For three weeks, crews searched Santa Monica Bay and the surrounding area for Tompkins’ Mustang. They turned up nothing, and eventually called off the search. Tompkins was the only WASP who disappeared and was never found.
Jacobs called the reporter who had written the Daily Breeze piece, Ian Gregor, who put him in contact with Pat Macha of Aircraftwrecks.com, a historian of aviation accidents. Macha had been collecting evidence on the Tompkins case for years and had organized searches for her airplane.
Macha and Jacobs went to the pier, and Jacobs pointed out where he had seen the aircraft fall. “The memory has always haunted me,” says Jacobs, now 78 and a retired aerospace engineer for Northrop Grumman. “I have always felt that somebody died that day.”
Now another search for Tompkins is on. This one is being led by a group of volunteers called the Missing Aircraft Search Team. With a diverse set of specialized skills, MAST’s members hope to locate long-lost aircraft and, in some cases, the remains of the pilots and passengers.
In the United States, there are more than 180 cold cases involving civilian aircraft that have gone missing, plus an uncalculated number of military airplanes that have disappeared. MAST considers taking a case when asked by family members of the missing, or by the agency with jurisdiction over the disappearance.
IT IS EARLY OCTOBER 2009, and I am staring at a TV monitor relaying live images from a video camera being dragged along the bottom of Santa Monica Bay in search of Tompkins’ P-51. Next to me on the bridge of his yacht, Disappearance, is Bobby Meistrell, the 81-year-old co-founder of Body Glove, the company that developed the modern-day wetsuit. Meistrell has volunteered his boat and submersible camera for the search.
Hoping his camera will capture a glint of metal protruding from the sandy bottom, Meistrell steers the Disappearance in tight circles. We’re two miles west of LAX; departing jetliners pass overhead nonstop. It’s a pleasant fall morning, and calm seas make for ideal search conditions.
MAST’s origins go back to early 2008. One of its members, Robert Hyman, a photographer, explorer, and mountaineer who has led expeditions, had been following the news reports on the search for Steve Fossett, a wealthy aviation record-breaker who had disappeared in September 2007 (see “Anatomy of a Search,” Feb./Mar. 2008). Like Fossett, Hyman is a fellow of The Explorers Club. “When they couldn’t find Steve, I said to myself, ‘I could put a climbing team together to help the official searchers reach some of the extreme vertical terrain where he might have crashed,’ ” Hyman says.
He tapped Lew Toulmin, a disaster response manager who has consulted for the World Bank and U.S. Agency for International Development, and Colleen Keller, a senior analyst at the scientific consulting firm Metron. Working for the U.S. Coast Guard, Metron had created SAROPS (Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System), which can examine winds, tides, and currents, then recommend where searchers should focus their efforts. While SAROPS is designed for ocean operations—its models located wing debris and bodies from Air France Flight 447, which crashed off the coast of Brazil in June 2009—Keller used the methodology, along with Google Earth satellite photographs, to reconstruct several possible scenarios for Fossett’s last flight. She then ranked the routes in order of probability.
Next, Hyman recruited 28 searchers, and in September 2008 the team spent two weeks scouring the mountains near the Flying M Ranch in Nevada, Fossett’s last known point of departure. The group failed to find Fossett’s Bellanca Super Decathlon, but one of the tracks they identified with radar data from his flight passed over the spot where the famed aviator’s remains were later discovered.