An exciting new discovery off the coast of Espiritu Santo has ignited debate on the circumstances behind the ‘crash’ of a World War II Corsair fighter aircraft.
The discovery of the aircraft by Santo locals earlier this month was reported to South Pacific World War II Museum Chairman, Bradley Wood. Following a dive on the wreck by Dive Vanuatu divers, initial photographs were taken to help identify the aircraft.
It was soon confirmed that the single seat aircraft was an early model Vought Corsair, featuring what came to be known by pilots as a ‘birdcage’ canopy.
Dozens of aircraft of this type were based at the Turtle Bay Fighter Airfield, north of Luganville just off the East Coast Highway. The aircraft also operated from the Bomber 1 Airfield on Pallikulo Bay.
Squadrons from the United States Marine Corps and the Royal New Zealand Air Force flew the Corsair on missions throughout the South Pacific. Which air force operated the mystery aircraft is yet to be determined.
However, the biggest mystery surrounding the discovery, and the one causing the most debate is how the aircraft came to rest in 30 metres of water off the east coast of the island.
World War II Museum’s Bradley Wood said, “due to the absence of propeller blades, it appears the aircraft may have been dumped off a ship or possibly a barge towards the end of the war. If the blades were still serviceable, they could have been removed and fitted to another aircraft.”
While that might be one theory, aviation enthusiasts on the Museum’s Facebook page have speculated that the blades may have simply corroded completely away after 70 years in salt water.
Perth, Australia pilot, warbird enthusiast and Museum member Brigg Ranford has other theories. WWII fighter aircraft have been known to suffer a catastrophic failure of components in the engine hub. He said, “...the resulting forces of the failure literally tears the blades off the aircraft. These failures have been documented in the past. One well known example was that of a Royal Australian Air Force Spitfire during a dogfight with Japanese aircraft. Its blades were torn from the aircraft as the pilot performed a high-speed dive.”
Yet even Brigg is not so certain after closely examining the initial photos of the wreck. “There are certain components you can just make out that suggest that the blades didn’t separate from the aircraft mid-flight,” he said. “ The best way to determine what might have happened is to photograph the cockpit controls and examine the positions of things like flaps, throttle, pitch, mixture, landing gear, fuel and supercharger settings. That way we’d have a snapshot of what ‘state’ the aircraft was in just prior to hitting the water, he concluded.”
Dive Vanuatu will be returning to the wreck in the coming weeks. Those dives might just hold the answer to the mystery of the sunken Corsair.
Whatever the outcome, Bradley Wood said, “aircraft wrecks are quite common in the waters around Espiritu Santo and complete aircraft are somewhat of a rarity. To find a complete aircraft so close to Santo is what makes this find so significant.”