Late in the afternoon of Oct. 26, 1944,
Gertrude Tompkins Silver piloted a sleek new P-51D Mustang fighter plane
into thick fog that hung just west of the airfield that is now Los Angeles
She was never
seen again. Her disappearance has remained a mystery for more than six
That mystery could soon be solved if years
of research, planning and hard work are blessed with a little luck.
Early next month, divers from a 40-foot San
Pedro-based boat called the Ranger are scheduled to make the latest -- and
quite possibly last -- in a series of searches for Tompkins' plane.
Descending to the ocean bottom just off LAX, they'll examine and
photograph two masses of metal that crews found during the last hunt for
the wreckage in 2002.
If the wreckage is indeed a plane, it
should be fairly easy to determine if it's a P-51D, said Pat Macha, an
aviation archaeology expert and retired Hawthorne High School history
teacher who's been investigating Tompkins' fate since 1996. The P-51D's
manufacturer, North American Aviation, stamped more parts than most other
airplane builders. And only one P-51D crashed into Santa Monica Bay west
of the former Mines Field, Macha said.
At the same time, it's far from certain
that the debris is an airplane.
"It's still a long shot," said Macha, who
has written three books on aircraft archaeology and has visited more than
800 crash sites during the past 40 years.
"I'm not overly optimistic but it's in a
suspect location and it's metal so we have to check it out."
Macha believes this may be the last chance
to find the plane flown by Tompkins, who had been married just one month
when she disappeared and was still listed in military records as Tompkins.
Further searches to the south -- which is the direction she would have
turned after taking off -- are precluded by buoys and underwater obstacles
from the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant, Macha said.
"I think at that point we'd have to take a
large step back" if the debris turns out not to be Tompkins' plane, Macha
Gertrude Tompkins Silver was a member of an
elite group of about 1,100 Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) who
served during World War II, primarily ferrying planes for shipment
overseas and pulling along aerial gunnery targets used by the military for
Tompkins became a WASP in 1943 and, at 32,
was one of the older female pilots when she vanished, said her grandniece,
Laura Whittall-Scherfee of Sacramento. According to Macha, she was one of
38 to 43 WASPS who were killed in crashes.
The day Tompkins disappeared, she was among
a trio of WASPs who were to fly brand new P-51Ds from their manufacturing
site to Palm Springs, where they would spend the night before continuing
on a three-day journey to Newark, N.J.
Tompkins' takeoff was delayed by a canopy
that wouldn't close properly; witnesses later reported seeing two P-51Ds
buzzing east above Imperial Highway but never a third, Macha said. She
wasn't reported missing until the other pilots got to Newark because they
had assumed that she had been unable to take off due to the mechanical
problem, he said.
"She had slipped through the cracks," Macha
Macha believes Tompkins went down almost
immediately after takeoff. His leading theory is that the plane stalled --
possibly because Tompkins wasn't expecting that its center of gravity
would be shifted by the full fuel tank directly behind the cockpit -- and
went into a low altitude dive from which Tompkins could not recover.
Fighters often left no debris on the ocean surface if they sliced almost
vertically into the water, he said.
Macha said he had been aware of Tomkins'
disappearance but got personally involved in the mystery in 1996, when he
was contacted by Whittall-Scherfee.
Whittall-Scherfee said she had heard of her
great-aunt as a child, but only delved into her disappearance after she
and her husband, who is an aviation and history buff, moved to California.
She called Macha after her husband picked up one of his books at an
Pilot's family gets involved
"He said if you're interested, I'm
interested in running with it," recalled Whittall-Scherfee, 44. "It's a
personal search and one my husband and I are very committed to."
The couple and Macha pieced together facts
and a timeline by assembling information from articles, military records
and witness statements. Macha organized a series of all-volunteer searches
of increasing sophistication, culminating with a 2002 effort that turned
up two mounds of debris close together in relatively shallow water less
than a mile off Dockweiler State Beach.
The Ranger -- the San Pedro-based boat --
entered the picture because Eric Rosado was watching TV at just the right
Rosado was a member of the aerospace club
that Macha ran at Hawthorne High School. Now 29 and a commercial diver, he
stumbled upon a History Channel documentary called "Broken Wings," which
profiled Macha's efforts to find Tompkins' plane.
"I said, 'Hey, I know that guy!' " Rosado
Soon after, Rosado volunteered his services
to Macha. Five divers he works with also signed up for the endeavor,
including Tyler Fenton, the 21-year-old owner and captain of the Ranger.
"All the guys have a love for the ocean,"
said Rosado, standing in the Ranger's cabin next to a table covered in a
large depth chart of Santa Monica Bay. "We want to give back to veterans
who gave to us."
Debris covered in sediment
The debris is 25 to 30 feet down, and the
last search in 2002 indicated it was covered in six to 12 feet of
sediment, which shifts constantly, Fenton said. Visibility in that area is
anywhere from zero to 20 feet, depending on weather conditions, he said.
Wearing $5,000 diving helmets and thick
black wet suits with Kevlar knee and elbow pads, divers will mark the
search area with buoys and rope it off, Rosado said. They'll do a quick
swim-by to see if they can spot anything right off. Then they'll stick a
camera mounted on a long pipe into the sand, and use an air hose to blow
away sediment so they'll be able to photograph what's underneath, he said.
Although a two-day search is planned,
Rosado said the divers are willing to work as long as it takes to
determine what lurks underneath the ocean floor.
Earlier this week, the crew of the Ranger
visited the Western Museum of Flight at Hawthorne Municipal Airport to
inspect a P-51D Mustang to get a better idea of what they might be finding
Perhaps luck will be on their side. Last
Sunday, while visiting the site near Victorville where a B-25 bomber went
down on Oct. 4, 1944, Macha found the insignia of a WASP pilot named Marie
Mitchell Robinson, who was killed in the crash along with two other crew
He's trying to find her next of kin to
return the insignia.