Cold Case

A new team sets out to solve old disappearances.

Robert Hyman helped search for fellow adventurer Steve Fossett. The undertaking inspired him and other Fossett searchers to create MAST. (Robin Jacoway/Courtesy Robert Hyman)
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Or it may not be in the bay at all. That’s the theory of 87-year-old Duncan Miller, who dated Tompkins while he was attending fighter pilot school. Miller, who remembers Tompkins as “a very nice, high-class girl” and “very stable,” says, “It is my feeling that she crashed in the mountains east of Los Angeles.” His reasoning: Pilots hate flying over water because an emergency landing is much more difficult, as is survival afterward. Miller’s scenario would explain why young Frank Jacobs never heard a splash when he watched that silver airplane fall from the sky. Even so, at the end of the dive, Laura Whittall-Scherfee was grateful to MAST for eliminating so many targets, saying: “Although Gertrude’s Mustang continues to elude us, you brought us ever closer to our target.”

MAST does not promise to solve every case it takes on. Limited in time, technology, money, and number of volunteers, it does what it can, and if further work looks unpromising, it will move on. The group is now investigating the case of retired commercial airline pilot Court Mumford, who left Aurora State Airport in Oregon on July 7, 2007, in a Sport Cub and never returned. Killian wants to look for Carroll and Ruby Webb and their son William, who disappeared in 1967 in a Piper Cherokee flying from San Jose, California, to Ogden, Utah. Meanwhile, the Ralstons are making preparations to use their side-scan sonar in Flathead Lake, Montana, where, in 1960, Captain John Eaheart, a pilot with the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, crashed his Grumman F9F Cougar.

MAST members are always eager to try the latest wizardry. Lew Toulmin tells me about NASA World Wind, software that, among myriad other functions, can put a searcher in the cockpit of a lost aircraft, generating a 3D image of what the pilot saw along his or her known (or presumed) route before the airplane went down. MAST tested the software for NASA during its Fossett search. “We would take a canyon and we’d be able to see a notch Steve might have gone through that isn’t perceptible just looking at a map,” Toulmin says.

Gene Ralston looks forward to the next generation of side-scan sonars, which boast far better resolution. He is also stoked about autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs, essentially submersible robots that can operate untethered at virtually any depth with no input from controllers at the surface. They have an onboard computer guidance system and collision avoidance sensors, and can be equipped with side-scan sonar, high-definition video, still cameras, and image processing software. A team of wreck hunters from the Waitt Institute for Discovery recently used two AUVs to look for Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed 10E Electra. They programmed thedevices to search 7,000 linear miles of ocean floor near American Samoa at an average depth of 17,000 feet.

Ralston speculates that future drones could be used to search for aircraft on the ground. Instead of being directed by a controller and a joystick, the craft would essentially think for themselves. “They could fly over an area looking for specific colors, like a piece of clothing, and then analyze the image,” Ralston says.

For now, Hyman has more modest dreams. “The [Tompkins] search still has legs,” he says, “and we want to go back [to the bay] with a small footprint”—perhaps one boat, a side-scan, and a couple of divers. The UB88.ORG and teams continue the search as well, and now the Navy is assisting. But even if P-51 parts are found in the bay, after 60-plus years, any evidence they once bore showing why the aircraft went down may be long gone, leaving part of the Gertrude Tompkins mystery still unsolved.

Michael Behar regularly contributes to several publications, including Outside, Men’s Journal, and Wired.

About Michael Behar

Based in Boulder, Colorado, Michael Behar ( writes about aerospace, adventure travel, science, and the environment.

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