Far out on the Manhattan Beach Pier, Frank
Jacobs squinted into the bright afternoon light, his hands framing an
imaginary spot in the dark blue water off LAX as he willed his mind to
replay images that he saw more than 60 years ago.
"What I observed probably was right out
there," Jacobs announced after scrutinizing the ocean for a short while,
pointing to an area perhaps half a mile offshore. "I can picture it in my
A few feet away from Jacobs, Pat Macha held
a compass and got a rough heading on the area.
Macha, an aviation archaeology expert and
retired Hawthorne High School history teacher, has hunted since 1996 for a
P-51D Mustang fighter plane that he believes crashed and sank off LAX on
Oct. 26, 1944, sucking its pilot, Gertrude Tompkins, to a watery grave.
Jacobs thinks he witnessed the crash while fishing off the Manhattan Beach
Pier for halibut when he was 12 years old.
Macha believes Jacobs' recollections
confirm that he is searching in the right place for the plane.
"That's within the area where we're
looking," Macha said after taking the compass reading.
Tompkins 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. The day she
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.
Her 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. She wasn't reported
missing until the other pilots got to Newark because they had assumed that
she had been unable to take off because of the mechanical problem.
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.
Jacobs, a retired aerospace engineer from
Redondo Beach, came forward after reading an account of the search two
weeks ago in the Daily Breeze.
He said he had just arrived at the pier on
a cloudy day in October 1944 when a loud engine noise prompted him to look
north. He watched a fighter plane climb after taking off over the ocean
from what is now Los Angeles International Airport's southern runway
complex. Suddenly, there was a sharp drop in the noise level and the
plane's engine began sputtering. Then the plane angled over into a
shallow, controlled dive that became steeper before it disappeared into
the cloud bank that hung low just offshore.
Jacobs said he remembers that one of two
adults nearby said something about a P-51 Mustang.
"This event left a very strong, vivid
impression on me as a 12-year-old boy," Jacobs said. "I sensed that
someone must have died."
Jacobs said he heard no sirens after the
crash and was surprised to see nothing about it in the next day's
Macha is certain that Jacobs witnessed
Tompkins' plane go down, the only P-51 to crash into Santa Monica Bay.
Jacobs' description of the plane's sounds
and movements mirror what a half-dozen P-51D pilots have told him could
happen if the aircraft went into a low-speed stall, Macha said. The area
where Jacobs believes the plane hit the water is within the area where
Macha is searching. Nobody realized Tompkins was missing for four days,
which explains the lack of next-day newspaper coverage of the crash. And
his memory of the weather matches the actual conditions on the afternoon
of Oct. 26, 1944.
"It's certainly something we've been hoping
for, to have another source that would indicate or say they saw the plane
go in the bay at that time frame," Macha said. "What he described is
completely consistent with what every P-51 pilot I talked to said."
Jacobs hopes his memories help.
"I hope that's what I saw," Jacobs said.
"It was definitely that year. Definitely that month."