Numerous dives and sonar images uncovered what divers believe is a submerged plane, a more than 70-year-old, Grumman F4F Wildcat in the murky St. Johns River.
It’s taken about three and a half years of dives, where Tommy Keisler and his team have recovered pieces of the plane including plotter boards, .50-caliber machine gun feeders, oil filters and coolers, machinery, and the pilot’s canopy. The plane is missing its tail.
Keisler is a certified master underwater criminal investigator and has 30 years of diving experience. Every dive requires meticulous research, time and planning and needs a target and a mission, Keisler said. He compared blackwater diving to painting a picture with your eyes closed.
Artifacts were retrieved and handed to the Naval History and Heritage Command.
A museum in Titusville had an F4F Wildcat on display, which aided Keisler’s understanding. He took measurements.
“I was able to use that to pretty much confirm it was a Wildcat,” he added.
The dive team found four fingerprints and the pilot’s handwriting at the site. Marine growth protected the forensic evidence. Keisler said the pilot must have had grease on his hands, which also helped preserve physical evidence.
Pilots used coordinates and maps, no computers. Keisler marveled at how much pilots wrote. He referred to the forensic findings as “very unlikely.”
“Having his handwriting on the plotter board was one in a million, but having his fingerprints was absolutely unheard of,” Keisler said.
Shawn Vollmar, a diver on Keisler’s team with about 26 years of diving experience, described blackwater diving as slowly grasping a silhouette of what you’re with in the water. With no visibility, discovering the plane was on a touch and feel basis.
″(With blackwater diving), you have to have a lot of patience and restraint,” Vollmar said. “When it comes to dark water, a lot of people would panic.”
Artifacts taken to the surface provided the divers clarity: a barnacle-laden chart here, an eroded oil filter there, Vollmar said. The divers explored the site every six to eight months.
“It initially didn’t feel like a plane, just a metal object underneath the surface. After getting an understanding, a basis of what we were doing and what we were seeing, it gives you a lot of respect for people who fly, what they endure,” Vollmar said. “Understanding that part of history is amazing.”
Northeast Florida was home to several training schools during World War II. The F4F Wildcat was one of the first aircraft used against Japan, but it was inferior to Japan’s Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” in the early-1940s and was replaced by the Grumman F6F Hellcat in 1943.
Training crashes were common, Keisler said, and he placed this crash between 1943 and 1946.
“It’s a very unique piece of history that’s been sitting in our waterways undiscovered, and it brings to light the amount of military history of St. Johns County, Green Cove Springs and Jacksonville,” Keisler said.
Keisler isn’t releasing some details related to the pilot or the specific location of the plane. The crash is an ongoing investigation, he said.
There are a couple more dives planned. Keisler said the next goal is finding the identification number.
“We know where it’s at, we just have to be able to get to it,” he said.