“We all bonded during the experience,” says Hyman. For him, the search planted a seed: A team of search-and-rescue sleuths armed with the latest technology and schooled in advanced search methods could potentially solve some of history’s aviation mysteries.
The new group decided to make its first case a Cessna 182 carrying Marcy Randolph, 43, and pilot William Westover, 54, that had vanished in 2006 on a sightseeing flight from Phoenix to Sedona, Arizona. The members gathered data—radar tracks, cell phone records, satellite images—and made plans to conduct both air and ground searches. Keller assembled a report with 14 scenarios describing how and where the Cessna might have crashed. Rather than investigate all of them, she asked MAST members to rank each scenario’s likeliness on a 1-to-10 scale. On April 13, 2009, Chris Killian, a telecommunications executive and wreck hunter who has discovered more than 100 military aircraft, called the U.S. Forest Service to find out whether the group needed hiking permits to access the most likely sites. “While he was on the phone, it occurred to him to ask for fire reports,” says MAST co-founder Tim Evinger. Killian learned that the day the Cessna had gone missing, hikers passing by one of Keller’s scenario sites had reported a fire; they had even taken a photograph of it. “Lo and behold,” says Evinger, “[the airplane] was there.”
In April 2009, while examining high-resolution sonar data in preparation for the Tompkins search, MAST, working with two other search groups, UB88.ORG and Aircraftwrecks.com, located debris on the ocean floor later identified as parts of a Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star trainer that had disappeared in 1955 with two Air Force lieutenants in it. (The parts have since been retrieved by the local sheriff’s department.)
MAST members have paid for expenses themselves. The Tompkins search easily exceeded $30,000, and had volunteers charged for their services, the cost would have been well over $1 million. The group is in the process of becoming a non-profit, able to accept donations for searches.
The group has 12 members. If a search is under way, MAST will use mission-specific experts. For the Tompkins search, the crew includes sonar technicians, commercial divers, sport fishermen who know Santa Monica Bay well, a cave cartographer, an off-duty FBI agent, and a guy who inspects the water outfalls at nuclear power plants (he’s particularly adept at squeezing into tight spaces, underwater, in the dark). In all, more than two dozen volunteers, including members of UB88.ORG and Aircraftwrecks.com, have come from around the country to participate, including three members of Tompkins’ extended family.
From talking to them, and to Pat Macha, who helped coordinate the dive volunteers, I learn a little more about the pilot: Born in 1912 and raised in a quiet New Jersey suburb, she was the third of three girls. After getting an undergraduate degree from the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture, she met a pilot, a Brit living in the States. They fell in love and became engaged, and he taught her to fly. Tompkins stuttered, says grand-niece Laura Whittall-Scherfee, but the stuttering stopped after she learned to fly. When the war began, her fiancé joined the Royal Air Force, and was later shot down over England and killed. By then Tompkins had caught the flying bug, so in 1943 she joined the WASP. She married a movie producer named Henry M. Silver (though did not take his name) a month before she disappeared.
To identify the most promising dive sites, Gary Fabian of UB88.ORG had acquired a scan of Santa Monica Bay the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) had produced in October 1996 with a multi-beam echo-sounder, a device that showers the ocean floor with sound pulses. The returns from the pulses render a three-dimensional snapshot, similar to a topographic map. From the scan, Fabian winnowed more than 55 elevations that might be remnants of Tompkins’ P-51.
While the multi-beam had good enough resolution to establish targets, it could not tell the searchers what the targets were. “We used the side-scan to create a better image,” explains Gene Ralston. Ralston and his wife, Sandy, are renowned for their mastery of the side-scan sonar, which generates high-resolution images of objects on the seabed. The sonar, which resembles a Sidewinder missile, mounts to the bow of the Ralstons’ 23-foot aluminum skiff. Gene uses a winch to lower the device into the water until it is hovering about 10 feet above the bottom. It is coupled to a 1,000-foot cable that relays the sonar data back to the operator. The boat motors slowly, towing the sonar.
In saltwater, “things that might survive include the machine guns, the engine—especially the crankshaft because it is very hard metal—seat armor, and wheels,” Toulmin says. Because of the scan’s high resolution, says Ralston, “we can detect things as small as a beer can, and under the right conditions”—like the ones in the bay, where the water is very clean and the packed-sand bottom is smooth for miles—“things stand out really easily.”
The Ralstons also own a remotely operated vehicle, about the size of a small beach cooler, that carries a video camera. If the sonar picks up something promising, Gene can deploy the tethered ROV to get a quick peek at it. But the ROV has limitations—it is slow, and ocean currents make it hard to steady—so during the Tompkins search, the targets are investigated by scuba divers, who make numerous descents into the 45-degree-Fahrenheit water. By the end of the first day, divers had found a 1950s wooden powerboat, an anchor, and a pair of washing machines full of lobsters. So far, no Mustang.