Mystery of downed WW II-era plane partially solved

— The mystery surrounding a downed World War II-era plane found at the bottom of the ocean has been partially solved.

The aircraft, upside down and mostly intact, is indeed a Curtiss SB2C Helldiver as originally suspected, said Randy Jordan, the diver who discovered the plane Tuesday while diving at a depth of about 185 feet four miles off Jupiter.

Jordan, owner of Emerald Charters, a Jupiter scuba diving company, said a cloth-like covering was found, the same kind of material that was used to cover the wings on a Curtiss Helldiver, a Navy dive bomber.

He said the shape of the propellers and tail hook were also enough clues to positively identify the plane.

"It's just more confirmation that this plane is a Curtiss Helldiver," Jordan said.

But it's still not known who was on the plane or how it crashed into the murky ocean depths.

According to the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C., there were three crashes off the coast of Florida in Sept. 1944 in which the planes were either lost at sea or missing. The planes were engaged in training flights and the accidents weren't because of enemy action, the Command said.

In an email sent to Jordan on Thursday by Robert S. Neyland, head of the underwater archaeology branch for the Naval History and Heritage Command, Jordan was instructed not to disturb the crash site or remove marine growth or sediment from the wreck.

"Any disturbance to a sunken Navy ship or aircraft wreck requires a permit under the Sunken Military Craft Act of 2004," Neyland wrote.

Jordan, however, said he was still allowed to dive and inspect the site.

"This is not for recreational divers," he said.

Jordan said he's received hundreds of calls, including those from aviation enthusiasts, other divers and even Navy SEALs since the aircraft was discovered. He said he's also been contacted by three families who believe their relatives may have been aboard the doomed flight.

Robert Chadwell, of Nashville, Tenn., said when he heard about the sunken wreck, he believed it was the Gruman TBF Avenger he was aboard as a radio operator on Dec. 21, 1943.

On that afternoon, the TBF Avenger, a torpedo bomber, clipped the wing of another Navy aircraft during a training exercise, sending that second plane nosediving into the ocean somewhere between Jupiter and Hollywood. While Chadwell, who was 20 at the time, escaped without injury and paddled to shore, the three passengers on the second plane were all killed.

The pilot on the TBF Avenger successfully crashed landed his plane into the ocean.

"It wasn't pleasant," Chadwell recalled. "I wasn't going to tell my parents because I didn't want them to worry about me."

After getting a brief look at the Jupiter wreck on TV, Chadwell thought it could have been his plane since it was found belly up and in good condition.

"I was in a crash around that time, so I thought it could've been my plane," Chadwell said.

Since finding the aircraft, Jordan said he's been back to the site twice for about 20 minutes on each dive. He was planning another visit this weekend to search for more clues to fully solve the mystery of how the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver, nicknamed the "Big-Tailed Beast" by crew members, came to rest at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

But there's another reason why Jordan is going back.

"We still want to find out who was on that plane," he said.


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