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Fieldwork

USGS Sea-Floor Mapping Group Assists Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Searching for Airplane Wreckage


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Map showing crash-site location.
Above: Crash-site location. [larger version]

George F. Baker III, a philanthropist and important supporter of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), disappeared while attempting to land his twin-engine Beechcraft Baron BE55 airplane at the Nantucket, Mass., airstrip under a cloudy drizzle on December 1, 2005. He was 66 years old and an experienced pilot who had been flying since he was 18. Weather conditions are believed to have contributed to the crash. The cloud deck was very low, 300 ft or so; it may be that Baker dipped below this to gain visibility of the airstrip and became disoriented. Although the roof of his plane was recovered on the beach and U.S. Coast Guard divers recovered a first-aid kit and a tube of aviation grease, search efforts were called off before the plane and Baker's body could be found. On December 5, personnel from WHOI made a second attempt to find the wreckage using REMUS (Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS), an autonomous underwater vehicle. REMUS supports various instruments: sidescan sonars (600 and 900 kHz), acoustic Doppler current profilers (ADCPs), and a conductivity-temperature-depth sensor (CTD), to name a few. The REMUS team was unable to locate the wreckage at the site offshore where the plane was believed to have entered the water, indicating that it might be elsewhere to the north or west. After the REMUS search, Dick Pittenger, WHOI Vice President for Marine Operations (Ret.), contacted the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and asked the Woods Hole Science Center's Sea-Floor Mapping Group to survey a larger area, using sidescan sonar to locate the wreckage so that it could be recovered.

Emile Bergeron prepares the sidescan sonar for the trip out to Nantucket. Bill Danforth, Chuck Worley, and Emile Bergeron prepare to deploy the sidescan sonar
Above left: Emile Bergeron prepares the sidescan sonar for the trip out to Nantucket. Photograph by Ann Tihansky. [larger version]

Above right: Bill Danforth, Chuck Worley, and Emile Bergeron prepare to deploy the sidescan sonar off the stern of WHOI's research vessel Tioga. Photograph by Ann Tihansky. [larger version]

When the weather permitted, on a cold and clear December 8, 2005, USGS personnel Bill Danforth, Chuck Worley, Emile Bergeron, Wayne Baldwin, and Ann Tihansky set out to conduct a broad sidescan-sonar survey of the area where the plane was believed to have crashed, offshore of the Nantucket Island airfield. The equipment, a Klein 3000 dual-frequency (100 and 500 kHz) sidescan sonar, was deployed from WHOI's new 60-ft coastal research vessel Tioga, crewed by Captain Ken Houtler and mate Ian Hurley. Together, Bill Danforth and Ken Houtler used the known locations of existing wreckage, previously searched areas, and their familiarity with the dominant winds and water currents to predict where the wreckage would most likely be resting. They began with a large search pattern, running parallel to shore both east and west of the Nantucket airstrip, with the sidescan sonar set to insonify a 200-m swath. Two large items were identified in the 500-kHz sonar images of the sea floor in approximately 30-ft water depth at the eastern end of the designated search area. One piece was approximately 30 ft long and the other approximately 24 ft long. The images and positions were provided as an ArcView project with supporting text and graphics to Dick Pittenger of WHOI, who shared them with the Massachusetts State Police. Police divers investigated the debris, but the identified targets did not contain evidence of a plane crash. The sidescan-sonar imagery revealed no other debris in the area large enough to warrant investigation by the divers. A much larger search would have to be conducted to try to locate and recover the airplane wreckage.

Chuck Worley points out the locations of possible targets identified in sidescan-sonar images. Sidescan-sonar image showing debris fields.
Above left: Chuck Worley points out the locations of possible targets identified in sidescan-sonar images. Photograph by Ann Tihansky. [larger version]

Above right: Sidescan-sonar image showing debris fields. These turned out not to contain the airplane wreckage. [larger version]

WHOI and the Baker family were grateful for the assistance provided by the USGS. Robert B. Gagosian, president and director of WHOI, wrote in a letter to William Schwab, team chief scientist at the USGS Woods Hole Science Center, "I can assure you that the Baker family deeply appreciated these efforts and was reassured that everything possible was being done to find George's plane." He also commended USGS staff efforts: "Although the recovery is not yet complete, the professionalism and compassion which the staff of the USGS Woods Hole Science Center demonstrated during this operation reflects well on both them and the USGS."


Related Web Sites
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
non-profit research facility

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in this issue: Fieldwork
cover story:
Monitoring Eruption of Augustine Volcano

Submarine Groundwater Discharge Study

USGS Assists in Search for Airplane Wreckage

Research Methane Hydrate off Southern California Coast

Outreach Open House at FISC St. Petersburg

Falmouth Science Teachers visit USGS Woods Hole

Sea-Floor-Mapping Systems Described on New Web Pages

Awards Wetland Ecologist Named Fulbright Senior Specialist

Multiple Award Winner in USGS Photography Contest

Staff USGS Scientist on Nanjing University Committee

Publications March 2006 Publications List


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