feet in 94 seconds … for 10 years until it was broken by a jet fighter.”
Other than actually finding the wreck, this is usually the hardest part of a project. We figured that since there were so few Bearcats manufactured, it would be easy to identify the one that had wrecked off Point Loma. We were wrong.
We were able to find evidence of a F8F-1 Bearcat (Bureau Number 94928) that “Crashed into the sea off Point Loma, CA” on 13 May 1947 from multiple reference websites. Another website describes it as “ditched during glide bombing practice on target boat near Pt. Loma, CA.” The fact that it was ditched meant that the propeller was probably spinning and would result in the bent prop that is evident on the wreck. If it was conducting glide bombing it was going slow which meant that the flaps would be fully down. Keep that in mind.
Fellow diver Steve Lawson found a newspaper article about a different Bearcat that “crashed several miles off Point Loma” when the pilot “ditched his plane at sea after an engine failure” on 12 March 1954. Despite a fair amount of research, we have been unable to locate the specific bureau number for that 1954 crash but it remains a potential candidate.
There was a different newspaper article from 22 April 1954 that said that they recovered a body after the wreckage of a F8F Bearcat was located by somebody “who made a skin dive in 50 feet of water from a crash boat” so we can effectively rule this specific plane out due to the depth.
In order to try to narrow down the search, we started researching the differences between a F8F-1 and a F8F-2.
The differences are relatively minor but we believe we have narrowed this wreck down to a -1 version. The engine exhaust outflow is different between the two versions. Below are pictures of a -1 and a -2 along with a photo from the wreck and a screenshot from the photogrammetry model. The bottom of the cowling on the wreck has the same exact shape as the -1 version so we are relatively confident that this is a type 1 Bearcat.
The other thing to note is that the flaps are in a full down position. This would generally indicate trying to achieve a slow speed (e.g., for “glide bombing practice” as described for the crash of BuNo 94928) or to slow down the airplane for landing at sea due to an engine failure (e.g., as described in the newspaper article from Lawson from 1954).
There are a few other possibilities based on the research we have conducted:
- BuNo 95283 “Crashed on take-off from NAS San Diego, CA” on 23 Oct 1947. The standard departure flight path is east of where the wreck is located but it is possible and it indicates that it was during take-off so it could have even crashed on land. There was a newspaper article from 30 Oct 1947 about a F8F crash that indicated that the “plane crashed and burned on the airfield during a takeoff” so this one is probably ruled out.
- BuNo 95416 was “Ditched into the sea off San Diego CA” on 20 Aug 1947. The generic “San Diego” of course covers a huge area and could include Point Loma. Another site has the description that it was “ditched during navigation flight … near NAS San Diego, CA.”
- BuNo 95426 “Crashed into the sea after take-off from NAS San Diego” but the only date given is 1948 and not a lot of details.
There is another one that we can rule out because it is a -2 variant: BuNo 121705 was “Ditched into the sea off San Diego, CA” with an unknown date.
At this point, the most likely candidate is BuNo 94928 that crashed on 13 May 1947.
Tyler has ordered the official accident report to see if it provides any more specifics on the location or additional details. At some point, we will return to the site and attempt to uncover the bureau number that is painted on the fuselage near the tail / rear horizontal stabilizer to see if we can get 100% confidence. We will update the post when we get any additional information.
As usual , Chris & Lora at Marissa Charters are amazing. They always get the downline on the target and Lora is an expert at using the side scan and sonar to locate targets and doggedly works away to find the possible drop. Lora also helped out with aircraft type identification on this project!
Tyler once again came through with great target to explore and obviously helped with research and identification. I promise we will return to the site and conduct at least one more dive on it!